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Cape Town: Grand Dame of Africa

Cape Town —  Grand Dame of Africa

It’s hard not to love a visit to Cape Town, a grand old city, one of the finest anywhere. It’s the oldest city in Southern African and has been captivating tourist’s hearts for centuries. A blend of old colonial charm and modern amenities, Cape Town has much to offer a visitor. I was very impressed not only at the beauty of the city and its setting but also at its multiculturalism and how, even though only 20 years had passed since Apartheid ended, the country’s racial groups have make great strides at integrating into one culture. This city was our first destination in Southern Africa, after the exhausting 20+ hour flight from New York (and connection in Johannesburg). We had just 3 days to explore it, not nearly long enough, but it gives us a good excuse to come back someday.

A Brief History of Cape Town.

Before the arrival of Europeans (the Dutch East India Company) in 1652, the region had been occupied for centuries by the San people. The Dutch ruled the area for 150 years and built the oldest structures still existing in the city, and under their rule the city grew and thrived. Cape Town became a common port of call for ships and sailors traveling between Europe and the Far East. The British defeated the Dutch in 1806 and under Britain’s rule there were changes in South Africa. The slave trade stopped and slavery was abolished. The British were excellent at developing and exploiting the resources of their colonies; diamonds and gold were lucrative extractions. Black peoples were moved into their own neighborhoods and the beginning of apartheid took root, formalized as government policy in the mid 20th century. The policy was controversial and was finally appealed late in the 20th century, culminated by the release of Nelson Mandela from Robben Island Prison (situated only a few miles from Cape Town).

Some Things to see and do in Cape Town:

Cape Town has among the most beautiful and unique topography of any city I’ve ever visited. It will etch itself into your brain like a visit to Vancouver or San Francisco might. The growing and now sprawling city is framed by the large sandstone bulk of Table Mountain, an imposing wilderness area set in an urban environment. Those who know me know how much I love mountains and Table Mountain is a gem. The flat limestone mountain is often draped with a blanket of clouds resembling a tablecloth or veil. Table Mountain is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, part of a series of smaller conservations on the Cape Peninsula, because it is home to such a diverse and unique flora (9000 species) . You can hike up the mountain, not an easy task, or take the Table Mountain Aerial Cable ride up (make sure it is sunny, not too windy and clear before you head up). To the west and south you will see a string of small bays and beach towns popular with locals and tourists for their fine restaurants and hotels. The mountain top is indeed quite flat with unusually eroded rocks, and an extensive network of hiking trails exists. After you descend the mountain it’s worth driving to Signal Hill, past Lion’s Head peak, especially for a great sunset view of Cape Town. The attached slide show has many photos illustrating the wonder of this mountain.

Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is situated on Table Bay. It’s been extensively renovated and is a great place to spend an afternoon, especially on a hot day when the ocean breezes are very refreshing. There are dozens of restaurants in the V&A, many upscale shops, a craft market, as well as a few hotels. Nobel Square is interesting in that it has statues of South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize winners, framed against the bulk of Table Mountain. The Robben Island terminal is where you can catch a cruise to historic Robben Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site and prison home of former South African President, Nelson Mandela. The Two Oceans Aquarium is part of the waterfront and is worth at least a half day of your time, its exhibits almost to the standards of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I especially enjoyed the brilliantly colored fish, live penguin exhibits and huge kelp forest aquarium.

City Bowl is the area roughly between Table Mountain and the Waterfront and features most of the city’s best restaurants, as well as old buildings like its parliament and city hall. Well worth a visit is the Castle of Good Hope, a pentagonal fortress built 1666 – 1679, making it the oldest surviving building in Cape Town. Once you enter the castle you are transported to a different era, so enjoy a stroll around its spacious grounds, visit its historic exhibits and catch the Key Ceremony (Changing of the guard) at noon on weekdays. Cape Town has many street vendors offering an assortment of good, flowers and souvenirs, and also many museums like Slave Lodge and the Gold Museum.

South Africa is renowned for it’s fine wines and the wine country is very easily reached from the city, less than an hour’s drive away.  Here you will find endless grape vines and elegant old buildings very popular with tourists. Stellenbosch is a university town and the heart of the Winelands. Franschhoek and Darling are other popular destinations.

There are many active outdoor activities for those with lots of adrenalin. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is a popular backdrop to summer concerts. If you are so inclined there are also some very poor neighborhoods which we didn’t bother visiting.

We stayed at the wonderful Cape Grace Hotel, the finest hotel I’ve ever visited. Elegant though not lavish, it had a wonderful way of making us feel comfortable and at home. We had many good meals but the best was at the Roundhouse Restaurant in Camps Bay. The Roundhouse is a former hunting lodge with great views of Camps Bay and the sea, and a wonderful menu.

 

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