After 18 hours in the air, with a short stop on the western bulge of Africa for fuel, you descend toward South Africa sick and tired of recycled air and Ice Age 2. You are cranky. That is, until you blink through jetlagged eyes on left side of the aircraft as you gently bank down toward Cape Town, majestically framed by the Atlantic and Indian oceans and the cloud-banked plateau of Table Mountain. Then, you might too take in a sharp burst of air, in immediate wonder of an end-of-the-earth place that keeps one foot in the cultural stream of the west and plants another in a swift current of progress.
South Africa’s stunning story is still unfolding. It’s not an unqualified success story, the dozen years or so since apartheid was dismantled and the country catapulted itself out of 18th-century racial divides and into 21st-century nation-building. But since its birth from the atrocity of apartheid, the country has moved in big, breathtaking steps toward freedom and openness. And nowhere does the profound change draw the world’s attention more than in the spectacular city of Cape Town.
The “Mother City” and the first European settlement in the country, Cape Town has been a city of contrasts. Passed by Chinese and European explorers in the centuries when Khoi tribes dominated the area, the Cape region was possessed by Dutch and later British colonists. Its stormy seas gave birth to the legend of the Flying Dutchman. Cape Town at its essence is a multicultural legislative and tourist capital, but its history is as a center of apartheid—the offshore prison that once held president Nelson Mandela in full view from downtown on Robben Island.
Cape Town's V&A WaterfrontEnlarge Photo
A stunning international city that’s part San Diego, part Sierra Madre and part safari, Cape Town has 3 million very fortunate residents who bask in winter sunshine, spectacular scenery and food and drink unrivaled on the continent, all framed by the leonine postcard that is Table Mountain.
The least charming ride in the region is probably the ride in from the airport, a stark reminder reminds that poverty is never farther than arm’s reach, even in relatively wealthy Cape Town , in the fledgling democracy. Twin nuclear power plant cooling towers lie meters away from townships jammed with shacks cascading atop each other, homes built from the rudest materials only steps away from the motorway.
Not more than 20 minutes by taxi from the airport is Cape Town’s tourist hub, the Victoria and Alfred (V&A) Waterfront. Some of the country’s finest hotels are located here; while the upper crust can pay for the Mount Nelson, but business hotels like the Portswood and the Commodore give easy access to the waterfront’s shops and restaurants, including the Red Shed and Waterfront Craft Markets and the Two Oceans aquarium.
Long Road tethers Cape Town ’s waterfront with its signature backdrop, Table Mountain . If you’re lucky, a cablecar ride to the top gives the best views of the city from above. But stiff winds and cloudy days shut down the ride, although an hours-long hike will get you to the flat-topped vista and its panoramic views. But Cape Town photographs best looking at Table Mountain , not from atop it – so save your energy and hike instead around the world-class gardens on the eastern slope of Table Mountain .
Kirstenbosch is easily one of the finest public gardens anywhere, rivaling those in Melbourne and London. One of eight national botanical gardens, Kirstenbosch celebrates native African plants, and is dotted with sculpture and walkways that highlight its natural beauty, which includes a special garden for proteas and camphor trees planted while Cecil Rhodes owned it at the turn of the 20th century. Rhodes left the property to the nation when he died in 1902, and the garden became the first devoted to a regional flora when it was founded in 1913.