Durban is a burgeoning arts and culture destination, but its main draw is the 320 days of sunshine a year that entices visitors and locals alike to the vast stretches of beautiful beach. The proximity to the beach has given the province's largest city a laid-back vibe that makes it a perfect vacation destination and the ideal springboard from which to visit the diverse beauty of the rest of the province of KwaZulu-Natal.
As one of the few natural harbors on Africa's east coast, Durban developed as a port city after the first European settlers landed in 1824 with the intention of establishing a trading post. It's the busiest port in South Africa, as it exports large volumes of sugar and is home to the country's largest import/export facility for the motor industry. The port also has a passenger terminal for cruise liners that operate mostly between November and May.
The city's Esplanade, known as the Golden Mile (an area much larger than the name implies) consists of high-rise hotels flanked by a popular promenade and beaches, with the Moses Mabhida Stadium in the background. The colonial-inspired suburbs of Berea and Morningside overlook the city and offer boutique hotels and packed restaurants.
Residential and upscale commercial development has seen coastal spots like Umhlanga to the north earn cult status with tourists, and collections of small villages along both the north and south coasts have access to pristine beaches. Add to the mix two World Heritage Sites (uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park), and KwaZulu-Natal itself embodies South Africa's mantra: the world in one country. More important, it's truly representative of the country's diversity.
Durban's booming lifestyle scene can be enjoyed the moment you step onto the ocean-flanked Golden Mile, filled with cyclists (you can even hire a tandem bicycle), skateboarders, runners, and coffee aficionados enjoying the broad boardwalk. On weekends, locals and visitors head to the markets around the Moses Mabhida Stadium and the trendy boutiques near Station Road Precinct. The Rivertown Precinct, dubbed Durban's "cultural revival hot spot," hosts start-ups, unique retail pods, festivals, and music events.
KwaZulu-Natal—commonly referred to as KZN—is a premier vacation area for South Africans, and, despite being a comparatively small province, has the country's second-largest province population, at more than 10 million people. It's all but impossible to resist the subtropical climate and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. In fact, the entire 480-km (300-mile) coastline, from the Wild Coast in the south to the Mozambique border in the north, is essentially one long beach, attracting hordes of swimmers, surfers, and anglers.
KwaZulu-Natal's two-part moniker is just one of the many changes introduced since the 1994 democratic elections. Previously the province was known simply as Natal (Portuguese for "Christmas"), a name bestowed by explorer Vasco da Gama, who sighted the coastline on Christmas Day in 1497. KwaZulu, "the place of the Zulu," was one of the nominally independent homelands created by the Nationalist government (1948–94), but with the arrival of democratic South Africa the two were merged to form KwaZulu-Natal. The province is now defined as the Kingdom of the Zulu, and the local Zulu population (about 2.2 million) is characterized by warm hospitality and a connection to the land of their ancestors. The Indian population—originally brought here by the British in the late 1860s as indentured laborers, working in grim conditions on the sugarcane plantations—has also made an indelible mark and now represents about 1 million of Durban's total population of 3.5 million.