What to play under the Table

In 48 hours, Cape Town will know whether it has been chosen to host the 2004 Olympics. York Membery takes a trip around the most glamorous city in South Africa

"If Cape Town wins we all win," proclaims one poster pushing the city's bid to host the 2004 Olympics. One unique selling proposition is that none of Cape Town's competitors for the title - Athens, Buenos Aires, Rome and Stockholm - possesses a geological wonder to match Table Mountain, the famous flat-topped sandstone block that dominates it.

Cape Town is a far more intriguing city than its rivals, as you discover on the western-style highway from the airport. After the billboards bragging about the Olympic bid, a shanty town appears at the side of the road. Hundreds of makeshift homes constructed from scrap wood and corrugated iron, with roofs weighed down by worn tyres, stretch as far as the eye can see. That is when you realise that for all the hype, Cape Town is very much part of Africa. It is a place where the First World meets the Third World, and it can be unnerving.

The area where Cape Town stands, which now covers some 100 square miles and has a population approaching three million - 500,000 of whom are white - is known as the "Mother City". This is because it was the first white outpost in South Africa, being settled in the 1650s by the Dutch who saw it as a halfway house between Holland and their nation's Far Eastern possessions. However, the British also appreciated its strategic importance and it became a crown colony in the early 1800s.

Nearly two centuries on, the British link is very much in evidence in the fish and chip shops (which tend to serve snoek, a strong-flavoured local fish instead of cod), the red post boxes, the place-names of up- market coastal suburbs south of the city (Clifton and Llandudno) and their apartment blocks (such as Henley Manor and Winchester Mansions). These homely echoes help to explain the Cape's popularity with British tourists.

The first thing I did on arriving in town was to take a two-hour circuit of the city with Topless Tours (the name refers to the style of bus, not the clothing policy), costing just pounds 4. As well as seeing downtown sights such as the parliament building and the infamous Sector Six - a Coloured area bulldozed by the apartheid regime in the 1960s and lying fallow to this day - we took the road to the top of Signal Hill, which along with Devil's Peak and Lion's Head, flanks Table Mountain.

Afterwards I got my first glimpse of the Victoria and Albert docklands development - so-called because Albert tipped the first wagon-load of stone when the harbour was enlarged in 1860. One British tourist I met objected to its "crass commercialism" but most visitors are impressed by this smart complex of shops, restaurants and bars.

The harbour is also the departure point for a boat trip to Robben Island - the maximum-security prison seven miles out to sea where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 17 years. The prisoners have now all gone and the authorities are discussing what to do with the small, bleak outcrop once a home - of sorts - to 900 prisoners. You can't go ashore, but the R70 (pounds 10) trip is well worth making. Those interested in finding out more can visit the city's Robben Island Exhibition Centre where you can even buy a souvenir pack of Robben Island Rock. (It sounds tacky but the money goes to former political prisoners who were forced to work in the quarry.)

Nowadays, Cape Town is keen to look to the future, not the past. The city would certainly win the gold medal for scenery, along the Cape Riviera and on to Hout Bay, and sunsets viewed from Chapmans Peak. The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, with its wide variety of flora, tapering down to the towering headland of Cape Point, is where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Wildlife abounds and you don't have to go far to see penguins, seals and baboons. And be sure to try Cape Malay cuisine - famed for its aromatic boboties (curried meatloaf topped with custard) and bredies (fragrant stews).

And then, of course, there is Table Mountain. But there are three things about the 3,500ft peak the brochures neglect to mention. First, it is often shrouded in a mist known as the "tablecloth", which means if you reach the top you are lucky to see your outstretched hand, let alone the city below. Second, the slightest gust seems to close the cable car. I know from experience because every time I decided to head for the summit it was shut. Third, even it if is open you are faced with a long wait. But should the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne award the games to Cape Town, I can imagine half the population sprinting with joy to the summitn

Cape Town essentials

Getting there: the lowest fares are generally the Britannia charter flights organised by Bluebird Express (0990 320000). These begin on 1 December and continue until April. At present the company is offering a special fare of pounds 392 return including tax. Two scheduled airlines operate non-stop flights to South Africa: British Airways (0345 222111) and South African Airways (0171-312 5000). Connecting flights on other carriers, sold through discount agents, will usually be much cheaper.

Getting in: visas are not required by British passport holders on short visits. The onward or return portion of your ticket will be stamped "Non- refundable", to prevent you from cashing it in and staying in South Africa.

Getting sleep: by far the most interesting hotel for the budget traveller is the Breakwater Lodge, a converted prison a couple of minutes walk from the waterfront.

Getting advice: before going contact the South African Tourist Board on 0541 550044; once there, head for the Tourist Information Centre in Adderley Street (next to the railway station).

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