Feature Fronted by the Atlantic and backed by over 70 mountain peaks, South Africa's oldest city is smart, sophisticated and beautiful. Now is the best time to visit.
Land of abundance
Whoever called South Africa a world in one country wasn't exaggerating. You have only to travel 100km to feel you have arrived in a completely new continent - and in Cape Town, which sprawls along the Cape Peninsula near the tip of Africa, fronted by the Atlantic and backed by over 70 mountain peaks including Table Mountain, being the most famous - you have one of the world's great playgrounds. A nine-hour flight from Abu Dhabi, it is a groomed and sophisticated city that not only feels more Californian than African but is arguably the most beautiful on the planet.
The centre, which almost does justice to its magnificent setting, is compact enough to walk around in a couple of hours. The long sandy beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay lie 10 to 20 minutes away by car, and the green and lovely suburbs stretch for miles between coast and the foothills, easily encompassing attractions such as the 1,300-acre Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, which contain 7,000 of South Africa's indigenous tree and plant species. Head inland, on smooth, swooping, perfectly maintained motorways, and about an hour's drive takes you into the ravishingly lush landscapes of Constantia, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.
The food is great, the shopping wonderful (look out for Cape Town designer Carrol Boyes' functional art) and the nightlife - especially in the jazz clubs - cool and funky (check out the weekly arts guide in the Mail & Guardian to find out what's going on). Once a steal, prices at hotels and guesthouses have been rising sharply since September 11, 2001, when people started looking around for a safe holiday haven - but a devalued rand is currently rendering them good value again. And this is the time to go. Prices are expected to creep up next year when South Africa hosts the 2010 football World Cup.
Cape Town's climate is basically Mediterranean: the winter months from May to September can be dank, cold and cloudy while the summer months from November to March usually see blue skies, temperatures in the high 20s, and the south-easterly Cape winds keep the air fresh. Although I'm a regular visitor to Cape Town, friends go to South Africa's oldest city knowing nothing about its background and have fun driving around in the sunshine feeling fabulous, lifted by the exhilaration that so much scenic beauty and spaciousness generates. While many visitors seem happy doing nothing more than taking the cable car up Table Mountain, what is thrilling for a guidebook-toting visitor is that the city's history is still so visible.
You can still see Company's Garden, a lush, shady, eight-acre park laid out by the great colonial architect Sir Herbert Baker (also the designer of the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the Secretariat Building in New Delhi) on the site of the much bigger, 45-acre, kitchen garden planted by the first European arrivals. Jan van Riebeeck and the Dutch East India Company laid that out in 1652 to supply the company's ships en route to the far east. You can visit what used to be Slaves' Lodge, built in 1685 to accommodate the Madagascans and Indonesians that the company hauled in to tend the crops. Fast-forwarding three centuries, you can enter the cool, dark space of St George's Cathedral and see the pulpit from where the Archbishop Desmond Tutu railed so eloquently against the National Party policy of apartheid.
You can ponder over the poignant recreations of little homes in the museum of 'District Six' - razed after forced clearance of its coloured and black populations. In 1966, they were simply turned out of their houses to be trucked out to somehow cobble together a life on the bleak and barren Cape Flats. Rubble from the destruction was used to make the new container-port. The Victoria and Albert Waterfront shopping and restaurant complex, built on the site of the old harbour is now one of the world's most successful urban redevelopment programmes and a magnet for any visitor. Here you can see statues to the city's four Nobel Peace Prize winners in Nobel Square - Albert Luthuli, FW de Klerk, Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela. You can see the balcony at City Hall where on February 11, 1990, the eyes of the world turned to the city as Mandela, newly released after serving the 27-year prison term on Robben Island, addressed ecstatic crowds. And if you can bear choppy water, you can even climb into a boat for the nine-kilometre ride across Robben Island, South Africa's Alcatraz, where Mandela's engrossing and witty former fellow prisoners now make a living showing visitors around the jail.
Once your sightseeing is over, though, you will want to jump into your rental car and head for the beach. Thanks to the city's quirky location, close to several coasts, you have quite a choice. With its Twelve Apostles mountain backdrop, Camps Bay is most spectacular. The ocean is freezing here all year-round, although somehow children don't appear to notice that, and the beach is vast, backed by lawns and overlooked by a road lined with chic open-air cafés and restaurants. Just beyond the bay, the veranda of the Twelve Apostles hotel is the best place in the city to watch the sunset, before heading back to the city to eat and maybe find a jazz bar. The view is humbling.
Where to stay: If you have time to get out of the city into the vineyards for a day or two, there are dozens of routes to follow. In Franschhoek, a small formerly Huguenot town surrounded by a ring of hills that has become known for its gourmet food, stop at Le Quartier Francais. As a guest at this pleasing ensemble of a small courtyard hotel, two restaurants, irresistibly well-stocked shop and 22-seat private cinema, you will automatically get a table in the restaurant (www.lequartier.co.za). If you go just to eat, though, booking ahead - here or anywhere else in this little gourmet town - is absolutely essential. If you go without a restaurant booking, you should probably stop at the Spier centre en route - an open-air performance space with a cheetah zoo and excellent farm shop - to stock up for a picnic. Bread and breakfast for two at Le Quartier starts from $415 (Dh162). May sees the launch of the new One&Only resort next to the V&A centre. Meanwhile, the city's oldest and grandest hotel, Mount Nelson, exquisitely decorated and maintained by Orient Express Hotels, doesn't disappoint - unless you want to stay in the historic main building but end up in one of the new apartments - but it is expensive (www.mountnelson.co.za). At Mount Nelson, a package for two nights for two people with breakfast, afternoon tea and transfer to the airport costs $987.24 (Dh3626). Guesthouses, however, offer a mix of comfort and personal service at not too outrageous a price. At the luxury level in Cape Town - and throughout South Africa that invariably means a small hotel run by someone who has looked around five-star hotels, inspected their bathrooms, felt the quality of the bedlinen, eaten in their restaurants, and thought, "I could do that on a smaller scale" - the eight-room Kensington Place has its fans. Double rooms at Kenisington Place cost from $277.65 (Dh1,010) (www.kensingtonplace.co.za). Better, in my opinion, is the five-star Bishops' Court, about 10 minutes' drive from the centre and a walk from the Kirstenbosch Gardens, at the foothills of Table Mountain (www.thebishopscourt.com). An old house with five bedrooms, one with an outdoor courtyard, a big covered veranda, lavish breakfasts, and a series of terraced gardens with a pool looking across Table Mountain, it is extremely comfortable. Paul le Roux, who runs it, is also a qualified Cape Town guide, who can not only tell you everything you want to know and discuss about Cape Town (the crime rate, HIV problem, football and so on) but can take you sightseeing, too. Go down the peninsula to Cape Point, the Good Hope Nature Reserve and to see the penguins at Boulders Beach, for instance, into the Cape Flats Khayelitsha township, shark- or whale-watching, or, in season, to see the extraordinary Cape wild flowers. A double bedroom is $363. (Dh1334). For further information visit www.southafrica.net. How to get there: Emirates flies daily from Dubai to Cape Town. A return ticket costs from $1,650 (Dh6,050), including taxes (www.emirates.com).