AT FIRST glance, the Cape west coast village of Paternoster reminds one of a Greek island with its whitewashed fishermen’s cottages clinging to a hill overlooking the bay, small fishing boats strewn on a wide, white sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see, and outcrops of giant smooth rocks that plunge into a turquoise sea. But Paternoster has a personality of its own, which attracts visitors from Cape Town and further afield who keep its 160 bed and breakfast and self-catering establishments busy.
The drive from the nearest town, Vredenburg, is unattractive, through rolling brown wheat fields, but at the end of the road the fishing village awaits as if hidden from the rest of the countryside. It is off the beaten track, for the road goes no further. There is only a rough path that leads to the nearby reserve.
At the centre of the village is the Paternoster Hotel, which, with its tables spilling on to the roadside and noisy patrons guzzling seafood, seems locked in the 1950s. Actually, it’s even older, dating back to 1863, when it served as a clothing store, a jail and a snooker room for locals. Farmers and others from the area still frequent the pub, known as the Panty Bar, and if a rugby game is on TV, it’s difficult to get close enough to order a drink.
According to the hotel’s co-owner, Giorello Carosini, his father, Johan, started the collection of honeymoon panties but they had to be removed in 1983, when the local minister had tea there and reported the "unholy collection" to the police, who ordered its removal. However, in the more permissive times of the 1990s, Carosini re-established the collection.
The village has always had strong religious convictions, taking its name from the Lord’s Prayer. According to Johan, a ship with a cargo of slaves came ashore in search of fresh water and food and a Catholic priest on board said the Lord’s Prayer, Pater Noster (Our Father), on the beach to give thanks. Today, the St Augustine Anglican Church, located among the fishermen’s cottages, serves the enthusiastic community of fishermen and their families, while couples come here to be married and party on the beach.
Paternoster is one of few traditional fishing villages left in the country. Boats set out early in the morning to net crayfish and snoek, which are sold later in the day at the fish market next to the beach or on the main road in front of the hotel, But it has also become a holiday getaway. Courtney, who runs a small shop selling shells and local curios, has lived here for more than 15 years and came to Paternoster looking for a seaside getaway. In those days, the holiday houses, all white with blue window frames and many with Greek names, were situated on one side of the village, with the fishermen’s cottages on the other. Today, the homes have spread like a ribbon along the shore.
There is not much to the village itself apart from the hotel, a superette selling only the basics, a couple of art studios and the quaint Die Winkel op Paternoster, where Santie van der Merwe sells freshly baked breads, local preserves, farm butters, curios and even veldskoene.
We cannot resist her suggestion that we try one of the area’s delicacies, bokkoms. These are harders, also known as southern mullet, a small fish caught locally that is dried in the sun and wind.
I bite into the raw fish after peeling off the skin but find it too salty for my taste. Perhaps a glass of white wine might have made it more palatable, but then maybe I would be considered a little dull in my taste and would therefore earn the local nickname "droë (dry) bokkom". Van der Merwe also recommends the sun-dried snoek biltong, which is worth a try, although it is not as appealing as the meat version. Their variety of pickled fish is more to my liking.
Those with more refined tastes will enjoy dining at the Voorstrand restaurant located on the beach in a historic 117-year-old fisherman’s cottage, which must be the only building in the village not painted white, its green walls and red roof setting it apart. Here one can wine and dine mesmerised by the white sands of the 8km-long beach, the natural rock peninsula that breaks the water and the golden sun casting a glow on the sea.
Although it’s at the end of a badly corrugated dirt road, the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve — a chunk of land protruding into the Atlantic Ocean, which throws huge waves against the outcrops of rock — is worth a day’s visit at least. Here the Cape Columbine lighthouse, named after the barque Columbine which ran aground here in 1829, is a major navigational point for ships approaching the coast of southern Africa from the US.
One of the last manned lighthouses in the country, its light is 80m above sea level and can be seen for 32km. The energetic may climb its 96 steps to get a close-up view of its workings and a vista of sea and surrounds. One can also stay at the lighthouse in two serviced self-catering cottages, which used to house lighthouse keepers in the days when three were required to man it.
The more adventurous can camp at the crescent-shaped rocky bay called Tieties Bay, which, it should be pointed out, got its name from a fisherman named Titus, who had the misfortune to drown here. There are several rudimentary campsites but one needs to choose carefully as the large population of seals on the nearby rock islands can be noisy at night and, if the wind is blowing off the sea, the smell can be overpowering.
The wind also makes its presence felt in Paternoster itself. According to our waitress at the hotel, it blows relentlessly in the midsummer months "and everywhere is always dusty". But then, without it, the sun — and wind-dried bokkoms — would probably not be the same.