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Drinking Champagne at the Cape

A trip to the southern hemisphere and a visit to the Cape of Good Hope was something our author had long dreamed of doing. When he finally got the chance to travel to Cape Town, it was everything he had wished for – and more!

I fulfil my dream to visit the southernmost point of South Africa accompanied by five friends. Our plane touches down in Cape Town in the evening. The outdoor temperature is much like at home, although the season is different: we have flown from spring to autumn. As we pick up our rental car, the challenge of driving a mini-van and coping with left-hand traffic begins to dawn on us. Our departure from the car hire forecourt on to the motorway is surprisingly smooth. But sticking to left-hand drive rules, so as not to become a traffic obstacle, takes some getting used to. The general driving style in South Africa is disciplined and considerably calmer than, let’s say, southern Europe. An old song by Johnny Clegg & Savuka is playing on the radio. How very fitting! We approach –and master– our first left-hand traffic test at the roundabout in the centre of Cape Town, where the motorway ends. Though initially challenging, driving on the left is doable and should not be deemed grounds not to hire a car in South Africa.

Photos: Markus Tofalo

Shopping, dining and having fun at the V&A Waterfront

The best choice of accommodation for a group of six is to share a flat, although, not having room service or breakfast included is a drawback of course. But sharing a flat is cheaper and does mean the group stays together. Our accommodation is situated in the new harbour district. Set between the city centre and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the location is ideal. Once a working harbour, the V&A Waterfront was first converted into an attractive shopping, sauntering and leisure zone in the 1990s and most recently further expanded on the occasion of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It is home to restaurants, boutiques, trendy shops, museums, entertainment facilities and a shopping centre that features all of the international chain stores. The prices are roughly in our range. Some visitors may prefer to stay away from such commercial hubs, but I am honest enough to admit that I like them, just as I appreciate special insider tips, one being the Watershed Crafts Market inside a converted shipyard, also at the V&A Waterfront.

Victorian flair in Long Street

On my first morning in Cape Town, I wake up to a view of three striking mountains: Lion's Head, Signal Hill and the famous flat-topped Table Mountain. I am of the opinion that geographical names should be left in their original language, as a sign of respect. Which is why I can never quite fathom the inconsistencies of the German-speaking world, where Table Mountain is referred to as “Tafelberg” and Cape Town as “Kapstadt”, while Edinburgh stays Edinburgh. The three mountains are still wrapped in thick clouds. But as we complete our morning rituals, the clouds clear and make room for a blue sky – a spectacle that will repeat itself every morning of our stay.

After exploring the V&A Waterfront, we take the bus to the city centre. Arranged as a grid, the street layout is very similar to large US cities. Although Cape Town has well over three million inhabitants, the centre is pleasantly straightforward and important sights are within walking distance.

The heart of the city is situated around Green Square and Long Street. Nestling between the high rises of financial corporations are many well-preserved colonial-style buildings that house cool shops and fine restaurants. There are fast food bars too, of course. But those who resist choosing the obvious fast food brands will be pleasantly surprised by treats like samosa, which is a baked dish with a savoury filling, or biltong, a form of dried meat not dissimilar to American beef jerky. South Africa’s culinary variety, whether fast or slow, is as rich as the diversity of its people. Long Street is also where the party is at night. A stroll through the arcades that date back to the Victorian era leads us to the Grand Daddy Hotel. Featuring a trailer park on its rooftop, this is the perfect place to enjoy urban-style camping ambience high above Long Street. Individually decorated and themed on different parts of South Africa, the trailers take visitors on an alluring virtual road trip across the country.

Colourful Bo-Kaap

A walk through Bo-Kaap is a “must-do”. The colourful facades of what was formerly known as the Malay Quarter dazzle in hues ranging from bright green to stark purple. Only on second glance do the minarets become apparent. Bo-Kaap is a Muslim neighbourhood, where Muslims primarily from Malaysia once moved to, brought to South Africa by their Dutch owners as slaves. Yet another feast for our cameras followed by an evening spent feeding Facebook and WhatsApp with new material, ultimately requiring one of us to ask reception for a top-up of our internet allowance.

Stunning Hout Bay

This is the day we will travel to the Cape of Good Hope – a real highlight for me. The weather is cloudy but warm, and predicted to stay that way. In short: perfect photography weather. We drive south along the west coast through the touristy coastal suburbs. The drive to the Cape is further than I had expected and takes us almost two hours. But with myriad views of the picturesque coast to admire, the route is the opposite of boring and “demands” frequent unscheduled halts to take pictures. We make a planned stop in Hout Bay. Situated in a former fish factory, Hout Bay Harbour Market is where South Africa’s creative energy and vivacity come alive. From CDs with African dance music (which is definitely worth listening to), through original shirts, to handmade, decorative wall lamps: the market is a treasure trove for every imaginable item. Bon-Amie is a restaurant within the market and serves a delicious variety of omelettes – and the large menu on the wall is a piece of art in its own right!

Chapman's Peak Drive and Cape

I have travelled on many scenic coastal roads. But Chapman’s Peak Drive leading down to the Cape tops them all. Carved into a steep cliff, the nine-kilometre long route features undercut tunnels and more than 100 curves. So it is not surprising that motorists are charged a small toll fee to use it. The scenery opens up again at Noordhoek, revealing panoramic views of the turquoise-blue water, white beaches, orange cliffs and green meadows. The traffic grinds to a halt. Some ostriches strike a pose for every car in front of us – but sadly speed off when it’s our turn. I had definitely not expected to see ostriches roaming around freely!

The Cape has two “must-visit” points: the upper Cape Point with the lighthouse and all the tourists, and a sign by the coast that reads “Kaap die Goeie Hoop” right on the coast, with many tourists. There is an English sign, too, of course. But we prefer to take a picture of the historically more authentic Afrikaans version. Dutch seafarers settled in Kaapstad in the seventeenth century, which is why Afrikaans is still predominantly a language spoken by South Africa’s white and coloured population. English, by contrast, was introduced only 150 years later, when the British occupied South Africa.

We walk and climb away from the hustle and bustle to a mystical promontory where we will duly honour and celebrate our visit to the Cape of Good Hope. We will do so with a bottle of champagne, especially bought and brought for the occasion. After all: this is the southernmost point any of us has ever travelled to. For practical reasons, we drink from plastic beakers. But that in no way tarnishes this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Penguins and a stylish harbour restaurant

We drive back along the east coast and stop off at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. The beach is inhabited by hundreds of penguins. I must confess that, up to that point, I had no idea these cute, flightless birds can live away from the ice. We journey on north to Fish Hoek which boasts a much photographed beach with colourful bathing huts. We, too spend half an hour filling our own cameras there. Our choice place for dinner is Harbour House in Kalk Bay that comes with a splendid view of the fish harbour. Harbour House specialises in seafood. So we order seafood salad followed by herb and nut crusted lamb cutlets. Delicious!

The other Woodstock

Our decision to visit another craft market –previously researched in our holiday flat and partly to blame for our used up internet allowance– takes us to Woodstock, a south-eastern suburb of Cape Town with a considerable amount of crafts and trade. We make our way to the Old Biscuit Mill, a stylishly revamped industrial wasteland that now houses arts-and-crafts shops, restaurants and galleries. It also hosts the Neighbourgoods Market on Saturdays. Local farmers, wholefood sellers, artists, bakers, craftspeople, antiques dealers and micro enterprises offer their goods here, including a wide range of garments and a plethora of knick-knacks, which the world definitely does not need – but clearly wants!

TribalNeed, a South African-Italian musician whose music is a fusion of traditional and electronic sounds, is performing in the cosy inner courtyard. He is seated on a picnic blanket and surrounded by a large group of spectators who are also seated on the ground. We and the rest of the audience listen as he plays various percussion instruments to his pre-produced keyboard beats. The scene comes close to how I imagine the other Woodstock to have been.

The abundantly available arts and crafts are an alluring invitation to make a purchase. I picture myself at the check-in counter having to pay for excess baggage. But since we are a group of six and can distribute the weight, there is really nothing to prevent me from buying a souvenir.

Golf and wine

South African wines enjoy an excellent reputation. A visit to the Steenberg Vineyards is, thus, a must. As well as an excellent place to have dinner, the vineyard also offers accommodation and opportunities to play golf. I treat myself to grilled filet of beef. Meat specialities, particularly in grilled form, are very popular in South Africa and cost half as much as in Switzerland.

There are standard wine tastings on offer for the many visitors. Despite the large number of tourists, the experience has nothing in common with mass processing. We each purchase a case of Steenberg Sauvignon blanc.

Today, we will be raising our glasses at a very special place: Signal Hill. The top of the hill can be conveniently reached by car. The drive and the landscape remind me of Griffith Park in Los Angeles. An impressive number of locals and tourists gather here to watch the daily sunset over the Atlantic. The city authorities have covered the ground with a generously sized tarpaulin so as to accommodate all the visitors. Yet another moment to relish and cherish!

Hiking to the top of Table Mountain

There is an aerial cableway to the top of the famous Table Mountain. But as seasoned alpine hikers, we consider it a matter of honour to get there on foot. Following what is recommended, we set off early in the morning. Although autumn, the heat at noon on the steep path is not to be underestimated, especially as –unlike on many Swiss hiking paths– there are no restaurants along the way. Our route is called “India Venster” and will take approximately four hours to complete. The “Mother City Hikers” also offers less strenuous, guided tours. The ascent on our route is steeper than expected and requires the use of hands. On reaching the top, we cannot take our eyes off the spectacular vistas. Only now do we realise the actual magnitude of the city with its extensive townships. Looking south, we are treated to a breathtaking view of the entire national park with the Cape. No champagne-drinking this time as carrying a bottle to the top would have been, well, over the top.

Our last evening in Cape Town has come. We have dinner in the City Grill Steakhouse at the V&A Waterfront. Of course we order a steak and Chakalaka, a vegetable relish that does not look all that appetising but tastes very good – African.

I came to Cape Town full of joyful anticipation, but also with prejudices. All of them have been put into perspective. Despite the cloudy weather, I will remember South Africa as an extremely colourful place. Not just because of the brightly coloured facades, but also for its rich variety of food, culture, music and people.

Text: Markus Tofalo