A Hedonist's Guide to Cape Town

Cape Town is destined to be a major star during the 2010 World Cup. Here, we take a high-rolling look under the hood of this famously scenic, historic, and happening jewel of the Southern Hemisphere.
By Keith Bain & Pippa de Bruyn
Victoria & Albert Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa
HARBOR LIGHTS: Cape Town's Victoria & Albert Waterfront (Martin Harvey/Digital Vision/Getty)
Top 10 Cape Town Excursions
Take a tour of the best day trips and overnighters in and around Cape Town , South Africa's outstandingly scenic and activity-rich "Mother City."

Prepare to be seduced by the sexiest, most sophisticated city on the continent, and one of the most beautiful on the planet. One of only two urban centres in the world with a national park running through it, the city fringes a vast natural playground, and offers that rare combination of mountain and sea, the proximity such that the slopes drop perpendicularly into a coastline lined with crescents of white sand.

Table Mountain National Park measures only 22,000 hectares yet includes more plant species than the entire British Isles or those of New Zealand. Aside from that well-trotted out fact, where else can you can drive along a major highway and spot wildlife grazing on the mountain slopes and, within 20 minutes of the city's compact, bustling centre, drink glorious wines in historic wine estates, surrounded by vineyards and craggy peaks?

The Cape of Good Hope was born as a garden in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company established it as a victualling station for ships passing between Europe and the East. There was never any real intention of transforming it into a permanent colony, but the abundance of fresh water, arable soil and temperate climate(not to mention the gentle nature of the nomadic San and Khoi who combed the beaches at the time) saw it not only flourish, but become a much desired outpost, fought over by the Dutch and the English, even as the German and French settled on its slopes, along with slaves from Indonesia, Mozambique, Angola, and India.

In fact, by the end of the 17th century, slaves outnumbered the Europeans, and their influence remains to this day: their mixed race descendents, known locally as "Coloureds", comprise the majority of the population, and provide the city with a unique cultural tone.

Like the juxtaposition of city and wilderness, Cape Town is a place of contrasts, some of them quite unsettling—such as the clash of freewheeling opulence against heartbreaking poverty. Thousands of the city's inhabitants still live in shacks, most of them rising pre-dawn for the laborious commute into the city to service the needs of the well-to-do in their sprawling homes. Air-conditioned SUVs share the asphalt with jam-packed minibuses, all whizzing along new highways that link the social playgrounds of the city centre and its residential suburbs with the prosperous, impeccably groomed winelands. In other respects, the contrasts are a delight, such as the rambunctious fishermen who ply their trade with a toothless cackle to bronzed surfers and antique dealers in Kalk Bay; the muezzin's call to prayer drifting down over the city's burgeoning aperitif scene, or the hot sun on your back, tingling from the viciously cold waters of the Atlantic.

Historically, Cape Town's restorative beauty has always been a magnet for illustrious visitors, and a favoured bolthole for celebrities, yet it has always had a perception of itself as a small, slightly parochial city. But things are changing rapidly.

With the announcement that South Africa was to be the first country in Africa to host the FIFA World Cup in June 2010, the city embarked on the most concentrated effort to improve and prettify its streetscape yet. Construction projects have been immense and the gentrification and modernisation has made the city feel cutting edge and youthful, filling many with a renewed sense of pride and anticipation.

Cape Town may draw criticism for lacking the type of African identity that's recognisable in, say, Johannesburg or Durban, but it is hard not to appreciate the cosmopolitan nature of the country's oldest city. Cape Town has always had a distinctive creolised culture that reflects influences from just about every corner of the globe, and even today the city remains in flux, attracting African immigrants from as far afield as Somalia and the Congo, as well as a large flock of European swallows, here to nest far from their northern winters, or set up shop in the city's prime real estate belts, opening restaurants, bars and guest houses, their presence bringing a modern sensibility to the African beat. Like them, whether you've come to worship the sun, undertake a new adventure in the shadow of Table Mountain, or simply party up a storm, your stay here will transform you not simply into an enthused visitor, but a lifelong fan.

Published: 12 May 2010 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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