I have a confession to make. If I could figure out a way to be able to commute from Cape Town to New York, then I would quickly move there. I felt that way the first time I traveled to South Africa, more than 25 years ago. And I still feel the same way today.
Why? There are many compelling answers, not the least of which is that the U.S. dollar is still strong in South Africa, the coastline is staggeringly beautiful, and then, of course, there is the wine.
First, let's address the subject of getting there. There are no nonstop flights to Cape Town from the U.S. Most people connect through London, and some will take the nonstop flights to Johannesburg and then connect. (J-Burg has nonstops from Atlanta, Newark, NY-JFK and Washington-Dulles on South African Airways, which codeshares with Continental as a member of the Star Alliance.)
South African Airways is currently running a special to Johannesburg or Cape Town (or Durban, actually), where roundtrips start at $1175 (+ taxes, which are about $125) from NYC and Washington, D.C. Fares generally fluctuate in the $1200-1500 range for flights from a major American hub to Johannesburg. When you compare costs, once again a RTW (round-the-world) ticket may be your best bet (through airtreks.com). The cost starts at $1800, but your options increase exponentially, with dozens of destination choices, as long as you continue your journey in the same direction.
To get between South Africa’s major cities, South African Airways has a new carrier called “Mango” that flies, for example, between Cape Town and J-Burg. The cost for this flight is about $38 one way, including applicable taxes. Compare this to the lowest-cost train, the Shosholoze Meyl, which starts at $45 one way.
Waterfront accommodations in Cape Town, while lovely, tend to be the more expensive, higher-end hotels. Cape Town is situated on a narrow peninsula, divided by the Table Mountain. The city center, located on the western shore, is known as the City Bowl, A little further out are some elegant properties — in the upscale Oranjezicht suburb istwentytwo, a four-room guest house. This property has amazing views of the mountains, the city and its harbor; it is walking distance from the city center, and a 10-minute drive from the beaches. The guest house has a kitchen, a pool, and each room is en suite with a private balcony or panoramic windows for great views. Low season rates from May to August are about $175 a night, up to high season rates of about $235 from September through April. (www.capetwentytwo.com)
The trendy village of De Waterkant is filled with shops, sidewalk cafes, wine bars, and more than 80 accommodations from backpacker lodges to upscale hotels.De Waterkant House is walking distance from the city center and Victoria and Alfred waterfront. There are nine guest rooms, from basic to luxury. The best one is the Harbour View suite, which takes up the whole top floor, from $70 to $134.
In Cape Town, there's the Mount Nelson Hotel. Open since 1899, this high-end traditional resort is a favorite of celebrities like Oprah, South African native Charlize Theron and Kate Moss. Located a few minutes walk from the city center on the foothills of Table Mountain, it offers tennis, nearby golf, and on-site personal trainers at the gym. The Cape Colony Restaurant features Asian-influenced dishes, plus a kids menu for the family-friendly touch — definitely try to reserve the chef’s table, a 10-seater in the kitchen where you can interact with the chefs. The outdoor Oasis Restaurant is more casual, outdoor dining with a jazz trio. My suggestion: I think the Mount Nelson is a little too stuffy (and overpriced), so instead of staying there, I recommend going there for traditional afternoon tea. Room rates start at $527 to $2,000 a night.
Cape Grace Hotel: It's situated right on the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, and it's my favorite in Cape Town. You really can't beat the location, and the hotel is also surrounded by cafes, wine bars and gourmet restaurants, not to mention galleries and clothing shops. It's a relatively small hotel, with 122 rooms available, each of which have views of the marina, Table Mountain and the waterfront harbor. Room rates start at $505 in the low season, and start at $630 in the high season (www.capegrace.com/). Another compelling reason to go to the Cape Grace is the basement — that's where you'll find the hotel bar, not just any bar, but a bar devoted to celebrating single malt scotch.
Slideshow: Cape Town calls
Constantia Uitsig Winery: You don't have to go all the way to Stellenbosch, the legendary South African wine area. Contantia Uitsig is understated one-stop shopping — wine, dining, accommodations and a safari in one place — located about a 20-minute drive from the city center and waterfront. The 200-acre private wine estate is close to Cape Town’s Table Mountain, and is great for hiking, walking and horseback riding, and offers an on-site cricket field and the nearby Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
Constantia is known for its Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and red and white Bordeaux blends, with 75 acres of vines. This region of South Africa has been producing wines since the 17th century. You can’t go wrong eating at any of the three restaurants on site. Constantia Uitsig Restaurant seats 120 guests in its Manor House — the top-rated cuisine is a blend of Italian and even Asian flavors, under Chef Frank Swainston; La Colombe offers Southern French-inspired cuisine (note, very rich food), and noted as number 28 in Restaurant Magazine’s top 50 restaurants in 2006; the River Café is more relaxed and casual — definitely go for brunch or lunch to sit in the flower and herb garden, while drinking the local white wine.
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The hotel has 16 rooms, former estate cottages with private terraces, with great views of the valley. Rates start at $224 for low season (April-November) and $343 for high season (December- March). But the best kept secret: the owner is a self-admitted cricket fanatic, and even built his own cricket pitch on the premises. What this means is that if you ask, he might just teach you how to play the game. (www.uitsig.co.za/constantia_uitsig/uitsig.html)
You can use Cape Town as your hub for exploring the wine region, or head further north to some of the well-equipped camp and lodges to view wildlife.
One thing you won't find in any brochure is a company called Civair. It's out at the Cape Town airport. Ask for a man named Andy Cluver, and he'll put you in a pressure suit. And the next thing you know, you're soaring in a fighter jet high in the skies over Cape Town, and then you're hugging the coast at 50 feet, travelling 400 m.p.h. down to the Cape and back in about eight minutes. (Civair Fighter Jet: +27 21 419 5182; +27 21 934 4488)
The fighter jet experience will run you about $1100. And if that's too intense, Civair also has a fleet of helicopters to take you on more leisurely winelands tours. Other tours include shark cage diving in Gansbaai and whale watching in Hermanus. Their helicopters can also fly you out to Robben Island, right off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for so many years — now a destination dedicated to reconciliation.
The caves of the Cape Peninsula have been explored for recreation since the late 1800s. There are over a hundred caves recorded on the Cape Peninsula. These range from small overhangs, like Peers Cave and Woodstock Cave, to deep cracks on Table Mountain, some of which have more than 1 km (0.62 miles) of underground passage. Most of the caves formed below the water table. Boomslang Cave is a relatively easy, safe cave that offers a good introduction to caving.
The Cango Caves
Cango Caves is the only show cave in Africa that offers a choice of standard (easy) or adventure tours. All tours are offered in English, but Afrikaan, German, French and other language guides may be available. Please check guide availability when making reservations. The standard tour is about $6 for adults and about $4 for kids. (www.cangocaves.co.za/; +27 44 272 7410)
Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town is best for watching the jackass penguins walking to and from the sea at dawn and sunset. It also offers sheltered swimming and snorkeling. Simon’s Town is a quaint old navy seaport and the last town before Cape Point Nature Reserve. The beach is part of the Cape Peninsula National Park, and it is the most accessible breeding colony of jackass penguins. The best time to go is in the evening because the penguins come back from fishing.
Craft markets and flea markets
Cape Town and the Western Cape have many craft markets. A wide variety of crafts are offered, such as pottery, beadwork, basket weaving, woodwork, wireworks and township craft. Township artists use locally available products, such as cans, bottle tops and papier mache to produce a number of innovative products. Most craft markets set up at about 8 a.m. and start packing up at about 4 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays. On Sundays they may pack up at about 2 p.m. You will have to be early to get the bargains. The local tourism office in every town will have a full list of all the craft markets in that area. (www.tourismcapetown.co.za/)
A Cook’s Tour: A Taste of South Africa 2007
The tour begins in Cape Winelands, where you will stay in a very small hotel located near vineyards and polo and cricket grounds. You will visit Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and will stay at Le Quartier Francais, a quaint hotel as well as a highly regarded restaurant in South Africa. Then, there's the well-known Boekenhoutskloof wine estate for a tasting and visit with the winemaker, and cooking lessons are also arranged at the Institute of Culinary Arts of South Africa. The trip ends at the Tanda Tula Safari Camp, situated amid 20,000 acres of private nature reserve. More than 200 species can be found, ensuring a spectacular game-viewing experience. Leopards, black rhino, lions, cheetahs, elephants and water buffalo can be seen here. ($5,875 per person, double occupancy, (800) 726-6388, www.acookstour.com/taste_of_southafrica2007.shtml)
Wine and Garden Route Meander
The 7-day tour begins in Cape Town, then to the wine route region of Stellenbosch. From there, you head to Knysna, (pronounced Nighs-nuh) one of my favorite destinations where you'll stop at the Knysna Elephant Sanctuary, and then the tour gets physical: forest hiking trails, water tubing and tree top tours. ($2,000; www.lathita.co.za/frameset_luxury.htm)
Royal Cape Golf Club
The course is a very flat parkland course that is well maintained and has views of the surrounding mountains. The fairways are narrow, demanding extreme accuracy off the tee. There is also plenty of water on the course. (Winter rates: $20-36; summer rates: $36-72)
Want to go on safari? Check out Trans Africa Safaris. There are no pre-packaged tours with this company. Everything is tailored to what you want to do. And yes, wine is also included!
Start in Cape Town at the Cellars Hohenhort Hotel, with a private wine tasting in the 200 year-old wine cellar, followed by a seven-course dinner. The next day, a full-day tour takes you through the Constantia Winelands, including a private tour with the owner of Klein Constantia Wine Estate, a tasting at Steenberg Wine Estate, the oldest wine farm in the Cape, followed by lunch (included) at Catharina's Restaurant on the estate.
The next day includes a full-day tour of Table Mountain and Cape Peninsula, including the cableway excursion up Table Mountain, which rises up 3,566 feet with some of the best views of Cape Town. Days four and five include full-day tours, with wine and cheese tastings and private tastings with viticulturists and owners, followed by four-course dinners. On day six, head to the Huguenot Fine Chocolate Factory for a chocolate tasting to Moreson Wine Estates helipad for a helicopter ride over the winelands area and along the coast to Hermanus. Days seven and eight include more private winery tours, tastings and several multi-course course meals. And finally, (or at least in my case) sign up for a gym membership the minute you return home! (www.transafricasafaris.com/)
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