I first touched down in Cape Town more than 10 years ago. It came as a welcome relief from Johannesburg, where I was based as a correspondent. There were glorious beaches, great mountain views and, best of all, none of the violence that claimed 65 lives a day in South Africa's main commercial centre, barely a two-hour flight to the north-east.
In many ways, Cape Town was like cynical Jo'burg's naive little sister. The people were honest and approachable and almost seemed surprised that visitors from "overseas" were prepared to come to their country: it was, after all, only two years since Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president after the evils of white minority rule.
And yet. Convinced they were under attack from the black majority, the whites were fleeing Jo'burg for Cape Town. The criminals, robbers and hijackers were all allegedly following the whites and the money to the Cape, like predators stalking their prey. "We'll get driven into the sea," was a common sentiment by whites, who insisted the place would go inexorably downhill and be engulfed by the chaos and violence of the rest of Africa. "You wait and see," they said, as I left South Africa at the end of 1998.I have waited, and I recently went back to see.
The doomsayers were wrong. If anything, I felt the crime had lessened and the city had become more relaxed. A lot has changed in Cape Town, and I have changed too. While I was once a young, wild reporter determined to see African life in the raw, hanging out in the city-centre bars and once drinking the night away in the Little House on the Prairie, a township shebeen where gangsters sipped cold beers while showing off machine guns, the city has also mellowed and matured.
Gone are the gangs of touts and drug addicts who offered to "look after" your car in the city centre. They have been replaced by traffic wardens and there are even meters to feed while you slip into one of Cape Town's upmarket restaurants. The city has become the playground of the rich and famous. There are dozens of flights daily to Cape Town from across Europe; you can leave London the previous evening, sleep on the plane and be relaxed and ready for breakfast on arrival in the city. The time difference, in our winter, is only two hours.
Many head for Camps Bay, a beautiful beach setting fringed by palm trees and framed to the north by the Twelve Apostles, the mountain range that sweeps across the city from Table Mountain. There is surfing, deep-sea fishing, whale-watching and, for my money, the most stunning drive in the world round Chapman's Peak, carved out of the mountain with a sheer drop to the sea.
It is easy to see why Cape Town has become so popular. The restaurants are superb and, despite prices going up along with the Cape's popularity, it is still affordable for most British people. Expect to pay about £30 a head, with wine, for a meal. While I once stayed in a suite at the Place on the Bay in Camps Bay for £30 a night, complete with private chef and two bedrooms, the cost of accommodation has gone up more than the food or drink. The Bay Hotel, where many celebs stay, charges about £200 a night for five-star luxury in a stunning setting.
Yet, for all the tourists, the city has lost none of its charm. I smiled to myself the whole time, wandering around, revisiting old haunts and not feeling particularly melancholy about the passing of the years, just glad to see how much the city has moved on. Walking around the centre, I realised it has become truly African, with hawkers peddling rip-off watches and copied jeans, the poorest of the city lurching around clutching bottles of booze and sleeping off drugs in doorways. Much like London, really.
I spent a couple of hours reading the local newspapers in the gardens near the parliament building. Other people – black people, I should say, because much is still seen through the prism of race – sat on the grass, chatting and eating their lunch. It was peaceful and friendly. Most of all, I noticed a change in the people: naturally cheerful when I first visited, but still cautious about white people. To my dismay, some even called me baas, the servile Afrikaans word for the white "boss". This time, the people were still playfully cheerful, but much more confident and happy to treat you as an equal.
Much is still made of the crime. Yet I don't find Cape Town any more unnerving than certain parts of other big cities in the world. Bad things can happen to you anywhere; just do not be stupid and you should be fine. The townships are where most of the violence is, caused by poverty and unemployment rates of up to 80 per cent.
Cape Town is my favourite city in the world. It is not simply the urban areas and the rich history. It is the fact that, all around, there is so much to see and do, all set against a stunning mountain backdrop – from the vineyards and fine restaurants, to the bewitching scenery and wildlife, to the ever-present roar of the sea. And all within an hour's drive.
Yet it is difficult to say why you truly love somewhere. Association? The people? The look, feel and smell of the place? The sense of hope for the future? I can't put my finger on it. I hope I will be back.
How to get there: A seven-night stay at Camps Bay Village in Cape Town starts from £1,160 per person with African Affair (020-7381 5222; africanaffair.co.uk), including return flights with South African Airways and car hire.
Further reading 'Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa', by Allister Sparks, published by Profile, £30Reuse content