Plettenberg Bay was first spotted in 1488 by Bartholomew Diaz, a Portuguese sailor. He was exploring the area and attempting to find a sea passage from Europe to the East. Plettenberg Bay was originally named Bahia dos Vaqueiros by Bartholomew Diaz because they had seen many cows watched by their herdsman. Ninety years later Manuel da Perestrello aptly called it Bahia Formosa or the Bay Beautiful.
As far as is known, the first Europeans to see this region were the brave mariners who accompanied Bartholomew Diaz on the epic voyage of 1497. As we all know, his small squadron of ships was blown out to sea while approaching the Cape of Good Hope by a terrible storm which lasted for four weeks. The Cape was rounded without their knowing it and landfall was made along the East Coast at Mossel Bay. As they sailed onwards along the coast in the following days, various features were reported from the masthead and recorded in the ship’s log. Cabo Talhado (Steep Cape) which refers to the Robberg was passed, and the squadron entered the Bahia das Alagoas (Bay of Lagoons). It seems likely that Vasco de Gama, who sailed along this coast in 1497, landed at Mossel Bay and then, because of treacherous winds sailed out to sea until he reached today’s Algoa Bay and so missed this bay. During the second half of the 18th century the first white settlers put down roots in this region. These were stock farmers of trekboers who had moved up the coast from Swellendam in search of grazing for their cattle. Others too; hunters, explorers, scientists and cartographers; helped to open up the land east of George. In 1772 Carl Peter Thunberg, encouraged by Governor Joachin Van Plettenberg, visited the region. Among other things a list of the woods of the forests was drawn up.
It was in the early 1800’s that the Van Huyssteen’s came to the district. Rugtert Van Huyssteen settled in the Bitou Valley, near the present village of Wittedrif, on his farm Rotterdam. His son Hendrik became the local field-cornet. Today many Van Huyssteens still inhabit this beautiful fertile valley.
It was John Sinclair, the son-in-law of Robert Harker, who first made a regular business of whaling in Plettenberg Bay. He had had some experience in whaling in the Northern Hemisphere and set up a whaling station here in 1831. At first whaling prospects were gloomy, but by the end of 1834 a cargo of whale oil was taken off aboard the Calypso. In the years that followed Sinclair supplemented his whaling activities by farming and foresting.
Others continued to whale in Plettenberg Bay. In 1913 the Hvalfangerseskabet Harald Haarfagre Company of Norway started whaling operations in Plettenberg Bay. There were 7 whalers, a factory ship and 2 supply vessels which operated out of Knysna in conjunction with their agents Thesens of Knysna. Exports of whale products continued through 1914 and 1915 but by December 1916 operations had ceased.
In about 1924 the village consisted of two shops, the church and Old Rectory, three houses, six shacks and of course, Hopwood’s boarding house on Beacon Isle and so began the thriving seaside resort of Plettenberg Bay. Another building of importance to the community was the Welcome Inn (later the Formosa Inn). Since the early 1800’s it had served as a shelter for passing travellers. It served as a gathering place for the locals on a daily basis and for important events, such as the passing away of William Newdigate, meetings in connection with the road to Humansdorp and the discovery of brown coal in the region, and it was here that the (unsuccessful) auction of the first plots took place. Other buildings that date back to the turn of the century are Weldon House, also known as The Homestead, and Hillview Farm, now the headquarters of the Community Development Project.
And so we come to the 20th century, a period in which development was at first slow, but in recent years has become very rapid. Mrs. McGrath’s first project in Plettenberg Bay was to build a small shopping centre in the main street, where she opened an Art Gallery and an Antique Shop, which subsequently became thriving businesses. When her husband Gerald McGrath died in 1985, Liz felt that she needed to fill her life and poured her energy into one of her favorite hobbies – hotels. Having visited more than 50 Relais & Chateaux hotels whilst traveling with her husband during their years of marriage, she felt qualified to tackle such a task. The Plettenberg was the first hotel to be transformed from a virtually derelict but superbly situated one star hotel into an exclusive 5 star hotel, where the rich and famous could enjoy one of the most dramatic and beautiful views in the world. During 1996, Liz acquired another property opposite the hotel. Here she built The Blue Wing, which consists of 15 suites, with even more breathtaking views.