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Port Elizabeth's most popular attraction consists of a complex on the beachfront that includes the Oceanarium, a museum, and a snake park. The Bayworld Oceanarium is famed for its performing Bottlenose dolphin shows, enjoyed by thousands every year. Besides the large dolphin pool with its underwater viewing area, the oceanarium also features an aquarium tank where visitors can watch a vast array of marine life through glass portholes as they glide by, including sharks, turtles and rays. The snake park contains an impressive variety of indigenous reptiles in natural-looking enclosures. The PE Museum focuses on cultural and natural history with a wide variety of exhibits, from models of sailing ships and period costumes to giant replicas of dinosaurs that roamed the area in prehistoric times; it is the third-oldest museum in the country. Port Elizabeth has a lovely beachfront area, which is the main drag for visitors, but the city is generally just a stop-over point for tourists on their way to one of the nearby game reserves - if you are travelling through Port Elizabeth with kids and have a bit of time to spare a stroll along the beachfront and a visit to Bayworld is a great option.
Port Elizabeth's architectural heritage can be traced by taking a walk around the city's central Market Square, which features several historic buildings. The centrepiece of the square is the aesthetically pleasing City Hall, dating from 1858 and topped with an attractive clock tower. Also in the square is a replica of the Diaz Cross that commemorates the first European to set foot in Algoa Bay in 1488, when Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz stopped over on his way east. Alongside the city hall is the Prester John Memorial, dedicated to the Portuguese explorers who landed in South Africa. On the northwest flank of the square is the city's public library, built in 1835 and originally used as a courthouse. The beautiful building is regarded as an excellent example of Victorian Gothic architecture and is interesting in that its façade was manufactured in England and shipped to Port Elizabeth to be recreated piece by piece. In front of the library stands a marble statue of Queen Victoria, which was unveiled in 1903. Slightly downhill from the square, at the entrance to the harbour, stands the Campanile, containing the biggest carillon of bells (23) in the country. Visitors can climb 204 steps to enjoy the view from the top of this monument, which commemorates the landing of the 1820 settlers.
St George's Park
St George's Park has been a recreational centre for the city of Port Elizabeth for more than 150 years, boasting well-landscaped gardens covering 73 hectares. On site is the world famous Port Elizabeth Cricket Club, the second oldest cricket club in South Africa and the scene of many an exciting test match series, and the oldest bowling green in the country, established in 1884. The historic sporting venue was also the site of South Africa's first rugby test match. Of course, the love of cricket was brought to Port Elizabeth by British settlers and local myths tell of one of the settlers wading through the waters of Algoa Bay towards his new homeland with his cricket bat held safely above his head to keep it dry. The park also features the 1882 Edwardian Pearson Conservatory, a national monument filled with orchids, water lilies and other exotic plants. Apart from being good for strolls and picnics, to say nothing of sporting events, the park hosts a vibrant arts and crafts fair every second Sunday of the month. The other major park in Port Elizabeth is Settler's Park, set in the Baakens River valley, which boasts indigenous flora and fauna and offers a delightful stroll along the riverbank.
Addo Elephant Park
The most popular game reserve in the Port Elizabeth area is the Addo Elephant Park, just a 45-minute drive from the city. The park is situated in the ruggedly beautiful Eastern Cape region, which is still being 'discovered' by tourists, allowing for an authentic safari experience. There are currently about 550 elephants in residence in the park, which was recently enlarged. Addo was proclaimed in 1931 in an effort to save the remaining 11 elephants indigenous to the area, and the park has been a remarkable success; it is now the third largest game reserve in South Africa and one of the most popular with tourists and locals. The elephants are drawn to watering holes at certain times and sightings are virtually guaranteed all year round. There are other animals in the park too, including lion, leopard, black rhino, buffalo, zebra, warthog, hyena and several types of buck. Guided game drives are available or visitors can do a self-drive tour using the map issued at the entrance. The roads are in good condition and driving oneself around is a pleasure. A variety of accommodation is available and there is a restaurant and picnic site. Horse riding and walking safaris are also available. Addo is a great destination year-round but the best months for game viewing are April and May, when it is dry and warm.
Shamwari Game Reserve
The multi-award winning private game reserve of Shamwari lies less than an hour's drive from Port Elizabeth and has been responsible for re-introducing numerous species into the Eastern Cape plains, including all of the Big Five - lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo. The reserve offers phenomenal luxury accommodation, but also hosts visitors on day trips from the city. Day tours include a visit to an African art and culture village to sample Xhosa culture and traditionally brewed beer, and a visit to one of the Born Free centres for abused animals. There are two Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries in Shamwari, where visitors can learn about how wildlife is abused in captivity and can see some of the rescued animals. The Ian Player Rhino Awareness Centre, opened in 2012, is available to educate guests about the terrible epidemic of rhino poaching in South Africa. And at the Shamwari Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre guests can meet whatever animals are currently being cared for. Those lucky enough to stay in one of the luxury game lodges can enjoy game drives, game walks, spa treatments and gorgeous restaurants, among other things. Groups of between six and ten people will be assigned a personal game ranger by the lodges and daily programmes will be designed to suit guests.
The historic settler town of Grahamstown, 78 miles (125km) northeast of Port Elizabeth, is presided over, from the top of Gunfire Hill, by the 1820 Settler's National Monument, an arts and theatre complex which forms the focus of the town's annual internationally recognised Arts Festival. Grahamstown was founded in 1815 as a garrison to drive the Xhosa eastwards across the Fish River frontier, giving rise to a century of frontier war. The town has an English colonial flavour, and is home to the renowned Rhodes University and some top private boarding schools. There are several museums, including the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology where two stuffed specimens of the coelacanth are on display. The town also boasts the only Victorian camera obscura in the southern hemisphere. Grahamstown is a quaint and picturesque town with a rich history and a famously feisty student population; it makes for a wonderful travel base in the ruggedly beautiful 'frontier country' of the Eastern Cape. The Arts Festival is the highlight of Grahamstown annual calendar, when the little town comes alive with the best theatre, music and dance that South Africa has to offer and sprawling craft markets take over the streets and fields.
A short drive to the west of Port Elizabeth is the surfing paradise of Jeffrey's Bay (known colloquially as 'J-Bay'). This determinedly laid-back seaside town is most famous for Supertubes, one of the best right-hand point breaks in the world, considered South Africa's perfect wave. The town lives and breathes surfing and has several glorious surf spots which are gentler and more accommodating than the celebrated Supertubes. The waters of J-Bay are also frequented by dolphins, seals and whales and surfers are often lucky enough to mingle with these sea creatures. J-Bay is swamped by surf stores and the factory outlets selling cheap, branded clothes and surf gear will delight surfers and shoppers alike. The long stretches of sandy beach around the town are picturesque and are renowned for their shells and the bright orange of their aloes, and the town is bordered on both sides by nature reserves and rivers. J-Bay has a wide range of accommodation including luxury game farms just out of town and cheap, jolly backpackers for budget travellers. The town itself is not particularly attractive but the natural setting more than compensates. Although J-Bay is a famously friendly place surfers should note that localism can be a problem in the water - be friendly and respectful with local surfers and be sure to abide by proper surfing etiquette.
Tourists looking to take an 'off the beaten track' adventure to a legitimately weird and wonderful South African town, should head to the interior of the Eastern Cape and check out Nieu-Bethesda. Located about 32 miles (50km) from Graaff Reinet, in the Karoo Heartland, Nieu-Bethesda is a tiny, sleepy place that seems to exist in blissful ignorance of the hustle and bustle that characterises modern life. Devoid of banks, paved roads and even streetlights, Nieu-Bethesda nonetheless still boasts several excellent and one-of-a-kind tourist attractions. The pick of these is the Owl House: a bizarre and unsettling sculpture garden created by reclusive artist Helen Martins, a frustrated visionary who suffered under the apartheid system and who took her own life in 1976. The Owl House is cluttered with cement and wire sculptures of a religious nature, painstakingly decorated with crushed glass, and gives a fascinating insight into a tortured and singular artistic personality. Other sights in Nieu-Bethesda include a great archaeological museum and tour, where visitors are shown fossils that date back 160 million years; and the Kompasberg, the Eastern Cape's highest peak, and a wonderful place to hike on agathosma-scented slopes. Finally, all visitors to Nieu-Bethesda are strongly encouraged to have lunch at the Two Goats Deli, a family-run place that specialises in home-made goat's cheese and home-brewed beer.