This seaside town in the Eastern Cape is rich in history but also has its eye firmly on the future.
It’s hard to imagine Port Alfred without its iconic Royal Alfred Marina as this manmade residential estate is as much a part of the seaside town now as the Kowie River around which it developed. Yet the marina has only been around for the past 26 years.
Situated in the heart of the Sunshine Coast, Port Alfred – the halfway point between Port Elizabeth and East London, on the R72 – has always been laid back, but appears to be undergoing a revival with the establishment of a university and, more recently, the development of a new four-star hotel.
Established in the early 1820s by British settlers who were moved into the area by Lord Charles Somerset, Port Alfred underwent eight name changes prior to 1860, when it was renamed in honour of Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, who was elephant hunting in Africa at the time.
By 1841, the man-made harbour – South Africa’s first – was opened, with up to 100 vessels calling every year.
The river port – where at least 37 ships came to grief in and around the river – fell into disuse with the advent of steam-powered vessels that required deeper waters than the Kowie mouth could provide. But the river continued to be used by fishermen, who would moor their vessels midstream between fishing expeditions.
Eventually, in 1984, realising there was a need for a small craft harbour, developer Justin Steyn – inspired by what he had seen during his travels in the south of France in the 1970s – approached the town clerk with a proposal. They would donate a small-craft harbour to Port Alfred, with the local authority agreeing to facilitate the sale of 44ha of municipal land on the Kowie River east bank for the construction of a residential marina estate.
The marina – completed in 1989 – consists of four islands linked by arched bridges. There are 360 plots, each with its own 15m private waterfront and floating jetty. Steyn, who was born in Port Alfred, says the people are just one of the special features of this “quaint fishing village”.
“It’s an easy community to make friends in,” he says. “You’ve also got a very interesting climate. Our weather is mild. The winters are not too cold and the summers are not too hot. “The beaches are completely uncrowded – you can walk for miles and not see a soul. The Kowie River is navigable for some 25km and its sheltered breakwaters at the mouth of the estuary provide access to the rich fishing grounds of the Indian Ocean.”
There have been other developments over the years, including two shopping malls, one being Rosehill Mall, the MyPond Hotel and the recently launched Royal St Andrews Hotel, Conference Centre & Spa next to the legendary The Highlander pub.
There is a variety of shops in town, as well as a library, a National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) station, and a host of sport and watersport clubs, and the Kowie River hosts annual inter-varsity rowing regattas.
Port Alfred is also home to the world-renowned 43 Air School, and other educational facilities include a campus of the Stenden University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands, Stenden South Africa. There are six schools and five museums in the area, and a modern hospital.
Several buildings dating back to Port Alfred’s heyday as a busy port still exist today, one of them being the Wharf Street home of the former harbour master. Built in 1853, it is the oldest building in town and has been used in various ways over the years, most recently becoming a brewery.
Current owner Ian Cook is a Joburger who ended up staying in Port Alfred by chance and established The Little Brewery on the River. “In 2008, I came down to buy only the brewery equipment, but I liked it here and hung around like a smell. I love the lifestyle. We’ve got one robot in town and that, to me, sums it up,” he says.
“There’s something special about owning the oldest building in town, especially because I’m interested in history. But there are challenges, like not being able to change the facade as it is a heritage building. Not only is it the oldest building in Port Alfred, but it’s been in constant use. It’s been a working building literally every day for 160 years.”
Sandy Birch, tourism manager for Sunshine Coast Tourism, has lived in Port Alfred for 16 years since moving from Johannesburg.
The temperate climate, friendly people and amazing lifestyle make this town unique. We are surrounded by natural beauty, Big 5 game reserves and beautiful rivers. Ideally situated between two major cities – East London and Port Elizabeth – city life is easily within reach for a day trip, should one so desire.
Things to do in Port Alfred
- Grab a bite at Root 72, a coffee shop at Port Alfred’s entrance on the Port Elizabeth side, which is also attached to the legendary Beavers – home of the original Port Alfred Beavers pie.
- Have a draught at The Wharf Street Brew Pub, brewed right next door at The Little Brewery on the River.
- Visit the Kowie History Museum, dedicated to the social history of the Albany District and the settlers of the 1820 and 1889 eras.
- Visit nearby Bathurst – a charming settler village about 10 minutes north of Port Alfred – is a must. Two of the top attractions are South Africa’s oldest licensed premises, the Pig & Whistle Inn and the Big Pineapple – a 16,7m tall pineapple at Summerhill Farm, said to be the biggest man-made one in the world.
- Play a few rounds at either The Royal Port Alfred Gold Club on the rolling hills of Port Alfred or the 18-hole parkland Gary Player-designed course at the nearby Fish River Sun, one of the top 35 in South Africa
- Properties listed for sale in Port Alfred comprise approximately 12% of the total sales listings in the Eastern Cape province.
- Approximately 7% of the interest (views) in properties for sale in the Eastern Cape province is attributable to properties listed for sale in Port Alfred.
- Properties listed for rent in Port Alfred comprise approximately 13% of the total rental listings in the Eastern Cape province.
- Approximately 4% of the interest (views) in properties for rent in the Eastern Cape province is attributable to properties listed for rent in Port Alfred.
Median asking prices for Port Alfred properties
R1,378m - For a typical property (three-bedroom house)
R840,000 - For a property in a complex
R2,47m - For a flat
R1,38m - For a house
Median monthly asking prices for Port Alfred rentals
R3,750 per day - For a typical rental property (four-bedroom house)
Property types for sale
Property types for rent
Buying in Port Alfred
The monthly bond repayment to purchase a typical property in Port Alfred, namely a three-bedroom house, with the median asking price of R1,378m, is R12,844 per month over 20 years at prime of 9.5% with no deposit.
This article originally appeared in Neighbourhood, Sunday Times.