POINTING THE WAY: The Donkin Lighthouse.

Lerato Mbangeni

When holiday destinations are being picked from a hat, Port Elizabeth (PE) is often overlooked as that sleepy industrial town famous only for it terrible weather.

Yes, it is a friendly city, but who goes on holiday to make friends? I, along with my companions, came wearing our big-city thinking hats, ready to find out which of PE’s little wonders would draw the crowds to its shores.

We flew off in a Mango aeroplane filled with a group of stern-faced business people, niggly three-year-olds and chatty old ladies who didn’t seem to know there was anything special about the trip until they were welcomed by a mass of waving people, wearing orange, on their descent.

We were told that the inaugural flight that took us to the Port Elizabeth International Airport is the same orange aircraft that took to the clouds six years ago when the airline was launched.

The new route, which offers flights to PE from Cape Town and Johannesburg, was taken over from the recently liquidated 1time Airlines. The Mango staff was in a party mood when we arrived. It made me feel oh so special.

There were speeches and there were snacks along with a random airport announcement now and again but the main point of it all was that Mango was investing in Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality and its future as a tourism hot spot.

I could see why.

The truth is that PE is truly a gem in the rough and in days to come the rest of the country will be blinded by its glare.

The soon-to-be-launched Boardwalk Hotel will certainly hold its own against the world’s greatest hotels, the clean beaches and vigorous nature reserves are sure to impress. All of these gleam in PE’s crown.

There are too many fun activities to tie up in a little article. You can make the exhilarating climb up the Donkin Lighthouse to see ships on the horizon, visit the penguin sanctuary, look for ghosts at Fort Frederick and take a walk down Route 67. There’s more than enough stuff to fill up a holiday and there are many things you can’t ignore about this quaint city.

I can easily describe Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) as a metro under the knife or a grandma getting a new nose. Wherever the tour took us we saw buildings getting facelifts, countless reconstructions and urban art that seemed to have just been put up, right alongside the most ancient of structures, but something made me uneasy about all the sites we visited.

The bay has a hoard of history but which part of Elizabethan this, Victorian that and Cape Dutch what-not says the city is uniquely South African?

As NMB’s tourism specialist Peter Myles said, they really need to “spice up” their product. My love for history grows daily. It’s not an obsessive kind of love but rather a genuine appreciation for things that have seen many years pass and have the cracks or scratches to show for it. But my love for people stretches much further.

It is the people that make a place and it was the people that made the trip for me. The passionate encyclopedia-esque tour guide filled my mind to the brim with facts and dates and he answered all the strange questions I had to ask about the city without missing a step. The Mango staff and the rest of us bonded over hunger, over lunch and just about everything else. I did not want to leave and could see myself coming back to PE as soon as possible.

My big-city thinking hat was blown off early enough for me to look around and see the traffic-free roads, birds soaring over the ocean and greenery as far as my eyes could perceive, and that was so refreshing.

We never rushed, everyone seemed so much calmer there and there was none of the cacophony that besieges us in the city.

These are the things that make a holiday memorable, that make a city a holiday destination and I envy those who will descend to PE for the International IRB Sevens World Series this year.