Touching Down in Cape Town
The question isn't "what should we do?" but "how can we fit it all in?" Foodies, families, party animals — there's something for literally everyone. Contributing editor Christina Ohly breaks down your many, many options.
CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Picture the perfect mix of Los Angeles, San Franciso, and Napa Valley — with a little Bilbao thrown in for good cultural measure — and you've got Cape Town and the Winelands. It's pretty much the perfect destination for a foodie (copious amounts of fresh fish and global cuisine) who also loves nice weather, nature, and great design. The town is still abuzz after its starring role in the 2010 World Cup, and there is so much to learn about, from wildlife (playful penguins at Boulders Beach) to history (tours of the townships, where your eyes will be opened to the way millions of South Africans live in the face of incredible adversity).
Cape Town is a city with style and edge. Partiers will love the Ibiza-like vibe at al fresco beach clubs and restaurants, where the Veuve flows freely and an entire cosmopolitan world whizzes by. At the same time, the trip proved ideal for my children (ages nine and ten), who loved the hiking, cheetah-petting, and the ever-popular hotel swimming pool. The holiday was meaningful (though not in a museum-filled sort of way) and completely relaxing at the same time.
WHAT TO DO
As I said, your biggest challenge will be paring down the itinerary. Outdoor enthusiasts go for big surf and challenging hikes, while aesthetes hit the design-centric shops in Cape Quarter. History and wildlife are everywhere. The best part is that you can sample a little of everything, making for days that are always varied.
Table Mountain is a must for anyone not prone to vertigo. A seriously steep cable car whisks large groups to the top of a spectacular rock formation which has incredible views of the ocean, football stadiums, and flowering plants.
Lion's Head also has spectacular vistas — onto Table Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and Robben Island in the distance. This is a manageable three-hour hike (with stops), though not ideal for small children due to several steep pitches.
Robben Island Museum, the former prison that once held Nelson Mandela, bills itself as a "poignant reminder to the newly democratic South Africa and the price paid to freedom." You'll learn about the Cape's complicated political history and the anti-apartheid activists who were jailed here. How poignant is it? Many tour guides are former prisoners. The island can be accessed by ferry from the Victoria & Albert Waterfront.
LEARN SOME MORE
A tour of a township is one of the few absolute must-dos in Cape Town. These are not designed to be depressing, begging-bowl routes or guilt trips. One of the best private operators, Uthando Tours, works with children's music and dance groups, women's gardening collectives, and prisoner rehabilitation projects that are making life better for all. Truly inspiring.
GET WITH NATURE
Boulders Bay Beach is worth the quick trip from the center of town for the endearing African penguins that frolic freely on pristine beaches. In warmer months, you can swim. Add a stop in quaint Simon's Town for ice cream and local beadwork shops.
At Surf Shack in nearby Muizenberg, the waves break (relatively) gently, making it a perfect spot to take up the sport. Just beware the ominous shark warning flags that are frequently posted along these coastlines. Shark spotters — often located in central lookout points — add a whole level of excitement to local water sports.
EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY
And do so amid mountain ranges, sprawling vineyards, and beautiful Cape Dutch-style homesteads. Stellenbosch, in the heart of wine country, is worth a detour. Don't miss lunch at the Delaire Graff Restaurant. Franschhoek is considered the gourmet capital of South Africa. French Huguenot style abounds, not to mention farm-to-table eating at every turn in this part of the world. Another regional best bet is Babylonstoren, an eight acre garden/stylish inn that is a fresh food paradise. (Read more about this incredible place in another Fathom postcard.)
Cape Town is an epicenter of great design, artisinal craftwork, and homemade foods of all kinds. The Bo Kaap and Cape Quarter areas are bursting with boutiques that cater to an aesthetically-minded crowd. Nap Living is a Zen sanctuary that sells homewares like bath salts to delectable fudge. Find African-made clothing at Merchants on Long. Stock up on baskets, beadwork, and ceramics at African Nova and Monkey Biz. Head to the hip Woodstock area for an exquisite selection of art, antique, and decorative objects at O.live (8 Kloof St; +27-21-426-5773).
WITH THE KIDS
While virtually everything is casual and kid-friendly in Cape Town, there are a few spots that are not to be missed, especially when the family is in tow.
Children of all ages will go crazy for the Cheetah and Raptor Centre at Spier, where they can learn about these magnificent cats and even pet the more docile ones. At The Eagle Encounters, a bird of prey rehabilitation, education, and conservation program, children can feel raptors alight on their arms (best for kids older than seven) and watch dancing barn owls sway to local tunes. Bonus: Spier is a world-class wine with a casual restaurant, Eight, that serves delicious food.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world, is the perfect place to let children run free amidst 7,000 different species of flora. While the gardens are lush year-round, the best time to visit for maximum plants in flower is in spring and early summer (August-November).
WHERE TO STAY
Cape Town is a city that is easily explored on foot, so a central location is key. There are several good bets for families, as well as smaller, stylish places that are perfect for couples or solo travelers.
Cape Grace Hotel
Set on a private quay on the bustling Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the hotel has an ideal mix of top-notch service, rooms that look across the harbor in all directions, and the all-important swimming pool (especially during the warmer summer months). It is newer in feel, and the amenities — kitchenettes, great laundry service, massive terrace — make for a successful, smooth stay.
The Mount Nelson Hotel
The hotel remains old-school, with 209 rooms overlooking Table Mountain, lush gardens, or the hotel pool. Restored garden cottage suites work well for couples seeking a hidden retreat; superior one-bedroom suites are perfect for families. Nine acres of gardens and proximity to Two Oceans Aquarium make the hotel great for kids.
The Cape Heritage Hotel
There's a wonderful mix of South African history throughout the recently-renovated rooms, along with enormous, high-ceilinged suites, state-of-the-art bathrooms, and a sweet trellised courtyard. The hotel is all about social responsibility: They participate in mentoring programs for at-risk kids and support local producers and craftspeople.
A tiny gem of a boutique hotel that perfectly mixes history with contemporary, chic accents. This place is very high-touch, almost like staying in a tasteful friend's home.
One & Only Cape Town
Centrally located and probably the slickest game town with excellent dining options (Nobu and Maze restaurants) and incredible spa offerings (Elevate massages, yoga classes).
WHERE TO EAT
You just can't go wrong. From delicious sushi and Italian specialties to local Cape cuisine, the emphasis is on fresh ingredients and plates that please both the palate and the eye. You'll find universal favorites almost everwhere: the ubiquitous Caesar salad, California rolls, fish and chips, thin crust pizzas — all slightly reimagined and all delicious — as well as Dutch and Afrikaans-inspired dishes.
Their newest outpost is located directly on the Victoria & Alfred waterfront, and an outdoor table is a great spot for watching boats and buskers. Best described as a modern fusion, the menu ranges from light pastas and maki rolls for kids to freshly grilled Kingklip, a local fish delicacy.
A casual open-air bistro on a pier in quaint Kalk Bay, overlooking the water and the basking seals below. The lunch menu is perfect for a light bite: catches of the day, prawn cocktail, inventive signature salads, and freshly shucked oysters. As with most restaurants in South Africa, there really is something for everyone.
The Grand Café & Beach
Just a five-minute walk from town on Granger Bay, this is the place to people-wach (seriously leggy blondes in strappy sandals) and enjoy a varied menu of seafood, wood-fired pizzas, and a dessert sampler that I'm still recovering from (indigenous fruits, popsicles, chocolates). The place feels a bit like Ibiza. Kids can frolic with an enormous disco ball in the sand. Good times.
Located in scenic Clifton, just a few miles outside of town, the relative newcomer is exactly what traevlers from wintry, dark clime seek: a sprawling outdoor deck overlooking the sea, an incredibly cheerful wait staff, and a little techno/house overlay in the background. It's a restaurant by evening, but turns into a full-on club in the wee hours. Go for the top-knotch burgers with guacamole and brie, vanilla-smoked butterfish, and the view.
If I had my way, Babylonstoren would serve me my last meal on earth. Set in the Winelands, the innovative farm/restaurant/small inn is a perfect mix of fresh produce, imaginative cuisine, and tasteful minimalist out-buildings that meld seamlessly into the landscape. Stroll the expansive gardens before drinking freshly squeezed juices, delving into salads of all tastes and colors — red (slow-roasted tomato, crisp wild rice, pomegranate), yellow (spekboom, melon, sweetcorn), and green (spinach chiffonade, minted zucchini ribbons) — not to mention the most succulent, locally farmed lamb cutlets that will ever pass your lips. I am still in awe of this place, and I'm pretty sure Alice Waters would be, too. Miraculously, it's remarkably inexpensive, and they cater to kids (a French fry is a French fry, organic or not).
Delicious tuna tartare, carpaccios of beef and line fish, and grilled ostrich filet are all on the menu at the minimalist, Milanese favorite. The brick-and-wood interior with warm, natural lighting, it´s a vibrant (though relaxing) spot with a bit of buzz.
A glass-and-light-filled, Zen oasis at Steenberg Vineyards in Constantia Valley with views of False Bay in the distance. Savor plum tomato gazpacho, summer vegetable capellini, locally cured meats, and a killer carrot cake "composition" for dessert. The kids menu is so good that parents will happily devour any/all of it.
A former hunting lodge overlooking beautiful Camps Bay where they serve a feast of tapas and local specialties like fallow deer, cob, and guinea fowl sausage. The cuisine is refined South African with modern European twists, and the atmosphere is laid back enough to keep from feeling oppressive. Oenophiles will love this one for its extensive cellar and unique pairings.
Other Good Bets
Il Leone Mastrantonio for great Italian.
Greenhouse at Cellars for imaginative tasting menus in an intimate setting.
Café Paradiso for kids' pizza-making programs.
Test Kitchen for creative takes on traditional Cape cuisine.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
When To Go
Cape Town enjoys a sunny, mild climate year-round, but it is at its very best between November and March, when the days are long and dry.
How To Get There
South African Airways and British Airways both offer nightly non-stop flights direct to Cape Town International Airport (CPT), and South African Airways also has flights from New York to Johannesberg with connections to Cape Town on local carriers.
Great Guides and Planners
India Baird (+27-0-82-734-4569): An American civil rights lawyer, foodie, and outdoorswoman who gave us lots of local color and insider knowledge.
Lisa Lindbald Travel Design: Based in New York with a knack for arranging the best tours, operators, and in-country flights.
Ilios Tours: For Table Mountain tours, transfers, and more specifics.