It is said that Cape Town is the most beautiful city in the world and it did not disappoint us.
The city is plenty beautiful in and of itself, but with the clear blue waters and the dramatic close up mountain ranges, it definitely qualifies as one of the most beautiful cities we have ever seen.
Cape Town is one of the most visited places on the African continent and is the most Westernized city we have been to while in Africa – and it was comfortable. It is about the same size as Chicago. It had the same sort of amenities. Public transportation was available and simple with buses and cabs everywhere. There were also the familiar Khombi’s which we have become very use to. We were pleasantly surprised about how easy it was to get around.
The City is very diverse with 20% white, 70% colored, 6% black, and 3% Asian Most of the time, the term “colored” refers to people of mixed races, but here we were told that colored refers to the aborigines also known as the Khoi or the bushmen. Black refers to African people who speak a Bantu language originating from Western Africa. The Bantu black people came to Cape Town after the Europeans settled there.
While South Africa, in general, has a reputation of being very dangerous, we felt safe while there. There is a very large “tourist area” that stretches from one side of the city to the other and there are very few safety issues within that area. When we read the local papers it was filled with stories of crime and discontent – but it seems the people try and keep that away from the tourists. And these days when we go on vacation we want to do the tourist stuff – we have enough of the authentic Africa life already.
We stayed at a Backpackers Lodge near the Waterfront. Backpackers Lodges are a globally known type of lodging that cater very specifically to travelers who travel light and have little money and few material needs. We had a decent private room for about half the cost of a three star hotel.
Waterfront is one of the most popular parts of Cape Town and is similar to Navy Pier of Chicago or the harbor/tourist area of any large city. It still serves as a harbor with tons of cargo ships, cranes, and wharf like activity – but they have somehow transformed something that is almost always dirty and grimy into a great tourist attraction I think it helps that the bay is surrounded by mountains that are rarely found directly on seashores. There are tons of great restaurants bars, shopping, art centers, water sports, boat rides, luxury hotels and other fun stuff. The McDonald’s there was very upscale with a separate coffee bar and desert bar. We split a fun meal and ate in leather chairs while we watched other patrons use the free wi-fi or watch a big screen TV. It was one of the best McDonald’s we had ever seen or eaten at.
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The other large activity area is Long Street, where many bars, restaurants clubs, shopping and other fun stuff occurs. We enjoyed a Thai massage, hookah bar, dancing and live music along with a few nice desserts, as well as some good live music. During the day Long Street had nice shopping as well as cheap good souvenir places too. However, we found we are getting a little to old for the late night revelry of downtown strips and ended up spending many of our nights at the movie theater – which is also a treat for us.
City Tours – The first activity that we like to do on a vacation is to take a City Tour. This may sound dry and action-less, however it is a great way to start planning your options for the rest of the trip and we have invariable enjoyed the tours. Our bus tour was way cool. They used ultra modern, brand new state of the art buses with built in audio jacks at each seat and a really great map showing the stops for the Jump On/Jump Off system. The buses ran every 20 minutes so it was easy to stop and see an attraction for a couple hours then continue to the others. Our first stop was at a Bird and Monkey Sanctuary, which had many other animals as well. It was quite cool and some of the birds were strikingly beautiful. Our favorite bird was the Rati Chicken, so named, by us, because it was fluffy and white like our little puppy that we missed so badly the entire week. The little monkeys were all over the place, very friendly and seemed quite accustomed to searching peoples pockets for food scraps and car keys. The owls were quite amazing, but the most incredible one was a particularlygiant (3 feet tall) owl that just sat on the railing and dared everyone to pet it.
This baboon cage had 3 or 4 baboons inside that appeared to have a serious case of butt cancer. We could not imagine how that could be normal. Check out the video.
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Shanty Town – Our next stop off the bus was at a Shanty-Town, officially referred to as a Township Settlement. During Apartheid the South African government required all ethnic groups to live in in segregated townships. Most of the townships outside the white provinces were very poor and usually built of corrugated steel, or sometimes only oiled cardboard. Most of the townships did not have running water or electricity. Now people are free to move around, but most don’t have money for land and a house and it seems some of the people have found ways to make peace with the poverty type living in the township, and enjoy the commerodery of the place. The government has been slowly putting electricity in each of the townships and you can see huge electric poles with dozens of wires dangling down to the houses. Running water is available at a shared standpipe relatively close to the house in almost all cases and most of the time water is available directly in the homes.
Some of the shanty towns looked horrible as we were driving by – they seemed to go on for miles and they would be ringed by outhouses – meaning there was probably no flush toilets in the 1000’s of homes. Some of the townships have opened their community to the public for a couple of reasons. They want everyone to be able to see what is like to live there and secondly – they can generate income by providing tours. The City Tour took us to a small township where some work had been done to build real homes. There is a system to give the original residents of the township the new homes, which were about 2500 sf, with water, electricity, glass windows, and a yard. Residents are being provided the houses for free – but the progress is very slow and only about 5% of the people have houses now.
While the neighborhood and the houses all look very poor – the people didn’t actually look poor. Most had nice clothes, some had cars, a few were fat and none looked staving.
Mostly, it felt weird to be walking around looking at how people lived in these townships. It was all white people touring the black township. It felt even weirder when children would run out and hug us and shout “Hello! How are you? I am fine.” I had a bad feeling about doing this and it sort of seemed like the people were on display at a zoo. We didn’t know how to act like normal people when we were really just tourists, seeing a living condition that we believed most of the residents thought of as a bad way to live.
Wine Tour – Many of you know some of best rated wines in the world come from South Africa. Wine tours are advertised everywhere and there are literally hundreds of huge wine estates that can be seen covering the bases of all the surrounding mountains. Not only do they advertise the great wines – but also the history of each vineyard most of which have been around for a couple hundred years. Of course the wine estates are also beautiful. The next day we went on a Wine Tour.
Riian was our guide, and he knew so much about wines! His tour was fun and interesting. He also did a great job at keeping us engaged and even required that we play musical chairs in the tour van to encourage us to meet the other tourists, and had a little quiz for us at the end of the day.
We went to 5 wine estates, which felt like a bit much, but maybe just because the tour started an hour late and we were trying to catch up all day. At each estate we tasted at least 6 wines and our late start seemed to be forcing us to go to faster than we would have liked. There was no lingering, leisurely sipping, or lollygagging over the breathtaking views. There was a great deal of spitting (recommended) or pouring out (for tourists) of wine tastes because we didn’t have time to linger. The good side to this was that we really felt like we were wine tasting, instead of drinking.
At the second estate they had great cheeses to pair with the wines, but again due to time constraints we only got a minimal explanation of the specific complimenting of the wines and cheeses. Despite the spitting and pouring, we were also getting kind of buzzed at this point.
Lunch was on another very nice wine estate and was quite good. They had a bunch of weird animals like little kangaroo’s (wallabies), turtles, pot belly pigs, and other fun little creatures. This place served us a couple of estate wines with the special lunch as well.
The last estate was pretty cool. They are a very small operation and they don’t sell their wine on the market; just at their vineyard. The wines had been aged for 8 years or so and were very good. The vineyard sold at cost, because they just wanted us to enjoy good wine with them. They make most of their money selling grapes to winemakers instead of selling aged good bottles of wine.
The next time you go to the liquor store check for the Goats Will Roam wine. We were at the estate that makes that wine, and guess what? Goat do roam there. The estate had a turret with stairs and a window, which goats climbed and then took in the view of the estate – just like what you see on the label. We got a picture to prove the place really exists. It was wild watching the goat climb the steps up the turret.
Riian also had us taste some brandy and coke, the supposed “drink of South Africa” – which was not as bad as it sounds.
Our last stop was a bar/restaurant where we had a nice dinner. It was a great day and so we called it another great night.
Market Day – Our PCV friend, Lynn, had told us about a market in the downtown area called Biscuit Street Market and she said we absolutely should not miss it. It was GREAT – like one of the best Farmers Markets we had ever been too – but with way more emphasis on cooking than selling fresh vegetables. They had arts and crafts, fresh flowers, micro brew beers, and huge impressive amounts of foods cooked on BBQ ovens, huge massive pots, and anything else you can imagine people cooking on/in. We ended up eating mushrooms on a stick and Asian dumplings with a micro-brew beer. It was a great afternoon.
Chopper Ride – Contrary to what its name implies, Cape Town is not really on the very Southern tip of the continent. It’s about 50 miles North, on the West Coast.
Out next adventure was a Helicopter ride that went half way down the peninsula and back on the other side. It also started on the Waterfront, our Cape Town headquarters. It was so interesting to see everything from the air. The entire area looks so small and navigable from the air. On our bus tour we had driven past a three block long public pool right on the ocean front in one of the rich neighborhoods. The pool had looked huge. The people living there needed the pool, because it is too cold to swim in the ocean most of the year. From the air, the three block long pool looked so small. It was a very interesting new perspective.
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Beer Tour and Rugby Game – We had been on a beer tour of The SAB (South African Brewery – the largest brewery in the entire world. They own Peroni, Fosters, Grolsch, Heineken and Miller among other beers!) in Johannesburg , but it was more of a museum and was primarily about the history of beer and the role of beer in world wide cultures. This SAB tour was of an actual operating beer plant and we got to see the beer being brewed and bottled. It was mesmerizing and completely fascinating to see the mechanics of the whole thing. The plant was one of the original plants that could produce about 10 cases a beer a week 150 years ago. Today they are producing 100,000 cases of beer a week. You can’t believe how much that is until you see it – and it then it boggles the mind. Funny note – that the forklift operators are some of the highest paid and most important persons in the production line!
The other couple on our tour was from Austria. Our group was comprised of South Africans, Austrians, and Americans – all able to talk in a shared language! It is very cool when people with different cultures, different counties, different parts of the world can sit down and fluently discuss ideas in a shared language.
After the tour we went to a bar where we “paired” sausages with beers and talked about it the way that people talk about wines and cheeses. We came up with the brilliant idea of starting a Beer and Meat Pairing Tour Company in Chicago! It seems like a natural business in Chicago – to take beer loving customers and teach them to eat the right meats with the right beers! What could be more perfect in Chicago.
The last place we stopped was at the Waterfront for a beer in the oldest tavern in Africa. We discussed our ideas with our guide, Lawrence who gave us a great deal of encouragement. As we assured him that we thought he had the best tour ever – he assured us that we were the best customers he ever had as well and we all paired another beer with some Kudu pizza.
Lawrence also invited us to see a Rugby game being played later that week. In many ways it was the same as an American sporting event. It was in the giant stadium, with thousands of people wearing silly hats. Security was sort of the same, as they were patting down all the attendees, but they never bothered to check our hand bags. Tickets were only about $10 for pretty decent seats. Drinking was limited to the bar area only as a punishment to the fans because there had been a brawl the week before. We couldn’t imagine that would be tolerated in America. I considered going and getting a drink, but the line looked too intimidating. There were at least 200 people shoulder to shoulder with no escape route if a fire broke out. We would not have understood one thing about the game except Lawrence was describing the rules play by play. So we understood about 10% of the game. It was unique and we were really glad to go with someone who took so much time help us enjoy the whole thing.
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The Cape Of Good Hope – Our next adventure was a Peninsula Tour. Another small tour with an Ostrich Farm, a Penguin Colony, the Botanical Gardens and some really awesome sightseeing.
Our guide was a bit boring and left many quiet times during the tour that we thought should have been filled with facts and trivia. However, even those annoyances could not take away from how cool the Cape and all its views were.
We stopped at the local Ostrich farm at Carol’s request. It was nice for them to stop because she asked. We got to feed the ostrich’s and they bit our hands pretty hard. We saw the little babies too which are all gray and not that cute as far as babies go. The next stop was a huge art shop with 1000’s of cool wood and sand stone carvings.
Our next stop was the actual Cape of Good Hope – which we found out is not the furthest point south – it is the furthest point south west (advertising!!!). Our guide was concerned about a fog that looked very far away on the ocean to us. We bought the tickets to ride the cable car to the light house and back and we got there just in time to enjoy beautiful scenes with bright sunshine and warm winds while we witnessed the a Fog Wall roll in which covered the entire area in a matter of minutes and dropped temps by 20 degrees. Pretty cool!
At the bottom we visited the waters edge, where the Atlantic and the Indian oceans meet, and Carol and I both stuck our fingers in the very cold water.
The last stop was the Botanical Gardens. The Chicago and the St. Louis gardens are both much more pretty with much more variety, but the backdrop of the sheer cliffs of Table Mountain jettisons this garden into the top 5 in the world.
The tours bus continued down the coast and we saw where the really rich lived and, just like all rich people neighborhoods, it was a totally over the top. Again, the ocean was beautiful, but you can’t really swim in it. Great White sharks are everywhere and its very very cold all year round. They have lookout points on the high cliffs where a little man puts out a green flag if no sharks are observed, and then a red one if there are sharks. Not sure I would like to rely on that system!
Many homes had little elevators that took them from the road to their front doors because the homes were built into the mountain side and the angles to the front door were extreme. The homes were huge, but it was hard to separate out a house from a hotel or vacation place.
Again, it was the end of the day and we were fairly tired as we pulled in to – guess where? You guessed it! The Waterfront. We saw a couple movies, ate some more Sushi and seafood and called it a night.
Table Mountain – We had unknowingly saved the best for last. Table Mountain is probably the biggest tour attraction in Cape Town. The city is surrounded by mountains with Table Mountain being the closest, biggest and coolest. It is flat on top (ergo Table) and many times has what the locals affectionately refer to as the Table Cloth. It is a thick layer of fog that hugs the top and comes part way down the sides and looks very cool. They told us that Table Mountain is actually 6 times older that the Himalayan Mountains! Hmmmm.
Our trip to Table Top was awesome. It was overcast and a bit chilly, but the views were well worth it. We saw these funny little rabbit-looking animals, the coast, the mountains, and felt the sun and the wind. There were well marked paths and it was easy to walk and we felt like we were on top of the world. It was cool and the wind was blowing hard, and now we had actually seen everything. We saw the mountain from the air, from the ground, from the Ferris wheel, from a bus, from a van, in many pictures and now from the top, itself.
We went back to our Cape Town Headquarter: The Waterfront, but could not get tickets to Robben Island, (where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for about 18 years) which once again made us wonder why we didn’t think this through instead of just believing the 24 year old at the front desk of a cheap backpackers when he told us we didn’t need to book ahead because it was low season. We did watch some documentary film in the museum, which we thought was a decent replacement for the actual tour. At least we have a reason to return to Cape Town now.
We considered ending the night with movies for the third time, but thought that didn’t seem right while on vacation, so we went back to the backpackers lodge. It turned out to be movie night there too! At least they were showing a good movie called In Burgess. It was better than the theaters and it was much cheaper too.
We knew that while on the continent of Africa, we could not miss visiting Cape Town. It was a good idea and will add value to our memories and our list of places we have visited in our lifetimes. If you can take the 18 – 25 hour plane ride, depending where in America you are coming from – it is well worth the visit.