48 hours in Cape Town

Fly south for some winter sunshine to this cosmopolitan and relaxed South African city, says Lucy Gillmore
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

For some summer sun. As the nights draw in, it's time to migrate south. And, unlike the Caribbean, there's only a two-hour time difference, which means, crucially, no jet lag. What's more, the South African rand is still in the doldrums so Cape Town is a reasonably priced destination. December to mid-January is when most South Africans take their holidays, so it is high season, but on the plus side, you'll be able to join in the festive spirit.

BEAM DOWN

British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com ) and South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com) all fly non-stop from Heathrow to Cape Town. It's now peak season, so good deals are likely to be few and far between; through a discount agent such as Trailfinders (020-7938 3939) expect to pay around £650. The airport is around 20km east of the city centre, about a 15-minute drive, in an area known as Cape Flats where the townships are located. There are a number of companies in the international arrivals hall that operate door-to-door shuttle services for around R100 (£8.50) per person, for example Magic Shuttle (00 27 21 934 5455). A taxi will set you back around R160 (£14). You'll probably want to hire a car, however, as Cape Town is a mosaic of different districts (some separated by a large hunk of mountain) and public transport is sketchy.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Think Cape Town, and looming, literally and figuratively, out of the clouds will be Table Mountain , its lower slopes a collage of botanical gardens, forest and leafy residential areas. Rolling northwards, cradled between the mountains and the ocean, is the City Bowl, made up of the old historical core (the colourful buildings of the Bo-Kaap quarter and the lively Gardens area) and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront (Queen Victoria's son Alfred was there when the harbour was built). Following the coast round, heading south down the Cape Peninsula, you have the Atlantic seaboard suburbs of Green Point and Sea Point , followed by some truly expensive real estate - the exclusive beachfront enclaves of Clifton , Bantry Bay and Camps Bay . On the southern slopes of Table Mountain are Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and the vineyards of Constantia. There are two well-stocked visitor information centres; one, , on the corner of Burg and Castle Street (00 27 21 426 4260; www.cape-town.org, Mon-Fri 8am-7pm, Sat 8.30am-2pm, Sun 9am-1pm) and one in the V & A Waterfront , Clock Tower Precinct, South Arm Road (00 27 21 405 4500, daily 9am-9pm). As well as offering internet facilities, themed maps and tours, they can book accommodation and car hire free of charge. Cape Tourism also runs shuttle services between its offices and Kirstenbosch (R40/£3.50), Table Mountain (R30/£2.50), and the Waterfront and City Bowl (R15/£1.30).In the UK contact South African Tourism (0870 155 0044, www.southafrica.net).

CHECK IN

The Mount Nelson , 76 Orange Street, Gardens (00 27 21 483 1000; www.mountnelsonhotel.orient-express.com), reclining elegantly at the foot of Table Mountain, is Cape Town's grande dame, affectionately known as the Nellie, or the pink lady. Far from being stuffy and traditional, it's a soothing oasis in nine acres of lush, well-tended gardens. Doubles cost from R4,700 (£408), including breakfast, although good deals are often available. A more contemporary alternative is the Bay Hotel at 69 Victoria Road (00 27 21 430 4444; www.thebay.co.za), a glitteringly white Miami-esque hotel on the beach in fashionable Camps Bay. Doubles from R1,345 (£117) per person, including breakfast. Guesthouse accommodation is also popular in Cape Town, and a fraction of the cost of a hotel. The stylish Lézard Bleu , 30 Upper Orange Street, (00 27 21 461 4601; www.lezardbleu.co.za) has doubles from R890 (£77), including breakfast. The quirky tree-house room costs R1,180 (£102). There are numerous backpacker hostels around lively Long Street, the hub of much of Cape Town's nightlife. Try the Long Street Backpackers , 209 Long Street (00 27 21 423 0615). A bed in a dorm costs R65 (£5.50), in a single room R100 (£8.50), and it's R160 (£14) for a twin room.

TAKE A VIEW

From the revolving cable car (00 27 21 424 8181; www.tablemountain.net; Nov 8.30am-7pm, Dec-Feb 8am-9pm; R105/£9) - a glass bubble that rotates up to the summit of Table Mountain the views are dizzying. Try to reach the top (1,087m) at the first opportunity in case the weather deteriorates; a cloud cloth often descends on the table-top.

TAKE A RIDE

In a helicopter whirring over the city, out to the Winelands or down to Cape Point. Nac Makana , East Pier Road, V&A Waterfront (00 27 21 425 3868; www.nacmakana.com) offers trips from 20 minutes to an hour (from R475/£40 a person).

WINDOW SHOPPING

The V&A Waterfront (00 27 21 408 7600; www.waterfront.co.za), Cape Town's original Victorian harbour, was revamped in the 1990s and is now a swanky new development of shopping malls, restaurants, bars, hotels and museums. Although still very much a working harbour, it is Cape Town's top tourist attraction; safe, sanitised - and a bit cheesy. For a more vibrant view of Cape Town, head to the area between Long Street and Strand, where you'll find bustling narrow streets, dotted with cafés, markets and buskers; check out Saturday's Grand Parade market and the flea market on the cobbled Greenmarket Square . Shops in the City Bowl shut at about 1pm on Saturday, and are closed Sundays.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The Long Street Café on edgy Long Street (00 27 21 424 2464) has a buzzing atmosphere: French bistro-style décor, dark wooden floors, a clattering of plates from the open kitchen, old leather sofas and World Music-cool. Toasties from R16 (£1.50).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Robben Island (00 27 21 413 4200; www.robben-island.org.za; adults R150/£13, children 4-17 R75/£6.50) became one of the most infamous island prisons in the world thanks to the incarceration of political prisoners including, among others, Nelson Mandela. Measuring just six square kilometres, and now a World Heritage Site, tours feature harrowing tales from former inmates. Catamarans leave from the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront for the half-hour journey to the island. The tour (including crossings) takes about three and a half hours, and includes a trip around the island and prison.

TAKE A HIKE

Along the promenade. Start at the Mouille Point lighthouse , built in the 1820s and painted in cheery red and white stripes, and follow the path above the crashing surf as far as the Olympic-size saltwater pool at Sea Point. Separated from the road by a bank of grass, lined with palms, and overlooked by high-rise apartment blocks, this stretch of coast feels like a cross between Bournemouth and Nice.

AN APERITIF

Enjoy the stunning coastline with a sundowner (a bottle of chilled Cape wine, of course) on the beach. If you prefer to have a bar to lean on, fashionable Camps Bay is a popular spot with locals (although they steer clear of it in December when the crowds descend), as is the Bascule Bar in the Cape Grace hotel, West Quay, V&A Waterfront (00 27 21 410 7100, www.capegrace.co.za), which boasts over 360 malt whiskies.

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

Tank - sushi and fish a speciality - in the trendy Cape Quarter (terraced cottages from the 1700s which once housed freed slaves and artisans) at 72 Waterkant St (00 27 21 419 0007, www.the-tank.co.za) is one of Cape Town's hottest new restaurants. In a courtyard surrounded by stylish boutiques you can eat outside or inside (past the fluorescent blue bar) while checking out the gigantic fish tank. Dinner is around R220 (£19) a head. Five Flies 14-16 Keerom Street (00 27 21 424 4442) is a handful of little rooms around a central cobbled courtyard - the entrance hall has wood panelling and black-and-white harlequin tiled floor - with a higgledy-piggledy charm. Two courses cost R100/£8.50, three courses R135/£11.75. Blues , 69 Victoria Rd (00 27 21 423 8278), is a popular if pricey restaurant in Camps Bay overlooking the beach.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Wander down to the Anglican Cathedral Church of St George in Wale St, where Desmond Tutu banged on the door, symbolically demanding to be installed as the first black archbishop of South Africa. It was also from here that he led 30,000 people to the City Hall in 1989 signalling the beginning of the end of apartheid. Sunday Mass is at 7.15am, 8am, 9.15am and 7pm.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Come Sunday, locals drive or catch the Metrorail (0800 656 463, R10/90p) from the ugly eyesore that is the rail and bus station through the southern suburbs to Kalks Bay on the False Bay seaboard for brunch. Kalks Bay has a buzzing fish market on the harbour where you can watch the fishermen in traditional wooden boats bringing in their catch before wandering over to the Olympia Café and deli, 134 Main Rd (00 27 21 788 6396, daily 7am-9pm). A bustling bakery and restaurant, it's hippie chic in style; the scruffy, chipped green and red walls hung with art for sale, the menu on a large blackboard. After brunch, browse in the galleries and bric-a-brac shops.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (00 27 21 799 8899, www.kirstenbosch.co.za; daily April-Aug 8am-6pm, Sept-March 8am-7pm, R17/£1.50), creep up the slopes of Table Mountain, tapering off into the fynbos, South Africa's indigenous vegetation. Created by Cecil Rhodes in 1895, they are the oldest and largest botanical gardens in South Africa, and the mountain setting is spectacular. Families picnic on the sloping lawns, meander along well-signposted paths, inhale the scents in the fragrance garden or follow the brail signs on a woodland circuit.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

High tea at the Mount Nelson is served from 2.30pm-5pm every day in the orchid-and-hollyhock-strewn conservatory, on the terrace and down on the lawn. It's a Cape Town institution, and the perfect antidote to a day's sightseeing in the sun. Inside a piano tinkles away beside a table spread with a delectable array of smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches, freshly baked scones piled high with whipped cream and jam and squidgy brownies. Tea costs R85 (£7.40) per person.

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