SO I AM sitting on a verandah, finishing off the best crème brûlée I’ve ever tasted, watching the warm African sun set slowly over the scenic expanses of beautiful, rolling vineyards and asking myself: ‘Why do I live in London, exactly?’ Another few glasses of South Africa’s finest wines and I’ve not only forgotten the answer, I’ve even forgotten the question.
Cape Town was the place Europeans first set foot in Southern Africa and its vibrant mixture of cultures is very evident in the faces on the streets, in the cuisine – borrowing influences from India, Africa and Holland – and in the way of life. It seems very remote, not only from Europe and the troubles of Africa, but even from the rest of South Africa itself.
Its long colonial history and its isolation lend it a unique air. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful, with Table Mountain, its summit often covered in a white cloud – the tablecloth – dominating a harbour that remains pretty despite the energetic modern developments of the self-confident new South Africa.
A cable car takes you to the summit, where many visitors are surprised to discover an extensive National Park, a popular day’s walking and picnicking spot for locals (www.tablemountain.co.za). You’ll get an idea of the extent of the Cape Mountains when I tell you they hold some 2,200 plant species. First-time visitors will also discover that the African continent stretches even further southward, towards Cape Point, ‘where two oceans meet’. (In reality, the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet further east, at Cape Agulhas, but travel writers – even in the 1600s – have always been willing to bend the facts to add a bit of romance.)
The falling Rand means the luxury life is in reach for tourists from Britain. Magnificent homes along the coast offer a Riviera lifestyle for residents who can afford them, but visitors can sample a taste in Cape Town’s many fine restaurants and bars. They offer food and wines to match, or excel, London’s finest at a fraction of the cost.
Cape Town is famous for its music and everything, from jazz to the latest township rap-style kwaito, can be found in its bars and clubs. Check out Long Street, Green Point or the waterfront. We all know there is a major crime problem in South Africa and those unfamiliar with the city should travel by taxi, especially at night; they’re plentiful, safe and cheap.
The exchange rate also offers an opportunity for a luxury stay. The famous Mount Nelson has always been the hotel in the Cape but several younger contenders offer more modern competition. Cape Grace, set on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, was voted Best Hotel World-Wide in 2000. Not least of its attractions are a world-class restaurant, Quay West, and the Bascule bar.
The Bascule is the largest whisky bar in Africa, holding more than 400 varieties from every producing country, including India and Japan as well as the more usual suspects. I’d never been a serious fan of whisky, other than Irish, but a guided evening of tasting persuaded me that was probably mere ignorance on my part. Sad to say, I’m now a spokesman for the qualities of Japanese whisky. Or was I just very, very drunk?
More traditional tasting comes courtesy of the many vineyards on the Cape. I was shocked to discover the South Africans are keeping many great wines to themselves, instead of exporting them all to us. Particularly good was Durbanville Hills, whose winemaker Martin Moore oversaw multi-million Rand investment in technology (www.distell.co.za). He was pretty scathing on the subject of organic wines: ‘All my wines are orgasmic, that’s good enough for me.’ He’s not wrong. Kieran stayed at the Cape Grace (Tel: 00 27 21 410 7100, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.capegrace.com)
Between July and December every year, some 150 Southern Right whales visit Walker Bay. The pretty town of Hermanus, overlooking the bay, offers the best land-based whale watching in the world, as the whales come within ten metres of the shoreline.
ROBBIN ISLAND The site of much of Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison dominates the seaward skyline of Cape Town and a short boat trip takes you there. You can even rent a villa on the island (www.capetown-sa.com/villas describes one, unselfconsciously listing ‘excellent security’ as an attraction).
CAPEPOINT www.capepoint.co.za The 7,750-hectare Cape Peninsula National Park is the most southwesterly point of Africa. The cold Beguela current of the west coast meets the warm Agulhas current of the east coast beneath some of the highest sea cliffs in the world, 249m above sea level. The park hosts at least 250 species of birds.
TOWNSHIP TOURS www.caperainbow.com Leave your cynicism at home and see how the new South Africa is bringing hope – and visible change – to the lives of ordinary people.