Cape Town, South Africa – A World in one Country
By Peter Smith
“What a rip off” I laughed.
This became a standing joke every time I was handed the almost absurdly low cost bill (or “bull” as it’s pronounced locally) for my meal, in and around Cape Town. Here you can lap up the luxurious surroundings, with the finest food and drink, at pub grub prices!
Cape Town is a tonic, a concoction of a favourable exchange rate, superb hospitality, beautiful beaches, mountains, valleys and vineyards, rugged coastline and one vibrant city. In fact everything you need as a remedy to the economic gloom hanging over the UK.
Its 19 years since apartheid officially ended in South Africa and 15 years since Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President. It’s as if the country has since rebelled of its past, but in a good way – Cape Town was recently voted the most favourite city worldwide, by readers in the Daily Telegraph Travel Awards 2008. Throw away your pre-conceptions and immerse yourself in this wonderful country.
With direct overnight flights from the UK (12-hours flight time), and just 2 hours time difference, jet lag is non-existent; which makes Cape Town ideal for the ultimate long weekend away. Like anywhere though, a weekend’s never enough, so to first timers I suggest at least a week to explore. The seasons are opposite to the UK, so visit Nov – Mar for the best weather (temp between 15-27 degrees Celsius). Think beautiful British Summer, but a few degrees warmer. Culturally not dissimilar to the UK, Brit’s will feel very at home here.
My journey took me from the City Bowl, South along the Coast and inland to Franschhoek, the gourmet capital of South Africa, in the stunning Cape Winelands.
Getting from Cape Town International to the city centre is quick and easy. A taxi will cost between R150 and R220 (around £12 to £17), and the journey will take up-to 30 minutes. Alternatively hire a car for you stay. Contrary to popular belief, driving in and around Cape Town is safe and the roads are good. It’s a great way to explore. The city itself is small, by geographic standards, and anywhere worth visiting can be reached within a couple of hours. Navigation’s easy; use Table Mountain and the Sea as major landmarks. Tip – park in the same direction as the flow of traffic to avoid a fine.
Staying in the City
Spoil yourself and stay at Cape Grace for high end luxury, in the middle of the action – the buzzing Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Cape Grace is classically stylish, friendly and discreet, where staff have a talent for remembering the name of each and every guest. For an awesome view of Table Mountain, opt for ‘yacht marina’ side room. From around £300 a night, including breakfast.
If you don’t stay here, be sure to call in for breakfast at Signal Restaurant; have the full works with champagne to ignite the day for around £15 a head. For something stronger, nip downstairs to La Bascule, on the waters edge, where you can sample over 400 whiskies from around the world.
If your wallet won’t quite stretch to that, need not worry, there’s a vast array of places to stay to suit all budgets, including a good selection of superb quality self catering apartments; check out www.capestay.co.za. A favourite hotel is The Cullinan, at the edge of town, just a few minutes from the Waterfront. Always bustling, with a mixed, well healed crowd of actors, models (Cape Town is chosen as the backdrop for many a film and photo shoot), holidaymakers and businessmen; also a favourite with the England Cricket Team. The lobby is elegant and airy, as are the rooms. The pool area is chic and an absolute suntrap, expect poolside service and from time to time, noise; the main road is nearby, but it’s never bothered me. Rooms from £110 per night.
Other options include The Table Bay, adjoining the V&A Mall, The Portswood, at the Waterfront and Hollow on the Square, a small, great quality option tucked away in the city bowl. Prices from £60-£200 per room, per night.
Join the café society down at the Waterfront. Musicians and street performers will keep you entertained whilst you soak up the sun and watch people go by. All tastes are catered for, with too many decent eateries to mention them all. A light lunch with a few drinks will set you back no more than £10pp.
Den Anker is good, a Belgian bar & restaurant, serving fantastic food and good selection of (strong) beers; they even do a Tasting of Beers. Order the Kwak, served in such a special glass that they keep one of your shoes in a basket above the bar until you’ve finished! It’s a little more expensive here but it’s worth it.
If it’s beer you’re after, try the local stuff on site at Mitchells Waterfront Brewery – a spit ‘n’ sawdust style, no frills pub.
Quay Four’s worth a mention too, if only for the kitsch 80’s throw back feeling you get whilst entertained by the live music and dancing on display every evening. It gets busy here so tip the bar staff for the best service in this quayside bar/restaurant.
The V&A Mall has it all; everything from the Red Shed, for local handmade goods, to luxury boutiques and jewellers. This place is a bit of a tourist trap, so you’re not going to find any real bargains, except for in ‘Pick n Pay’, the local supermarket, where you can pick up a good selection of wine at ridiculously low prices.
If you are seeking true value for money and don’t mind splashing out, visit Daneel Diamonds in Stellenbosch (45 mins away). Here you are guaranteed quality that is hard to beat, at half the price of other diamond outlets in Cape Town. You won’t be given the hard sell, just professional, personal service, usually from the dealer direct – John Daneel.
For sundowners head 15 mins down the coast to trendy Camps Bay, the place to be ‘seen’. A strip of uber cool bars and restaurants overlooking the white powdery, palm fringed beach. This is where the beautiful people hang out. Sip cocktails for £2.50 each at Caprice, Sandbar or Baraza or head to Sunset Beach Bar (tel: 214 380559) where for every bottle of Cap Classique (champagne, but local!) ordered, you’ll receive a plate of fine local oysters, for free!
All of these places serve food but for that extra treat and the freshest, most delicious seafood try the Codfather (tel: 214 380782) or Blues; established for 10 and 20 years, longevity that is a testament to their food – booking is recommended (£40 for a meal for 2, including wine).
Stay the night at the Bay Hotel overlooking the beach; expensive but ‘oh so’ fashionable. If Camps Bay is just a little too trendy for your liking, La Med in Clifton (the next beach along) offers something similar but more akin to the sporty crowd donning that straight off the beach look; DJ’s do a good job of switching from mellow vibe to full swing party as the night draws nearer. Sundays are particularly popular.
Dinner time brings the next dilemma – where to eat. There are well over 500 restaurants to choose from, so ask a local; Capetonians know and love there food. For something different grab a cab to Pigalle, located in the trendy Greenpoint area of town (booking essential). I won’t say too much about this place other than you should dress smart, the food is excellent and be prepared for a night to remember – this sophisticated dinner dance venue is like no other.
Baia, at the Waterfront is a classy restaurant, perhaps slightly over-priced but if you enjoy seafood you will not be disappointed. Mains from £12 (tel: 214 210935).
Check out www.dining-out.co.za for more.
Finish the evening with a mellow after dinner drink at Kennedy’s Cigar Bar, with its plush interiors, cigars and bourbon. If you’ve still energy to expel then head to Long Street, in the city centre or upmarket Kloof Street, 15 mins away, to party into the night.
If you are visiting between May and December, spend an exciting day in Hermanus, where you can spot Southern Right Whales basking in the shallow waters of Walker Bay, as close as 20 meters away (Aug-Nov are the best months). This seaside town has plenty to keep you occupied for a few hours but I prefer to while away my time at Bientangs Cave. This casual restaurant, aka ‘Sea World’ is, as the name suggests, built into an old cave and extends over the rocks to the waters edge. Listen out for the Whale Wailer, who blows his horn to signal sightings. Take your camera, sip wine and marvel as the sights unfold in front of you. Try the prawn & mussel curry, it’s the best I’ve ever tasted.
Don’t visit Cape Town without spending some time in Franschhoek (pronounced ‘Franshuk’), the ‘French Corner’ (literal translation) of the Cape Winelands. A 45 minute drive from the City, here you can unwind and indulge your senses. The tree lined streets of this village are overlooked by breathtaking mountains, with award winning vineyards covering the slopes like a tapestry. Whether you’re into hiking, cycling, horse riding, golf or fishing, there is something for everyone but the main reason to visit is for the unforgettable cuisine. If its superb food and wine you’re after, look no further; no fewer than 7 of its many eateries are recognised in the 2008 Dine Awards Top 100 SA restaurants.
For accommodation there are plenty of options but I recommend booking well in advance to be sure of your preferred choice. Splash out and stay at La Quartier Francais, smack bang in the centre. Le Quartier, a Relais & Chateaux Hotel, has bags of charm and even an award winning restaurant ‘The Tasting Room’. Rooms from £300 per night .
A 5 minute drive away is Le Franschhoek Hotel & Spa, with it’s cool white drapes and sofas, one of a few fantastic places owned by business tycoon Robert Maingard of the ‘Air Mauritius’ family; a rather charming chap you’re quite likely to meet during your stay; he now lives here and acts as a sort of local advocate. Rooms from £150 per night.
Other smaller, personable and good quality options include: Lavande de Franschhoek – a 5 room guesthouse, 4 of which overlook the pool and lavender fields beyond; opt for one with its own private terrace area for that extra bit of privacy, with the English country garden feel. LDF is run by Don, an ex-airline pilot who knows all the best places to visit and will go out of his way to help you. He has some great tips.
La Cabriere Country House is another, at the end of the main road through the village and with a similar feel to LDF but with slightly more luxurious rooms and a tad more expensive. Owned and run by an English ex-pat who will no doubt invite you to sundowners at her beautiful ‘on-site’ home . Both offer a relaxing stay, with cool, pastel painted rooms, and the small number of guests means you often have the place to yourself. Rooms from £76 a night. If you’re a light sleeper, take ear plugs – a lot of places have tin roofs, which can rattle a bit in the wind.
More info on Franschhoek and places to stay can be found at www.franschhoek.org.za
Let’s talk more food & drink
I’ll mention just a few favourites…all serving locally sourced, fresh produce. For lunch go to La Petite Ferme (open 12 to 5.30); renowned for its restaurant but also a winery and hotel. Allow a few hours our of your day to savour the experience – get there early and start with a bottle of there own chilled white wine, on the lawn, in touching distance of the vines and with views over the valley. Request a table next to the window and try the trout, fresh from the local stream. Afterwards head back outdoors and cat-nap in the sun to allow your food to go down, in time for dinner!
Bread & Wine is a favourite with locals and tucked away in the Moreson vineyard. It’s great for a light lunch or something more substantial; they serve a fantastic range of cured meats from their charcuterie and many other rustic delights, which can also be purchased from the deli, to take away.
Grab pre dinner drinks at Dieu Donne (translated – a Gift from God); I’d been to Franschhoek several times before discovering this hidden gem. On the outskirts of the village, high up in the hills, this is the place for sundowners. Take a seat outside, order a bottle of there own MCC (Methode Cap Classique, named Maingard, after the same Mr Maingard as I mentioned earlier) and fall in love again as the sun disappears behind the mountains and the valley below you changes colour – simple stunning. You can eat here too, in the antique filled restaurant.
If you’re a meat eater (or not!) go to Reuben’s; named after the chef himself. I urge you to try the steak and have it cooked as the chef recommends – it melts in your mouth; the best for miles around and at a fraction of what you’d pay down at your local. Reuben’s is art filled, trendy and warm. You’ll be welcomed like an old friend. Be sure to have a pre-dinner drink at there Dakota Bar, where the bar is made from an actual Dakota aircraft wing; it’s small and quiet in the bar but worth it just for the photo opportunity.
If you prefer seafood, Bouillabaisse is the place for you. A small, intimate restaurant with a varied menu, including smaller tasting dishes. Ask for a seat at the ‘chefs table’ which is actually a row of seats affront the hot plate of the open kitchen, separate by a small pane of glass. The best part about sitting here is the interaction with Camil the Head Chef and his team as you see your dish being cooked in front of you – exactly to your taste. Camil even shares his recipe tips. Try the salmon with wasabi mash…yummy.
If you’re around on a Friday, don’t miss La Brasserie. Hidden away down a side street, this outdoor garden party’esque experience is just wonderful – soak up the atmosphere as live jazz bands entertain you whilst you throw back the bottle of good cheap plonk they include in the £8 per couple entrance fee. Choose to eat or not here but the food is good and the night kicks off around 5.30pm, so it makes sense to. You will be on your feet dancing by the end of the evening.
Finally, try Grande Provence – a restaurant with a difference; actually a restaurant, vineyard, bar, luxury villa and art gallery all on the one site. This place has a very sophisticated, yet quirky feel to it; from the gated entrance to the helipad, outdoor furniture and tractor seat bar stools– everything oozes imagination, design and expense and herein lays the beauty; it is all of these things but expensive (well, at least by our standards). You feel like you have discovered somewhere quite unlike any other place. Of an evening eat indoors; the décor is a feast for the eyes and the service is outstanding. Unlike other restaurants, the food here becomes almost secondary, as the real treat is the place itself. In terms of the menu, I feel it’s a little self indulgent of the chef but stick to the more traditional food and you will thoroughly enjoy every bit of it. Have after dinner drinks outside, in front of the log-fire and take a peep around the place before leaving. Go on, treat yourself.
If your good lady fancies a pamper in one of the spas available in Franschhoek, use the time to visit the Motor Museum. Whether or not you particularly admire cars, I challenge you not to enjoy a wander around this collection of beauties. Surrounded by fields and horses, it has a sort of ‘little house on the prairie’ feel to it – quite bizarre. Oh, also they offer complimentary wine tasting on the way around – though you may want to keep that part quiet!
To make the most of your stay and to avoid disappointment, book all of your tables before leaving home. If you change your mind on arrival then simply call up to re-arrange, if available.
Don’t leave your last-minute wine shopping to Sunday. Local retail law disallows the sale of alcohol on Sundays (this doesn’t include the airport or the wineries direct).
If you plan on visiting Robbin Island, go if and when theirs a cooler day. Tourists are crammed on buses like sardines to move around the island and on hot days it can a tad claustrophobic.