Cape Town, South Africa
Sheltered beneath the familiar shape of Table Mountain, the historic city of Cape Town is instantly recognizable, and few cities in the world possess its beauty and style. A stroll through the lovely city center reveals Cape Town's three centuries as the sea link between Europe and the East. Elegant Cape Dutch buildings, characterized by big whitewashed gables, often a thatch roof, and shuttered windows, abut imposing monuments to Britain's imperial legacy. In the Bo-Kaap neighborhood the call to prayer echoes from minarets while the sweet tang of Malay curry wafts through the cobbled streets. And everywhere, whether you're eating outdoors at one of the country's best restaurants or sipping wine atop Table Mountain, you sense-correctly-that this is South Africa's most urbane, civilized city.
Bo-Kaap Museum. Built in the 18th century, this museum was originally the home of Abu Bakr Effendi, a well-known Turkish scholar and prominent leader in the Muslim community. He was brought here in the mid-19th century to help quell feuding between Muslim factions and is believed to have written one of the first books in Afrikaans. The house has been furnished to re-create the lifestyle of a typical Malay family in the 19th century. Look for works by artist Gregoire Boonzaire, who is famous for capturing both the chaos and charm of neighborhoods such as the Bo-Kaap and District Six. 71 Wale St. Admission charged.
Castle of Good Hope. Despite its name, the castle isn't one of those fairy-tale fantasies you find perched on a cliff. It's a squat fortress that hunkers into the ground as if to avoid shellfire. Built between 1665 and 1676 by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to replace an earthen fort constructed in 1652 by Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch commander who settled Cape Town, it's the oldest building in the country. Its pentagonal plan, with a diamond-shape bastion at each corner, is typical of the Old Netherlands defense system adopted in the early 17th century. It still houses the regional headquarters of the National Defence Force. Also worth seeing is the excellent William Fehr Collection. Housed in the governor's residence, it consists of antiques, artifacts, and paintings of early Cape Town and South African history. 1 Buitenkant St. Admission charged.
Company's Gardens. These are all that remain of a 43-acre garden laid out by Jan van Riebeeck in April 1652 to supply fresh vegetables to ships on their way to the Dutch East Indies. By 1700 free burghers were cultivating plenty of crops on their own land, and in time the VOC vegetable patch was transformed into a botanic garden. It remains a delightful haven in the city center, graced by fountains, exotic trees, rose gardens, aviaries, and a pleasant outdoor café. At the bottom of the gardens, close to Government Avenue, look for an old well that used to provide water for the town's residents and the garden. The old water pump, engraved with the maker's name and the date 1842, has been overtaken by an oak tree and now juts out of the tree's trunk some 6 feet above the ground. A huge statue of Cecil Rhodes, the Cape's prime minister in the late 19th century, looms over the path that runs through the center of the gardens. The Delville Wood Monument honors South Africans who died in the fight for Delville Wood during the great Somme offensive of 1916. Of the 121 officers and 3,032 soldiers who participated in the three-day World War I battle, only five officers and 750 soldiers survived unhurt. Facing the memorial is a statue of Brigadier General Lukin, who commanded the South African infantry brigade during World War I. Between Government Ave. and Queen Victoria St., Cape Town central.
District Six Museum. Housed in the Buitenkant Methodist Church, this museum preserves the memory of one of Cape Town's most vibrant multicultural neighborhoods, and of the district's destruction in one of the cruelest acts of the apartheid-era Nationalist government. District Six was proclaimed a white area in 1966, and existing residents were evicted from their homes, which were razed to make way for a white suburb. The people were forced to resettle in bleak outlying areas on the Cape Flats, and by the 1970s all the buildings here, except churches and mosques, had been demolished. Huge controversy accompanied the proposed redevelopment of the area, and only a small housing component, Zonnebloem, and the campus of the Cape Technicon have been built, leaving much of the ground still bare-a grim reminder of the past. There are plans to bring former residents back into the area and reestablish the suburb; however, the old swinging District Six can never be re-created. The museum consists of street signs, photographs, life stories of the people who lived there, and a huge map, where former residents can identify the sites of their homes and record their names. This map is being used to help sort out land claims. You can arrange in advance for a two-hour walking tour of the district for a nominal amount. 25 Buitenkant St. Admission charged.
Gold of Africa Museum. This museum in the historic Martin Melck House chronicles the history and artistry of African gold and houses arguably one of the best collections in the world. The exquisite exhibition upstairs, cleverly displayed in a darkened room, may leave you gasping-artisans from Mali, Senegal, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast certainly knew how to transform this precious metal. Downstairs is a workshop where you can watch jewelers busy at their craft. 96 Strand St. Admission charged.
South African Jewish Museum. Spanning 150 years, this museum captures the story of South African Jewry from its beginnings. The Themes of Memories (immigrant experiences), Reality (integration into South Africa), and Dreams (visions) exhibits are dynamically portrayed with high-tech multimedia and interactive displays, reconstructed sets, models, and Judaica artifacts. Also here are a computerized Discovery Center with a roots bank, a temporary gallery for changing exhibits, a museum restaurant and shop, and an auditorium. The museum also screens an exclusive 20-minute documentary on Mandela throughout the day. 88 Hatfield St. Admission charged.
South African National Gallery. This museum houses a good collection of 19th- and 20th-century European art, but its most interesting exhibits are the South African works, many of which reflect the country's traumatic history. An excellent example of contemporary South African art is the ghoulish sculpture The Butcher Boys, by Jane Alexander. Walk around these three sitting figures with an air of foreboding and menace about them, and you'll be shocked to discover their exposed spines. This is the stuff of nightmares, recalling the torture activists suffered at the hands of the security police during the height of apartheid. The gallery owns an enormous body of work, so exhibitions change regularly, but there's always something provocative-whether it's documentary photographs or a multimedia exhibit chronicling South Africa's struggles with HIV and AIDS. Government Ave. Admission charged.
Robben Island. At various times a prison, leper colony, mental institution, and military base, it is finally filling an empowering role as a museum. Famous as the prison housing Nelson Mandela it is now also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Boats leave hourly for the 30-minute trip.Admission charged.
When it comes to shopping, Cape Town has something for everyone-from sophisticated malls to trendy markets. Although African art and curios are obvious choices (and you will find some gems), South Africans have woken up to their own sense of style and creativity, and the results are fantastic and as diverse as the people who make up this rainbow nation. Check out these standout shops and markets.
At Greenmarket Square (Longmarket, Burg, and Shortmarket Sts.), you can get good buys on clothing, T-shirts, handcrafted silver jewelry, and locally made leather shoes and sandals, and you can find African jewelry, art, and fabrics here, too. For everything weird and wonderful, Obs Holistic Lifestyle Fair (Station and Lower Main Rds.) is an absolute winner. If you aren't crazy about traditional African artifacts, you might want to visit Africa Nova (72 Waterkant St.), which stocks contemporary African art that's quirky and interesting.
Cruise Cape Peninsula and Beaches
The Cape Peninsula is made up of a 75-km (44-mi) tail of mountains that hangs down from the tip of Africa, ending at the Cape of Good Hope. Drive 15 minutes in any direction, and you may lose yourself in a stunning landscape of 18th century Cape Dutch manors, historic wineries, and white-sand beaches backed by sheer mountains. Much of the peninsula is included in Table Mountain National Park, which extends for around 40 km (25 mi) from the city through to Cape Point. Table Mountain is one of southern Africa's most beautiful and impressive natural wonders. The views from its summit are awe-inspiring. The mountain rises more than 3,500 feet above the city, and its distinctive flat top is visible to sailors 65 km (40 mi) out to sea. Some say sipping a glass of chilled Cape wine while watching the sun set from Table Mountain is one of life's great joys. A shop at the top of the mountain, appropriately called the Shop at the Top, sells gifts and curios. With panoramic views of mountains tumbling to the ocean, the stunning sandy beaches of the Cape Peninsula are a major draw for Capetonians and visitors alike. Beautiful as the beaches may be, don't expect to spend hours splashing in the surf: the water around Cape Town is very, very cold (although you do get used to it). The spectacular western edge of Table Mountain, known as the Twelve Apostles, provides the backdrop for Camps Bay (Victoria Rd.), a long, sandy beach that slopes gently to the water from a grassy verge. Die-hard fans return to Llandudno again and again, and who can blame them? Its setting, among giant boulders at the base of a mountain, is glorious, and sunsets here attract their own aficionados. Backed by wild dunes, Sandy Bay (Llandudno exit off M6), Cape Town's unofficial nudist beach is also one of its prettiest. Sunbathers can hide among rocky coves or frolic on a long stretch of sandy beach. Shy nudists will appreciate its isolation, 20 minutes on foot from the nearest parking area in Llandudno.
The historic Winelands, 45 minutes east of Cape Town, produce fine wine amid the exquisite beauty of rocky mountains, serried vines, and elegant Cape Dutch estates. The area is fanned out around three historic towns and their valleys.
Founded in 1685, Stellenbosch is a gem. Its oak-lined streets bristle with historic architecture, good restaurants, and interesting galleries and shops, and it has a vibrant university community. Franschhoek, enclosed by towering mountains, is the original home of the Cape's French Huguenots, whose descendants have made a conscious effort to reassert their French heritage. Paarl lies beneath huge granite domes, its main street running 11 km (7 mi) along the Berg River past some of the country's most elegant historical monuments. Throughout the region you will find some of South Africa's best restaurants, too.
Port Photo: Don Bayley/iStockphoto