South Africa is a country of astonishing contrasts - between mountain and desert, white city and black township, wealth and poverty. From Cape Town's cafe society to Soweto's jazz joints, from the luxurious Blue Train to an amazing nature trail, it offers incomparable experiences
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"YOU DON'T want to go there," said the cropped-haired bouncer guarding the door of Mamma Africa when I asked for the Internet Cafe. "Full of space cadets."

Taking his advice, I tried Mamma Africa first. Full of space cadets, too, by the look of things. Imagine a brilliantly executed yet gloriously kitsch cafe-bar-restaurant done up in a style that lisps "Africa" in the campest possible way. How about a long, snaking bar in the guise of a... a long, green snake? What about a frieze of old jeeps and dirt-road trucks, headlamps blazing, bursting through the wall above the barmen's heads?

Welcome to Mamma Africa, mother of all fashionable Cape Town restaurants, a place crammed with yuppies and cellphone junkies. Everyone is laid-back and, oh, so very cool. The drinks are cool too, chilled in fact. Food is hot and spicy. Customers are uniformly white and beautiful; musicians are black and probably poor.

Mamma Africa is at the heart of Cape Town's most fashionable quarter. This is concentrated on Loop and Long streets, two elongated city alleys running parallel between the seafront and the sheer wall of Table Mountain. Loop Street and Long Street are a marriage of New Orleans and Sydney: magnificent late 19th-century buildings sporting filigree balconies on upper floors, home to loudly advertised brothels at one end of their length and to fashionable bars and antiques shops at the other.

After dinner at Mamma Africa, it's time to brave the Internet Cafe across the road. Inside, space cadets sit, cafe machiatto or chilled vodka in hand, glued to a battery of desk-top computers. The decor is Starship Enterprise meets Creative Salvage. The atmosphere is, like, cool. No one speaks (that would be, like, uncool), but a lot of perfectly groomed blonde hair is tossed and flicked. Eye contact is met by steely glares and further bouts of hair flicking. Cigarettes are toyed with, coolly, for the first quarter of their filtered length and then discarded. Girls wear tiny dresses to show off their tans; boys sprout pony-tails and lounge in loud T-shirts and unfeasibly long shorts. Computer games are played into the long, hot night with quiet, yet earnest fervour.

Hmm. Time to try somewhere else self-consciously hip. I cross the road, avoiding the teenage urchins with hyena eyes who watch for lost space cadets easy for the picking. I climb a set of narrow stairs to The Lounge. This is so cool that any attempt at conversation is met with stony silence. More blonde hair, extremely expensive long shorts, cellphones (for monosyllabic monologues) and fashionable drinks. Zzzzz.

I'm just about to go when a young man comes and actually speaks to me. He is not South African. He is Danish. "It's very cool here, no?" he says. We are standing on the colonial-style balcony; the temperature must be 80 degrees. "Yes. Very cool," I say.

"You want to have a look at some of the live music bars?" Sounds a good idea. So we stroll down to the junction of Loop and Waterkant streets. Here, white trendies give way to a mixed-age, mixed-race crowd clearly having a good time. The music is live Cape jazz, which is music you could - and do - listen to all night long. Cool drinks give way to chilled bottles of the inevitable Castle beer (no one seems to drink much else in South Africa). I enjoyed the music and the view from the balcony of The Crow Bar, its clientele spilling on to the street.

This was much more to my taste than the huge new and much feted Waterfront development. Sure you can find good jazz at a number of bars here in the old Victorian docks (these are still in use) - Green Dolphin and Rosie's are recommended - but the Waterfront feels like a theme park, a sort of computer-generated Covent Garden on the water. I can see why it is so popular: it is well protected, a place you can park your car without it being broken into (or set fire to) and where you can walk freely without fear of attack.

But if you like your city night-life to be restlessly alive and want to meet people of all class, creeds and colours head for the junction at Waterkant.

Like all cities Cape Town is divided along the fault lines of wealth. The hippest parts are generally where the money is, but they are not necessarily either the most beautiful nor the most rewarding.

Take beach life. The beach is as much a part of Cape Town life as the Underground is in London. The coolest (in fashion terms) is at Camps Bay, where shoals of hair-flicking teenagers, smug twenty-somethings and babe- watching playboys flex their muscles and show off the latest line in bathing costumes. The road is lined with brand new BMWs and every cool young thing is talking not to the person pouting alongside them on the white sand, but to someone else, at the other end of a cellphone. Camps Bay pizzerias bustle at sundown with bronzed beauties who flick, phone and toy with their salads.

A few miles south along the coast-hugging and spectacular Chapman's Peak Drive is Noordehoek with its 10km long beach. The beach is empty. Always is apparently. I am told that this is because the currents are very strong, but as few people at Camps Bay actually swim, what difference does this make? The geography of fashion can be hard to fathom.

At Noordehoek there are few buildings, no pizzerias and just one hardy jogger in sight. I find stables nearby and rent a magnificent horse. We gallop from one end of the beach to the other. It is a wonderful way to spend a Cape Town morning, but clearly not the in-thing to do.

Because the hip crowd leads a very regulated life - Saturday afternoon, for example, is for sport - it is easy to have some of the most beautiful corners of Cape Town to yourself. I found this an ideal time to visit the National Gallery, the art museum and collection run by the spirited Marilyn Martin, a former fashion model. Ms Martin has been collecting township and other minority South African art for many years. Since Mandela's election victory in 1994, it has been possible to display this eclectic and vibrant collection. The visual counterpoint between some of the township art and the cool colonial classical architecture of the National Gallery is an exciting one.

The cafe among the trees a few steps away from the National Gallery is a meeting ground between the young and fashionable and the old and colonial. As usual, despite the fact that Cape Town has always been a fairly liberal city, everyone who eats is white and everyone who serves is black or "coloured" (ie, non-white and not quite black). The way young trendies order the waiters around is pretty nauseating.

Some of the best places to meet people of all backgrounds are the bars and dance clubs in the suburbs and townships. I enjoyed Odyssey, a hangout, so guidebooks and locals tell you, for "coloured" gangs. The joint is in Woodstock, a northern suburb framed by docks and marshalling yards. Odyssey boomed to the sounds of contemporary disco and was filled to capacity with a fascinating crowd. A bit dodgy, perhaps, and hard to get a taxi back downtown. But this is a hair-flicking-free zone and everyone has plenty to say.

The Yellow Door in Guguletus township, a few miles from the centre (Cape Town is a compact city, spiralling around Table Mountain like a snail's shell), was a real groove; this is where I heard the latest Cape jazz and funk sounds. But a word of warning: Cape Town's townships have been more dangerous (although less well publicised) than those of Johannesburg. So, you need to ask local people whether or not a white face will be welcome. If so, hop into a "black taxi" (expect extremely imaginative driving, remember to check your life insurance and close your eyes tight for the duration).

Back in town, an amiable place to meet a mixed crowd is Greenmarket Square. This is a handsome old square filled most days of the week with market stalls selling cheap clothes, craft work, jewellery, bangles and beads from all over South Africa. The streets leading off the market sell exquisite African jewellery as well as secondhand books and Cape colonial furniture (superb). At the moment the pound is very strong in South Africa, so you can afford to buy jewellery and antiques that are only for the well-heeled in England. The people next to me at the till in a secondhand bookshop clucked and gasped as I handed over 125 rand for a book on Cape Dutch architecture (some of the finest architecture to be found anywhere in the world). But as six into 125 goes 20 times, I had a beautiful (and informative) book that will take pride of place in my library (when I have one) for pounds 20.

Thinking of Cape Dutch architecture (and many people in Cape Town do because a Cape Dutch farmhouse is a universal dream here), a delightful, and even fashionable, way to spend a Sunday involves driving (there is a train, but bright young things disdain trains) to Stellenbosch, 70km due east. Stellenbosch, the Dutch colonial town at the heart of the famous wine lands, is very beautiful and remarkably relaxed. You can drink in the beauty of the buildings in an afternoon after a lazy lunch in one of the many small restaurants.

But the residue of apartheid is inescapable even here. Blacks and "coloureds" hang out in the one seedy bit of town and never seem to set foot in the beautiful Dutch streets just yards away from them.

Yet barriers are beginning to break down and Cape Town is where they are cracking first. The big event of this month is the Coon Carnival New Year Parade. This used to be a festival for Cape Town's coloured population (mainly from District Six, the innercity area that was demolished to rid the city centre of coloured folk); today more and more whites are joining in and the Coon Festival is becoming Cape Town's Mardi Gras.

If you are worried about the name, don't be. It has become something of joke, although a slightly barbed one. By keeping the name into the era of Nelson Mandela's "rainbow nation", Cape Town coloureds are challenging white liberals: those who can laugh it off are welcome to join in. Those who are superficially offended wouldn't enjoy the parade anyway. And beach babes and space cadets would have far more important things to do, like lying on the beach, playing computer games in the Internet Cafe, calling one another on cellphones and flicking back their hair. JC