Europeans first spotted Plettenberg Bay in early 1488 when Bartholomew Diaz, the Portuguese navigator, attempted to find a sea passage from Europe to the East.
He named the bay Bahia dos Vaqueiros (Bay of Cowboys), because his party had seen cattle watched by their herdsmen. Nearly a decade later another famous explorer, Vasco da Gama, missed the bay when he sailed out to sea to avoid a storm. Eighty years after that a third Portuguese navigator, Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo, more aptly renamed it Bahia Formosa, or Beautiful Bay.
The area was originally inhabited for millennia by Stone Age people and ancestors of the Khoisan, whose presence there is still being explored. The first white inhabitants were a group of 100 sailors from the Portuguese ship San Gonzales, which was wrecked in the bay in 1630, and they spent nine months before being rescued.
The first white settlers, however, only put down roots in the latter half of the 18th century. They were itinerant stock farmers called trekboers, who had moved up the coast from Swellendam in search of grazing for their cattle. Others – hunters, explorers, scientists and cartographers – followed, helping to open up the region.
In 1771 a stinkwood navigational beacon was erected on nearby Beacon Isle, in order for navigators to check their bearings. In 1772 the botanist Carl Peter Thunberg, at the behest of the Governor of the Cape, Baron Joachim van Plettenberg, visited the region; among other things, a list of the woods in the surrounding forests was compiled. In 1776 Van Plettenberg erected a barracks in the bay, which still exists, and three years later renamed the place for himself.
Southern right, Bryde’s and humpback whales are common in Plettenberg Bay, and whaling began in the bay in 1831, when John Sinclair set up a whaling station. It became a lucrative industry, but by the First World War period whaling operations had ceased.
Circa 1924 the village included two shops, the church and Old Rectory, three houses, six shacks and Hopwood’s boarding house on Beacon Isle, and so began the thriving seaside resort of Plettenberg Bay.
Another building of importance was the Welcome Inn (later the Formosa Inn), which since the early 1800s had sheltered passing travellers and served as a gathering place for the locals on a daily basis and for important events. It was here that the (unsuccessful) auction of the first plots took place. Other buildings that date back to the turn of the 20th century are Weldon House, also known as The Homestead, and Hillview Farm, now the headquarters of the Community Development Project.
Development of the town was slow until the late 20th century, when it picked up significantly. 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. When her husband Gerald passed away in 1985, she felt that she needed to fill her life and poured her energy into one of her favourite hobbies: hotels. Having visited more than 50 luxurious hotels while travelling with her husband, she felt qualified to tackle such a task.
The Plettenberg was transformed from a virtually derelict but superbly situated one-star hotel into an exclusive five-star hotel, where the rich and famous could enjoy one of the most dramatic and beautiful views in the world. During 1996, Mrs McGrath acquired another property opposite the hotel. Here she built The Blue Wing, which consists of 15 suites boasting even more breathtaking views.