Friday, 26 October 2012

An unexpected love affair with Cape Town

You will no doubt be unsurprised by my summation that Cape Town is an awesome city. After all it has a certain notoriety for its beauty and, post-World Cup fever, its vibrancy. Chris and I were blown away by the place. Thankfully so, for having cut time a little on the fine side we only had ten days to spend in the whole of South Africa before heading to Turkey to meet our friend Charlie. Instead of charging around like mad people we had decided to stay put in the Cape area for the whole time and do excursions from there. As a result we really got to explore the city and its surroundings and totally fell in love with what we saw! It's like New Zealand with more culture, San Fran without the Americanisms, or Vancouver with better weather!

The city itself is as cosmopolitan as they come; shopping, restaurants, bars, art house cinemas, buzzing waterfront, sports events, concerts, farmers markets, museums, art galleries - tick tick tick! When it comes to city staples such as these, Cape Town can rival any of the greatest, most developed cities in the world and we had lots of fun getting our fix of the home comforts we had missed on our journey south from Nairobi.

Not only is Cape Town a wonderful city, but it is also blessed with an enviable proximity to the great outdoors. Whatever floats your boat, wine tasting, surfing, lazing on a beach, sailing, wildlife watching, hiking,  climbing, kite surfing, can literally do it all; if not in the centre of the city, then within a mile or two radius. It is just magical.

Finally, the weather deserves a mention; it is heavenly. Despite being one of the worst winters on record, it beat an English summer hands down. We had a total of two days rain during our stay and the rest were sunny and warm. Overall the weather got a big thumbs up from us and I can only imagine how wonderful the summers must be.

Obviously the downside, and the reason that people are sometimes reluctant to visit, is the crime and poverty, but it is difficult to see this as a threat when you have had no first hand experience of it. Unlike most African cities we have visited you can at least walk around Cape Town during the day without any problems. At night, you are advised to take a cab (which we did) and that isn't too arduous given the proliferation of inexpensive taxis about the place. The houses are not hemmed in behind big electric gates as in Jo'burg and it generally feels much less threatening. We certainly saw no evidence of any violence or crime while we were there although of course you never have to look far to see signs of poverty and hardship all around.

Finally, although you can easily forget sometimes that you are in Africa, there are all the opportunities of a growing city that come with being in a developing country, i.e. it hasn't all been done before! We sampled a couple of local tours and were intrigued by the success they had managed to achieve in such a short space of time, for something seemingly so simple. For someone who has an entrepreneurial outlook, you could do a lot worse than settling in Cape Town (Chris and I would jump at the chance). So with that glowing introduction, here is a sample of a few of the things we actually did.

Wine Tasting Tour
The first tour we took was a trip out to the Wine Country around Stellenbosch and Franschoek. African Story, our tour operator, picked us up at our hostel in their mini van and our chirpy guide, Fern, drove us out of town to our first stop of the morning...a touch of champagne tasting - an exceedingly civilised start to the day. We visited four vineyards in total, had a lovely alfresco lunch, olive oil tasting and cheese tasting (my personal highlight); a fun-filled long day that was well worth the $65 pp that we spent on the trip. We had been planning to organise it ourselves and I don't think we could have done it cheaper, plus we wouldn't have had a clue where to go! Our guide was absolutely lovely...blonde bubbly and knowledgeable  she really made the day memorable. She was informative without being stuffy and our varied group (from wine connoisseur to wine-guzzling student) all enjoyed their day.They have put together a simple yet effective itinerary, with fantastic staff and are totally deserving of the success they have had so far.

Surfing Lessons
Not so much a tour, surfing lessons were the other activity that we opted to pay out for during our time in the Cape. We contacted Michelle with an interest in the three and seven day surf trips she operates down the garden route from Cape town. Unfortunately we were a little out of season and Michelle was on holiday at the time but we managed to catch her for a couple of lessons on her return from Bali. Having set up a mobile surf school about 18 months previously, Michelle and her sister/business partner Sarah-Jane are living the dream. Stoked School of Surf was Michelle's light bulb moment when she returned from 4 years of travelling and working round the world, only to realise that she was never going to be happy working in the marketing job she had left behind. Her business is going from strength to strength and although I think there will be a few copy cat operations in the city before long, she really has a unique selling point unseen before on the Cape Town market. It's simple...she picks people up from their hostels/hotels and takes them surfing on the best beaches around the city. Wherever the surf is best that particular day, she can take you there in her mobile surf school. She provides all the gear and you just get changed at the side of the beach. All in all, overheads are low (now she's got all the gear and the van), she's doing something she loves, and crucially she's sold out, year round! We had a fantastic time surfing with Michelle for a couple of days and are keen to go back to the Cape and try out one of her longer trips down the coast, taking in a little sightseeing on the way.

Hermanus, Table Mountain and Cape Point
Aside from the organised activities above, opportunities abound for unguided exploration. Whilst the two tours were definitely highlights of our stay in the city, another was the fantastic drive we took down the coast to Hermanus. Not only did we see some stunning scenery on the way but Hermanus is a town known for it's fantastic land based whale watching opportunities and we were lucky enough to spot five or six of these giant mammals on our overnight trip there. It is one of the best places on earth to observe whales from the shoreline, a series of meandering cliffs that wind around a stretch of water that is marine protected and where the whales come to mate, calve, and nurse their young. I've seen whales before, in Patagonia, from a boat and these sightings were just as close and all for free!

And we weren't done yet. Ascending Table Mountain is almost obligatory. With the cable car undergoing maintenance during our visit we had no other choice but to get on our hiking boots and undertake the relentless 2 hour vertical hike up the Platteklip gorge to the top (and back again!). It was well worth it. With the clear blue sky day that we had that day you could see all the way down to cape point and the cape of good hope from the top and the views of the city were incredible.

Finally, a visit to this area would not be complete without a visit to the Cape of Good Hope!  We hired a car and had a great day out driving down to Cape Point, taking in Camps Bay, Hout Bay, and the Simon's Town penguins on the way. To be in  such wilderness just minutes out of such a cosmopolitan city was amazing and epitomises just what the Capetonian way of life is all about. We topped off our day with yet another spectacular African sunset on the drive back.

Funnily enough, despite all of the incredible attractions and activities on offer here (not to mention the cultural possibilities which I haven't even touched upon here), no one suggested we visit Cape Town on our travels. Plenty of people suggested we go to New Zealand but South Africa was not a hot tip from any of our friends, even those who have been. For some reason it just never seems to come up in conversation, despite its very well established backpacker trail and its incredible outdoorsy credentials. Unlike other iconic destinations it is remarkably quiet (or maybe that was just in the winter!) and there don't seem to be the hoards of foreign tourists flocking here in the same way as they do elsewhere; there is an undiscovered feel to it which we loved. It won't be long before the secret is out though so visit while you can! There is enough in the city and its surrounds to spend a good 10 days of exploring and you will still be wanting to go back for more.I have a feeling Chris and I will be back before too long, but shhh....let's try and keep it a bit of secret for a while longer! If you've been, please let us know what your favourite bits were and where we've missed for our next trip!...

For more snaps of our time in South Africa please click here.

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