When it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere, many who love to cruise start looking south, some as far as across the equator. In North America, most cruise the waters around South America, especially between Buenos Aires and Valparaiso or visit the Caribbean islands. Most Europeans who cruise look at the Mediterranean or Canary Islands for a winter getaway. But so many do not realize that there are cruises that will take you along either the west or east coast of Africa, ending up in Cape Town. Or if you have less time to spare, you can fly south and then do a 12- to 14-day cruise around the coast of South Africa, leaving from and returning to Cape Town.
Five coastal cities in the world have garnered a reputation as being the most beautiful seaside cities with regard to both their natural setting and also their urban character. The three cities with magnificent harbors that defy any rivals are Vancouver, Canada; Sydney, Australia; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Then there is San Francisco, a city whose harbor is large, but not especially spectacular. But this is a city of unique character with its whitewashed houses clinging to steep hillsides. And last but not least is Cape Town, a city under the shadow of towering Table Mountain and washed by two oceans
Cape Town is South Africa’s oldest city, having been first settled by the Dutch in 1652, as a rest station on the long route from the Netherlands to the East Indies. In 1814, the British gained control of the city, and many Dutch moved inland to ultimately establish Johannesburg and Pretoria. But some remained behind, and it was their architectural heritage, language and customs that became interwoven with those of the British, East Asian immigrants and the native African people. Today if there is one element of Cape Town’s cultural scene, it is the blending of these distinctive traditions that marks the everyday lives of its nearly 4 million residents.
The geographic setting of Cape Town generally has visitors in absolute awe. The city wraps around Table Mountain, a flat topped series of crags, but with one large mesa-like structure facing out to sea. Its horizontal beds of ancient rock produce a massive monolithic mountain that rises up 1,085 meters or 3,558 feet above sea level. This mountain range extends south along the Cape Peninsula, culminating about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the city center at the Cape of Good Hope. It received its name, as mariners rounding the continent were hopeful that their voyage would continue to be without peril. And it is technically the dividing point between the Atlantic Ocean with its cold currents to the west from the Indian Ocean with its much warmer waters to the east.
As warm air rides up the southeastern side of Table Mountain, it cools and moisture condenses into fog that spills over the northern side, spilling down with billowing fingers that resemble a tablecloth unfurled. The fingers slip down toward the central city and then magically dissipate before reaching the bustling downtown area. Every afternoon during summer, you can expect to see the tablecloth almost like clockwork.
The sea pounds along the western side of these mountains, having sculpted bays that today are now home to some of the city’s most fashionable suburbs. While to the west, the land spreads outward toward the distant Hottentots-Holland Mountains, heart of the magnificent Wine Country. The eastern side of Table Mountain shelters some of the most beautiful suburban communities whose woodlands and gardens nestle up against its lower slopes. The open plain has become home to most of the middle class suburbs that spread outward to the former African Townships, now economically depressed communities rather than being racially segregated.
For the visitor to Cape Town, especially if you spend a few days before or after your cruise, there are so many sights that you will find yourself busily trying to take them all in. But leave yourself time to sit on one of the white sand beaches, or stroll through one of the city’s upmarket suburbs and simply soak in the ambiance. The major highlights I recommend include:
- The view from atop Table Mountain – Reached by cable car, this is a spectacular view, but it is best to go in the morning before the cloud cover known as tablecloth forms
- The view from atop Signal Hill – For a closer and more intimate view of the heart of Cape Town, Signal Hill is an absolute must
- Coastal drive to the Cape of Good Hope – This drive takes you through the most beautiful of seaside suburbs and beaches, finally into rather wild shoreline to the tip of the Cape Peninsula
- V & A Waterfront – This redeveloped shopping and entertainment complex is the highlight of the city center. It is a great place to sample local Cape Town cuisine, see street entertainers and mingle with the local people
- Kirstenbosch Gardens – These magnificent gardens are a Cape Town treasure, tucked into the foothills on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. Plan upon at least two hours to walk through the elegantly landscaped grounds
- Two Oceans Aquarium – If you are interested in marine life, this aquarium features a variety of sea life from both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. With different temperatures, the waters of each is home to very different species
- District Six Museum – District Six was destroyed under Apartheid laws in the early 1960’s, but this museum brings that multi ethnic community back to life
- Cape Town Diamond Museum – The museum tells the story of South Africa’s diamond mining industry, and it features an array of gems in different stages of finish
- Beaches at Clifton – If you are looking for sun and surf, then choose any of the four beaches in the seaside suburb of Clifton, as they are magnificent
- Camps Bay – This seaside suburb also has spectacular beaches, but it is also home to many great restaurants and bistros
- Robben Island – It was on this prison island that Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC were incarcerated. You can actually stand in the cell that Mr. Mandela occupied. Today it is a national shrine, easily reached by ferryboats from the waterfront
- Langa Township – There are guided tours to enable you to visit one of the townships that once existed during Apartheid. It no longer is a township by law, but it still reflects the poverty and poor living conditions of the Apartheid era. And as a visitor, you are best off on a tour or with a private guide
- Long Street – Features some of the beautiful 19th century Victorian architecture that once characterized the entire downtown. Long Street is also a venue for many restaurants and clubs
- Castle of Good Hope – This 17th century fortress in the heart of downtown Cape Town once protected the early colonial settlers
- Nelson Hotel – Having lunch or afternoon tea at the Mt. Nelson Hotel in the Garden District is a treat, as it brings back the glory days of the Victorian Era
- South African Jewish Museum – Provides a fascinating history of the role of Jewish immigrants in the life of the country and in the diamond industry
- University of Cape Town – For those interested in learning about the role of higher education in the country, the University of Cape Town is the most prestigious of all South Africa’s universities. Once it was segregated, but today open to all who qualify based upon academics only
A Wine Country Tour is an absolute must, so allow a whole day in your plans for pre or post cruise arrangements. It can be arranged by your hotel, or if your ship is doing an overnight before you disembark or after embarkation, it is often one of the tour options. Visiting Stellenbosh, Paarl and Franschhoek gives you a chance to explore a few of the wineries, have an elegant lunch at a winery and walk through parts of these small cities with their distinctive Dutch colonial architecture. No visit to Cape Town should be complete without a day in the wine country.
If you are traveling onward to Johannesburg or Pretoria, this is the ultimate experience. The Blue Train is said to be the most elegant train in the world. The rail journey takes around 26 hours and gives you a chance to pass through the Karoo and across the High Veld. Its sleeping accommodations, food and service are equal to what you would expect in a five-star hotel. The train does not stop in Johannesburg, but most major hotels can arrange transportation to or from the station in Pretoria.
There are no major game parks in the vicinity of Cape Town, but on the cruises around South Africa, there are plenty of opportunities for such visits. And if you are traveling by way of Johannesburg, then you might consider a visit to Kruger National Park, the king of all game parks in Africa.
You will find that Cape Town is an easy city to fall in love with because of its natural beauty, its multi cultural flavor and the friendliness of its people. But please remember that it is best to do your excursions in the company of a licensed driver/guide so as to have the maximum pleasure out of your visit.
Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch www.doctorlew.com