Cape Town

Cape Town gets a lot of hype. At least it felt like everyone we know (and all of their mothers) jocked Cape Town, hard. So, I was a little worried it would be one of those places that couldn’t live up to its preceding reputation. Not so. Cape Town deserves a lot of hype. It is stunning.

Case in point, the view from our hotel in Camps Bay. (I will have you know by the way, that for the longest time I thought this area was called Camp Spay, and when I first saw it written down, I was flabbergasted).

The property at our guesthouse was just awesome. You could hear the waves from below (a quick walk from the beach) and look up from the patio to Table Mountain soaring 3,000 feet straight up behind us.

Hard as it was to not park ourselves in front of that pool and delicious view, we got out the door and headed up to hike what is likely Cape Town’s most famous attraction: Table Mountain.

Pro tip: do not begin hiking Table Mountain at high noon on a cloudless 90°+ day. Be smart. Don’t be like us. The route we took was only about 3km but on that short walk you ascend something like 2,000 feet, so you get a workout, for sure. Oh my goodness, so overheated and way too much sun exposure. But damn if it wasn’t spectacularly beautiful.

Also, the people hiking were super friendly, which kind of was an early indicator of our overall experience in South Africa. Good people! This was especially comforting to me given that there are apparently issues with people getting mugged on this hike. Can you imagine?! In general I feel like we either had really good luck/avoided the sketchier areas, or crime is not such a big issue in Cape Town. Probably a bit of both.

Scorched and exhausted, we opted to take the tram down (even though this meant we had to walk a mile from the base of the tram back to our car). While the tram was a little scary for me given the heights, the views were terrific.

It’s a good thing we fit in the Table Mountain hike early, because by the day we got around to hiking Lion’s Head, the weather was not in our favor. We started our walk with a bit of fog, but by the time we neared the top, the visibility was horrible, and the rocky trail was damp from the moisture-laden air. As a result, we sadly never did get to enjoy the views from the peak of Lion’s Head, but I did conquer my fear of heights a bit with the portion of the hike that requires the use of metal ladders and chains.

Part of what makes Cape Town so special is the proximity of all these amazing amenities. The hiking is phenomenal, the beaches are beautiful, and to top it off, there is even wine! We stopped at Groot Constantia vineyard for lunch one day, and savored some duck liver parfait and a divine peri peri chicken dish while sampling the local wines.

The downtown area, on the other side of Lion’s Head from Camps Bay, was nice, though we definitely felt we made the right decision in choosing to stay where we did. The waterfront is pretty much a very nice mall with an outdoor promenade type of area with lots of shops and restaurants. It is enjoyable, but we probably would not deem it a must-see.

The colorful houses in Bo-Kaap were beautiful, but some of the streets around here were noticeably grittier and I doubt I’d want to be walking around there at night.

Greenmarket Square had a nice collection of craft stalls, and the nearby buildings were very New Orleans feeling with their wrought iron balconies and second floor bars.

We loved Company’s Garden with its funky swings, great old trees, and rose garden, all benefiting from the backdrop of Table Mountain behind it.

We didn’t explore too much of the dining scene downtown, but we did fit in a dinner at 95 Keerom. They seemed to think we were on our honeymoon, giving us the prime table and bringing out a free meringue at the end of our meal. We didn’t set the record straight and it wasn’t un-fun 😉 Hey, this could be considered a really long honeymoon, right?

Nearby Hout Bay was also very fun. The coastline is again amazing, and the Bay Harbour Market had a hip, young vibe with its crafty art and clothing vendors and the eclectic food court boasting everything from BBQ and sushi to Mexican and Tunisian, to German sausages and craft beer. It had an Austin-esque feel.

We spent the better part of a day driving the peninsula. This is an absolutely breathtaking drive. In a lot of ways, the scenery here reminded me of Australia, and things reminding me of Australia are generally pretty awesome.

The views of Hout Bay were superb.

Noordhoek Beach, with its wide sandy expanse and gorgeous turquoise water was hard to leave.

We walked up to the old lighthouse at Cape Point. The views were great, but it was so windy that we opted to skip the other walks and beaches.

Wildlife made some appearances along the way, as we drove by a few ostrich farms and saw loads of baboons in the roads.

We even pulled over so that Alan could save a turtle that was in dire risk of getting run over trying to cross the road.

And we may or may not have made a little bit of a rookie mistake when it came to the baboons. We had been so careful, so nervous about the baboons that we even stopped before the Cape Point parking lot to get our snacks and cover our food, but then, in a moment of lapsed judgment, we opened the trunk of our car in the popular tourist parking lot to grab the snacks. We were so oblivious that I even joked to Alan, “careful there’s a baboon behind you,” when, suddenly, there was a baboon behind him. While Alan smartly backed away, the baboon hopped up into the trunk, rifled through our backpack and helped himself to a granola bar. I, the aggressive-under-pressure person that I’m discovering myself to be, started waving my hands (FULL OF SNACKS) at the baboon to scare him out of the car. By some sheer stroke of luck, the baboon did not attack me, but crossed the parking lot to enjoy his healthy bar while we slammed the trunk shut, jumped in the car and locked the doors. I should also mention that in this time a large group of tourists had somehow collected around us and several children were laughing hysterically as I screamed and waved my arms at this furry beast.

Heading back north we stopped to visit the penguins at Boulders Beach. How cute!?

Lastly, we enjoyed lunch at Live Bait in Kalk Bay and then hopped out of the car to catch a glimpse of the brightly colored beach huts at St. James before setting back for Camps Bay.

On our last day in town we paid a visit to the Imizamo Yethu township. After a bit of confusion trying to find a legit guide and a safe place to park, we were able to join a group for a short, informative tour. It is really amazing to see the conditions these people are still living in, despite the fact that apartheid ended 20 years ago. The contrast between the primarily white neighborhood of Camps Bay and the conditions in Imizamo Yethu is striking.

We were, however, pleased to see the bright, shiny, beautiful faces of the local kids at the community school.

Practical Info

Cape Town’s latitude of ~33º is nearly the same as Los Angeles, Sydney and Buenos Aires. The central area is known as the City Bowl, bound by Table Bay in the Atlantic Ocean and backed by Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak, Signal Hill, etc. The Cape Peninsula is a mountainous spine running south to Cape Point. Table Mountain is both a mountain, and the name of the national park that encompasses many more mountains. This map may get you more comfortable with the layout: (thanks to Barbra for sharing this map and lots of helpful tips!).

It is a strikingly beautiful and diverse area. Just a short drive from a major metropolis you’ll find excellent hiking, several wineries, and many upscale and/or funky beachside communities. Crime is a hot topic for South Africa. We generally felt safe in and around Cape Town, but we spent minimal time in the city after dark. It is nice to keep some small bills and/or change handy as all over South Africa there are often “guards” who will watch your car and expect a tip. Also, the plug adapter sets we own do not have adapters that work in Africa. You need a triangle three-prong where the prongs are circular and thick.

The currency is the South African Rand, aka ZAR but we’ll just use “R.” At time of travel, 1 USD = R11. We bought a SIM card on arrival at Johannesburg airport. Word is that Vodacom has the best coverage, and MTN is the other major. The SIM cost R115 + R149 for 1GB of data + R220 for ~100 minutes calling in South Africa (or fewer minutes if calling internationally).

Transportation: We arrived on an Air Namibia flight from Windhoek. Most international flights go through Johannesburg. We rented a car with Hertz, which is located on-site along with several other brands. The drive to Camps Bay took ~half an hour. Having a car is nice, especially if you’re not staying downtown. Otherwise, e.g. to see the peninsula you’d have to join a tour or hire a car and driver for the day.

The City Sightseeing (aka Hop On Hop Off) buses are very popular. There are routes covering the city and/or the less urban attractions. We took a MyCiti bus one day, which is very inexpensive. The manager of our guesthouse loaned us her MyCiti cards, and I think it cost R7 from Camps Bay to the V&A Waterfront. But at many times the bus only runs twice/hour and transfers are usually required, so it is not that efficient. Taxis are cheap and easy. When you see the meter clicking up at hyper-speed, fear not. Those are effectively penny increments. Getting from 95 Keerom to Camps Bay cost R100 with a generous tip. Unicab comes recommended, and they have an app where you can request pick-up. Uber is here, and we did not use it but a friend said it’s as great as you’d expect. There are some trains, but I don’t know much about these.

Accommodation: We stayed at Bay Atlantic Guest House in Camps Bay, which is southwest of the City Bowl. It was perfect for us. Note they offer a 10% discount if you pay the balance in cash, and I believe a free bottle of wine if you stay three or more nights.

Camps Bay is a wealthy beach community only ~10-15 minutes from downtown. There are many bars and restaurants on the beachfront Victoria Road, though these tend to be pricier and some feel sort of like South Beach in Cape Town. Camps Bay is very convenient for hiking Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, and also for visiting the Atlantic side of the peninsula.

If you plan to visit many museums and/or focus more on nightlife and the urban experience in general, then you might prefer staying in the City Bowl. I read a Forbes article in which the writer raves about One & Only at the V&A Waterfront, and also about Reuben’s restaurant there. Ellerman House is another well-reviewed high-end property, which I think is closer to the action than Camps Bay but maybe farther than the Waterfront.

Food and Drinks: Dinner at Blues in Camps Bay was good. We found the pasta at 95 Keerom so-so but the lamb chops and chocolate fondant were excellent. Lunch at Sevruga at the V&A Waterfront was uninspiring. Live Bait in Kalk Bay was solid. We also had lunch at Simon’s at Groot Constantia. The salad was so-so, the peri peri chicken was phenomenal. The food court (and overall scene) at Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay was on point. We got pizza delivered from Col’Cacchio, and it did not disappoint.

In general, we have been impressed by the seafood in South Africa, and by the value of the food and wine. There are endless dining options in and around Cape Town, I’ll just mention a smattering that folks recommended: high tea at Mount Nelson Hotel; La Colombe; Fork (on Long Street); The Roundhouse; Carne (same owner as 95 Keerom); Bizerca; The Codfather; The Test Kitchen.

Activities: We spent only one day exploring the city proper, when we visited the V&A Waterfront, Bo-Kaap, Long Street, Greenmarket Square and Company’s Garden. Most of the rest of our time was some combo of the peninsula and/or hiking.

Table Mountain is the flagship attraction, certainly for the outdoors. We hiked up the most common route, which is Platteklip Gorge. It is very steep (I think the trail is less than 2 miles and ascends more than 2k feet). The views for much of the hike and from the top are fantastic. We took the tram down to save time and knees. It costs R115 each to descend. Note that if you park at the trailhead and take the tram down, you have to walk about a mile back to your car (which you will have parked about a mile past the tram station when driving up Tafelberg Road). Apparently there have been some muggings on the mountain and thus folks advise joining up with others (unless your group is already 3+ I guess), but there were so many other hikers during our visit that this was irrelevant. There are lots of other routes on Table Mountain, including India Venster, some options from Constantia (I think), and even a five-day trek on the Hoerikwaggo Trail.

We hiked Lion’s Head another day. It is much easier and often includes stunning views of Camps Bay, Clifton, the City Bowl, etc. So we’re told. It was entirely covered in fog for us. The round-trip took us about 1 hour 45 minutes. There is a metal ladder and some narrow, exposed parts on the upper reaches. There is also a near-vertical stretch with chains and holds, but you can circumvent this if you want…both ways are marked.

A full-day tour of the peninsula is highly recommended. We went counter-clockwise, from Camps Bay to Hout Bay; taking the Chapman’s Peak Drive toll road over to Noordhoek, which has a beautiful long beach and we stopped at Noordhoek Farm Village; continuing to Kommetjie and then all the way down to Cape Point; then back up the eastern side to Simon’s Town and the penguins at Boulders Beach; through Fish Hoek to a very late lunch at Live Bait in Kalk Bay; snapping a couple pics of the colorful beach shacks at St. James; then breezing through Muizenberg and back around Table Mountain to Camps Bay.

Some more detail on some of these places on the peninsula drive: in Hout Bay, see if the Bay Harbour Market will be open as it’s quite cool, and you can also take a boat from Hout Bay to visit a seal colony; the toll for Chapman’s Peak was R38; entry to Cape of Good Hope costs R105/adult…there are many things to see/do there, but it was windy and we had a lot of ground to cover so we only walked up the dirt path alongside the Flying Dutchman Funicular to the original lighthouse at Cape Point (it was too high and often covered in fog, the newer one is lower); entry to the penguins at Boulders Beach costs R55/adult; we didn’t take it, but Boyes Drive (aka M75) is an elevated and perhaps more scenic route between Kalk Bay and Muizenberg. Beware the baboons! We tried to prepare by reorganizing our food and backpack, but as we were leaving the Cape Point parking area we had a momentary lapse in focus and a baboon climbed into our trunk and thankfully took only a granola bar.

We did an informal township tour of Imizamo Yethu, which is by Hout Bay. We simply joined a local woman who was leading some other tourists, and this included some info and visiting a couple houses/shacks and the community center etc. for R70 each. Afrika Moni is a known guide for Imizamo Yethu, so you might look him up. Other popular places for township tours include Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and Langa.

There are many activities and attractions we considered but didn’t get to. Top of that list would probably be Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens as well as Robben Island. You might also consider District Six Museum (and various Iziko Museums), Two Oceans Aquarium, various crafts markets, etc.

October 25-30, 2014 (Saturday-Thursday)

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