At any time of year the Western Cape offers what is near to a sensory overload of magnificent scenery and amazing varieties of plant life – so varied in fact that you may well feel that you're not only in Africa but also the Mediterranean, America and Australia all at once. However, go right now for glorious weather, with sunny conditions and temperatures of around 25C enhancing all that natural beauty.
Stretching across the southern edge of Africa, this province of South Africa is about the size of Greece. The jewel in the crown is Cape Town, a glamorous international gateway presenting easy access to a host of beaches, to the lush and dramatic mountains around which the region's burgeoning wine industry thrives, to the rugged attractions of the Cape Peninsula and, further east, to the natural playground of the Garden Route.
"This cape is the most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth." The journal of Sir Francis Drake, 1580.
"Although the Western Cape appears to conform more closely to the developed world than any other part of the country, the impression is strictly superficial. Beneath the prosperous feel of the Winelands and the Garden Route lies a developing-world poverty in squatter camps on the outskirts of well-to-do towns, and on some farms where 19th-century labour practices prevail, despite the end of apartheid." The Rough Guide to South Africa.
Take me there
Cape Town is served non-stop from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com); South African Airways (0871 722 1111; www.flysaa.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; www.virgin-atlantic.com). During January fares start at around £700 return.
The city's wealth of hotel options ranges from super-luxury One&Only Cape Town at Dock Road on the V&A Waterfront (00 27 21 4315888; www.oneandonlyresorts.com; doubles from R5,140/£420 per night including breakfast) to funky Grand Daddy at 38 Long Street in the historic centre of the city (00 27 21 424 7247; www.granddaddy.co.za; doubles from R1,075/£100 including breakfast). There are also plenty of stylish B&Bs, such as Olaf's Guest House at 24 Wisbeach Road in Sea Point to the west of the centre (00 27 21 439 8943; www.olafs.co.za; doubles from R876/£82 including breakfast).
Alternatively rent your own place to take a break in the Cape. Fleewinter (020 7112 0019; www.fleewinter.com) offers a week in January at a self-catering apartment just off Camps Bay beach to the south west of Cape Town from £1,287.50 per person (based on two sharing). The price includes car hire and flights from Heathrow.
Poised dramatically between mountains and sea, Cape Town offers a range of activities, from endless shopping opportunities to hiking and surfing. The Atlantic Ocean lies to the north and west, while Table Mountain rises to the east, with the ridges of Signal Hill and Lion's Head providing a stunning skyline in the midst of the city.
Walk the length of Wale Street in the small, historic centre to get an absorbing insight into the history of the area. At the top is the Bo Kaap neighbourhood. A slave district in the 18th century, it is lined with colourful houses and now exudes a bohemian atmosphere. Towards the bottom is St George's Cathedral which between 1986 and 1996 was the seat of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was from here in 1989 that he led a mass demonstration of some 30,000 people – this was effectively the beginning of the end of apartheid. At the bottom and to the right is the Company's Garden, originally growing vegetables for the Dutch East Indies ships and now a city park.
To the north of the centre are the stylishly revamped docklands, now awash with shops and cafés – and still containing a few working docks. The area was called the Victoria and Alfred Docks after Queen Victoria (who never came Cape Town) and her second son Alfred (who visited in 1870), and is now known as the V&A Waterfront. It is South Africa's most-visited tourist site.
Head down the Cape Peninsula to Cape Point, about 90 minutes' drive from the city. To reach this African full stop, you enter the vast Cape Point nature reserve (00 27 21 701 8692; www.tmnp.co.za) which presents a battery of breathtaking coastal scenery. To the west, a short distance from the very end of the peninsula, is the rocky promontory of the Cape of Good Hope. Back in 1488 the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias led the first European expedition here. There are hiking paths around and through the Cape Point reserve, but the focus of most visits is the lighthouse almost at the tip.
Whale of a time
Along the coast two hours east of Cape Town lies the small town of Hermanus. The cliffs here provide amazing vantage points for spotting Southern Right whales (their peak season is between July and December), humpbacks (peak period May to December) and dolphins and Bryde's whales all year round. Some have been known to come within five metres of the shore. For more information, see www.hermanus.com/whalewatching.mv.
South Africa's Garden Route ( www.gardenroute.org) is so called because of the staggering vegetation in the area rather than for any evidence of horticultural prowess. You follow the N2 road east from the old-fashioned seaside resort of Mossel Bay continuing about 185km until you reach Storms River. Along the way you pass through temperate forests and bushlands, and drive beside beaches, and up and over mountain passes – you'll even take in more whales at Plettenburg Bay.
Alternatively, visit Constantia, on the southern outskirts of Cape Town, which is home to the Western Cape's Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. Set on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain this estate not only contains a fabulous array of plants (protea, heathers, roses and much more) but also a great range of birds from lemon doves to blue-faced guinea fowl. Other notable Cape gardens include the Karoo Desert Garden at Worcester and the Harold Porter Garden near the coast at Betty's Bay south of Cape Town. Details of all these gardens on www.sanbi.org.
Drink it up
A good 85 per cent of South African wine is made in the Western Cape. And very beautiful these wine areas are too. The intensity of the African light adds a dreamy quality the landscape: winding valleys cradled by jagged mountains; cloud shadows dancing across slopes that flash glints of granite; centuries-old grand, gabled manor houses set in lush farmland. The atmosphere is intoxicating even before you've encountered any wine in the numerous vineyards offering tasting tours. Six main regions comprise the Cape Winelands ( www.winelands.co.za): Stellenbosch, perhaps the best known, about 50km east of Cape Town; the pretty valley of Franschhoek nearby; Paarl, heartland of Afrikaans culture, about a 40-minute drive north east of Cape Town; Wellington slightly further north; up-and-coming Robertson over to the east; and Constantia (see Go Green).
What Google will tell you
"The Western Cape is home to the smallest of the world's six floral kingdoms, the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is characterised by fynbos and the protea family, and contains more plant species than the whole of Europe." From www.southafrica.info.
What Google won't tell you – until now
Among that abundant greenery are new olive groves. The Cape's emerging olive oil industry is starting to have an impact on the gourmet world: its extra virgin olive oil is even bought in Italy. But you don't need to visit an epicurean deli to buy some. Local Pick'n'Pay supermarkets around the Cape stock top quality Morgenster Extra Virgin Olive Oil from about R90 (about £8.50) for a 500ml bottle.