We decided to take this trip in large part because it offered the opportunity to visit Cape Town. I had long wanted to visit this city of mountains, sea, penguins, culture, and history and had high expectations. It didn’t disappoint me, but our time there only allowed a glimpse of this spectacular and varied place. I’ll have to return some day!
Part of Cape Town’s variety is due to its geography. You are never far away from either the mountains or a beach – usually both – providing for stunning scenery and an active, out-door culture.
Things to do in and around Cape Town
- Table Mountain: The park at the top of Cape Town’s signature mountain can be reached via a very strenuous foot path or a cable car (when the weather allows). The landscape at the top can be a bit surreal (especially on a foggy day) and the views over the city are stunning.
- Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden: Two square miles of natural and landscaped gardens sit at the foot of Table Mountain, much of it covered with native fynbos and forest. The unique plant life of this part of the world was one of the things that made me want to come here. I knew I would want more time at the gardens than we would get on our tour, so we went on our own during a free afternoon. I’m glad we did, as the garden was spectacular and we were able to see lots of protea that we would not have seen during our visit with the group.
- City Bowl and around: Cape Town’s compact city center is perfect for walking amid an interesting mix of historic and modern buildings. (A walking tour can easily take in the key sites.) Nearby, the Gardens features lots of open space and gracious historic structures. Go a different direction and you can step back in time to the earliest days of European settlement here at the Castle of Good Hope. We didn’t have nearly enough time to explore around here.
- Bo-Kapp: This compact area of brightly colored buildings is the historic heart of the Malay community in the city and one of my favorite places here. A quick walk through is perfect for taking photos, but there are a few places to stay, for those who want to stay a bit and learn more about the culture here. However, this is mostly a funky (but gentrifying) residential area with few tourist services.
- Robben Island: Most famous as the prison where Nelson Mandela spent most of his time behind bars, the island has been used as a prison since 1636. We didn’t get here (plan ahead if you want to visit) and I feel like I missed something important.
- The District 6 Museum: This museum commemorates the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town and addresses displacement generally. Once a vibrant, mixed-race community, District 6 was declared a white area in 1950 and 60,000 people were forcibly moved to the Cape Flats. This is another place I didn’t get to, but should have. The effects of apartheid, include the forced dislocation of vast portions of the population, has ramifications that still impact the country today and will for many, many years to come.
- The V & A Waterfront: While this very commercial shopping, dining, and entertainment area isn’t really my cup of tea, given more time I would have tried out a restaurant and shop or two. It’s a cheerful-looking place (if a bit Disneyesque) and it is right on the water.
The Cape Peninsula
The Cape Peninsula is the place to go for wide open spaces, spectacular scenery, and great beaches. The mountains and ocean come together gloriously here, offering almost unlimited recreational opportunities. While the peninsula can be “toured” in a day, that really misses the point. This is a place to spend some time and just have fun. It is an area I definitely want to return to someday, maybe even staying in a couple different places to really experience the variety available here.
The whole peninsula is worth exploring, but here are a few highlights:
- Chapman Peak Drive: Truly one of the great drives of the world, this roadway winds along sheer cliffs above the ocean for 5½ miles and provides stunning views.
- The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and Cape Point: While not the southernmost point in Africa (that’s a little farther along the coast at Cape Agulhas), this is certainly the most famous of the rocky beaches that mark the southern end of Africa. There is far more to do here than we had time for – besides the light house and the cape itself, this area is part of a large, windswept nature reserve with wildlife (we saw various types of antelope) and lots of hiking trails.
- Boulders Beach: This is the place to see penguins in South Africa. We ate at Sea Forth, which has stunning views over the water and a path that leads down to the beach. (The food was good too.) There are other spots to watch the penguins along the beaches here and the penguins do wander out of their reserve area. You can’t go into the water with the penguins at this location and will be confined to a raised boardwalk, but you are likely to see lots of penguins very close at hand. Go later in the day for best penguin viewing and take the time to check out a couple of beaches.
- Simon’s Town: Other than stopping for lunch and penguin watching, we just drove through town. While the area by Boulders Beach is very built up with vacation homes and services, the old part of town looked charming and worth a bit of time.
- False Bay Beaches: False Bay is lined with broad sandy beaches. Since it is on the Indian Ocean side of the peninsula, the water is also warmer than on the Atlantic side, making it a great place for swimming. Just heed the warning of the shark spotters!
- Groot Constantia: This historic estate looks like a beautiful place to spend some time stepping back into history while enjoying a nice glass of wine.
The Cape Winelands
An easy drive from Cape Town, the Winelands is ideal for an extended vacation or a quick day trip. The area is filled with restaurants, quaint hotels, and shopping. For those who can afford it, some vineyards offer full accommodations, dining, and spa treatments. However, most of it seems more like Napa than Sonoma (for those of you familiar with California wine culture) – very commercialized, with a lot of tourists and a mix of high-end producers focused on quality wine and others focused making as much money as they can as quickly as they can.
We toured the area as an add-on to our package tour. That was a mistake, as it was a poor experience overall, with an annoying step-on guide, one completely sub-par winery, one really commercial-feeling winery, one really nice winery, and timed for a Sunday when none of the shops were open (not that there would have been time to shop anyway, but still.) Many, many companies provide tours to the Winelands, allowing visitors to taste as much as they would like without having to drive. There are tours for every type of tourists and I’m sure we could have found a comparably priced tour on our own that we would have enjoyed more. Think about how you want to spend your time before you book to find the best tour for you and, if you have the time, rent a car and give the area a couple of days.
- Stellenbosch: This small university town looked absolutely charming, but we literally had time only to walk a few blocks down one of the main streets before boarding the coach again. The historic buildings looked lovely, the outdoor restaurants inviting, and the shops absolutely enticing. Of the towns we drove through, this was my favorite.
- Seidelberg Estate: The location of this historic estate near Paarl is striking and the wines we sampled were very drinkable. . . but that’s all it had going for it. Granted, it was Sunday and the estate was closed to the public – we had a special reservation – but it was clear that there was no effort put into hosting our visit. Our guide was a pleasant young lady who knew zero about wine (except that she liked to drink it) and had no meaningful idea of how it was produced, although she did seem very well-versed on the cost-saving measures the producer was undertaking. The estate looked mostly closed, with major construction underway in order to provide more tourist trap offerings (ice cream, beer, more souvenirs). Sadly, it appears there isn’t much interest in producing quality wines here anymore. This was pretty much a complete waste of time and a very disappointing stop.
- Solms Delta: Located near Franschhoek, this is a wonderful place. I loved everything about our stop here: The estate was quaint and lovely, the wines were great, our tasting was informative and adapted to our interests and questions, and the restaurant was fabulous. The restaurant has a beautiful patio, but the dining room has glassed areas in the floor that allow a little archeological viewing between courses. Everything about this estate was right. I highly recommend a stop here both for wine tasting and lunch.
- Speir Wine Estate: This is a large facility with its own hotel and plenty of space for busloads of tourists. Despite the bit of a Disney feel to the place, the tasting was very informative, if a bit dramatic. It was an enjoyable stop.
Lodging in Cape Town
We stayed at the Protea Hotel Victoria Junction, which was high on style, but low on functionality. This lovely renovated hotel was in good location, an easy walk to the waterfront. However, the hotel itself had a small, poorly laid-out restaurant and bar (finding tables at breakfast was a nightmare and the happy hour party with live music was also poorly served by the odd configuration). The rooms themselves were up-to-date, but very nonfunctional: There was no storage space (aside from two tiny, basically useless wire shelves in the closet by the safe, there was not a shelf or drawer to be found); no side chair; and a desk chair that was WAY too low for the table (for anyone, not just me). We had a room facing the street that was really, really noisy (and, mind you, I live in a city), which made sleeping difficult.
On the plus side, the safe was big enough to hold my note-book style laptop, there were lots of outlets, and the staff was absolutely tremendous. There was free internet too - if you can get it to work. (I think the internet problems I had at the Protea hotels in general were related to a conflict between the system they use and my computer. Most people didn't seem to have problems.)
Dining in Cape Town
We were out of the area most of the time on various tours, so did little dining in central Cape Town. The one meal we did have was at the very happening Beluga. (Caution: Annoying loud website.) Although you could barely move inside, it was a cool evening so we were able to get immediate seating on the patio. We had good service and wonderful, fresh, and imaginative Asian-influenced seafood. We really enjoyed our meal and, not being among the young, beautiful, and happening, we quite content to dine outdoors. Note that the restaurant really is located where everyone says it is – the actual entrance is funky, poorly marked, and generally difficult to locate.
The city appears to be filled with great restuarants, so finding something good to eat should not be a problem for any budget.
- Table Mountain
- Cape Town Through the Bus Window
- Vibrant Bo Cap
- Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden
- Down the Atlantic Side of the Peninsula
- The Cape of Good Hope
- Sharks and Whales
- Another (Quick) Stop at Kirstenbosch
- A Quick Tour of the Cape Winelands
- The Cape Flats
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