Everyone seemed to be looking at nothing in particular, gazing over a railing separating road and sea, towards a steely horizon. Suddenly I was braking hard and pulling over to join them. I'd seen a steamy, V-shaped plume break the water's surface - the distinctive exhalation of the Southern Right Whale.
Three of them, glossy and black with white callouses, ambled casually past. They teased us, waving giant fins or arching elongated backs, oblivious to our unvoiced desire for them to breach or flick a mighty tail. Rain began; the mesmerising scene was coloured by a vivid rainbow.
Southern Rights, so-called because their high oil content made them the 'right' species to hunt, gather along Cape Town's coast in spring to breed. Protected since 1940, the population is recovering from whaling at a healthy 7% a year, making sights like this increasingly common for passing Capetonians. This juxtaposition of urban life and untrammelled nature is commonplace in a city sandwiched between mountain and sea.
Cape Town's centre lies beneath the world's most easily-recognised mountain:a broad, flat table of rock shaped so precisely it almost appears man-made. Sometimes Table Mountain languishes under a cloth of churning cloud which pours endlessly over its edge and dissolves. Often it fulfils the role popularly demanded: imposing urban backdrop, basking in sunshine. On clear summer nights, when subtly but dramatically spot lit, its craggy splendour is startling.
Behind it, the Cape Peninsula stretches southwards for about 70km, flanked westwards by the icy, lashing Atlantic. Eastwards, the warm, soupy Indian Ocean laps gently in False Bay, so-named because it conned early explorers into believing they had rounded Africa's southernmost tip. The Peninsula has a mountainous spine and numerous sandy beaches - wind-scoured and desolate, or sheltered and fashionable. Its suburbs are leafily prosperous; the shanties of the Cape Flats to the north-east remain starkly poor.
The city swells with the history, gastronomy, adrenaline, art and music of numerous cultures. To encounter it all in ten days, I feared I'd have to go against the laid-back grain of local living and adopt a more of a Jo'burg pace. To avoid this, I consulted Cape Metropolitan Tourism's recently-launched 'self-guided tourism routes'. This series of 18 themed leaflets is designed to help visitors single out places of interest to them, from architecture or birdlife to music or hiking. I started with the only pedestrian route, round South Africa's most popular tourist venue. Based on reclaimed land around the Victoria and Alfred Docks, the Waterfront welcomes 29 million visitors a year.
It can seem American, with vast greenhouse-like shopping malls and luxury hotels, but down by the harbour (still busy with tugs, trawlers and leisure cruises) its own heritage triumphs. Several old port buildings are national monuments, sitting remarkably comfortably besides futuristic constructions like the Two Oceans Aquarium, with its shark-filled predator tank, and the Imax cinema.
The Robben Island exhibition is next to the Clock Tower (ferries to the ex-prison, now a museum, depart regularly from the Waterfront). Cape fur seals heave themselves onto jetties and bark grumpily at diners in restaurants above. Jazz bands, choirs and even the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra perform in the open-air amphitheatre. The atmosphere is unmistakably maritime and cheery.
It was soon obvious that the 'routes' are really themed lists, rather than set circuits, with venues shown on rough maps. I decided to select the most appealing routes and cross-reference between them while exploring the Cape Peninsula by area. That way, I'd avoid re-covering ground when following a new route. The route leaflets are just pointers: you'll still need a good map, a guidebook for detailed background information and a car (easily hired). Public transport isn't one of Cape Town's fortes. In the grid-like city centre, I consulted several routes and enjoyed a varied day. Castle Good Hope, built 1666-79, is the oldest surviving building in South Africa.
It's five-sided - the original Pentagon - and was a hub of military and administrative activity for 150 years. Dreaming of the past, I was snapped to my senses when the Noon Gun fired its daily round on Signal Hill. Cannon were originally positioned there to warn the VOC (Dutch East India Company) of approaching ships. African drums gave rhythm to my browsing among the craft stalls in the cobbled Greenmarket Square. Nearby, the claret Parliament building exudes the colonial elegance that was the hallmark of architect Sir Herbert Baker. A walk through Company Gardens brought me to the dazzling white Museum of South Africa.
Inside, I was astonished by a pair of 6.5m-long blue whale jawbones and by controversial casts of the Peninsula's original inhabitants, Khoisan bushmen, taken early last century when there was a fear these persecuted people would become extinct. The South African Gallery displays paintings of early Cape Town as a re-provisioning station for ships on the lucrative Spice Route to India, and plenty of hard-hitting anti-apartheid art. Below Signal Hill are steep, cobbled streets lined with flat-roofed, brightly-painted terraced houses.
Clashing yet complementing one another wonderfully, walls of tangerine, jade, or magenta imply this is not a district with a muted occidental past. It's Bo Kaap, home to the Cape Malay people - Muslims brought as slaves by the VOC from India, Indonesia and Madagascar, who understood the Malay-Portuguese language. They became tradesmen, living community-oriented lives now showcased in a 1760s Cape Dutch house containing the Bo Kaap Museum. Their cuisine, as feisty as their walls, is enjoyed throughout Cape Town. At night, African jazz filters down Long Street, where tall buildings sport verandahs of antique broekie lace - ornate swirling ironwork.
The street is old, was once of dubious repute and has been regenerated by bars and restaurants that give it an innovative air. Heading south, I entered timeless, wild country: the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, on the waiting list for UNESCO World Heritage status. The routes had me well prepared, looking out for birds, shipwrecks, lighthouses, hiking trails, plants and animals.
The Cape Floral Kingdom is geographically the world's smallest, yet it has the highest number of species: 8600. The Reserve contains 1500 - chiefly fynbos, hardy plants adapted to hot summers and strong winds: proteas, ericas (heathers), restios (reeds) and bulbs such as gladioli and hyacinths.
In winter and spring a swathe of flowers emerges, from bulbous King proteas (South Africa's national flower) to tiny dot-matrix heathers. The Reserve is stark, beautiful and often bleak. Bartholemew Dias aptly called this the Cape of Storms in 1488: after Cape Horn, it is the second windiest place on earth. But the walking is magnificent: passing the rusty remains of the Thomas T. Tucker, a WW2 container ship transporting a consignment of tanks when she ran aground in 1942, I had a long beach to myself. The waist-high fynbos looked uniform and lacking in detail from a distance, but up close, its intricate structures held the eye. Driving to Cape Point, I saw bontebok (chocolate-coloured antelope), ostrich, baboons and tortoises.
I climbed up to Cape Point lighthouse for wide-angle views over the Atlantic and round to the hazy, distant Hottentots-Holland mountains on the far side of False Bay. Romantics would have you believe that the two oceans collide dramatically here, though the meeting point actually moves back and forth between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas to the east, the southernmost tip of Africa. searched for albatross, kestrels, gannets, Black eagles, Jackal buzzards, and endemics like the Cape francolin, Protea canary and Orange-breasted sunbird, but I have an untrained eye. More my scene, ornithologically speaking, were the endearing African penguins at Boulders Beach.
Also known as Jackass penguins because of their donkey-like braying call, they waddled inelegantly, swam gracefully and were cooperatively unfazed by humans ogling them on their nests in the sand. Along False Bay lies Simonstown (named after the 17th century Dutch governor Simon van der Stel), once an important British naval base, now home to South Africa's fleet. Look out for the statue of 'Able seaman Just Nuisance', the only dog ever enrolled in the British Navy! Simonstown's nostalgia-inducing 'Historic Mile' of verandahed colonial architecture is the first sign of the Victorian seaside-town feel that pervades this side of the Peninsula. St.
James has colourfully-painted beach huts and Muizenberg, now tatty, was the darling of Victorian gentry, with 14 hotels and Cecil Rhodes' seaside cottage. It's here (on the whale route) that I saw the whales. Some venues appear on several routes, but that isn't to say Cape Town is trying to pad out its list of attractions. The repetition is apt, stressing different aspects of multi-faceted places. You could spend a fortnight here and still have plenty to see. At Groot Constantia, the picturesque wine estate founded by van der Stel in 1685, cellars are open for wine tasting and purchasing (wine route), the imposing manor house displays fine Dutch gables (architecture route) and the museum preserves vintage estate equipment (museum route).
Nearby, the manicured Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens boast over 4500 indigenous South African plant species and 112 recorded bird species. Regular concerts are a favourite with locals. The sprawling gardens only take 5% of Kirstenbosch's space; the remainder is wild mountain: walking country. A hike up Skeleton Gorge leads to the top of Table Mountain, with views of the city and peninsula that I struggled to absorb. The routes are thorough and full of hidden gems (such as Vergelegen wine estate, the Rhodes Memorial or horse-riding on Noordhoek beach), but they're not exhaustive.
As a separate administrative area, Stellenbosch is excluded, yet it's unmissable if you visit Cape Town. Surrounded by mountains, it forms the heart of the region's winelands, with fairy-tale white Dutch buildings and oak-lined streets. A short drive brings you to numerous estates for wine tasting and a hearty Dutch lunch. So sometimes the routes need to be abandoned. The music route tempted me to the beer-halls of the Cape Flats, suggesting politely that visitors join a tour. This is an understatement: a guide is essential. You won't get pounced on the minute you enter the maze-like townships, but you do need to know where to go.
The other great benefit of guides is that they tell stories. Mine, Roddy, plied me with an irresistible mixture of anecdote and fact as we drove through District Six, a once-vibrant area razed under apartheid's Group Areas Act. From the 1960s, the Cape Coloured population was forcibly relocated to the Cape Flats. Today the land remains desolate, too sacred for even the developer. Roddy described a middle-aged man who comes every Sunday in an old Mercedes crammed with children, to feed the pigeons. 'When I was a child, living in the house where my mother was born, we kept pigeons. When we were thrown out, I promised myself I'd still care for them', he'd told Roddy.
In the Cape Flats, we drove through shocking slums, but whenever we stopped - in shebeens for a beer, at craft markets, or a women's cloth-printing project - we were buoyed by people's calm good nature. We wallowed in an enthusiastic welcome over lunch at a Xhosa restaurant, then visited Golden, a man who was told by God, in a dream, to find flowers in the rubbish dump - he now makes and sells to tourists roses, lilies and sunflowers exquisitely fashioned from old coke cans. In a converted shipping container, we met Rosie, who prepares 600 charity-subsidised meals a day for whoever can scrape together 60 cents. Flicking through Roddy's guest-book, I read, in his own hand: 'A gentleman from Bombay said to me today 'You must have been very good in your past lives to live in a place as beautiful as this.''
Although it's hackneyed to call the new South Africa 'the rainbow nation', the comparison seems appropriate to Cape Town. Whether you're paragliding above Hout Bay, abseiling down Table Mountain or watching a ballet in the Nico Malan theatre, it will always be able to reveal itself from a new angle - a complete prism containing life in every hue.
Cape Cuisine: Tavern of the Seas
In other countries, fusion cuisine is a deliberate trend, but here, we have 'natural fusion' - historical rather than conscious,' laughs Karen Dudley, one of Cape Town's premier private caterers. 'Food embraces the rainbow nation; it's part of exploring who we are in the new South Africa. In Cape Town, we're a hotchpotch of cultures, yet everyone braais (the Afrikaans tradition of barbecuing), everyone eats Cape Malay curries.' Thanks to its halfway position on the Spice Route to India, Cape Town has a hybrid culinary heritage grown from African, Asian, European and Afrikaans traditions.
The city grew from a re-provisioning station for trade ships, earning it the moniker 'the Tavern of the Seas'. Yet despite its heritage of fusion, you can still sample the individual strands in Cape Cuisine. Perhaps most distinctive is Cape Malay food: piquant, tangy to moderately hot, seemingly containing 100 flavours and yet one single flavour simultaneously. There's a flirtation between savoury and sweet, with lots of fruit in the cooking. Favourites include curries, bredies (stews), bobotie (baked curried mince and egg) and bunny chow (stew served in a scooped-out loaf of bread - the loaf is the size of a rabbit and chow is an Indian word for filling). The Noonday Gun Restaurant on Signal Hill offers fine Cape Malay lunches.
In town, on Long Street, Mama Africa serves indigenous African cuisine, but for the real thing, head to Masande, a Xhosa restaurant in the Cape Flats. Masande means 'let us prosper', which feels appropriate as you tuck into mealies, maize-meal pap with hearty stew, meat, dumplings, pumpkin and beans, washed down with African beer. For picnics, visit farm shops like Imhoff's in Kommetjie, common throughout the peninsula. They sell mouthwatering fresh produce, home-made cakes, tarts, muffins, malva pudding and melktart (sweet Afrikaans dishes), and inspiring condiments such as chilli jam or apricot mustard. 'Even middle-of-the-road cuisine is good', says Karen. 'We have the freshest ingredients: fish virtually wriggling, vegetables still smelling of earth.
Freshness creates generally high standards.' Seafood is auctioned to restaurants every morning straight from the boats in Muizenburg - try meaty white fish like snoek, musselcracker, kabeljou, or butterfish at the Harbour Tavern or Codfather (less corny than it sounds). Sun-dried tomatoes and rocket also have their place - Cape Town's very aware of food fashion and there's a definite trendy scene at restaurants like Beluga. Deli and caf? society are growing fast. 'There'll probably be a Cape deli route soon!' smiles Karen.
Her enthusiasm is infectious. 'I'm really excited about our cuisine. It's very dynamic: Our hybrid culinary heritage means there are no serious commitments to upholding tradition, so we can experiment. And we have a local wine to go with everything!' She believes in social cohesion through food. 'There's magic round the table; food has a healing property. People who normally wouldn't mix can do so over a meal.'
Getting Some Action.......
In the Cape most sporting activities are represented by associations and clubs willing to help visitors. In addition, about 35 commercial companies offer opportunities to participate in organised excursions - from easy walks to more active air, land and waterborne activities. All levels of skill and fitness can be catered for. Ask your travel specialist for advice. Captour's 'What's on in Cape Town' gives detailed listings of current events and Cape Metropolitan Tourism offers guidance.
In the Mountains
Table Mountain, Chapman's Peak and Kamikaze Canyon are three of several sites favoured by those enjoying mountain climbing and abseiling. Consult the Mountain Club of South Africa and local associations. The local hiking association and some commercial operators organise trails on Table Mountain, Lions Head, Chapman's Peak, Elsie's Peak at Fish Hoek and on Muizenberg Peak. The superfit may like to try kloofing, a combination of hiking, swimming and boulder hopping, or mountain biking the Double Descent and around Cape Point. For caving fans there are more than 80 sites between Kalk Bay and Muizenberg. They can enjoy the popular 146km-long Boomslang Cave and Schildersgat (Painters Cave), as well as grottoes that were inhabited 15,000 years ago.
On the Ocean Wave
There is excellent angling in both the Atlantic and False Bay waters. Boats (and equipment) for deep sea fishing can be hired through safari companies at Kalk Bay, Hout Bay, Simonstown and other harbours. Those preferring to throw a line from the rocks or beach will find angling off the Cape of Good Hope and west coast shores very good. Strict rules govern all types of fishing so if in doubt contact the Sea Fisheries Institute or local angling societies. The Royal Cape, False Bay and Hout Bay yacht clubs all accommodate visitors from affiliated yachting clubs. Several other organisations and safari operators offer other forms of boating including excursions to Seal Island and from the Waterfront to Robben Island.
For more action try aquaplaning, wave jumping, sail boarding (windsurfing), jetskiing and paddle skiing at Bloubergstrand and other beaches - Noordhoek, Koommetjie and Melkbosstrand for example. Ocean rafting, a relatively new, adrenaline-pumping activity, is available from the V & A Waterfront. For surfing the Cape has gentle shore breaks for beginners, 3m-plus monsters for experts only and a range between. Many surfers head for Long Beach but a number of reefs off the Cape coast produce lefts and rights that work on a south-east wind. Sunset Rocks near Llandudno, Noordhoek and Kommetjie are three such spots. In general surfing is best along the Atlantic Coast.
The Agulhas and Benguela currents create a unique cross-section of marine conditions that provide excellent scuba diving from both boat and shore. Hard and soft corals, kelp beds, caves, drop-offs and old shipwrecks are best explored between June and November. Courses, gear, boat hire and organised dives under qualified dive masters are available from a number of operators. One of these will take you cage diving for sharks off Gansbaai and Dyers Island, or you can swim openly with them in the Two Oceans Aquarium! For the slightly more sane there is sea kayaking along the coast and amongst the seals at Hout Bay.
In the Air
For paragliding enthusiasts the descents from Sir Lowry's Pass and Lions Head to the beach are musts. Real high flyers may prefer sky diving from over 3000m, hang-gliding from one of 29 sites in the area, or boat-launched parasailing from the Waterfront. A superb way to see the peninsula is to take a helicopter flip, from the helipads located at the Waterfront.
On the Ground
Hard saddle maniacs will torture their bodies in the Cape Argus cycle race but others find an organised outing cycling through the wine estates more to their taste. You can also saddle up for horse riding through the vineyards, on the beaches and in the Cape countryside. Hout Bay, Tokai, Ottery, Brackenfell, Milnerton and Durbanville are popular and there are several riding centres in these areas.
For a really trendy day out, hire a Harley Davidson and cruise around the peninsula's beaches.There are enough designated hiking and rambling trails in the area to keep you busy for months. Favourite spots include Kirstenbosch Gardens, Tokai and Cecilia Forests and the Silvermine, Cape of Good Hope and Rondvlei Nature Reserves. Many local tennis, golf, bowling and other sports clubs happily welcome visitors.
At The Waterfront
If you believe much-touted statistics, the V&A Waterfront is South Africa's most visited attraction. Most likely this is true, but what exactly is the fuss all about?
In 1860 Prince Alfred tipped the first load of stones used in building Cape Town's breakwater. When that basin proved too small, the Victoria Basin was built, but by the mid-1900s the facilities were unable to cope with large container ships and fell into disrepair. Work began restoring the Waterfront in 1988 and is scheduled for completion in 2004.
By then, a new canal will connect the complex to the City centre. Whilst the Waterfront is now pitched unashamedly at tourists, it also remains a working harbour for small vessels and fishing boats. A number of old buildings have been restored, including the Port Captain's Office (1882), the Time Bell Tower (1894 - a location and time check reference point for passing ships) and Union Castle House (1919 - home to the old mail steamship service to England).
Shop till you drop
There are two large shopping centres: Victoria Wharf houses major retail outlets and about 200 specialist shops. Alfred Mall has a range of similar establishments but also boasts over 50 travel agencies and many food and watering holes. The Waterfront Craft Market offers a range of handicrafts, jewellery, ceramics, fabric and woodcarving. At the Red Shed Craft Workshop, you can order custom-made items and watch them being created. Should all this prove too much, you could find a clinical psychologist, a marriage councillor, a doctor and a dentist in the Victoria Wharf complex.
Taste and tipple
There are about 60 eateries and bars on the Waterfront-and one afloat-ranging from upmarket restaurants to steakhouses and seafood specialists or numerous cafes. The latter specialise in coffee, tea, fruit juice, ice cream, sandwiches and takeaways. For something more solid, the restaurants cover almost every culinary nationality. One even has a sixties theme - jukebox included.
The choice is wide. You can simply take in the buildings, watch Cape Fur seals in the harbour and admire the views of Table Mountain. Alternatively, take a helicopter trip, a seaplane ride or tour a working brewery. Try Cyberworld, a 3D simulation theatre that provides an 'out of reality' experience. The Telkom Exploratorium offers more than 50 hands-on exhibits, including an opportunity to drive a (simulated) Grand Prix car.
The Two Oceans Aquarium is superb, with a hypnotic predator tank, kelp forest, penguins, seals and hundreds of creatures you never knew existed. Next door, the S A Maritime Museum offers model ships, shipwreck displays and the chance to board SAS Somerset. For the real thing, try a boat trip round the harbour, a sail in a yacht or a sunset cruise.
A night on the tiles
Apart from the restaurants and bars, eleven cinemas screen popular blockbusters and six project a more serious image. Waterfront security is tight, with round-the-clock surveillance. To avoid the problem of getting home after a beer too many, stay at one of the seven waterfront hotels. With so much in one area, the Waterfront Information Centre should probably be your first port of call.
Accommodation in Cape Town
Like most things in Cape Town, accommodation is eclectic. There are numerous international quality hotels throughout the city, with those at the Waterfront being most sought after. South Africa also hosts a number of middle range, limited service hotels which are particularly good value for families. And all over the Cape you will encounter hundreds of converted apartments, budget lodgings and bed and breakfast guesthouses-some more luxurious than others and many offering self-catering facilities. Naturally, those closest to the prime beaches and the Waterfront tend to be more expensive than those further inland, but most offer great value.
Travel Africa tested a cross-section of places, including the following: The Table Bay Hotel at the Waterfront is big, brassy and popular with businessmen. Service is impeccable and the views of Table Mountain unrivalled, but once inside, you could be anywhere in the world.
More charming is the luxurious Cape Grace Hotel overlooking the harbour. Especially pleasing is its library, with deep sofas, decanters of port and interesting paintings. The books (actually worth reading) contain a label saying: 'Please feel free to take this book home if you haven't finished reading it, and we will make arrangements to have it returned to us.' Apparently they haven't lost a book yet.
Along the steep Atlantic coast are numerous hotels built into the rock, where crashing waves lull you to sleep. To enjoy Cape Town's natural side, head for Noordhoek, a green farming valley down the Atlantic seaboard. Comfortable guesthouses like Wild Rose or the charming, family-run Afton Grove will cook you a filling breakfast when you return from your early-morning horse ride on the 5km beach.
One hotel where you could be nowhere other than Cape Town is the Alphen in Constantia, formerly one of the Cape's premier wine estates. Centred around a lofty 17th century Manor House still furnished with original Cloete family heirlooms, the Alphen is a living museum. Its generous rooms are bursting with art and heavy Cape Dutch furnishings that fire the imagination. Cecil Rhodes, Mark Twain and Captain Cook have all visited. Owner Nicky Cloete grew up here and is a goldmine of stories about its history. She's managed to keep the Manor House feeling like a home rather than a hotel.
Sand and Surf
A quirk of nature has bequeathed the peninsula's two seaboards with entirely different personalities. The western coastline is pleasantly sheltered from the prevailing south-easterly winds, but the waters are exhilarating, if not freezing. Nevertheless the Atlantic coast has some of the trendiest sunbathing beaches in the Cape. Beaches along the eastern (False Bay) seaboard are perhaps not as scenically set and tend to be windy at times but the waters are often 5 degrees C or more warmer and can reach 20 degrees C in summer. False Bay is a favourite haunt for whales and their calves during October and November.
About 25km north of Cape Town, Bloubergstrand has long, uncrowded, windy stretches of sand and a magnificent view of Table Mountain. Surfers and paddle-skiers favour Big Bay whilst Little Bay is a family favourite. Nearer the city, Milnerton's 8km of golden sands are popular with anglers and surfers. High season holidaymakers crowd the cosmopolitan suburb of Sea Point, just south of Cape Town. Here the coast is rocky and swimming is dangerous but there are four pools and many sunbathing spots on pocket beaches. There is a magnificent saltwater pool at the Pavilion.
At Clifton the sea is invariably calm, blue and cold. This is the trendy, high-society resort where four fine, wind-free, fashionable and busy beaches are separated by granite boulders and overlooked by luxury flats and bungalows. A bit further south is one of the most beautiful beaches at Camps Bay. It's magnificent, unspoilt, wide, white beach and palm-lined and grassed promenade are set against a stunning mountain backdrop. If anything tops Camps Bay it is Llandudno, an enchanting little beach bounded on three sides by precipitous mountains, but the surf can be rough. Even more secluded - and saucy - is Sandy Bay, the scenic enclave of the bare-bottom brigade. Those preferring to place their posteriors in saddles or walk them down miles of deserted sands head for Noordhoek, which sits in the shadow of Chapman's Peak.
Boulders, just north of Simonstown, an attractively secluded haven of rocks tumbling on a sandy shore, is home to a growing colony of Jackass Penguins. Nearby Seaforth, Froggy Pond and Miller's Point beaches are safe, pleasant family spots. Surf, sand and sun lovers, however, head for Fish Hoek and Clovelly. Both have wide safe beaches, gentle surfing and safe bathing. Nearby St. James boasts a small sheltered beach and popular saltwater tidal pool. Another major holiday resort is Muizenberg whose seafront is lined by a grassy embankment and raised promenade.
Its 15km of broad curving white sands, which range eastwards across Sunrise, Strandfontein and Mnandi beaches to the Hottentots-Holland Mountains are perhaps the finest and most popular among active holidaymakers. Below these mountains lies the Strand, a 5km stretch of gently shelving white sand, but the surf can be dangerous. At some of the more popular holiday resorts, like Muizenberg, there are pavilions, refreshment kiosks, restaurants, hotels, steakhouses, fast food outlets, swimming pools and fun activities such as water chutes and mini golf. More remote and secluded spots are often untouched.
In the Hottentots-Holland mountains is Vergelegen Estate, one of the finest in the Cape. It has a magnificent Manor House full of period furniture and paintings and guarded by five Chinese camphor trees planted between 1700 and 1706. Have an alfresco lunch in the octagonal rose garden before seeing the three-level cellars buried in the hillside. Nearby the Helderberg and Hottentots-Holland Nature Reserves have walking and hiking trails through magnificent scenery boasting over 1300 fynbos plant species, some rare and endemic. The proteas and blue and red disa orchids are best seen between December and February.
Ninety kilometres further on is Hermanus, famous as the Cape's best whale-watching town. Its picture-postcard setting, old cobbled alleys, open-air restaurants and harbour are big attractions. Hermanus offers excellent accommodation, which is packed in the whale season (from September to December). Visitors also come for the sea fishing, walking trails, cosy beaches, local wineries and the nearby nature reserve.
The West Coast
If you want to take the classic picture of Cape Town with Table Mountain behind, Bloubergstrand (25km up the coast) and Melkbosstrand (a bit further on) are the places to go. Bloubergstrand is where the British defeated the Dutch in 1806, thus gaining control of the Cape.
If you're not into surfing, drive on to Darling where there are vast expanses of wheat fields and irrigated pastures. Arrive in August or September when the wild flowers are blooming-they're spectacular. Near Bloubergstrand, Marine Nature Reserve is home to rare sandplain fynbos, whilst just north of Melkbosstrand is Koeberg Private Nature Reserve, which boasts coastal strandveld and dune fynbos, as well as wetlands and a salt marsh. About 120km from Cape Town is the West Coast National Park. Set around Langebaan lagoon, it protects wetlands of international significance. It also gives sanctuary to important sea bird breeding colonies and migrants.
Contributors: Stephanie Debere