Made up, after the end of the discredited homeland system from part of the old Cape Province, plus the old Transkei and Ciskei Homelands, the Eastern Cape is the second largest province in South Africa (after the Northern Cape). It covers 168 966 sq kms (65,238 sq miles), which is roughly 13.9% of the country. The vast majority of its nearly 7 million people are Xhosa. The area has given South Africa many of its greatest leaders including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Steve Biko.
Although the province is home to two of the country's largest cities, its capital is actually unknown Bhisho (meaning Buffalo in Xhosa), the former capital of the Ciskei and effectively a satellite township to King William's Town. These days, Bhisho, King and East London are all joined up in one giant municipality, Buffalo City, to get round the problem.
In tourism terms, the province is like a three-layer cake of coast, hills and mountains, and beyond these the Karoo. There is enough just in the Eastern Cape to keep you entertained for month and more. The scenery is some of the most dramatic in the country. And with malaria-free Big Five game-viewing and world-class beaches, you need to go a long way to find a better holiday destination.
In the west, you cross the border into the Eastern Cape partway along the famed Garden Route, near the magnificent Tsitsikamma National Forest, one of the few remnants of primeval coastal forest in the country. Fascinating for botanists, it is also a birding paradise and home to a unique treetop canopy tour. Beyond this, the Addo Elephant Park has grown massively in recent years to become the third largest national park in South Africa, a malaria-free Big 5 reserve with superb views and some rare species including mountain zebra. Port Elizabeth and East London are two of South Africa's largest cities and busiest ports. Both have interest for tourists but between them are also many smaller resorts with fine sandy beaches and some superb surfing. For the best of the East London coast, however, you need to head to the northern section, known as the Wild Coast. Relatively undeveloped, with only small towns such as Coffee Bay and Port St John breaking up the wild cliffs and hidden coves, this is a paradise for those who want to get away from it all.
The lush green hills inland from the coast were prime settlement land for British colonists and have been intensively farmed, leaving only pockets of forest on steep slopes in areas such as the Hogsback. Towns such as Alice, Bathurst and King Williams Town are filled with wonderful colonial architecture, museums, small guesthouses and antique shops where happy South Africans holiday year after year. Grahamstown plays host to the nation's great annual arts festival, the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. It is also, along with Fort Hare, a renowned centre of academic excellence. Grahamstown is home to Rhodes University while Fort Hare is home to the country's first black university. Many of the great ANC founding fathers (and mothers) received their education here. Steve Biko lived and died in King Williams Town, while Nelson Mandela comes from the Wild Coast. His home and museum are on the Wild Coast at Mthatha.
Head further inland and the land flattens out into vast open expanse of the Karoo, with its low scrubby vegetation, its ostriches and lamb. A symphony of dusty greys and browns for much of the year, in spring, the whole landscape bursts into flower. If the British clustered around the green hills of the south, the Afrikaans settled into the northern part of what is now the Eastern Cape founding towns such as Cradock, Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda, again filled with wonderful small museums, b&bs and Cape Dutch architecture. Nieu Bethesda is also home to one of South Africa's most extraordinary works of art, the Owl House, the haunting home of artist, Helen Martin, who decorated the whole thing in ground glass, wire and concrete.