First of all, I'm just going to put it out there right now: South Africa is my new favorite country. Apologies to Vietnam, which has now had to cede its title, and my condolences also to Paris, which I must ask—awkward though it is; we've got some history—to surrender its sash, gown, and baguette-shaped trophy, and hand over that personalized "Holly's favorite city" plaque to its new rightful owner: the wonderful, gorgeous, glorious Cape Town.
I loved Cape Town so, so, so, so, so much. Can you tell I mean business with all those sos? Because I mean business. I loved Cape Town like Tim Riggins loved Lyla Garrity, like Angela Chase loved Jordan Catalano, like every cast member on How I Met Your Mother loves every other cast member on How I Met Your Mother (is it just me or are they just endlessly recycling various combinations of Ted, Robin, and Barney until our brains collectively explode and we don't care anymore who the mother is or how many seasons we have to wait to find out?)
Cape Town gave us our very first taste of South Africa. We flew in on a Sunday afternoon, tired and discombobulated, when the city was under heavy fog. "That would be Table Mountain," said our taxi driver as he pointed ruefully at an amorphous shape somewhere to our left. "If only you could see it."
Here is a picture where you CAN see it—which we were lucky enough to do the next day—just so you know what we were missing. That's a pretty large thing to hide, right?
Incidentally, as well as stealing the "best city" crown away from Paris, Cape Town also stole the "best shower" crown away from Barcelona, which had hitherto been home to the best shower I've ever had in my life (May 2001, my friend Vicki's apartment, after a harrowing drive from Marseille and 36 hours without bathing, unless you count the frigid 20-second sponge bath in another friend's kitchen sink at 6am that morning, and I don't.) I tell you, when you have taken two consecutive eleven-hour flights, broken up only by a fairly disturbing shower in a public train station, and then you walk into the bathroom of your hotel and it looks like this, you will think you've died and gone to personal hygiene heaven.
I loved that hotel, by the way, which I am not saying because I got any sort of freebie or discount—I didn't, obviously; rest assured that I would disclose that sort of thing immediately if I did—but because it was, hands down, one of the loveliest places I've ever stayed. It's called the Cape Heritage Hotel and I highly recommend it. Also, it is joined to a wine bar. That part is very, very useful.
The room we had for the first four nights was perfectly lovely, but when we checked back in again—we spent one night in another town further down the coast, then came back to the Cape Heritage—the woman at the front desk said "It's your last night, so we thought we'd spoil you a bit." Then she gave us the key to the room above, and I immediately hated my entire house.
So what did I like so much about Cape Town? Well, first of all, it's gorgeous. On our first full day, we did the dorkiest thing: we took this open-topped tour bus around the entire city, which, as I'm sure you know, doesn't make you look like a tourist at all. I normally shy away from stuff like that, but I'd heard good things about this bus, and they turned out to be true; the views from the top deck were glorious (and conducive to suntanning), the commentary was surprisingly un-cringeworthy, and the hop on/hop off nature of the whole shebang meant we could navigate our way around the entire city, seeing exactly what we wanted to see.
And the first thing we wanted to see was Table Mountain. Hey, do you know how you get to the top of Table Mountain? Like this:
What is that noise I hear? Oh, it's just my mother hyperventilating.
Once you're up there, the views are spectacular, and the place just stretches on for miles and miles. If it wasn't the approximate temperature of a witch's you-know-what, we could have spent the entire morning up there; as it was, we took a good hour and a half just wandering around, and stopping every few seconds for general oohing and aahing. By the way, if you're going to go to the top of Table Mountain, be prepared for some backache. Why? Eh, just the repetitive strain injury from repeatedly picking your jaw up off the ground.
Yeah, it's kind of pretty up there, I guess.
One of my other favorite places in Cape Town was the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, which is set on the city's historic harbor and—despite having the highest concentration of tourists of any attraction in the country—is chock full of some surprisingly good shops, restaurants, coffee places, and picnic spots, all of which we made frequent use of.
On our first night, we met a British couple in the hotel lobby called Lou and Lee, who—upon hearing that we hadn't changed any money yet—offered us a ride in the cab they'd just called and then handed us a 50 rand note to get home, just in case we couldn't find an ATM. (Yay, Lou and Lee, for upholding British niceness abroad! Don't worry, we found them later and paid them back.) After a long wander around the V&A Waterfront—and the discovery of a grocery store called Pick N'Pay, which we frequented for the rest of our trip, and which I repeatedly got wrong and called Pack N'Play—we ate our first meal in South Africa at a restaurant on the water where our waiter was called Freedom. "Hey, cool name," I said to him. "Hey, cool dude," he replied, pointing a finger at his chest.
On our last day in Cape Town, we took the ferry out to Robben Island, where, during apartheid, Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 prison years.
Naively, I'd assumed that Robben Island—much like Alcatraz, I guess—was home to the prison and not much else, but an hour-long tour around the island, now a World Heritage Site, proved me wrong; there's a school, lots of housing, and even a golf course. We saw the limestone quarry where the political prisoners toiled—to this day, our guide told us, you're not allowed to take pictures of Mr. Mandela with a flash, because his eyes were so badly damaged from the glare of the limestone in the hot sun—and the cave where, away from the watchful eyes of the guards, the prisoners met on the sly to educate each other and brainstorm, often just by scratching in the dirt.
After an hour, we arrived at the prison, where we were shown around by a former political prisoner named Jama. He'd been sent there in 1977, aged 19, after being accused of helping to organize one of the notorious school boycotts to protest the teaching of Afrikaans. He spent five years in the prison, and was finally released in 1982. Now he spends his days back there, leading visitors through the various rooms and cells, answering questions as best he can.
It was an incredibly sobering glimpse at a horrible piece of South Africa's history, but an important one, I think, to at least try and understand. You can read more about the Robben Island Museum here.
Other Cape Town favorites were the stunning Camps Bay (in the first picture up top), where we ate a picnic on the beach after being dropped off by the dorky red bus, and Greenmarket Square, a bustling craft market in the city centre, which—despite only having thirty minutes until closing—I still managed to circumnavigate in record time, purchasing a yellow bracelet, a turquoise bracelet, and four decorative bowls from a woman named Miriam who gave me her card and made me promise to email her a picture of where they ended up in my house.
This is not where they ended up in my house. I don't stack my bowls on my bed. Too wobbly.
I guess Cape Town blew me away because it wasn't really what I was expecting. I don't know what I was expecting, but it surpassed any preconcieved notions I had of what it might be like. The weather was wonderful. The scenery was wonderful. The people were wonderful. The food was wonderful—we ate at Caveau, HQ, Savoy Cabbage, and Gourmet Burger, in case you're planning a trip yourself—and pleasingly affordable, thanks to the exchange rate, and we never had a glass of wine that didn't blow us away. Cape Town, all in all, was a dream destination—and we haven't even got to the side trips we took out of the city yet. (Did I go cage diving with great white sharks? You'll just have to wait to find out. Okay you don't have to wait to find out. I totally did.)
There are more pictures here, if you're not all Cape Towned out yet, which I can barely even look at because they make me want to be back there right this minute. Mainly because there wouldn't be a dishwasher to unload and a pile of laundry to fold and a bunch of presents to wrap if I were. Wait, did I say wrap? I meant order. So easy to confuse the two. Say, is it Christmas soon or something? Don't tell me how many days are left.