Let me say this up front: Other than Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, South Africa, is the most spectacular setting for a city I’ve ever encountered.
Set at the base of majestic Table Mountain, fronting the deep blue of the South Atlantic Ocean and boasting a diverse and historic blend of cultures, South Africa’s port city lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s most desired tourist destinations.
My wife and I spent two weeks in and around Cape Town a few weeks before Christmas. We toured the city, visiting some of its historic neighborhoods, from the colorful houses of Bo-Kaap to the once-bustling District Six, site of a museum that details the forced removals of Black and coloured residents in the 1960s. (Note: “Coloured” is an accepted term in South Africa.)
Cape Town doesn’t hide its grim history of apartheid, the system of institutionalized racism that was government doctrine from 1948 until the early 1990s. That was made clear when we joined a free historic walking tour that took us through the city’s downtown core.
While explaining the city’s origins, specifically referring to the struggles between the indigenous peoples (the Khoisan), the Dutch and later British colonizers, our guide took us past a number of important sites. These included the historic Dutch Reformed Groote Kerk (or “great church”), the Iziko Slave Lodge (which explores the long history of slavery in the country) and the Cape Town City Hall.
The city hall itself is where the late social activist Nelson Mandela delivered his historic speech upon being elected the country’s president in 1994, an event that is marked by a life-size statue of the man. Mandela’s place in South African history is enshrined also in the building’s Legacy Exhibition, which traces his life in a series of interactive exhibits.
Wanting to learn even more about Mandela, we headed for Robben Island. Only a 45-minute ferry ride from Cape Town, the former prison once housed a generation of political prisoners, including Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was incarcerated. Characterized as a “living museum,” the island is serviced by bus tours, many of which are guided by men who were once confined there.
Not everything in Cape Town is about politics, though. The Iziko South African National Gallery, for example, boasts an impressively eclectic mix of artworks by both African and international masters (among the latter, Picasso, Miró, Goya, Matisse and Braque).
The top of Table Mountain is accessible by cable car, and the view from there offers a magnificent panorama of the city and its surroundings – that is, it does whenever the sun burns away the ever-present clouds enough to allow it. Riding in the cars, which revolve to give passengers a 360-degree view, we waved at the hardy hikers making their way up the slope by foot.
If you simply want to people-watch, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is a popular tourist spot. It also features a wide variety of restaurants. We managed to snare a table at the popular Sevruga Restaurant, where I for the first (and likely last) time ate a mixed plate of ostrich, impala and kudu meats.
We took an Uber to the other side of Table Mountain to see what the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden had to offer (you can also get there through the economical Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tours). Besides displaying a lavish range of South African biodiversity, the world-famous garden typically features overcast, cool weather that is a distinct climate contrast to Cape Town’s sunny heat.
For the first few days of our trip, we booked a room at the Winchester Boutique Hotel, which sits facing the ocean and offers ready access to a waterfront promenade where people both hike and gather to watch sunsets. Because we wanted to see more of the region – and I because declined to rent a car because South Africans drive on the left side of the road – we contracted with a private driver, Basit Ali, whom we met through the hotel.
Ali drove us south to the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern-most point of the African continent. Along the way, we passed by coastal communities such as Muizenberg that rival those you’re apt to find in Southern California, Noordhoek Long Beach (a wide and sandy spot set next to turquoise-colored waters) and ultra-scenic Hout Bay. If all this wasn’t enough, a stop at Boulders Beach allowed us to see hundreds of African Penguins lounging in the sand.
Because no trip to South Africa is complete without some sort of safari, we embarked on an all-day photo sojourn through the Aquila Private Game Reserve. While the lions proved too shy for us to see anything more than a splash of yellow in the distant brush, the rhinos, impalas, kudus, giraffes and even a couple of elephants seemed eager to pose for photos.
Because my wife had been invited to make a presentation at a law conference in the city of Stellenbosch, Ali drove us there as well. Situated less than an hour’s drive (depending on traffic) east of Cape Town, Stellenbosch is the site of the oldest still-existing university in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Stellenbosch, too, is set in a stunning location, surrounded by imposing mountains. The city, which was founded in 1679, is well known for being host to a number of wineries that attract visitors from around the world. The most impressive one we visited, Delaire Graff Estate, gave us the opportunity to taste a flight of wines in the shadows of the greenest mountainsides I’ve seen this side of the Cascades.
If there is a deterrent to visiting Cape Town, it involves how hard it is to get there. The return flight from Cape Town to Atlanta alone lasted nearly 17 hours. In addition to the exhausting journey, the 10-hour time zone difference between Cape Town and Spokane can cause a fair amount of jet lag. And, too, because of an ongoing energy-production problem, South Africa imposes periodic energy outages – termed “load shedding” – throughout the day.
If you stay in a hotel that uses generators, no problem. If you opt for a private rental, as we did in Stellenbosch, you could end up lounging in the dark at the most inconvenient times.
Yet those are the kinds of challenges that international travel tends to pose. And those challenges exist hand in hand with the daily discoveries that such explorations offer the curious traveler. So, while it may be a while before I’m ready to face another marathon ocean crossing by air, I have little doubt that future trips will take us to other exotic locations.
We might even return to Africa. I’d still like to see an actual lion in the wild.