South African Venice: Thesen Islands

02 November, 2023

Each of us is well known with Venice, the Italian city on the water. Gondolas floating along canals, houses on the water and the famous Piazza San Marco with pigeons are kind of the hallmarks of this point on the map. However, South Africa will surprise you with Thesen Islands, the so called Venice of South Africa, which combines impressive architecture with stunning nature. The editors of Beloc invite you to briefly plunge into the history of this place and learn about how life is going on there now.

South African Venice: Thesen Islands

Thesen Islands are closely intertwined with the history of the Southern Cape. It is located in the calm waters of the ecological estuary (the tidal mouth of a large river, where the tide meets the stream/ the river bed with one branch widening towards the sea) of South Africa. It is home to the rare Knysna seahorse, which is listed in the Red Book and critically endangered.

South African Venice: Thesen Islands
Photo: thesenislands.co.za

The island owes its name to a timber merchant from Norway, Arndt Leonard Thesen. In 1869, he left home with his family in an attempt to move to New Zealand, but along the way, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Cape Town. He stayed here and founded a timber trading company. These places were rich in forests, where herds of the famous Knysna elephant roamed.

How does the island appear to us now?

It is divided into several zones, one of which is the town of Thesen Harbor. It is the point of attraction for tourists. You get there through the dam that connects the island to the continent.

On the main street you can find boutiques, restaurants, offices and apartments. If you walk along it to the end, you will see a pier from which you can admire a stunning view of the lagoon and the city of Knysna. You may also enjoy fishing at this place.

South African Venice: Thesen Islands
Photo: thesenislands.co.za

In the town you will find historical buildings, such as lumber buildings, a garage or a boathouse. They have been restored for further use providing functional spaces for businesses or organisations. The renovation of historical houses is not only important for preserving the physical structures, but also for maintaining the cultural heritage and identity of a community. However, the spirit of antiquity in the town remained untouched.

The island also has residential areas. Access is only available to residents or guests. One of them is Dry Mill. This was once a barn building for storing and drying wood. After transformation and adaptation, it became a complex of 56 two-level and three-level apartments and penthouses, made of steel and wood. The luxury apartments stand out for their industrial look, which harkens back to the history of the place. Covered parking, a garage, private docks and barbecue facilities are available at your disposal on-site.

Dry Mill is a great place for a peacful rest on the islands.

South African Venice: Thesen Islands
Photo: thesenislands.co.za

But is it possible to stay in a hotel in Thesen?

Of course, it is! Some of the most popular hotels, will be the Turbine Hotel (before restoration, this place was the turbine hall of the electric power plant) and the boutique hotel, The Lofts. Here you will feel the spirit of Venice, sailing to your house on a yacht. At the same time, you don’t have to worry about convenience.

On site of the Turbine Hotel, there is everything you need: shower rooms with hot water, air conditioning, wi-fi, blackout curtains, coffee machine or kettle. When booking, you may choose your view from: ocean, mountains, monument or pool.

At The Lofts boutique hotel, you have access to free wi-fi, parking, a swimming pool, luggage storage, bicycle rental, and an on-site bar.

South African Venice: Thesen Islands
Photo: Turbine, kayak.co.uk

Are there active recreation on the island of Thesen?

Here our answer will be absolutely positive! There are two all-weather tennis courts, with good lighting. They are located below ground level to minimize the impact of daytime coastal breezes. One of the courts has been converted into a multi-purpose court and may be used not only for tennis, but also equipped with a basketball net. There is a squash court with changing facilities and spectator stands in the neighbouring building.

An 18-hole golf course was built in the southeastern part of Plantation (one of the Thesen districts). This place has a beautiful view of the estuary of the river. There are permanent volleyball stands on the main beach opposite the sports club building. The net and ball can be borrowed from the reception during opening hours. There is also a cricket practice area nearby.

South African Venice: Thesen Islands
Photo: urbinehotel.co.za

Some of the latest sports facilities on site include an outdoor gym and two 5km jogging/walking trails. Yoga classes are also offered in the sports club.

Is driving on water transport possible?

As one of the marinas befits, of course, it is possible! A traditional pastime on the Islands is canoeing. Most homes have private waterfront docks or access to one of the many public docks located on most islands. Slipways are provided in several places on the islands. All Thesen Islands vessels must have an identification sticker with a logo for security purposes.

South African Venice: Thesen Islands
Photo: turbinehotel.co.za

The “absolute speed, no wake” policy is strictly enforced on the waterways. This is done not only for safety reasons, but also to protect the sensitive and in some cases endangered marine organisms that become attached to the moorings. A skipper’s license is required to operate larger motorised vessels on the water or in an estuary. 4-stroke outboard motors are recommended in order to minimize noise and pollution.

The calm waters of this area are especially suitable for kayaking, SUPs and canoes. The annual canoe race along the islands’ waterways during the Knysna Oyster Festival is a popular event for both rowers and spectators.

Find out a little more about this place on the official website.

Come to Thesen Islands and immerse yourself in its history. See the amazing inhabitants, take a canoe ride, taste the local cuisine and you will be impressed. The editors of Beloc wish you a pleasant journey!