How I Spent a Year in Cape Town
Crowned best-value city break in The Sunday Times Magazine’s Value For Money Awards, Cape Town has more going for it than a cheap Rand. Writer Martha de Lacey sampled its myriad delights during a year in the South African capital...
Whales are noisy buggers. As I discovered while living in Fish Hoek, a tiny coastal town in Cape Town’s False Bay. Each June, they swim inland to mate and calve, and their favourite spot d’amour seemed to be directly outside my bedroom window. I was in town to compile a travel guide to South Africa, and spent a glorious year exploring the country, with Cape Town as my base. With year-round sun, endless beaches, imposing mountains, terrific shopping, cooler-than-ice bars, the finest cooking on the planet and a general sense of joie de vivre, it’s one of the world’s best spots for an action-packed city break. And just one hour ahead of London, you can spend a week there without suffering jet lag.
A long, jagged peninsula of nautical nooks and coastal crannies, Cape Town has a beach for every day of the week. Heck, it has one for every day of the year. Divided into two categories, there are beaches on the Atlantic Seaboard and those inside False Bay, where waters are marginally warmer. On the Atlantic side pick from one of Clifton’s four: First Beach is big with youngsters, Second with the glitterati, Third with the thriving gay community and Fourth with laid-back locals. Try Camps Bay for seafood, parties and terrific views of the Lion’s Head and Twelve Apostles mountains; Bakoven for boulder jumping and calm swimming; Llandudno for surfing and family-friendly shallows; Sea Point promenade for jogging. False Bay beaches are much quieter. Muizenberg is surfer heaven; Boulders Beach, south of pretty Simon’s Town, is famous for its super-friendly penguins; Windmill is a tiny treasure; Fish Hoek, next to boho Kalk Bay harbour, is big for sports; Bikini Beach in Gordon’s Bay is a student favourite. Head north of Cape Town along the west coast and you’ll hit the longer, quieter, windsurfing havens of Milnerton, Sunset, Bloubergstrand and Melkbosstrand.
Walking and cycling
Rent a bike and take a ride along the breathtaking coast down to the Cape of Good Hope, on the tip of Cape Peninsula. It’s a whale-speckled joy like no other. Just watch out for the picnic-pinching baboons when you get there. And you simply cannot leave without climbing Table Mountain. Head to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden early in the morning, then clamber up – carefully, following a trail – walk leisurely along the top, and take the Table Mountain Cableway down.
Cape Town is a shopper’s paradise where you’ll find everything from handmade African masks to priceless art. The V&A Waterfront is a haven of 450 big brands and smart stores, while its newly renovated Watershed warehouse has 150 stalls selling locally made fashion, jewellery, art, toys and curios. Boutique lovers should head to Long Street and Bree Street in the city centre, where independent stores sell handmade clothing, delicious cheese and everything in-between. In Cape Town suburb Woodstock, The Old Biscuit Mill is a pedestrianised shopping area with a village feel, and markets day and night selling wares from the country’s top artisans. Spend an afternoon in Kalk Bay, a bohemian fishing village turned artistic community, for jewellery and antiques.
Visitors interested in Cape Town’s political history will want to take a boat to Robben Island in Table Bay, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Animal lovers, meanwhile, might prefer a trip to Seal Island to see its community of Cape fur seals. Back in the city, top museums include the South African Museum, Slave Lodge, District Six Museum and Bo-Kaap Museum, which showcases the colourful history of Cape Town’s Islamic community. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), opening next year, looks set to rival London’s Tate Modern and New York’s MoMA, and will also house the new Silo hotel, built inside old grain silos and redeveloped by Heatherwick Studio. And First Thursdays, a free cultural event inviting people to descend upon the art galleries of Bree Street for once-a-month late-night opening hours, offers a real carnival atmosphere.
Dining and drinking
Barbecues are big business here; try Belthazar on the V&A Waterfront. Mama Africa in Long Street gives a taste of the continent alongside live musical performances, while Marco’s African Place in Rose Street is a great spot to try native South African game. But Bree Street is the hippest place to pick up a fork, with Villa 47 and Mulberry & Prince among the city’s hottest new eateries. Publik wine bar has also just reopened in Church Street, an exciting collaboration with ASH restaurant. Alternatively, join locals for sundowners at Yours Truly or The Power & The Glory in nearby Kloof Street and Kloof Nek Road, then head to Chefs Warehouse for a relaxed dinner or The Opal Lounge if you fancy something slicker. Elsewhere, the winemaking suburb Constantia Valley is teeming with excellent restaurants, whether you’re after a vineyard picnic or a bistro supper. Jonkershuis Constantia, inside the Groot Constantia Wine Estate, has panoramic views of the valley below. And before you leave town, take high tea at Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel.
Cape Town has no shortage of luxury lodgings, whether you’re looking for a boutique guesthouse, hip hotel, relaxing retreat or palatial colonial manor. Some of the best beds can be found in the charming, central Hippo Boutique Hotel, the converted V&A Waterfront warehouse that is now the Victoria & Alfred Hotel, and the luxurious Table Bay Hotel, sitting in the protective shadow of Table Mountain. Alternatively, hide away at Camps Bay Retreat, a beautifully tranquil private nature reserve set on four acres of lush greenery.
Be a day tripper
Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are short drives away, and you can while away days enjoying wine and cheese pairings at the stunning region’s myriad wineries. Stellenbosch has more than 200 wine estates, some of which have been producing wine for over 300 years. Join a wine and dine tour and you’ll
even get a designated driver. Kruger National Park is a four-hour flight away from Cape Town, so for a Big Five safari experience closer to home head to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. The impressive reserve has four lodges all offering 4X4 game drives, boat safaris, relaxation retreats and walking tours. And if you have time, hit the Garden Route. Aside from exquisite beaches and picturesque harbours, you can hike through glorious fynbos at the De Hoop Nature Reserve; spot cheeky dassies in Tsitsikamma; scoff oysters in Knysna; go shark cage diving in Hermanus; admire Cape Dutch architecture in Swellendam, and marvel at 600 majestic beasts in Addo Elephant Park.
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