Cape Town has prize-winning good looks, a wonderful climate, a fascinating history and plenty to do. Virtually nobody comes to South Africa without including a visit to this most 'European' of African cities.
High up on anybody's list is to set foot on top of Table Mountain. There are several tracks for hiking up it, or there is a revolving cable car that can take you up. Bring a picnic and eat it whilst you look out for dassies and soak up the sensational views of the city below you, squeezed between Table Mountain and Table Bay. and then the spine of the Twelve Apostles range that stretches down the peninsula to Cape Point.
Here at the tip of the peninsula you will find the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve whose 7,750 ha contains as many plant species as there are in the whole of the British Isles. You'll find baboons here too, as well as the odd antelope and Cape mountain zebra. Cape Point is not, contrary to popular conception, the southernmost point of Africa. This accolade actually goes to Cape Agulhas, further along the coast in the Overberg.
From Cape Point, hug the shore that lines False Bay to the north. There is a lot of water-based action along this stretch of coast: gun boats, sail boats, fishing boats, surfboards and whales (in season). The first town you'll reach is Victorian Simon's Town, famous for its year-round colony of penguins (on permanent leave from the Antarctic) and for being the South African navy's HQ. Push on and you'll pass through Fish Hoek before reaching Kalk Bay. The GG team spend four months each year living in this area, our favourite part of town.
There's a string of intriguing antique and furniture shops here to investigate, a great daily fish market in the harbour and plenty of great restaurants and cafés.
Continue on to Muizenberg, Cape Town's most popular surfing beach, before heading back on the road (M3) that'll take you into town. The M3 is the fast way into the city centre and takes you round the back of Table Mountain.
Alternatively, when you get to Fish Hoek, head west away from the coast and cross the peninsula to Noordhoek. Here, the hair-raising corniche of Chapman's Peak leads you around to Hout Bay. Then it's just a short hop over to the coast road, running below the imposing Twelve Apostles to the white sands of Camps Bay (in time for sunset drinks) and back past Lion's Head to the City Bowl. This is the slow but extremely scenic route.
The V&A Waterfront in the centre is Cape Town's hard-to-avoid tourist Mecca, a shopping centre packed with harbour-side eateries and boats that line up to take visitors over to Robben Island. Within the City Bowl the District Six Museum, the National Gallery and the stroll-worthy Company's Garden in front of it are worth seeing if you have time. Head to Long and Kloof Streets for more shops, restaurants and bars.
For trips out of the centre, head back along the M3 towards Muizenberg and turn off at Rondebosch to Kirstenbosch, South Africa's oldest and largest botanical garden. You can hardly fail to be impressed. If you're in town during the summer months, try to catch one of the Sunday afternoon concerts that are played in the sunshine to picnickers on the lawn. 'Skeleton Gorge' at the back of the grounds is a popular path that leads up to the top of Table Mountain which I highly recommend.
Also well worth visiting is the oldest and most traditional vineyard in the Cape, Groot Constantia. The Cape Dutch architecture of the buildings here were among the very first examples of their kind and there's an interesting museum that recalls life in the earliest days of not just Cape Town, but of South Africa itself.
Able Seaman Just Nuisance R.N.
Just Nuisance is a great dane firmly ensconced in Simon's Town history. Born in 1937 this dog grew up among the Royal Navy sailors stationed in Simon's Town (still the base of the South African Navy today). Utterly spoilt by beer-swilling seamen he grew into a gigantic hound that became accustomed to following them onto ships and on the train into town.
Persistent train travel almost led to his being put down but the naval commander-in-chief enlisted him in the navy, securing his rescue and permitting him free train travel. Official papers read: christian name "Just", trade "bone-crusher", religious denomination "Canine Divinity League". As a member of the R.N. he was duly given a medical examination and his own billet.
The dog served until his death in 1944 and, as well as a statue looking over the harbour, his collar, papers and photographs are on display in the Simon's Town Museum (The Residency, Court Rd, Simon's Town, tel 021-786-3046, open 9am - 4pm Mon - Fri, 10am - 1pm Sat, 11am - 3pm Sun).
Cape Dutch Architecture
So what is Cape Dutch architecture?
You can't move for Cape Dutch buildings in the Winelands - so best that you have some idea of what it is.
As the name suggests, early Dutch settlers were its primary forebears, but there are German, French Huguenot and Indonesian influences in there too.
Importing European ideas, settlers built basic and practical homes using the resources most readily available: clay or thick rubble for the walls, lime-mortar and wild reeds for thatch.
Houses consisted of a single storey of just three rooms, built in a row with a rafter-supported, steeply pitched roof (a snow-shedding European design that never fell by the wayside, so some say). Thick white-washed walls and large rooms helped make sweltering Cape summers more bearable.
As the prosperity of the area grew so the houses became more ostentatious.
A fashion for front gables (often the work of Malay craftsmen) flourished from the early 1700s, and the steady addition of wings over the next century led to U-, T- and eventually the magnificent H-plan houses that you can still see today.
So there you go.
The African penguin
The African penguin is one of South Africa's most unexpected wildlife attractions. There are now about 120,000 of these squid-munching flightless birds left following a massive population decline caused unequivocally by human intervention. Numbers have fallen 90% over the last century due to increased commercial fishing, penguin egg harvesting and oil spills.
Today the best (and most easily accessible) place to see them is Boulders Beach in Simon's Town (and Stony Point at Betty's Bay in the Overberg). Here boardwalks wind through the penguin colony, where a noisy and smelly mass of little black and white penguins are usually seen snoozing or waddling down the sand to the water's edge.
- They are also called the jackass penguin because of their donkey-like braying.
- They are great navigators; one oiled penguin which was rescued and released from Robben Island in 1971 travelled 800km to Port Elizabeth in a month.
- Their predators include sharks, Cape fur seals and killer whales.
- They are endemic to the Southern African coastline.
- Their colouring is an essential camouflage - a white belly for predators looking up from below and black for those looking down from above.
- Though they breed throughout the year they are monogamous.
Most of the penguins are in the Boulders Beach park itself (entry R15) but you can also see them sitting on the boulders and bobbing about in the water in the neighbouring inlets. Park your car just beyond the golf course and walk back along the coastal path which, even if you don't see penguins, makes for a pleasant stroll.
Contact: Boulders Beach park is off Seaforth Road, beyond Simon's Town harbour as you drive towards Cape Point. It's open 8am - 5pm every day.
Boulders Visitor Centre - Tel: 021-786-2329