From Cape Town's lovely mountain walks and botanical garden to its eclectic blend of cultures, somehow, Justin Cartwright's hometown seems to always be in full bloom.
A cape full of colour
From Cape Town's lovely mountain walks and botanical garden to its eclectic blend of cultures, somehow, Justin Cartwright's hometown seems to always be in full bloom. Cape Town is an extraordinary place to see for the first time: a huge, grey-green mountain dominates the town and runs all the way like the spine of an iguana from the city itself down to Cape Point, about 40km away, where, in a glorious and turbulent clash of currents, the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. The mountain is never out of sight. Sometimes clouds sweep over from the Atlantic side, where the water is freezing, and hang over Table Mountain, just like a tablecloth. At others points the mountain is a vast stage backdrop, continually changing in colour and texture, so that at any given time it can look dark, cool and mysterious or bleached, dry and benign. At night it is often lit on the city face. Table Mountain is part of the Cape's famous Fynbos region, a unique floral kingdom that exists only on this southern coast of South Africa, and is home to over 7,000 species. So at different seasons of the year the mountain is covered with the flowers of bright bulbs like nerines, orchids like the red disa, the iconic proteas- from the very smallest pincushion to the giant king protea - and onwards through heathers and the scented pelargoniums, the originals of most garden geraniums. Rather like the maquis of the South of France, the Fynbos has its own, distinctive aroma, which a native, like me, picks up as soon as he steps of the plane. It suggests that Cape Town is a world apart.
I was born in Cape Town and for the last 12 years have been returning there in the depths of the European winter. As I settle onto my favourite beach, chilled by a very, very cold encounter with the massive breakers, I quickly relax into a kind of comforting familiarity. Cape Town has everything you could expect of a holiday destination, but more than that it has a fascinating and sometimes troubled history which you can explore on Robben Island, now a Unesco world heritage site, or the excellent District Six Museum. If you are going to Robben Island, try to get to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront early and take breakfast. There are scores of restaurants and cafes, and much else, including markets, an aquarium and some very ritzy hotels, of which the Cape Grace is the best known. Gordon Ramsay and Nobu have opened restaurants there recently.
From the time of the earliest European settlements in 1642 the town itself has huddled on the slopes of the mountain, which rises above it like an enormous cathedral; its history of Dutch and British occupation is writ large, from the original Cape Dutch houses to the vernacular Cape Georgians, the mosques in Bo-Kaap and the synagogues of Sea Point. The history of the people of Cape Town is witness to slavery and the spice trade: the mixed-race population, descended from the early Dutch settlers, Indonesians, Malays and the indigenous people who were mostly Hottentot and San. They are a genuinely Creole people with their own culture and voices which are increasingly being heard. The English who took over the colony in the early 19th century established very English churches and schools and many recognisably English institutions, including libraries and courts, a parliament and a botanical garden. It is this wonderful mixture - all overseen by the majestic mountain - which make Cape Town so utterly distinctive. Visitors often wonder if they are truly in Africa.
Early in your visit, you should take a day to drive - or be driven - right around the Cape Peninsula, allowing yourself a few hours at the very least at the huge nature reserve which is Cape Point. The trip, starting from the Atlantic side, via the astonishing Chapman's Peak, is truly one of the great drives of the world. Many of the best beaches on the Atlantic coast - Clifton, Llandudno, Camps Bay - are very close to the city, but there are more remote beaches like Noordhoek, Scarborough and Crayfish Factory which are often deserted. Most days the water is numbingly cold, no matter how hot the day. This water has come from the North Atlantic at great depths and surfaces when the winds and the tides of the Cape force it against the mountain.
The water of beaches on the Indian Ocean side - Muizenberg, Fish Hoek, Glencairn - is so warm you can bask in it all day. Actually, great white sharks bask in it too and there have been a few - very few - human fatalities. As you leave Cape Town itself over Kloof Nek, and look down on Camps Bay, once a simple suburb, now a very chic destination with many restaurants and hotels, the view is breathtaking: the mountain falls vertiginously into the sea and breakers mark the shore in ruffs of white. After the fishing port of Hout Bay, you head along the coast via the astonishing Chapman's Peak.
The view from up on the mountainside is only rivalled by the sight that awaits you from the viewpoint at the tip of Cape Point, as you look down to the meeting of the two oceans. This is the route of the migrating southern right whale and in November and December you can almost be guaranteed sightings; the bird life, including kittiwakes and penguins, is vibrant and on the secluded beaches far below the southern fur seal basks. All around there are antelope and mountain zebra and ostriches, and a famously bold troop of baboons.
I love Cape Point, and always make a point of swimming at a lovely beach, Buffelsbaai (Buffalo Bay) where you are very likely to be watched by ostriches or a delicate antelope, the bontebok. Look out for baboons, which wait until you are in the water before running down the sand dunes and making off with your picnic. They can be menacing, but it is mostly bluff and there are guards to keep them in check.
On the way back to town take the False Bay route, the Indian Ocean, stopping at Simons Town, the old Royal Navy port, and at Kalk Bay, where you must go to the Olympia Cafe, where you'll find very scruffy, wonderful food and pastries that are somehow totally Cape. The False Bay coast is not nearly as fashionable as the Atlantic side, but it has its charms. There are a couple of good restaurants around the working fishing harbour, and a famous fish and chip stall. When you leave False Bay drive through Constantia, the upmarket and very elegant suburb, which is still partly rural, with some historic Cape Dutch houses like Groot Constantia, long established vineyards and many restaurants. The best of these - and one of the best in South Africa - is Constantia Uitsig, La Colombe is more French, while Uitsig restaurant is a fusion of Cape and Mediterranean dishes. The Spaanschemat River Cafe on the estate does lunches and teas and sells the estate's excellent wines. Constantia also has one of the most sophisticated shopping centres in South Africa and some of the Cape's most beautiful private houses. But don't neglect the city itself or the wine-growing regions a few hours away: they have some of the best restaurants and hotels in South Africa.
Cape Town is also a great place to walk. The mountain itself has any number of walks, from simple contour paths to very steep climbs. Good guides to the paths can be found in all bookshops. You are warned never to walk or climb alone. If you want to get to the top of the mountain without walking, there is a cable car. You should book in advance. From up there you get a spectacular view of the town and Table Bay. And you can, of course, walk down by a number of routes.
A very pleasant and not very taxing walk starts at Contantia Neck, one of the passes over the mountain, and ends in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens where you can have breakfast at either of two excellent restaurants. The walk takes about 45 minutes each way. Kirstenbosch is the most spectacular botanical garden in the world, rising up the mountain and merging seamlessly with the natural vegetation. It is another of my favourite places in Cape Town.
The gardens are huge, and at least half a day is needed to do them justice. In summer - November to April - there are concerts every Sunday on the lawns; Capetonians come to picnic and listen to the music. The music is not always terrific, but it is always a life-enhancing experience as the sun sinks below the mountain and the guinea fowl screech. Justin Cartwright's new novel, To Heaven by Water, which is published by Bloomsbury, is partly set in South Africa