South Africa: My 10 Favorite Things about Cape Town

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1. A wine, cheese, and chocolate picnic on the luscious grass at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of such a variety of plants that you could easily spend 5 or 6 hours strolling the grounds. Some of their gardens include the Boomslang Tree Canopy Walkway, useful plants, fragrance garden, the arboretum, and a collection of Bonsai trees. Although more flowers are in bloom during winter-June and July- we still found plenty to look at during summertime. The gardens were beautiful and I believe nearly anyone would recommend you visit them on a trip to Cape Town. But, after living for more than a year in the land of sand, what I really appreciated at Kirstenbosch were the well-maintained lawns. And the BYOB (bottle…) norm. Glasses or no glasses. We spent almost two perfect hours in the grass, under a tree, eating and drinking with views of Table Mountain.

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Logistics: Kirstenbosch Gardens entry fee is 60 Rand per person. There are 2 cafes in the Gardens, and you can also bring in your own food and drinks. If you are using public transport, you can reach the gardens on the Golden Arrow public bus or on the Hop-on-Hop-Off bus tours.

2. Mexican food and margaritas at The Fat Cactus after a hike up Table Mountain.

There are many routes up Table Mountain and we had originally intended to hike up Skeleton Gorge, starting from Kirstenbosch Gardens. But because of the lack of public transportation to this area on Boxing Day, when we were going to hike, we ended up starting from the Table Mountain cable car station and hiking up Platteklip Gorge. I am fairly certain this hike was the third steepest I’ve ever done, followed by the Trough on Long’s Peak and hiking down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Platteklip Gorge gains 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) in 3 kilometers (just under 2 miles) and was almost entirely exposed to the sun at the time of day we were hiking up. Although the hike was a stark reminder that I need to get back into mountain climbin’ shape, I was still happy we slogged to the top of Table Mountain instead of waiting hours in line to take the cable car up. Additionally, this hike made our dinner of fajitas and nachos and margaritas taste that much better.

Logistics: The Table Mountain cable car area can be reached on the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus tours, or on the MyCiti buses. MyCiti was a great service that I wish we had known about earlier on in our trip. You must first visit their main station downtown-near the main transportation hub on Adderly Street- to load up your bus pass card with money, and then you just scan the card when you get on and get off. The system is well-organized and runs all over the city, including Hout Bay, Camp’s Bay, and Sea Point.  I would definitely recommend The Fat Cactus for a satisfying meal! They have three locations: Woodstock, Mowbray, and Gardens.

3. A rainy day visit to The Beerhouse, followed by a movie at the old Labia Theatre.

It may sound silly, but many of our goals for Cape Town were simple things originating from our past life as residents of the developed world: eating and drinking well, buying nice underwear, and seeing a movie. Of course, Cape Town has many more unique things to offer, but some days we just needed things any city could offer. On the one rainy day of our trip, we headed downtown on the public train, walked through Company Gardens to the Labia (yes….you read it right) Theatre to check their movie schedule.This theatre was originally an Italian Embassy Ballroom and was opened by Princess Labia in 1949 for staging live performances. We arrived there with no specific movie or schedule or mind; we had all day. Finding one that looked good, we set off to pass a couple hours before it started. We were close to Long Street- full of food and drinks and music and funky architecture- so we headed to the Beerhouse, where we found 99 bottles of beer on the wall and a dizzying menu, that described them all succinctly for us and organized the draught beers into categories like fruity and playful, dark and delicious, and the bitter way.

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Logistics: If you are staying in the suburbs of Cape Town, it is easy and cheap to reach the downtown area on the public trains. They all leave from the main terminal on Adderly Street. You can also take the MyCiti buses all around downtown (see link and info in the #1).

4. Eating, drinking, and being merry.

As noted above, one of our main goals in Cape Town was to eat and drink well. And Cape Town is an easy place to accomplish this goal. We found everything we’d been missing for the last 15 months, including berries, chai tea lattes, mexican food, sushi, brunch food in all forms, varied wines and beers, a Bloody Mary, margaritas, Ethiopian food, and this strange thing called a Cronut, pictured below. It is worth noting that it is permitted to bring your own bottle of wine to any restaurant in Cape Town, as long as you pay the small corking fee.

5. Strawberry sorbet on the lively beach at Camp’s Bay. 

We rented a car for one afternoon, a full day, and a morning during our trip and the first afternoon we drove up Signal Mountain for a picnic and then dropped down into Camp’s Bay. Here we strolled the bustling beach front and found delightful ice cream and sorbet. We found a nice spot near the water to enjoy our treat and do some people-watching, the dotting of blue umbrellas in the sand conjuring images of how I picture a California beach in the 1950’s. We stuck our toes in the frigid Atlantic and watched little kids run away from the chilly surf. We stopped to watch a touch-Rugby tournament and then wandered back the short length of beach to continue our drive to the V & A Waterfront.

Logistics: If you are on public transportation in Cape Town, Camp’s Bay can be reached on the MyCiti bus or on the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus tours, both links found above. 

6. The Food Market at the V & A Waterfront.

After a small headache of finding parking at the V & A Waterfront, our journey into the depths of developed world commercialism continued with me bee-lining it through a frighteningly large mall, searching for the information desk that could, more or less, tell us the way out. We succeeded and popped out the other side of the mall into a bustling but slightly more charming area of outdoor storefronts. We wandered wide-eyed for a while, considered going for a spin on the Ferris Wheel, stopped to listen to some live music, and then stumbled across the Food Market. This market was by far our favorite part the Waterfront experience. It is a warehouse-type building full of booths and vendors selling all sorts of foods and drinks, from Biltong,to sushi, to fancy teas, pizzas, tandoori, and waffles. We settled on an order of gourmet samoosas and a strawberry vanilla bubble tea.

7. Honeybunch Chenin Blanc and Huguenot cheese from the Remhoogte Wine Estate. 

A wine tour of Cape Town is like seeing Table Mountain or driving to Cape Point. It’s just one of those things you have to do. We booked ours through Wine Flies and had a great time on this laid-back tour. They picked us up right at our doorstep and we spent the day visiting 5 wineries and vineyards. We sampled about 25 wines and had two pairings along the way: chocolate and cheese. My favorite wine was the Honeybunch Chenin Blanc paired with Huguenot cheese. I even bought a bottle to bring home to Mozambique!

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View from the Remhoogte Wine Estates.

8. The drive through St. James, Kalk Bay, Boulder Bay and Simonstown, ending at Cape Point.

On our full day with the rental car, we decided to spend the whole day on the scenic drive to Cape Point. We stopped along the way to watch the penguins at Boulder Bay and then continued on into the part of Table Mountain National Park where the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point are located. The views along this drive were spectacular, with cliffs dropping down to the ocean all along the winding route. Once inside the park, we stopped at the tidal pool area and found out that tidal pools in Cape Town are built up swimming pools on the ocean’s edge that fill up with water when the tides come in. We then snapped some pictures among the crowds at the Cape of Good Hope and stopped on our way out of that area to watch windsurfers on the Atlantic. From there we drove and parked at the Cape Point area and walked up to a lighthouse and down from there to Cape Point. Although the views from here were wonderful, I was a bit disappointed to find out that Cape Point is not actually the official meeting point of the Indian an Atlantic Oceans. The oceans do meet at Cape Point sometimes, but the true meeting point is Agulhas Point, a bit further south.

Logistics: The cost to get into this part of the park was 130 Rand per person. We did not see any public transportation of Hop-On-Hop-Off buses here, but there are plenty of tours available for this area if you don’t want to rent a car. We highly enjoyed it as a self-drive so that we could stop in all the funky little beach towns along the way. 

9. Lunch at The Brass Bell and a stroll through laid-back Kalk Bay.

On the way back from Cape Point we stopped in the funky little town of Kalk Bay for a delicious lunch at The Brass Bell, where we found more ‘tidal pools’ for patron’s use. With tummies full of fish and pork, we went for a stroll through town, where we found an actual bookstore  and bought a book of short stories by authors from all over Africa. Planning to take a loop back through Hout Bay, we stopped to fill gas only to have our credit card rejected, scrounge every last Rand from my purse, ask a stranger for some money, and return home along the same route, as we no longer had money for the toll road to Hout Bay.

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A little taste of adventure: all of our change lined up on the car seat as we scrounged around for gas money.

10. A Christmas picnic in the Rondebosch Commons.

This was Alex and my second Christmas away from home and our first – and probably only- Christmas just the two of us. After getting up early to Skype in for Christmas Eve in the U.S. we went back to bed for a couple hours, made crepes for breakfast (with three types of berries!) and then headed for the public train stop to go to the beach for the day. After waiting a considerable amount of time for a train that never came, we wandered around quiet Mowbray, trying to find somewhere nice outside to linger. We finally settled in Rondebosch Commons and laid out a capulana for a picnic under the pine trees.

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