Few places in the world can compete with the marvels of Cape Town, South Africa. In 1580 global circumnavigator Sir Francis Drake described the area in his journals as “the fairest Cape in the whole circumference of the earth.” Today this is still true.
I used Table Bay Hotel as my base. Table Bay is a full service, five star luxury hotel with Camelot Spa, gym, pool, seaport views and several restaurants perfectly located next to the Virginia & Alfred Waterfront. It also provides a complimentary shuttle service with stops at the Two Oceans Aquarium, the South African Museum and Planetarium at Table Mountain. The Table Bay Hotel opened in 1997 to much fanfare by former president Nelson Mandela. Doubles start at $240 including free Wi-Fi. Quay 6 at the V & A Waterfront. Tel 27 21 406-5000.
While in Cape Town, Audley Travel provided seamless local arrangements with excellent, knowledgeable guides. One can easily spend 10 days here exploring, however as I had only three, they were jam-packed and marvelous.
There are the natural wonders of Table Mountain to explore and breathtaking vistas of Chapman’s Peak. There are also ostrich farms, Chakma baboons, Bontebok antelopes and Leopard tortoises to see along the peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope – which conservancy has over 500 species of proteas, including the king protea, its national flower. Hordes of tuxedoed Jackass Penguins that are resident at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town’s can be admired, while at the eclectic beach town of Kalk Bay, one can enjoy antique and vintage clothing shops, galleries, cafés and restaurants.
For personalized tours of five days or longer, Audley Travel can arrange private, cars with experienced English-speaking guides to explore Cape Town, its museums, nearby Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned), the Cape Conservancy, and other attractions, as well as other regions of South Africa. Tel 855/838-8300.
In the heart of Cape Town is District Six Museum. Housed in a former Methodist Church, its sobering exhibition documents the 1970s forced removals of non-whites under Apartheid and the Group Areas Act.
A short stroll through The Company’s Garden with the Iziko Slave Lodge and St. George’s Cathedral is the South African National Gallery. Out front, a massive Casspir Tank – a symbol of oppression – is covered entirely in multi-colored beads. I was lucky to catch an impressive women’s art exhibition, including several enormous, intricate tapestries.
Just a few paces away, the massive Great Synagogue stands. Built in 1905, it represents Cape Dutch-style architectural and is an epic masterpiece of that era. Next door the Jewish Museum contains a permanent collection documenting Jewish contributions to South African society. Included in this collection are letters, notes and photographs of the Jewish law firm that hired a young law clerk named Nelson Mandela. That same law firm would later played a vital role in Mandela’s and South Africa’s long struggle to freedom.
Nearby is the Islamic suburb of Bo-Kaap, where Cape Malay peoples take great pride in their homes on the hill by painting them delightful and charming, candy-colored pastel hues.
When needing some recharging, nothing beats cocktails – here called sundowners – in the ritzy suburb of Sea Point along the water. One of my favorites was Rockpool, 205 Beach Rd., Sea Point, Tel 27 21 433-1530, with casual, outdoor tables, great people watching and delicious burgers and homemade pizzas.
The Victoria & Albert Waterfront is a beautiful still functioning harbor situated between the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain. With numerous restaurants and shops, there is something for everyone. At Baia Seafood Restaurant, I enjoyed fresh, daily caught seafood delicacies served in a lovely dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows that provided glorious, tangerine-tinged harbor sunset views. Tel 27 21 421-0935.
No trip to Cape Town would be complete without visiting some of the vineyards for which the region is well known.
I joined Wine Flies for a fabulous full-day excursion with five other oenophiles to nearby scenic Stellenbosch. We stopped at five vineyards in some of the most verdant wine producing areas I have seen anywhere in the world. At the Grier family’s Villiera, Remhoogte Wine Estate, Middelvlei, Lovane, and Annandale, we had “fizzy therapy” of champagnes, enjoyed 25 wine tastings, and pairings with creamy, pungent cheeses, spicy charcuteries, rich, dark chocolates and a delightful lunch.
Throughout the day’s wine and sparkling adventure, our Wine Flies guide kept us giggling. Ours was a fun and hysterically funny guide who knows more about wine than most mere mortals. This may perhaps explain why Jean goes by the lofty moniker “Sir Legend.” Tel 27 21 462-8011.
South Africa’s intense natural beauty, its rich eco-diversity, its history, both colonial and political, its vibrant polyglot of African, European and Asian cultures, languages and architecture, makes visiting Cape Town an utterly unforgettable experience.
As I boarded my onward flight, I thought of Anglo-Afghan writer Tahir Shah’s words in Travels With Myself :
“Visit Cape Town and history is never far from your grasp. It lingers in the air, a scent on the breezy, an explanation of circumstance that shaped the Rainbow People. Stroll around the old downtown and it’s impossible not to be affected by the trials and tribulations of the struggle. But, in many ways, it is the sense of triumph in the face of such adversity that makes the experience all the more poignant.” Indeed, it is so.
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.”