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Cape Town

“A most stately thing, and the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.”Sir Francis Drake (16th century)

Considered to be one of the global hot spots, Cape Town offers the foreign traveller good value for money and, according to Frommers, “is regularly heralded as one of the most beautiful (cities) on earth” due to its unique scenery. Whether you are into sophistication or slumming it, searching for adventure or tranquility, Cape Town is sure to be a pleasant surprise. Pairing the natural beauty with a vibey and friendly culture, there are a variety of delights ranging from award winning French-style wines to Malay cuisine, fine art and architecture, a wealth of historical sights and much more on offer.

Historical Perspective

Although Phoenician mariners circumnavigated Africa as long ago as 2600 B.C., it was only on 6 April 1652 that three Dutch vessels commanded by Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape. They set about erecting a wooden fort and planting gardens to provide fresh produce to the trading ships of the Dutch East India Company. This was the start of the Company Gardens which are still in existence and presently house both the S.A. National Gallery and South African Museum as well as a planetarium. The humble tool shed of the gardens evolved into Tuynhuys, which is now the presidential residence.

The original fort was replaced by the Castle of Good Hope which was completed in 1679 and is the oldest building in South Africa. Initially located on the beach, the Castle is now more centrally located due to the reclaiming of the sea and development of the Foreshore area since 1943. One of the main streets, Strand Street, marks the original coastline and is also where the Gold of Africa Museum is located.

Origins of the Rainbow Nation
The settlers promptly named the indigenous pastoralists “Hottentots”, which later evolved into a derogatory Afrikaans term for non-white persons. The people who subsisted on shell fishing were named “Strandlopers” and the groups who hunted were called “Bushmen”. The Cape Coloured community, which defines the unique local culture, are the descendants of these initial inhabitants of the Colony and the slaves who were imported mainly from Madagascar and Indonesia.

By 1754 there were about 5500 Europeans in the Cape and as many, if not slightly more, slaves. Slaves were emancipated in 1834 and thus the Bo-Kaap, or ‘upper city’, was established by the Muslim community after being freed from slavery. On 21 December 1834 the St George’s Church held its first service at the site consecrated by the Bishop of Calcutta in 1827 and on 22 August 1901 the St. George’s Cathedral came into being when its foundation stone was laid by the Duke of Cornwall and York, who later was crowned George V. The political climate gave rise to the “Groot Trek” in 1836, when thousands of Dutch families headed inland and by 1840 the Cape population stood at about 20 000, of which half were Europeans.

1899 saw the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, partially due to the gold rush in the Witwatersrand. One of the key players was Cecil John Rhodes, to whom the Rhodes Memorial had been erected in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. A statue of Rhodes pointing inland is also found in the Company Gardens. In 1910 Cape Town was declared the legislative capital of the newly-formed Union of South Africa and the Houses of Parliament have been in use ever since. 1948 saw the election of the National Party and the subsequent start of “apartheid”, which was the implementation of various laws relating to racial segregation. This included the Group Areas Development Act of 1955 which led to the resettlement of more than 60,000 residents from District Six. Memorabilia from this era can be viewed at the District Six Museum.

By 1962 thousands of black political prisoners were being sent to Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela in 1964. A State of Emergency was declared on 12 June 1986 and eventually culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela and others in 1990 when all political organizations were unbanned. Mandela, or Madiba as he is fondly called, held his freedom speech from the balcony of the City Hall, which currently houses the central library and symphonic orchestra and was built from limestone imported from Bath, England in 1905. The neo-classical façade makes this building noteworthy, but it is just one of many architectural delights which await visitors to Cape Town, where numerous old buildings have been lovingly restored to their former glory and now house contemporary clubs and restaurants.

General

Tourist information centres abound and offer a range of guides, maps and details of opening hours for local attractions, including the wine estates, many of which are located within a 90 minute scenic drive from Cape Town.

Normal shopping hours are between 08h00 and 17h30, though big malls operate daily between 09h00 and 21h00. Traveler’s cheques and foreign currency are not the norm, but major credit and debit cards are widely accepted. Value Added Tax (14%) is included in all purchases and foreign visitors can reclaim the VAT on expenditures exceeding ZAR 250.00. Banking hours are from 09h00 to 15h30 weekdays and 08h30 to 11h00 on Saturdays.

South Africa operates two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time throughout the year. October till March are the most popular tourist months, but with its temperate Mediterranean climate and temperatures ranging between 8 and 25 degrees Celsius, Cape Town is a recommended destination for any time of year, certain aspects such as the indigenous flora being more seasonal.

Travel

Airlines from all five continents service South Africa and land at the Cape Town International Airport, which has been voted the “Leading Airport in Africa” at the World Travel Awards. ATMs, bars, restaurants and currency exchange facilities are available throughout the airport, as are a number of shops. Many of the flights also touch down at Johannesburg en-route, making it quite viable to experience the South African landscape by including a trip on the Blue Train or luxurious Rovos Rail between Johannesburg and Cape Town.

A number of cruise lines dock at Cape Town, including one of the few remaining old mail ships, the RMS St Helena, which sets sail from Southampton. Further options include overland journeys (such as Cape to Cairo) provided by a number of tour operators. Air travel to Durban and a three-day coastal cruise to Cape Town is also possible, as is travel on any of a number of coaches which interlink the major cities and provides economical access to some of the more remote destinations.

A flight from London lasts approximately 12 hours (usually overnight) and one can travel from the USA in about 15 hours. There are shuttle bus services and taxis from the airport which will whisk you into the CBD in less than half an hour and a number of car rental agencies are also represented. Sedan taxis are plentiful and charge between ZAR 8 – ZAR 11 per km. For the brave there are also numerous somewhat crowded and not-always-safe minibus taxis.

Accommodation & Conference Venues

Although the Mount Nelson is the Grande Old Dame of Cape accommodation and features colonial elegance in scenic surroundings at the foot of Table Mountain, the luxury hotel Cape Grace has on occasion been awarded “Best Hotel in the World” status and remains a firm favorite with visitors to Cape Town. There is also the very popular and upmarket Southern Sun Cape Sun (located in the City center), as well as the nearby Victoria & Alfred Hotel at the V&A Waterfront and the Cape Town Lodge.

A more economical alternative is the centrally located Park Inn Greenmarket Square, which is adjacent to the oldest hotel in Cape Town, the Tudor . The relatively new ArabellaSheraton Grand Hotel offers easy access to the CBD as well as surrounding regions and is situated at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC). For smaller conference facilities in tranquil, historic surroundings, the Groot Constantia Estate is highly recommended, albeit a bit distant.

Tourist Attractions & Activities

1988 saw the birth of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront Company, which was permitted to lease 83 hectares of the old Cape Town harbour area. Today it houses the Two Oceans Aquarium , numerous craft markets, an Imax Theatre and immense shopping complex. This makes the V&A Waterfront the ideal place to while away a few hours. A number of boat cruises are available, ranging from harbour trips to watch seals, to romantic sunset cruises along the Peninsula on modern yachts or an old-fashioned sailboat.

Visitors can also board a steam locomotive to the Spier Estate in Stellenbosch at the Waterfront and sip champagne en route to Spier, where activities include live music, horse-carriage rides, a cheetah park, lakeside picnic options and a bevy of fine restaurants which afford you the opportunity to sample Cape wines.

The citysightseeing bus is possibly one of the most convenient ways to explore the Mother City and includes stops at the Table Mountain cableway and various museums and attractions in the City in its Red Route.  The Blue Route includes a trip to Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, as well as a township tour in Kronendal near Hout Bay, where you will also be able to visit the Mariner’s Wharf and spend time on the beach. Included in the tour is a trip through Camps Bay and Sea Point, as well as a visit to the enchanting World of Birds. En route you will also pass the first lighthouse in South Africa, which is still fully functional. There are almost 50 popular surfing spots within an hours drive from Cape Town and you may very well opt for a stunningly scenic drive along Chapman’s Peak to simply enjoy windsurfing at Noordhoek or relaxing on the beach.

Approximately 10 km from Cape Town, towards the Northern suburbs, you will encounter Century City, which encompasses a residential area, business park and the Canal Walk shopping centre, as well as the Island Club hotel and Ratanga Junction theme park. Unusual architecture reminiscent of the heyday of Cape Town, complete with a replica of the original fort, can be seen at the nearby GrandWest Casino and Entertainment World. Cape Town sport options range from abseiling the highest commercial “long-drop” (112m) in the world, to shark diving (at approximately ZAR 1000 per person), rock angling, tennis, golf, horse-riding and a number of hiking trails such as the Contour Path between Rhodes Memorial and Kirstenbosch, Platteklip Gorge nearby the cableway and the relatively easy Pipetrack from Camps Bay.

A visit to the most southwesterly point of the African Continent at Cape Point affords marvellous views and an opportunity to enjoy the natural flora at this World Heritage Site. Visitors can also gain an understanding of local culture by participating in one of the available Township Tours.

Art enthusiasts would enjoy a trip to the Irma Stern Museum, whilst the literary minded could browse the vast collections at the National Library as well as the Centre for the Book, which is also a splendid example of Edwardian architecture. The most centrally located theatre and opera house in the Mother City is the Artscape, but dinner and theatre packages are also available at the Theatre on the Bay, situated approximately 10km from the CBD.

Clubs, pubs and Nightlife

The Dockside at Century City offers the biggest dance floor in South Africa and often hosts international DJs. Sub-divided into various areas with different music, it has been described by Frommers as being “more like a mall with 5 dance floors and 14 bars”.

For lovers of Motown, Soul and Funk, 169 on Long is the happening place from 8 till late, Wednesdays to Saturdays. Situated in Long Street, it is near a number of nightclubs, restaurants and bars such as the well-known Purple Turtle. Visitors wanting a stylish, upmarket club would do well to visit Rhodes House, where themed parties are regularly held. There are also a number of gay guest houses, restaurants and pubs such as the Manhattan Cafe and Bronx Action Bar. In terms of gay rights South Africa is one of the most progressive countries and Cape Town hosts an annual Pride Festival each February.

Shopping and Dining

Cape Town offers a wide selection of shops, including the biggest mall in Africa which is situated at Canal Walk.  The unusual Ice Lounge at the V&A Waterfront provides a cool venue for pre-dinner drinks and is located conveniently close to both the Hildebrand Restaurant and the lively
Quay Four restaurant at the waters edge. A visit to Cape Town would be incomplete without exploring the eclectic mix of shops, bars, clubs and cosmopolitan restaurants to be found in Long Street and for those wishing to experience truly African cuisine, a visit to the Africa Café is recommended. Fine dining can also be found at Ginja and Madame Zingara. If you wish to enjoy the harbour lights whilst having dinner, or want to entertain guests aboard a yacht, the Sea Horse is the answer.  For those who wish to combine a day at the beach with a seafood dinner, the ideal solution is a visit to the nearby suburb of Fish Hoek, where you will find the Galley Seafood Restaurant right on the beach.

Festivals and Events

A highlight on the Cape social calendar is the annual J&B Met which occurs each January, showcases top horseracing events and is followed by a large after-party. During the first week of January, Cape Town also experiences the Minstrel Carnival, an ongoing series of song and dance performances by members of the local community to herald in the New Year.

Late November to early April sees a range of summer sunset concerts at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, with many visitors enjoying the sunset, music and picnics on the extended lawns. Another popular musical event is the Symphony of Fire fireworks at the Waterfront, as is the International Jazz Festival which occurs in March. Also of interest is the Cape Town World Cinema Festival which is held at various venues each November.

Cyclists would enjoy the Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour which covers a distance of more than 100 km, starting in Cape Town and routing through the Southern Suburbs, along the False Bay coastline and back via the very scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive.

The infrastructure, numerous outdoor activities and its rich cultural heritage has led to Cape Town being described as a “must-see before I die” city. Major developments are already underway in preparation for the 2010 World Cup and a new ultra-luxurious hotel is being built at the V&A Waterfront with canals which would connect to Century City, effectively creating a mini-Venice. Whether you’re an eco-tourist, culture-vulture or simply looking for adventure and a great vacation, Cape Town is sure to exceed your expectations.

Further resources:

TravelZonesCape Town Daily PhotoCape Town Tourism / Flickr


 

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