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 Waterfront
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.
A very good year
From here, you’ll need a car to cover more of the western Cape region. Cast away your fear of getting lost in a foreign place and of driving on the right hand side of the car, step into an inexpensive economy-car rental delivered to your hotel or fetched from the airport, and head out for a trio of fantastic natural excursions easily reached from Cape Town— wine country, beaches, and the Cape of Good Hope.
The Mediterranean climate of the Western Cape has spawned a wine industry in South Africa that rivals California ’s in breadth and quality. So it’s no great surprise that the twin wine-country towns of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, for all the world, resemble the stretches of California outside Santa Barbara .
Highway 1 fingers the way out of Cape Town into the mountains surrounding the university town of Stellenbosch. About an hour’s drive from the V&A Waterfront, Stellenbosch is host to a handful of wineries like Lanzerac, where no visit is complete without figuring out how much UPS would charge to ship a half-case of the vibrant merlots back to the States. It’s outrageous; plan ahead and conserve space in your carry-on luggage. Lanzerac, and most of the area wineries offers tours of its property and cellars, as well as accommodations for a night or two among the grapes.
Beached and blanched
Suitably vined, head back south through town and aim for the end of the Cape peninsula. But be prepared—with sunscreen and swimsuits. A string of pearly beaches rims the Cape peninsula, each its own pocket of solitude, even in the heat of the January summer. Scenic Houts Bay and Llandudno perch near each other, the second one being a dead end off a housing subdivision. If you want to scramble over the rocks for a bit, a nude-only section of rocks allows sunning and toe-dipping in the utterly frigid Atlantic waters and a simultaneous warming on the rocky shore.
From here you can slash west toward a short but memorable drive up Chapmans Peak Road . It’s merely 4 kilometers of slow-going hairpins, but the extreme drop-offs and dramatic crests of beach seem more like Hawaii or St. Lucia than the far edge of Africa . The road deposits you near Sea Point and Camps Bay , the big public beach area on the eastern edge of Cape Town , which has swimming pools and is easily reached by taxi from town if you choose not to rent a car.
From baboons to penguins
But there’s no reason to stop there—after all, you’ve flown 18 hours, and who wouldn’t press on to the very tip of the world? The Cape Peninsula is tipped by the Cape of Good Hope you read about in elementary school geography, and its preserved natural beauty is reason enough to explore by car—even if the Atlantic and Indian oceans don’t actually meet at the Cape, but instead at a point about 150 kilometers to the east.
Plan for a stop halfway down the peninsula at Boulders Beach , where you can stand inches away from Jackass penguins. The beach is home to the only colony of the birds on the continent—and there are hundreds crawling the protected beach, laying eggs and nesting and being observed from wooden decks at picture-perfect distance.
And when you get to the Cape, leave lunch behind. That’s right—leave it at home or in the car. You see, the Cape beaches at the very tip of the peninsula have become home to Chacma baboons who know that gym bags and backpacks have yummy insides. The monkeys will jump on cars and ride for a few kilometers – then jump off and do the same in the opposite direction for a thrill ride. Or they might make off with your backpack as we saw happen to a German couple on vacation, rip it open and mash your potato chips into their fanged mouths. You can laugh about it all the way back to town—and file it away in a stack of unforgettable mental snapshots that Cape Town shutters away in a constant blur.
2007 Jaguar XK
What to drive: 2007 Jaguar XK
You could, of course, drive one of the hundreds of Toyota Tazz (think old, old Corolla) rental cars buzzing around the Cape Town area, sipping expensive fuel slowly and accelerating with the zeal of an eighth-grader compiling a book report. Instead, give yourself the means to absorb South African sunshine in the new XK or its open-top Convertible version, a stunning piece to match the stunning backdrops of Table Mountain or the winery mountain scenes near Stellenbosch. The XK’s evocative shape even improves when you lower the power top, and the engine note switches from a gentle growl to a toothy roar at the tip of the throttle. With quality and performance unseen in previous XKs, the new two-door makes a perfect companion for all the scenes you might encounter in the Cape region—and it may start a few of its own.