Cape Town: Just like home but a bit better
After four days exploring mountains, caves and the region's great food and wine Pat Fitzpatrick had little trouble seeing why once here, so many fail to leave
The next time someone says Ireland would be the nicest country in the world if we only got the weather, you can be sure of one thing: They've never been up Table Mountain on a sunny afternoon. It's jaw dropping. I struggled to take it all in. The front of the mountain gives you views down over the city and the harbour beyond. Below on the left is a string of plush beach neighbourhoods. The peninsula stretches away towards the Cape of Good Hope. No wonder so many who came here decided to stay.
Like all good Irish people, the 17 of us on the tour kept comparing the sights on the way to Cape Town to beauty spots back home. So the stunning Garden Route reminded us of Killarney. As we walked through the miraculous Cango Caves outside Oudtshoorn, we agreed they were up there with the caves at Mitchelstown. And as the cable car reached the top of Table Mountain, a Sligo man in the group said it reminded him of Ben Bulben -- but you sensed his heart wasn't in it.
The landscape from Port Elizabeth down to Cape Town is eye candy all the way. The famous Garden Route takes you out of Port Elizabeth in a gorgeous alley lined with mountains on the right and the turquoise Indian Ocean on the left.
There are plenty of coastal and mountain attractions along the route -- we drove on to enjoy some seaside time at Plettenberg Bay and Knysna. This is a playground for the rich-and-famous set from Johannesburg, but is still great value for us Europeans. If, like me, you like fish, order Kingklip where you see it on the menu. It has a fresh meaty texture like monkfish, but is a touch sweeter. Split a bottle of white with your partner and you'll have a delicious lazy lunch for two for €25.
We carried on to George and then cut up through the spectacular Outeniqua mountain pass and on towards the town of Oudtshoorn. This is ostrich country. Make sure to try some if you're up there, it's really delicious with a glass of local Shiraz. The other must-do in this area is a visit to Cango Caves. It's an easy stroll through some remarkable gothic chambers which look like they were designed for an Indiana Jones movie. There is an alternative tour available in some more claustrophobic caves but an American tourist got stuck recently and they had to smear her with butter to get her out. We'd been tucking into the irresistible South African food for two weeks by then, so we decided to give it a miss.
Our tour guide, Willie, had us up early the next morning to make the trip along Route 62 into Cape Town. This was one of the highlights of our holiday. It's a semi-desert area, where the temperatures are about 10 degrees higher than those on the coast 60km back. I was expecting 'camel and cactus' country. I was wrong. It's more like the big-country vistas you'd see in the old westerns, with the ground covered by a riot of purple and yellow plants. I'm not normally one for flowers and plants, but I was mesmerised by this scenery. So maybe that's why, eight hours later on the top of Table Mountain, I was close to sensory overload. This was the beginning of the end of our time in South Africa, with four days in the Cape Town region. I'd gladly go back and spend another week there.
I'm not the first Cork man attracted to these parts. A main road near our hotel by the beach was called Glengariff Road; the plush and expensive neighbourhood just down the coast was Bantry Bay. It was appropriate -- the mountains and sea cliffs running down the peninsula to the Cape were like West Cork only (and it's hard to admit this) slightly better.
The drive from Chapman's Peak to Hout Bay and on to Cape Point is one photo opportunity after another. We usually hire a car on holidays, but it was great to sit back and let Otto the bus-driver take the corners, while Willie the tour guide filled us in on the history and wildlife. If you are planning to spend some time around Cape Town, then you could easily spend a couple of gorgeous lazy days making your way down this peninsula. Weather permitting, of course. Cape Town can be windy and wet (although we only had one day of that). If it is, visit the shops down at the V&A Waterfront shopping centre. You can get everything from a Gucci handbag to African wood carvings and then go and have your fortune told before heading to one of the restaurants that spill out on to the boardwalk. It's definitely worth half a day there and it's also the departure point for Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.
I was glad Otto was on driving duties when we visited the wine lands out around Stellenbosch. Not that we were really drunk, but it's hard to avoid a mild booze buzz when you start tasting at 10 in the morning. We ended our tour at the Boschendal winery. I was worried that this smacked of a school tour jaunt to a pencil factory. I was wrong -- it was great. The tour was informative, the wine was fantastic and whole group agreed the buffet lunch we had in the restaurant was probably the meal of the holiday. If you go and they're serving bobotie (a kind of curried shep- herd's pie), get at least two helpings. You won't be sorry.
After expertly guiding us around his country for two weeks and really adding to the experience, tour guide Willie gave us some free time on the final day.
We went on one of the hop-on hop-off buses. The audio gives a great insight into some of the daft and malicious excesses of the apartheid era around the city, before the bus snakes up around Table Mountain and down towards the trendy seaside village of Camps Bay. We hopped off for an hour and sat on the white sand to watch the waves lapping on the beach as the sun started to set. It's easy to fall for Cape Town.
Pat travelled with the Travel Department on its Highlights of South Africa tour. It is now offering this 16-day/17-night tour in May, with Dublin, Cork and Shannon departures for €2,849 per person, plus taxes and charges, which includes transport, accommodation costs and many of your meals.
For full details of guided tours to South Africa, and other destinations, see www.thetraveldepartment.ie
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