Conquering the Cape - Africa - Travel - The Independent

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Conquering the Cape

Once a mariner's dread, the Cape of Good Hope is now a tourist haven

If you had told people 100 years ago that you were going around the Cape of Good Hope, they would have thought you were brave, mad or both. Stretching south from Cape Town to the Cape Point lighthouse, the Cape of Good Hope was once the most perilous part of the sea-crossing from Europe to Asia. There are at least 23 shipwrecks dotted around the Cape, including the wreck of the
Flying Dutchman, which foundered here in 1680.

If you had told people 100 years ago that you were going around the Cape of Good Hope, they would have thought you were brave, mad or both. Stretching south from Cape Town to the Cape Point lighthouse, the Cape of Good Hope was once the most perilous part of the sea-crossing from Europe to Asia. There are at least 23 shipwrecks dotted around the Cape, including the wreck of the Flying Dutchman, which foundered here in 1680.

After the construction of the Suez Canal, shipping around the bottom of Africa slowed to a trickle and the Cape was transformed from a place of broken timbers and despair to the setting for some of the most expensive real estate in South Africa. Today, exclusive beach resorts run right around the Cape from Camps Bay on the Atlantic coast to Simonstown on False Bay. Only the southernmost tip of the peninsula has been preserved in its original state as the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve.

A modern-day tour around the Cape begins in the exclusive neighbourhood of Clifton, a few kilometres west of central Cape Town. This is where the vain and beautiful hang out, and the blonde sands are crammed with bodies on holidays and weekends.

Beach No. 1 and Beach No. 2 are where the young and trendy go to tan, while Beach No. 3 is a gay beach and Beach No. 4 is set aside for families. All four beaches are easily accessible from Cape Town by bus, but there are few shops or eateries so most people bring a picnic or make do with cold drinks and ice creams from wandering hawkers.

High on the cliffs at the south end of Clifton is gorgeous Ellerman House, the former home of Sir John Ellerman, who ran cruise liners between Britain and South Africa in the days before cheap international aviation. Now an exclusive hotel, Ellerman House harks back to a time when colonial entrepreneurs sipped cocktails on the lawn as the evening sun dipped into the Atlantic.

Rooms are decked out with tasteful period fittings, and the walls are lined with South African art. The hotel has recently expanded to include a fabulous Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired villa, with private pools, decking balconies and sliding glass walls. It comes at a suitably breathtaking price - R25,000 (£2,210) per night for three en-suite bedrooms, several lounges and a fully-staffed kitchen.

Heading, south from Clifton, you'll reach Camps Bay, the closest holiday resort to Cape Town. The beach here is arguably the best on the Atlantic coast and the long sweep of sand is protected from ocean swells by a chain of rocky islets. The beachfront promenade is lined with restaurants and cafés but prices reflect the surroundings. Even the deck chairs have an exclusive price tag - R75 (£6.50) for a chair, cushion and umbrella.

Hout Bay, about 5km south around the headland, is a calmer, more casual place to catch the sun. Most visitors just whistle through as they board the tour boats to Duiker Island, but the public beach is backed by rolling dunes, the sea is calm and shallow and the locals are friendly and laid-back.

The glass-bottomed boat cruises to Duiker Island (aka Seal Island) are swamped by tour groups, but it's still a great way to watch seals cavorting above and below the water. Vendors selling African nick-nacks greet the boats back at the dock and the Cape Town Minstrels, a bombastic troupe of local dancers and performers, often put in a noisy appearance on the wharf.

Many people recover from the experience at Mariner's Wharf, a highly-regarded seafood restaurant by the main fishing-loading quay. Predictably, the interior is draped with chintzy seafaring memorabilia, but the seafood menu is actually quite sophisticated. If you don't feel up to formal dining, the fish and chip shop downstairs can rustle up a grilled lobster and chips for R125 (£11).

The coast south of Hout Bay is lined with hidden beaches and clusters of beach houses but you really need a private vehicle to explore this part of the Cape. The landscape becomes increasingly rugged as you approach the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, which, along with Table Mountain National Park, protects 7,750 hectares of fynbos, a form of low-lying scrub only found on the coast of Africa.

The ultimate destination for most visitors is the Cape Point lighthouse, perched precariously atop sea cliffs at the south-eastern tip of the Cape. With the rugged, wave-lashed terrain, it feels like the southernmost tip of Africa, but the most southerly point on the continent is actually 180km further east at Cape Agulhas.

Most visitors hike or take the funicular railway up the old Cape Point lighthouse, which offers fabulous views over the ocean, but it's more interesting to stroll downhill from the car park to beautiful, secluded Diaz Beach. This basin of golden sand is a strong contender for the most beautiful beach on the coast and because most visitors are on coach tours, it's usually empty.

You can continue the hike to the Cape of Good Hope itself, where you can have your photo taken in front of the Cape of Good Hope sign, or search the rocks for rock dassies (like giant guinea pigs) and rare chacma baboons. If you gaze out to sea from the top of the cliffs you may just be able to make out Bellows Rock, which wrecked numerous ships back in the seafaring days.

Over on the far side of the Cape, my final stop is Simonstown, a laid-back seaside resort that turned its public beach into a nature reserve in 1982 to protect an unexpected natural visitor - the African penguin. From just two nesting pairs, the colony at Boulders has grown to over 3,000, most of them crammed onto Foxy Beach right in the centre of town.

Like their Antarctic cousins, African penguins are awkward on land but graceful in water. At nearby Boulders Beach, you stand quite a good chance of bumping into penguins as you swim; a slightly surreal finish to a tour around the bottom of Africa.

Traveller's Guide

Ellerman House, 180 Kloof Road, Bantry (00 27 21 430 3200; www.ellerman.co.za) has period-style rooms from R4,200 (£370) including breakfast and taxes, airport transfers and soft and alcoholic drinks.

At Hout Bay, Circe Launches (00 27 21 790 1040; www.circelaunches.co.za) runs three or four cruises a day to Duiker Island (up to nine a day from December to January). Cruises last 40 minutes and tickets cost R33 (£3).

Mariner's Wharf at Hout Bay (00 27 21 790 1100) is open from 9.30am to 10pm. Seafood dishes cost R37 (£3) all the way up to R250 (£22) and the menu includes lobster and native South African fish such as kingklip and snoek.

Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve is part of Table Mountain National Park (00 27 21 701 8692; www.tmnp.co.za). It's open 6am to 6pm (5am to 5pm from April to September) and entry to Cape Point costs R35 (£3). The Cape Point funicular railway runs from 9am to 8pm (till 5.30pm in winter). Tickets cost R20 (£1.75) each way.

The penguin reserve at Boulders is also part of Table Mountain National Park. It's open from 7am to 7pm (8am to 5pm from April to September) and entry costs R15 (£1.30).

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