Old world charm, new world amenities


DURBAN, South Africa // He strode onto the elevator at the oceanfront hotel with his recalcitrant preteen son in tow, and it was obvious that Dad thought his young charge needed a severe attitude adjustment, even if the two of them were dressed for the beach. That's hardly a novel scene anywhere in the world, especially when family vacation nerves have reached the fraying point.

But the father didn't haul out a variation of "I'm going to turn this car right around." Instead, the man - who seemed to be of South African Indian descent - lectured him that if everyone in the country had had such a nonchalant, don't-care sensibility, they would still be living under the heavy hand of racial apartheid.

This quick cultural snapshot, over and done with the closing whoosh of an elevator door, is a distillation of life in Durban, South Africa's third-largest city and capital of Kwa-Zulu Natal province, where issues of race and politics are never far below the sunny surface.

And as with all of South Africa, it's a fascinating feast of contradictions: Surfer- and tourist-friendly beaches border downtown blocks where visitors rarely venture into a traditional African market; bikinis rub bare shoulders with figures covered by Islamic dress; one of the Southern Hemisphere's largest mosques is an easy taxi ride from one of the hemisphere's largest malls; big-game safaris can be done on the same day as big-ticket shopping; and the presence of the country's most populous Indian community - in a country that claims to have the largest number of Indians outside India - adds to Durban's variety as well as its still-palpable racial divide, 12 years after the dismantling of apartheid.

It's this push-pull between old-world culture and new-world cosmopolitanism that makes this far-flung metropolitan area of 2.5 million people on the Indian Ocean so intriguing. Although it's a prime spot for South African vacationers, it's off the tourist path for most visiting Americans.

The Golden Mile

There is only one place to start exploring the city: the Golden Mile. Like Miami Beach in Florida, with which humid and lush Durban is sometimes compared, this is where sand, sea, high-rise hotels and evocative beach names meet. Dunes Beach. Country Club Beach. Blue Lagoon Beach. There's even a Laguna Beach.

The Durban oceanfront has a variety of attractions, the main being the beach itself. Unless it's a public holiday, the beaches are not very crowded, and there's plenty of room to lie on the sand or take a dip in the water.

But if sunbathing bores you, there are many other things to do. You can travel from one attraction to the next using an African-style rickshaw, driven by elaborately costumed men who ply their trade all day, up and down the promenade.

If it's a weekend, there's a good chance that some sort of sporting event is taking place on the beach. A Jet Ski competition might be roiling the waters one day, a surfing contest the next. Join the crowds on the pier for a front-row perch.

Every Sunday, the beach along Snell Parade becomes a giant African flea market where local artisans sell works of art, crafts and clothing. As with all such things, some of the items for sale are great finds, others are junk, and bartering is always expected.

Snakes and beaches don't necessarily go together, but they do in this part of the world, where waves and wildlife are never far apart. Fitzsimons Snake Park, on the sand in the heart of the Golden Mile, is a collection of about 250 reptiles, many of them venomous. But don't worry, they are all behind glass.

Next door is something a bit more tame: Minitown. This outdoor miniature model of Durban's main streets and buildings is fun to walk through, especially with children. Farther down the beach is uShaka Marine World, an ocean-themed amusement park and aquarium.

Although the Golden Mile appears safe by day, officials warn that things can get dicier at night and that some of the back streets are best avoided.

Heart of the city

Durban's central core is a five-minute ride from the beachfront, but it might as well be light-years. If much of the coast could be mistaken for Australia or Los Angeles, the heart of Durban is the face of post-Colonial Africa: black and brown, bustling and crowded.

Head to the Indian quarter, along Grey Street. Here you will find the Victoria Street Market, a marketplace that reflects the area's long-running Indian heritage. (Mohandas Gandhi lived in Durban for two decades before returning to India.) You can buy everything from spices to clothing and food in the vast pavilion.

Across the road from Victoria Street Market is the Warwick Triangle, a fascinating place about which even a Durban tourist Web site cautions: "Do not go alone. Enter only with a guide." This African market - selling all sorts of muti (traditional medicines) - is alive with sights, sounds and smells that you won't see anywhere else in the city.

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