Brian Finch shares his experiences in and around Cape Town.
When I visited Cape Town last I was so unobservant that only when I got home did I notice – in my photos – the famous line in the sea at Cape Point where the currents from the Indian Ocean meet those from the Atlantic.
The city curls around the base of Table Mountain, spreading along the coastal strip in either direction. Because of this unusual geography cloud forms even during summer above the hills and tumbles down towards the city like a vapour waterfall.
The view is made more striking by two high rocks almost within the city itself, Signal Hill and Lions Head. Both can be climbed and give spectacular views. You can drive up Signal Hill and many people go to watch the sunset but it is congested at the top so park lower down. The trek around Lions Head takes two to three hours and is best undertaken in late afternoon when it is cooler and you get the light from the setting sun. We came across people still going up as we came down at dusk and, looking back later, saw the glitter of their torchlight. However beautiful that seems a risky walk.
You must take the cable car up Table Mountain itself. It does not run when the winds are high but the alternative tough climb up the steep path is reported to take a couple of hours. Allow time to walk around the mostly flat surface on top and enjoy the views and the flora.
We hired a car, which was very cheap, and went down the Cape Peninsular, finding ourselves distracted by the indescribably cute penguins outside Simonstown. It is sweet to see one parent incubating the eggs whilst the other stands guard beside them. The chicks are born as balls of fluff and only achieve their adult plumage after a year. Anyway we dawdled and finally reached Cape Point just ten minutes after the last admissions…drat, have to go back.
We made the best of it and drove the other side of the peninsular back to town, along Chapman’s Drive: a lovely rocky seaside road. The trip was made a little nerve racking when we stopped for a photo only to discovery water dripping from the car. Fortunately my sensible half guessed that this might only be condensation from the air conditioning.
On another day we drove out just forty minutes to the winelands of Constantia, around the landward side of Table Mountain, and lunched at a restaurant on Buitenverachting winery before moving on to the nearby Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, where they have Sunday concerts in late summer.
Maybe an hour and a half’s drive out of town you come to the pretty little town and valley of Franschoek, beyond the better known Stellenbosch wine country. It is known for its restaurants, both in town and out on the wineries dotted along the lower slopes of the surrounding hills and many boast famous chefs as well as wonderful views. Being turned away from one, La Petite Ferme, because we had no booking – we went for a drive and returned later, meeting a troop of baboons along the way. They may look peaceful but in an instant they can display their inner beast – I broke a world record to leap back in the car. Fortunately the restaurant had developed a vacancy to accommodate us on a delightful terrace overlooking their vineyard and the whole valley. Many people stay overnight, not least because South Africa has a lower drink-drive limit than the UK.
Within Cape Town we found lots to do. As well as a historic centre it boasts great shopping, super restaurants, clubs, markets etc. We enjoyed a Saturday morning at The Old Biscuit Mill, which is when this collection of chic shops and restaurants in a more edgy district boasts a street food section as well as craft stalls and free music. Right on the working docks in the middle of town there is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, an ultra modern development of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. I know – a giant shopping mall – but in a great setting, many of the restaurants are good and there are craft shops here too. Back from the docks you find Long Street, which morphs into Kloof Street and eventually leads to the Table Mountain cable car. There are picturesque buildings with ornate ironwork balconies lining this very long and buzzy street, as well as plenty of restaurants, some very good, such as Café Paradiso. Just off Kloof Street you find the sumptuous Mount Nelson Hotel which offers High Tea for £15 on the verandah overlooking their gardens.
Taxis in Cape Town are cheap and are metered but you may feel safer using radio cabs rather than hailing them on the street. That’s not just because of personal safety or scams but also because of the state of some cars. There are plenty of buses and, if you drive your own car, parking is easy. In the centre there are official’s collecting parking charges or, a little further out, unofficial’s who offer to look after your car. For a very modest payment we found them reliable.
On a hot day go to the beach in one of the many bays near the city. We visited Camps Bay which is pretty, upmarket and lined with beachside restaurants. Deckchairs and umbrellas are pretty cheap but the sea is cold even in summer on this Atlantic side – you must go round the other side of the peninsular to get the warmer Indian Ocean.
With only six days in Cape Town we missed lots. We failed to get to Robben Island where Mandela and others were imprisoned. I’d have liked to take a guided tour to a township and a boat trip around the coast. With a few extra days we could have driven part of the Garden Route along the Indian Ocean coast or struck inland to the hiking and climbing mecca of the Drakensberg escarpment. I’d give game parks here a miss – to see animals in a natural habitat travel up north to the Kruger National Park.
Other tips – book restaurants in and around Cape Town. We managed to talk our way into some supposedly fully booked places but top restaurants are cheap by international standards and can be booked out for months ahead, as can more modest but popular ones.