Cape Town: the cure for winter blues

Kari Herbert migrates to the city with everything: street life, beach life and Table Mountain
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The Independent Travel

A mere overnight flight away, and with minimal time-difference (ie no jet-lag), Cape Town is a very feasible short-break destination from the UK, especially in the depths of the northern winter when even the migratory birds of South Africa's elite flock to this sunny city. Who can blame them? With its California-style beach life, staggeringly beautiful surroundings, and cosmopolitan mix of people, Cape Town has it all.

A mere overnight flight away, and with minimal time-difference (ie no jet-lag), Cape Town is a very feasible short-break destination from the UK, especially in the depths of the northern winter when even the migratory birds of South Africa's elite flock to this sunny city. Who can blame them? With its California-style beach life, staggeringly beautiful surroundings, and cosmopolitan mix of people, Cape Town has it all.

When to go

Between December and March is the time to flee the winter blues and head for the frivolities of city/beach life in the sun. At this time of year a persistent wind, fondly nicknamed the Cape Doctor, cleanses the air of pollution and mosquitoes, and keeps temperatures bearable.

Getting there

At an agency such as the Flight Centre (tel: 0990 66 66 77) or Trailfinders (tel: 020-7938 3366) you should be able to find a return for between &163; 350 and &163; 500. There are plenty of airlines that fly to Cape Town, including Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747747), which has recently started a new service. Otherwise, South African Airways (tel: 020-7312 5001) and British Airways (tel: 0345 222 747) sometimes have special offers. STA Travel (tel: 0870 160 6070) has particularly good deals for students and those aged under 26, with return flights starting around &163; 450. STA can also arrange car hire and insurance.

Getting around

There are plenty of bus routes around Cape Town - the central bus stands are situated around Adderley Street. Small auto-rickshaws run around the city and are cheap and popular with tourists. Taxis are difficult to flag down, but there are several ranks; otherwise, book by phone from your hotel. There is a reasonable train service around the Cape, with some stretches taking in great views. Cape Town has many attractions close to the city which are easier to reach by car. Tempest Car Hire's rates are reasonable (tel: 00 2721 424 5000).

Safety

Cape Town is far safer than Johannesburg, but crime rates are still high. It is not safe to walk alone at night, and some areas are best avoided. Do not flaunt expensive jewellery or watches. At dusk parking guards materialise armed with batons, and they will watch your car whether you like it or not, while you go and enjoy yourself - a tip is expected. South Africa still has a long way to go before it can escape its recent history, but Cape Town has already come on by leaps and bounds. Be prepared for extremes of wealth and poverty rubbing shoulders.

Where to stay

There are many small hotels and guest-houses offering reasonable rates and a cosy atmosphere. Liberty Lodge (tel: 00 2721 4232264), near Kloofnek Road, is one of these; there are only a few rooms for around &163; 20, so it is advisable to call in advance.

For those who fall in love with Cape Town and want to stay any length of time, the Blencathra (tel: 00 2721 4249571) is simple and clean with a homely atmosphere, and its rates decrease the longer you stay. A week would cost about &163; 10 per person per night. The house rambles on the mountainside near to funky Kloof Street and overlooks the bowl of Cape Town. It is run by Charles Wykeham and his son Vernon, who delight in taking guests on hikes up Table Mountain and on canoeing trips. Meals are not provided.

At the very top end of the market, there's the Cape Grace (tel: 00 2721 4107100). Set in the buzzing Waterfront area, it is classy but friendly, and has hosted the likes of Bill Clinton. Double rooms start at &163; 240, including full breakfast. Also glamorous is the world-famous Mount Nelson (tel: 00 2721 483 1000). Doubles start at &163; 264.

It is not necessary to stay in Cape Town itself to appreciate the atmosphere. The Bay (tel: 00 2721 4304444) is in an exclusive but vibrant area on the beachfront with cafes galore. Doubles from &163; 150.

What to see and do

In the centre of town is Adderley Street, flanked by impressive buildings and buzzing with street life; at its end is Trafalgar Place, where Malay flower-sellers barter at stalls and traffic-lights. The pedestrianised walkways of St George's are the place for stalls selling African crafts and clothes, not to mention buskers. Green Market Square, around the corner, has a lively daily market, selling everything from sculpture to banana- skin handbags. Long Street is full of bohemian cafes and antique shops - great for hanging out. The Castle of Good Hope is said to be the oldest building in South Africa and sits behind the Grand Parade. There are guided tours around the pentagonal fortress and its surrounding gardens.

The Waterfront complex is an entertainment and consumer heaven. It is home to the Two Oceans Aquarium, which is well worth a visit, if only to see the awe-inspiring underwater kelp forest.

The famous Kirstenbosch Gardens are a great place for a picnic. They stretch up into the mountain ridges and offer a wonderful view over the city. Finally, take the cable-car up to Table Mountain to see the spine of Africa from its summit.

Out of town

There is a bewildering range of things to see in the Cape Peninsula: drive down the breathtaking Chapman's Peak Road, carved out of cliffs plunging to the sea, to Kommetje and then across to the East Coast to Simons Town and St James where the idyllic beaches are embraced by huge smooth boulders. Boulders Beach is home to a colony of jackass penguins, just to remind you how close you are to the Antarctic. Ironically, the sea on this side of the peninsula is warmer than the Atlantic waters of the western side, but the penguins don't seem to have realised.

The most southerly point of Africa is Cape Point, a nature reserve that juts into the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Beware: if you want to see a romantic sunset on the point, you can't - visitors must leave by 5.30pm.

The wine route

The Cape is awash with wine, and touring its vineyards is great fun, particularly if you stay on an estate. Close to Cape Town is the Steenburg Estate (tel: 00 2721 7132222), the first to produce wine in the Cape Peninsula. The half-hour drive via Hout Bay is very picturesque. The Steenburg Estate runs an exclusive hotel and golf course as well as private guided tours of the vineyard. Double rooms start at &163; 135 per night.

The Stellenbosch region has many vineyards, but one of the most charming is the Boschendal Estate. Tours have to be booked in advance, but there is a good restaurant and picnic area with a gazebo and lily pond, but no accommodation. The Stein Estate has its own railway station, with a train that runs directly from Cape Town. One of the largest estates in the region, it also has a concert hall and extensive gardens. For more information on the Stellenbosch Wine Route, e-mail: info@wineroute.co.za.

Food and drink

Cape Town and the surrounding area are filled with wonderful restaurants and bars. For a traditional African feast go to The Africa Cafe (tel: 447 9553). A delicious communal feast costs &163; 8 for as much as you can eat. Melissa's is a deli and cafe with a difference. There is one on Kloof Street in town (tel: 424 5540), and one in the Courtyard, Constantia. Both will prepare a gourmet picnic for you complete with hamper and cutlery if you give them a little warning. Hire of the hamper costs &163; 2.50.

For Italian food and real coffee, Giovanni's is the place, on the main drag in Green Point between town and trendy Camps Bay - pasta plus coffee is less than a fiver. La Med is arguably the most popular cocktail venue of the Cape. Find it in Clifton, near Camps Bay; and try Blues (tel: 438 20400), the in-place to be seen - a la carte two-course meals cost around &163; 15 (without wine). The Codfather (tel: 438 0782) charges around &163; 12 for amazing seafood.

Nightlife

All Bar None, Greenmarket Square, is full of beautiful people. The Fez is a popular club (Hout Street, Cape Town), as are the Jet Lounge in Long Street, and Kapital in Pepper Street. All the bars have their own distinct character, and it's best simply to try a few. For a more cultural evening, buy the Cape Review, which gives full listings of all types of entertainment.

Further information

Contact the South African Tourism Board (tel: 020-8944 8080; net: www.africa.com; e-mail: tourism@iafrica.com.

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