Cape Town: Southern comforts are the perfect intro to South Africa
Holidays in South Africa
The 'bowl' of South Africa is the perfect introduction to South Africa's melting pot, says Jamie Ball.
Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, has joked that his native South Africa is not so much Africa, as Africa-lite.
If so, then Cape Town is clearly South Africa-lite.
Two years ago, this spectacular, urbane city was voted best in the world to visit by the New York Times. My own endorsement comes with a caveat: Cape Town is great only because it's far greater than the sum of its parts.
Think of it as a limitless smorgasbord of beauty, experience and pleasure - all within a two-hour drive of its CBD (Central Business District). It would be hard to spend a more stimulating or enviable week anywhere on the planet.
Before you go, chuck out two well-regurgitated chestnuts (or you'll spend most of that week wondering why your map is upside down). Although cuddled into South Africa's southern coast, Cape Town and Table Mountain face north. Secondly, neither the city nor the unmissable Cape Peninsula are the most southerly point of the country/continent (that honour falls to Cape Agulhas, over 200km southeast).
Cape Town is all about the "bowl," a dramatic natural amphitheatre carved out between the mountains and the sea. It lends a stunning, sub-Mediterranean setting to the city, like a slice of Europe tacked onto the end of Africa. And unlike much of the country's eastern flank, there is no humidity here, only crystalline sunshine perennially peppered by the breeze blowing in off the Atlantic.
The metropolis is old not just by Sub-Saharan standards, but by the colonial yardstick too. The Dutch invited themselves to stay in the 1650s, setting-up a way-station between Europe and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Labour shortages caused the settlement to grow slowly at first, spurring the import of slave labour from Madagascar and South-East Asia, many of whom became the forefathers of the ethnically diverse Cape Coloureds.
About 40pc of Cape Towners describe themselves as "Coloureds" - roughly the same amount as "Black Africans" - according to the city's most recent census. Throw in the hybrid cultural legacy of the centuries-old Afrikaner community, as well as the fresher-off-the-boat-Brits, and you can see how Cape Town has long circled the square of South Africa's supposedly binary race divide.
Nothing here really is black and white.
Table Mountain looms large over everything in Cape Town, like some all-seeing sandstone overlord scrutinising everything in its realm. It's the most magnetic mountain face I've had the pleasure of since the Canadian Rockies (forget the thronging crowd and hour-plus cable car queues and hike it instead - it's worth every bead of sweat).
The very sight of it is powerful enough to make a SatNav sing, but why? The half-moon layout of Lion's Head, Table Mountain and Devil's Peak, means its near-vertical cliffs radiate a morning and afternoon sun that seems to illuminate every crack and cranny beneath the hypnotic, 1,000m summit.
Mountain aside, the boxes tourists typically tick are the Robben Island pilgrimage (robben-island.org.za), the overtly commercial Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and the Cape Dutch tours across the region's vineyards (tours-capetown.co.za).
But oranges aren't the only fruit. While Cape Town's western beachfront has always been the more lens-friendly and prosperous, the city's east side has traditionally been the also-ran. However, the inner suburb of Woodstock (ilovewoodstock.co.za) has graduated over the last decade from a lair of litter, crime and drugs to a hub worthy of at least an afternoon spree down its spine - the spits-and-dribbles Albert Road.
Often housed within former warehouses and industrial buildings, Woodstock's burgeoning micro-breweries, bars, restaurants, galleries, craft and designer furniture stores are worth a wander, especially the fashionable Old Biscuit Mill's mix of antique shops, designer boutiques and eateries (oldbiscuitmill.co.za). Catch it before the hipsters and Vespas get their hooks in, and then head out and explore the city's majestic hinterland.
There are endless opportunities for the tourist there, but just 25km south of the CBD is False Bay, Cape Town's long-neglected nether region. Buttressed from the chilly Atlantic by the Cape Peninsula, it's principally fed by Indian Ocean currents, resulting in water averaging about 17°C, or akin to the south of France. The flipside is that this also draws the Great White sharks.
Not that this turns surfers off. Quirky and colourful Muizenburg (said to be the birthplace of South African surfing) is where you'll find a permanent knot of wave-riding beach bums colonising Surfer's Corner. The 20km coast-clinging drive east from there is a curious one. There are almost four million people within an hour of this unspoilt horizon, yet this sun-kissed no-man's-land, along with its pop-up promenades, remains utterly deserted.
But that's Cape Town in all its comfortable contradictions; a more subtle introduction to a wild and wonderful country and a perfect stepping-stone between the ease of Europe and the opposites of Africa.
3 Must Do’s
This mountainous finger protruding 50km south into the Atlantic Ocean packs an unusually rich biodiversity showcasing some magnificent scenery. Don’t miss the African penguin colony at Boulder Beach. Some spend a leisurely day driving to Cape Point and back, though why not hire bikes (capetowncyclehire.weebly.com) for the popular 50km hike to Chapman’s Peak viewpoint and back?
Shark cage diving
About two hours southeast of Cape Town, the small coastal community of Gansbaai (gansbaaiinfo.com) is a global mecca for Great White Shark viewing.
Snorkels and wetsuits are provided and no scuba gear or diving certification is required, since the awe-inspiring shark activity takes place on or just below sea level.
I highly-recommended White Shark Diving Company (sharkcagediving.co.za) which can also arrange all transport from and to Cape Town. Prices start at R1,750 (approx. €122) for a one-day package, exclusive of transport.
Nestled between 300-year old winelands 50km east of Cape Town, this picturesque university town is a must. Enjoy the graceful litany of outstanding Cape Dutch architecture, oak-shaded streets, sun-kissed 19 Century plazas and stylish retail, to a sumptuous backdrop of ragged mountains. The perfect outpost for some well-coined R&R.
What to pack
Unless visiting during the South African winter (June-August), pack for a summer holiday; only bring warm layers for the Cape Town breeze and a raincoat as back-up. Although deemed South Africa's safest city, take the same security precautions you would elsewhere in the country.
Where to stay
Stay in Sea Point, near Signal Hill, at the Villa Coast Rose from €71 per night with Expedia (villacoastrose.co.za). A similar room in Bantry Bay — spectacularly set about 7km from the CBD — costs from €138 per night at the President Hotel (presidenthotel.co.za). Going to press, one euro buys about 15 rand.
Going to press, best value flights were with Ethiopian Airlines (flyethiopian.com) flying from Dublin via Addis Ababa from €491 return. Locals warn of winter rains, so unless travelling to watch rugby or the whales, try avoiding Cape Town during June, July or August. NB: Prices subject to availability.
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