Just about every South African I know has told me Cape Town is the place to go, so I had been looking forward to last week's trip for some time. As I spent most of my waking hours in a conference centre for the South Africa Green Building Council Convention, these notes are necessarily very partial. But even though I only experienced a fraction of the sights, Cape Town is clearly a wonderful city, with all the usual cosmopolitan urban highlights, and easy access to extraordinary natural wonders thrown in. The only let-down was the difficulty in finding good live music.
Sights and arts
A coach-load of Japanese tourists beat me to the first cable car of the morning (a super-fast, revolving ride that is utterly different to London's gloriously languid cross-Thames experience), but after I had put fifteen minutes between myself and the tour guides, Table Mountain was a tranquil joy. Sheer on the sides and flat on top it dominates the Cape landscape and in turn provides spectacular views of almost every aspect of the urban sprawl it commands. Mountain-tops can be a bit barren, but I loved spotting a gollum-like lizard with orange diamonds down the spine, and chatting with an excitable sparrow-sized bird, showing off its irridescent blue collar and bright yellow belly while chirping madly. Go early / take binoculars.
Cape Point & Cape of Good Hope
Having learned that coach tours start early in these parts (see Table Mountain above), I took a sunrise trip to Africa's southern tip and was rewarded with a glorious hour of ocean contemplating solitude at Cape Point. Famously, this is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans' meet and merge (although the true line is the next bay along) and its treacherous waters mark the spot where Bartholomeu Dias realised he had discovered a seaborne trade route to India from Europe.
The 'Point' itself snakes out as if to mediate between the two colliding seas and you can walk a precarious cliff-top path down to the little lighthouse erected on a foundation of 540 million year old granite, guided by the scent of Fynbos bushes that line the way. The abundant warning signs suggests that baboons are the main local resident, but my morning pals were a host of Black Zonure lizards checking out the day's sunbathing prospects, plus a stunning falcon-like bird of prey soaring above.
It was completely over-powering and I could have stayed all day, but that would have meant missing out on a coastal bike ride back to Cape Town (and my flight home).
The Penguins of Boulders Beach
The African Penguin is quite a bit smaller than its Antarctic Emperor cousin and the males bray like donkeys to mark out their territory, but otherwise a penguin seems to be a penguin. This lot have made a home on the peninsular between Cape Town and Cape Point and seemed very happy toddling around there when I saw them. A boardwalk allows tourists to get within touching distance of the colony favourits sun-bathing/wind-avoiding spots, close enough to see that quiet a few were in an advanced state of moulting. Apparently penguins fatten up for this bi-annual change of clothing, because they are unable to go fishing for the 30 days it takes their new feathers to become fully waterproofed. Cute but tough.
Zip Zap Circus
An unusual venue for the South Africa Green Building Conference Gala Dinner, the Zip Zap Circus provides training and a focus for kids from the townships, a bit like the acclaimed Bolivarian Youth Orchestra in Venezuela. Delegates were treated to gymnasts spinning around the stage inside giant hula-hoops (imagine that Leonardo Da Vinci image of a man, arms and legs splayed in an X shape), and a very dangerous-looking tumbling act involving a long piece of (hopefully heavily reinforced) silk.
&Union, 100 Bree Street
I went for the promise of music and can confirm that there is a decent outdoor stage, but it seems that Saturday night is not the time for live bands. A nice selection of craft beers though, including a tasty golden 'All Day IPA', which promised 'hazy orange with notes of baked apricot.'
Beerhouse, Long Street
The sign promises 'Beer, food, coffee, music, and happiness'. I'm not sure why anyone needs the coffee bit, but it was the perfect place for a slow Sunday lunch and a pint of Porcupine Quill Kalahari Gold, a cheery little IPA amongst a menu of one hundred mostly high strength beers. The mushroom and blue cheese Flammkuchen was lovely too – a kind of cracker bread with caramalised onions. Has the special characteristic of being about the only thing open on Long Street on a Sunday.
Baghdad Cafe, Long Street
A late night shish-pipe place. Friendly and, most importantly, open at the right times.
Restaurants and cafes
Africa Cafe, Shortmarket Street
Like all the best tourist finds, I ended up at the Africa Cafe because all the places Time Out recommended were full and my rumbling stomach was starting to attraction attention. It was perfect, offering a thirteen course taster menu of African specialities, from Malawi Mbatata Balls (sweet potato and cheese rolled in sesame), to Botswana Seswaa Masala, Congolese Spinach and a cracking carrot and ginger cake whose provenance I failed to note down.
Spread across two floors and at least four rooms, every surface is adorned with vibrant art, from the model townscapes in the lobby, to an extraordinary wall of splash-painted tin-can lids in the room where I ate. The gentle proprietor and waiters take pride in explaining everything on the menu and I was treated to a fantastic acapella and drumming performance, that was a million miles better than the usual tourist trap covers-band.
Orchard, Long Street
A friendly juice bar that serves the most amazing smoothies – all kinds of weirdness thrown in a blender and emerging with flavours that defy the sum of the parts. Provided me with daily vitamins and a new appreciation of peanut butter.
Polana, Kalk Bay Harbour
I was taken to this Mozambiquan/Portuguese tapas bar on the way out to Cape Point by a friend from Arup, and it turned out not only to have great seafood (the curried calamari was awesome), but extraordinary views of the raging sea, with the act of eatingfrequently interrupted by gargantuan waves crashing against the reinforced wall-to-ceiling windows. A thunderous delight.