Head for Knysna’s ‘tourist turf’ and play with the trains

Special rail exhibition just one of the reasons to visit the Waterfront centre

The Knysna Waterfront leisure centre is a tourist attraction, but also appeals to locals
SHOPPER’S PARADISE: The Knysna Waterfront leisure centre is a tourist attraction, but also appeals to locals

Knysna’s unique selling point is the estuary and it’s every bit as important as the mountain is to Cape Town.

Tourists, both international and domestic, flock to the Garden Route in droves during the holiday season and it would be safe to say that one of the highlights (and must-do things) in Knysna is a visit to the Knysna Waterfront which hugs the estuary.

But like anything if you see it all the time you forget to actually look at it. This holds especially true for those of us who live in Knysna.

Sure, we frequent the restaurants at the Waterfront, but we don’t actually wander around the centre and explore the different shops and attractions here.

We would be forgiven for not visiting during the December holiday season because the place heaves with happy tourists, but now that the throngs of people have come and gone, there’s every reason to take a couple of hours and just hang out here.

This Knysna Waterfront commercial space is 23 years old and the Meese family who owns it prefers calling it a leisure centre rather than a shopping centre or a mall because it offers entertainment, activities, shopping, sightseeing and food.

Over the years it has been growing in phases and now has 59 tenants from shops to restaurants.

It’s the perfect place to take your pick of eatery from Thai to Italian, for retail therapy, but also for just visiting and meandering.

I had slipped into that habit of going there with tunnel vision only to eat, so I headed off with “fresh eyes” and pretended to be a tourist for the morning.

The live-aboard multimillion-rand boats and yachts parked along the waterfront are well worth googling — and the centre management have strategically put benches along this strip of water for exactly this purpose.

Grab an ice-cream and a bench and sit for a while. Or enjoy the Kon Tiki bar where you can sit under thatch “umbrellas” armed with a cold drink.

From the centre you can hop on a boat ride on Springtide Charters, the Heads Explorer or the Pirate Ship.

This 2023 holiday season “pumped”, centre manager Sarel Cilliers says, and even surpassed the record number of visitors in 2019 before Covid.

Like other businesses, it took a knock in 2010 and 2021, but is back on track, better than ever.

In the quieter months, there are 40,000 feet that come through the Waterfront centre and in December last year there were at least 80,000.

In the past, most of the tourists were foreigners from every imaginable country including Russia, but nowadays the trend of staycations means there are more domestic tourists than before.

The balance now is probably half overseas and half South Africans,  Cilliers says.

In my roaming, I came across the train exhibition which I am ashamed to say I never really paid much attention to before and it’s nothing short of spectacular.

It’s one of a kind in SA, so huge that it is a good couple of pool tables long and wide, and it’s the culmination of a dream come true for centre owner Peter Meese.

Meese started the project in 2021 because, quite simply, he loves trains and what he has accomplished will have train collectors drooling.

I can see why the centre employs a full-time dedicated train mechanic because there’s a whole station network on the go here.

This collection boasts 15 trains or locomotives, some from famous German company Märklin which has been building toy trains for 150 years.

Today, Märklin is the world leader for all important gauges in the model railroad market.

Then there are the little Diorama trains which don’t come cheap. They are imported and cost in the region of R20,000 a unit.

Each one is a perfect miniature replica of a real train, some passenger, some cargo.

What makes the exhibition amazing is that these miniature trains run through real-life scenes.

From the Knysna forests to urban and industrial areas, past beaches, you name it, the whole set-up is completely lifelike rather like peering into a world of tiny people going about life in all its aspects.

There are three Knysna elephants hiding somewhere, there is a leopard and a tiny lady figure taking a selfie.

My favourite miniature scene is a beach with people suntanning down to the tiniest details of their little umbrellas.

There is a mini homestead with a vineyard, there is a group of tiny figures smaller than my thumb flying kites.

What fun to get totally engrossed in this display. The last time I had so much fun was when my son was little and we were building his collection.

It’s also interactive because visitors can insert coins and set the trains in motion.

It’s the perfect thing to do with children, but just as appealing to adults.

There’s a shop here that houses a genuine DeLorean car. Made famous by the Back to the Future movies, this car looks like no other.

The first DeLorean cars left the Northern Ireland factory in January 1981 built for the American market.

Sales in America were disappointingly low and the company subsequently collapsed.

Just more than 9,000 were built and most are in North America while a handful of right-hand drive models exist, primarily in England, Ireland and Australia.

The car has gullwing doors meaning the doors open upwards dramatically in a small space. Well worth a look.

One of my favourite clothing stores called Sublime always has special offers on a table outside while the Out of the Blue clothing boutique even has a bench for “grumpy husbands”.

Woodland Beads (right next to the train exhibition) is the perfect place to browse for trinkets while there are plenty of curio shops that sell African-made goods from ostrich handbags and feathers to art.

Restaurants include Drydock, Pure Coffee, L’Opera, 34 South, Pirates Cove Café, Tai shan, O Pescador and Falcon Creek Spur.

For fashion there is Chilloes, Sublime, Crush Surf, Famous Shoes, Top Dogs, True Blue, Eye Love, Knysna T-Shirt Co and Best Brands.

Gifts galore can be found from Home of Visual Arts, Crouse Art Gallery, 34 South retail section, African Attitude, Woodland Beads, Bellow W&C Real African Arts and Crafts, Leathers & Feathers, Paisley, Molo Africa, Kudzie Arts and Crafts, Porter & Craft.

On the jewellery front there is Tandia Jewellers, Crystal Cave, Blaze and Knysna Diamond Corporation.

Some of the biggest events in Knysna happen here at the Waterfront centre.

Right now, in February, the Chukka Festival, which is the biggest water polo event in the country, is on the go.

It attracts hundreds of children from schools across South African.

Grab a bench it’s exciting to watch ... and do yourself a favour, if you live here and haven’t roamed the Waterfront centre for a while, go do it!

Be sure to visit Peter Meese’s train exhibition
MINIATURE WORLD: Be sure to visit Peter Meese’s train exhibition

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