To avoid a big dose of Festival #FOMO, it’s time to start planning for a trip to the country’s biggest bucket-list cultural and social celebration, The National Arts Festival. This year’s Festival takes place from the 29th June till 9th July.
Spanning eleven days, the Festival is held in the Eastern Cape city of Grahamstown, the population of which is boosted by tens of thousands of visitors who buy around 220 000 tickets. 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 bookings now.
The National Arts Festival’s website is packed with information on how to navigate the experience, and there is an active community of experienced Festival-goers on Twitter and on the Festival’s Facebook page. Follow these channels for tips on getting to the Festival, booking your accommodation and 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 who 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, see the details in the National Arts Festival’s Hospitality Brochure.A drive to Grahamstown from Cape Town is 872km (via the Garden Route) and from Johannesburg 992km (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 at their shows.
FINDING A BED
Grahamstown certainly knows the drill after hosting the Festival for the last 42 years. Festival visitors can expect accommodation ranging from upmarket B&B’s 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 – download the accommodation brochure on www.nationalartsfestival.com
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 Festival works with local travel operators to create the Festival Hopper – which is free to use (although tips are appreciated by the drivers) – and travels from venue to venue. 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 4-13 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 and plenty of family-friendly shows, families can also head down to Fiddlers’ Green for the daily Fun Fare which operates throughout the Festival.
BOOK YOUR TICKETS
In 2017 the Festival will be doing staggered reveals of the programme and as a result 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 in price from R20 to R130, with discounts for Pensioners, Students and Learners. Once at the Festival, there are a number of physical box offices at the Festival, 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 on the programme and lots to do in between the shows.
WRAP UP WARMLY
Grahamstown is known for its icy cold nights. Despite the often warmer days, be sure to pack in a warm jacket and some woolly accessories. There are also lots of local spots to thaw out in 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.
KEEP AN EYE ON THE FEEDS
Follow the Festival’s feeds and be part of the community on:
The National Arts Festival runs from 29 June-9 July 2017.