Monday, 12 December 2016

10 good reasons to spend some time in Cape Town

Cape Town is one of the great cities of the world, with unique and wonderful mountain and ocean scenery, excellent food and wine and, surprisingly to many first time visitors, a safe and friendly environment.
One of the most attractive suburbs is Claremont, home of the beautiful Vineyard Hotel, and the venue for MEI's larger conferences. It is gratifying to see that delegates, after making their debut at an MEI Conference here, often return with their families and stay on to savour some of the delights of the region.
Delegates and families at Flotation '15
So I thought I might list my ten best things to do while staying on in Cape Town, in the same way that I did with our UK conference venue, Falmouth (posting of 11 March 2015). And, as with my Falmouth recommendations, I must stress that these are my personal recommendations, and I have not even discussed them with the other members of the MEI team, nor with our colleagues in Cape Town. So I am hoping that there will be many suggestions, and disagreements on my choices, from others. So here goes:
1. Table Mountain
An obvious choice and I doubt if there will be disagreements here. The mountain is Africa's great icon, the first thing a traveller by sea would see on approaching the Mother City. There is a great view of the mountain from the Vineyard Hotel, but to see the classic 'flat-topped' mountain, you must go into the city itself.
Table Mountain from the Vineyard Hotel
No visit to Cape Town is complete without a visit to the top of the mountain and my advice is to do this as early as you can, when the visibility is good and the cable car is not closed due to the frequent high winds. If you are a fit and regular hiker then there are many hiking trails to the top of the mountain, the easiest via Platteklip Gorge, but beware that the weather can change very quickly on the mountain, so you should not venture alone- you should be accompanied by someone with experience of this capricious mountain.  I would also recommend that you walk up and then descend by the cable car (much easier on the knees!).
On the not so flat summit of Table Mountain
 
Relaxing on a Table Mountain hike and enjoying the view of the cable-way and Lion's Head
 
2. Signal Hill and Lion's Head
Although there are wonderful views from the top of Table Mountain, there is one thing missing- Table Mountain itself. For the best views of the city and its mountain you should take a ride up Signal Hill. Stop on the road about half way up for a great view, or if you are adventurous why not enjoy a serene tandem paraglide with one of the operators at the top of the hill, crossing the city before landing gently at Seapoint?
Highly recommended is the walking trail which you will see on the left as you drive up the hill. This takes you on a relatively easy walk up Lion's Head mountain. It looks daunting, but the trail winds around the mountain, providing stunning vistas of Table Mountain and the city and the Atlantic Coast all the way down the Cape Peninsula.  

3. The City Bowl
This is where suggestions do become very subjective. There are many things to see and do in the city centre but here is my recommendation:
Park your car or take a taxi to the Mount Nelson Hotel, regarded as Africa's premier hotel. Walk round the beautiful grounds, have coffee on the terrace and then stroll through the Company Gardens, which takes its name from the Dutch East India Company who first started the garden in 1652 for the victualing of their ships that plied the spice trade route between Europe and the East Indies via the Cape of Good Hope.
Mount Nelson and Company Gardens

Bo-Kaap
When you leave the Gardens, passing the beautiful Cape Parliament, it is worth turning left up Whale Street to visit Bo-Kaap an area formerly known as the Malay Quarter. It is a former township and is an historical centre of Cape Malay culture in Cape Town. The area is known for its brightly coloured homes and cobble-stoned streets. Then you might like to take in city life by strolling down Long Street, returning to the Mount Nelson via Adderley Street, the main street which runs parallel, in time for the famous Mount Nelson afternoon tea.


4. The Waterfront
Although you could include the Victoria and Alfred waterfront in your City Bowl experience, if this is your first time in Cape Town you may wish to spend most of a day in this, probably the world's most vibrant waterfront. There is so much to do here, shopping in the extensive indoor malls, al fresco dining with great views of Table Mountain, an excellent aquarium and much more. Just soak up the atmosphere, particularly on a Sunday when local musicians and dancers are much in evidence.

5. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Generally regarded as the most spectacular botanical gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is only a 5 minute taxi drive from the Vineyard Hotel.
Kirstenbosch is also a good starting point for one of the best, but strenuous, hikes up Table Mountain, Jan Smuts Track, via Skeleton Gorge.
Skeleton Gorge
6. Constantia Wine Route
The Constantia Valley, lying between Table Mountain and the False Bay coast, is a must visit area, as it is only a 15 minute drive from the Vineyard Hotel. The valley is extremely beautiful, with vineyard rows that stretch up the eastern slopes of the Constantiaberg mountainside. The wine route is an easy morning or day trip and the farms provide quality restaurants for lunches and tea.
Constantia Valley
My recommendation would be to visit Groot Constantia for morning coffee. Groot Constantia is the oldest wine producing farm in the country and lays claim to the roots of the South African wine industry. The homestead, one of the first and finest examples of Cape Dutch architecture, is exquisitely furnished with antiques, and wine can be sampled and purchase on the estate, where there are also daily wine tours.

The Manor House at Groot Constantia
For a long leisurely lunch, head for the wine estate with the unpronounceable name, Buitenverwachting (Beyond Expectation), which has one of South Africa's finest restaurants, and call in, on the same road, at Klein Constantia to admire its wonderful setting on the slopes of Table Mountain.
Klein Constantia
 
Lunch at Buitenverwachting
7. The Cape Peninsula
This full day is on virtually every itinerary for Cape Town visitors, and although many tour operators offer this, I would definitely recommend that you rent a car and do your own thing rather than join the big groups.
From the Vineyard Hotel head off down the M3 towards Fish Hoek and Simon's Town, with a stop at Boulders Beach to see the colony of African penguins.
Boulders Beach
Simon's Town
From Simon's Town continue to Cape Point, and if you have time leave your car at the Cape of Good Hope and take the short but spectacular walk to the Point. Your car will be in safe hands, watched over by the many colonies of baboons in this area!
Cape of Good Hope
Check if the awesome Chapman's Peak Drive is open, and if it is, return to Cape Town via the Atlantic seaboard. 
If you have time, take a stroll along the beautiful Noordhoek Beach, used as the setting in many films, including Ryan's Daughter.
Noordhoek Beach
Flamingos, Noordhoek Beach
The wreck of the Kakakpo, the meeting spot in Ryan's Daughter
Chapman's Peak Drive
Finally, before you reach Cape Town, stop for a late afternoon drink at one of the many bars and cafes along the city's most beautiful beach at Camp's Bay.
Camp's Bay
A long but exceptional day out!
8. Robben Island, District 6 and Khayelitsha

The beautiful Garden City also has another side, which should be part of your Cape Town experience- the African townships and memories of the dark days of apartheid (see also posting of 25 November 2010). I would suggest a full day, organised by many of the local tour companies, visiting Robben Island, District Six and the sprawling Khayelitsha township.

studentenwohnungenkapstadt.co.za
Robben Island is notorious as the former prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. The current South African President, Jacob Zuma, was also a former inmate.

The ferry journey to the island offers great views of Table Mountain, but on arrival this is obviously a grim place as former inmates recount their experiences to tourists, who also get the chance to see Mandela's tiny cell.

District Six is also an infamous area, which, like Robben Island, can be seen clearly from the top of Table Mountain. District Six, however, is an area of virtually empty space in the City Bowl.

The District Six Museum, founded in 1994, is a memorial to the forced movement of 60,000 inhabitants of various races in District Six to the barren Cape Flats, after their houses were flattened by bulldozers. The reason was that on 11 February 1966 District Six was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. Such was the worldwide outcry that further building never took place but the desolate area is well worth the visit as a poignant reminder of those dark days, captured in the museum.

District Six Museum
Although there are a number of African townships around Cape Town, Khayelitsha, located on the Cape Flats, is the largest in South Africa, and is the one most visited by tourists. The visits are fascinating insights into the lives of many, mainly black, South Africans, and the guide is usually an inhabitant of the township, who will show you a vibrant part of Cape Town where you can visit markets, shops and drink local beer in the shebeens. If you are particularly adventurous you may also decide to stay overnight in one of the B&B accommodations on offer.


9. The Winelands

No visit to Cape Town is complete without spending at least a day in the Winelands, arguably the most beautiful wine area in the world, covering an extensive area with many wine routes, such as those centred on Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek, Robertson, and many others.

There are many tour operators who will take you into the Winelands from Cape Town, but I would recommend that you rent a car and select a few wine farms and towns to see at leisure. Where to go is very subjective, and we are discovering news gems each year, but if you only have a day then here is just one suggestion that will not disappoint:

Drive along the False Bay coast to Stellenbosch, South Africa's second oldest town, and have a wander down historic Dorp Street, host to some of South Africa's oldest houses.  Then head off towards Franschhoek, stopping off at the impressive Boschendaal Wine Estate for wine tasting in the shade of the huge oak trees.

Boschendal
 
Wine tasting at Boschendal
 And then on to a late lunch in the town of Franschhoek, renowned for its fine restaurants. Franschhoek ('French Corner') was originally settled in 1688 by French Huguenot refugees and a visit to the Huguenot Museum is well worth while.

There are many fine restaurants along the main street, but if you have the time, take a long leisurely lunch at La Petite Ferme, with its stunning views across the Franschhoek Valley.

La Petite Ferme, Franschhoek
If you have the time, return to Cape Town via the fairly drab town of Somerset West, home to the Vergelegen Estate which has one of the most photographed manor houses, set in colourful gardens. If you are taking an evening flight from Cape Town airport, returning via Somerset West is a great option as it is close to the airport on the N2 and you will avoid the gridlock of cars leaving Cape Town in the late afternoon.



Vergelegen
10. Relax!

Finally, why not spend a day doing absolutely nothing? If you are staying at the Vineyard Hotel, take a stroll around the beautiful gardens, relax by the pool, or maybe walk over to the large mall in Claremont for some last minute shopping?

Vineyard Hotel Gardens and Pool

So, those are my suggestions. Now let's have yours!

Twitter @barrywills

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