To avoid a big dose of Festival #FOMO, it’s time to start planning for a trip to South Africa’s biggest cultural and social celebration, the National Arts Festival, which will be held in Grahamstown from 29 June to 9 July.
Spanning 11 days, the Festival attracts tens of thousands of visitors who buy around 220 000 tickets to the hundreds of shows and events on offer. For many, it’s an annual pilgrimage and, with so many artists, crews and journalists in town, visitors are advised to beat the crowds and make their travel and accommodation bookings now.
Explore the National Arts Festival’s website for information on how to navigate the experience. There is an active community of experienced Festival-goers on Twitter (@artsfestival) and on the Festival’s Facebook page. Follow the hashtag #NAF17 on these channels for tips on getting to the Festival, booking your accommodation and advice on getting around once you are there.
Here are some ideas to get the planning into gear:
Fly or Drive
South Africa’s major airports all service airlines that fly to Port Elizabeth and East London. After touching down in either of these destinations, the trip to Grahamstown is about 130km. Hire a car or jump on board a shuttle. There are various tour and bus companies that provide airport shuttles and transport in and around Grahamstown.
A drive to Grahamstown from Cape Town is 872km (via the Garden Route) and 992km from Johannesburg (via Colesburg). Make a road trip of it and stop off to explore SA along the way. Visitors coming from Gauteng or the Free State, should make a beeline for Smithfield and their annual Platteland Preview Festival, which runs from 30 June to 2 July this year. The small town hosts artists en route to the National Arts Festival for free in return for a very special sneak-peek of their shows.
Finding a bed
Grahamstown certainly knows the drill after hosting the Festival for the past 42 years. Festival visitors can expect accommodation ranging from upmarket B&Bs to student residence rooms and self-catering houses. Accommodation in the town fills up fast, with repeat Festival fans and artists reserving all their favourite spots well in advance.
The Festival provides a list of accommodation agents and establishments who can assist in connecting Festival-goers to their nests. See the Travel & Stay Guide
For an immersive experience of the town and its people, a home stay will connect visitors to accommodation in Grahamstown’s township homes. See www.grahamstown.co.za for more. The Grahamstown Hospitality Guild not only assists visitors in finding accommodation but also grades all of their members’ accommodation annually.
Going beyond, families can combine a beach holiday with their Festival by staying in nearby Port Alfred (57km away) or Kenton-on-Sea (59km away). This is also a good option for those on a budget with large houses available to share between groups of friends or artists.
Visitors can even blend a bit of history into their Festival experience by staying at the legendary Pig and Whistle Hotel in Bathurst (45km). There are also numerous game farms and farm stay options on the outskirts of Grahamstown. For these and many other options outside of the town, visit Makana Tourism 046 622 3241 or www.sunshinecoasttourism.co.za 046 625 1235 for Port Alfred and www.kentontourism.co.za 046 648 2411 for Kenton-on-Sea.
The organisers work with local travel operators to create the Festival Hopper, shuttles which travel from venue to venue during the Festival at regular intervals. It is free to use (although tips are appreciated by the drivers). Cabs on Call also offer private and direct trips for one to two passengers to wherever you need to go at R70 a trip (within a 5km radius) and R100 within a 10km radius.
Festival for families
Families looking to share their cultural fix with the kids will be pleased to know about the Standard Bank Children’s Art Festival. Hosted at St Andrew’s School, the line-up accommodates children from four to 13 years old through a number of programmes. From the day programmes for the littlies (including meals) to a full-board experience for 12 and 13 year-olds, the Standard Bank Children’s Art Festival includes crafts and workshops as well as supervised Festival visits for the older children. In addition to the Standard Bank Children’s Arts Festival there are also plenty of family-friendly shows, families can also head down to Fiddlers’ Green for the daily Fun Fare that operates throughout the Festival.
Book your tickets
In 2017 the Festival will be doing staggered reveals of the programme. Tickets for some of the big shows will come online before the main box office opens early in May. Stay tuned to the Festival’s social media platforms and watch the news for details. The programme will also be available online from late April and a limited run of printed programmes will be available at select Exclusive Books and Standard Bank outlets and some theatres from mid-May.
All ticket bookings can be done via www.nationalartsfestival.co.za, or through the Festival call centre on 0860 002 004. Tickets range from R20 to R130, with discounts for Pensioners, Students and Learners. Once at the Festival, there are a number of physical box offices around Grahamstown, where visitors can purchase tickets using cash, cards or SnapScan.
First-time Festival-goers might find it strange to book their flights and accommodation before seeing the programme – but they needn’t worry: there is always plenty of edgy and exciting work to see and lots to do in between the shows.
What to pack
Grahamstown is known for its erratic weather. Despite the often warmer days, the nights are icy so be sure to pack in a warm jacket and some woolly accessories. There are also lots of local spots where you can thaw out, including pop-up restaurant, The Long Table, sushi at Cape Town Edge and, by day, the ever-popular and varied options at the Village Green.
Follow the Festival’s feeds on the hashtag #NAF17 and join the community on:
The National Arts Festival is grateful to:
- The Department of Arts and Culture
- The Eastern Cape Provincial Government
- City Press
- Standard Bank of South Africa