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The Contrasts of Cape Town, South Africa - travel review, travel story about Cape Town

words and photos: Benjamin SB Lyons

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa
Slowly slipping past the breakwater and into the South Atlantic, we gazed at one of the most remarkable cityscapes in the world. At the waterfront, ships of all nations were discharging cargo, while just beyond, the city buildings wrapped themselves around the harbor.

Towering impossibly huge and dominating the landscape was the unmistakable view of Table Mountain, while accompanying mountains framed the city bowl and tumbled into the sea. Looking closely, I could see the clouds that were earlier caressing the top of Table Mountain had lifted and the cable cars to the top I had hoped to travel on were once again open, albeit a few hours too late for me.

We had flown into South Africa four days earlier and planned on spending our time getting to know the city and the surrounding region. Having visited Cape Town once before in a stop that was measured in hours and not days, it was my goal this time to make it to the top of Table Mountain. This famous landmark so dominates the city it seems impossible to imagine Cape Town without it -- or to visit Cape Town and not enjoys the view from its top.

So it came to be that I learned Lesson One: When visiting Cape Town, take the first chance you get to visit Table Mountain when the weather allows it. As often happens, our first day produced beautiful weather - warm, sunny and hardly any wind - while the next several days the cable cars were closed because it was either too windy or too cloudy at the peak. It was only on my last day that the mountain was open again, and by that time, I had already boarded my ship for a passage to the UK, once again missing the view from the top.

Ultimately it hardly mattered, for while Cape Town may be known for Table Mountain, there is far more worth discovering in this city and its surrounding regions. From the relaxed and peaceful winelands in the countryside to the realities of a nation still dealing with the end of Apartheid, Cape Town was full of contrasts, both physically and culturally, and affords an excellent starting point for further excursions into Africa.

Arriving at Cape Town in the early afternoon after the arduous but necessary half-day flight, I had no desire to head into the city and navigate unfamiliar busy streets right away. Instead, I rented a car at the airport and drove the opposite way: away from the city and into the country and South Africa's winelands.

Vineyards of South Africa
Vineyards of South Africa
Just an hour outside of Cape Town are three small towns that form the cradle of the winelands region: Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschoek. We drove to Franschoek, which was settled by French Huguenots in 1688 and still retains a heavy French influence, and found that it was just the type of town we were looking for: serene, beautiful and seemingly isolated from everywhere else.

From the top of the slate gray mountains that defined the valley below, we watched the sun set on a bucolic scene dotted with vineyards in a landscape that felt more European than African.
With the region known for its wine, of course, as well as good food, there are some superb accommodations that offer luxurious lodging for reasonable rates. We wisely chose to stay at Le Quartier Francais, which had started initially as a restaurant and has expanded to include 16 beautifully furnished rooms surrounding a small courtyard and garden.

Naturally, we dined in their restaurant which boasted awards such as one of the "Top 100 Restaurants in the World", and enjoyed some unusual and mouth watering foods, including a never-seen-before Beet Soufflé. When we returned to our room, we found a fire had been lit in our fireplace, and from our window, we could wake up and see the clouds just starting to form around the mountain peaks the next morning.

While not a wine connoisseur at all, there seemed to be something perfectly civilized about exploring some of the surrounding vineyards the next day. Looking at the old farm buildings or sitting outside underneath a spreading tree, we sampled the wines and slowly and contentedly took in both the tastes and the surrounding sights.

While I could have stayed a few extra nights alone just to have the opportunity for more meals and more decadence in Le Quartier Francais, our time was limited and we drove into Cape Town and witnessed one of the main contrasts in South Africa. Having just experienced a peaceful, almost manicured world, the highway into the city would take us past vast sprawling townships stretching for miles where thousands lived in nothing more than corrugated iron shacks and most lack electricity and running water.

There is a tremendous gap between the wealthy, First World South Africa and the impoverished Third World South Africa, and despite South Africa's amazing progress and advanced industry, there is still a long way to go. Even without Apartheid, divisions between races - black, white and colored (a term used in South Africa to describe a person of mixed race) - still seem to subtly exist. Without Nelson Mandela to lead the country, a leader who won virtually unanimous praise, tensions still linger. The good news is that South Africa is committed to moving ahead while still preserving the memories of the past.

Just as Table Mountain dominates South Africa, so too does the issue of race dominate the country, and some exploration into Apartheid should be made by everyone who visits. One of the most poignant things to do in South Africa is to take a guided and perfectly safe tour into the heart of these vast townships. Museums such as the District Six Museum tell the story of Apartheid in different ways - District Six, for instance, was a thriving colored community that was suddenly decreed to be an area for whites, causing the forced relocation of over 60,000 individuals. The area was demolished but never developed, and today lies like a scar across an otherwise beautiful city.

View of Table Mountain
Table Mountain from Robben Island

Also open to the public is Robben Island, the small island in the middle of the harbor where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were incarcerated for decades. First taken around the island in a bus, we enjoyed fine views across the harbor to the city before coming to the quarry where prisoner toiled for hours. There was inspiration even here, however, as we learned how the prisoners used an area mostly out of site of the guards for teaching and supporting each other during their breaks. We were also taken around the barren and silent prison complex itself by one of the island's former political prisoners and shown the cell where Nelson Mandela lived before boarding a boat back to the city itself.

The city center is still vibrant and full of life, and with Table Mountain always in the background, it is fun to explore the city on foot for a few hours and see the mountain from different vantages.

You will pass by the attractive City Hall on your way to the Castle of Good Hope, once a Dutch East India Company fort and the oldest building in the country. Also within walking distance is the Company's Gardens, an attractive park located in the heart of the city center near the open-air market of Greenmarket Square. Only blocks away from the stately Company buildings is Bo-Kaap, home of the city's Muslim population.

Penguins at Simon's Town
Penguins at Simon's Town

At least one full day should be set aside for a trip down to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Preserve, a huge park full of rolling hills, ostriches and baboons set at the very tip of the peninsula 25 miles to the south. Dramatic seaside landscapes fill the drive, and stop off for lunch at the small town of Simon's Town. There, a colony of penguins lives happily on the beaches, and walking along paths, you can get up close and personal with penguins-and their stench. If you have time on the way back, the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens is considered one of the loveliest spots on the Cape.

Perhaps the best and safest place to stay is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a touristy section filled with hotels and restaurants ranging from pizza joints to restaurants offering native African meals. Most appealing, however, is the number of jetties and quays that jut into the harbor, and this area is still used as a working harbor with oceangoing fishing trawlers in dry-dock juxtaposed against sailboats. Harbor seals are often seen lounging on the docks for all to see, and a popular maritime museum is worth a visit.

Accommodations there span the budget range, from hostels a few blocks outside the waterfront to luxury hotels. We stayed in the Cape Grace, which is set on its own pier and has a reputation as one of the best hotels in South Africa, if not the world. Again, we relished in a South African contrast: our luxurious hotel overlooked a pier for ocean trawlers below while a sneaky view of Table Mountain was just off to our right. It was a delightful bit of atmosphere and made the hotel somehow more authentic and real.

For those looking for more moderate accommodations, the Breakwater is also located in the V&A waterfront, and being a former prison, offers slightly more scaled back rooms and an excellent value.

Much of South Africa has a reputation for crime and violence, and while it does exist, problems with crime can be minimalized by following simple precautions. Always drive with your doors locked, and don't drive at night, even on highways. Walking around the city at night is not recommended except in certain, very well-defined areas, so plan on taking taxis to meals out. During the day, the city center is perfectly safe, but be sensible and remove any jewelry or anything flashy and expensive.

Group of South African Children
South African children

Cape Town has a wonderful temperate climate that can be visited any time of the year, although there are definite seasons. During the summer, temperatures drift into the 80s and the beaches are filled with holidaymakers, although the water may often be a bit cold. During the winter, the weather is more fickle and often rainier, and strong storms can race across the Atlantic and into the city. Still, the weather is often pleasant, with temperatures hovering in the 60s during the day.

From Cape Town, there is plenty more to explore in South Africa alone, from the coastal areas to the south to the famous game parks in the northeast. Direct air flights are common from the United States, and earlier this year, South African Airways was advertising roundtrip fares starting at around $1200 from the East Coast. Once in South Africa, the strong Dollar to Rand exchange rate makes the country relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to many usual holiday spots in Europe where the Euro and Pound have gained against the dollar.

Sailing away from Cape Town for the second time in my life without having hiked around the top of Table Mountain, I was disappointed but more resolved than ever. I had only begun to scratch the surface of South Africa, and missing Table Mountain gave me just the excuse I needed to return again. (...BACK)

Cape Town Tourism
South Africa Tourism