Cape Town Capers This jewel of a city (among the most scenically awesome on earth) is sensationally priced, sunny, sybaritic, and safe--but sobering, too Budget Travel Wednesday, Mar 24, 2004, 12:00 AM Budget Travel LLC, 2016


Cape Town Capers

This jewel of a city (among the most scenically awesome on earth) is sensationally priced, sunny, sybaritic, and safe--but sobering, too

Africa's loveliest city is an intriguing contradiction--radiant and fair on the surface, layered like an onion beneath; its setting celestial, but injustice still widespread. Cape Town was founded as a European enclave in the seventeenth century, when India-bound ships pulled off the overseas highways for the colonial equivalent of a pit stop, but today its African sun and gracious seaside lifestyle attract Euro hedonists, models, and playboys, even as just beyond the city center, South Africa kneels to violence, disease, and the lingering racism embedded in society.

"She's beautiful, isn't she?" sighs a South African friend as we stand atop Cape Town's crowning glory, Table Mountain. "Like the back end of the Titanic." Like so many others, Deon may reluctantly move abroad to escape the implosion of the once-mighty currency, the rand. A half-mile below us hums one of the world's most spectacular cities, ranking with Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro. City Bowl, its central area, snuggles against Table Mountain (which Mark Twain once called "a glorious pile"), now rising from the suburbs like a mythical beast turned to stone, the flanking sentinels of Devil's Peak and the Lion's Head spilling the streets gently into Table Bay.

It's the rand-weakened by economic instability and recently trading at R6.6 to the U.S. dollar--that has made South Africa in general and Cape Town in particular one of the cheapest places on earth, a magnet for budget travel where one can live in European-style comfort for less than $40 a day. Sometimes it's like apartheid never ended--though they comprise 76 percent of the population, most of the black people visitors see are serving foccacia or fluffing pillows. But that sobering sociology, combined with setting and attractions, make the "Mother City" endlessly stimulating.

The Cape and its allures

With some three million people, the capital of Western Cape province sprawls along the Atlantic seaboard at the bottom of the African continent. From the commercial high-rises under Table Mountain emanate the steep streets of Green Point, home of budget motels and the bustling V&A Waterfront development. Past that, around Signal Hill, promenade the Florida-style condos of Sea Point, and farther down the Cape, the glamorous cliffside homes above the bistro-and-beach coves of Camps Bay, where the "beautiful people" cavort. Head east, or deeper into the province, and you'll find antique Dutch colonial estates in posh suburbs like Constantia. In the eastern distance, past the dreary Cape Flats where most nonwhite citizens dwell, lie the mountains near Stellenbosch, where elephants once roamed but wineries and country inns now beckon.

Distinguished Cape Dutch architecture and gardens abound, and a visit to Table Mountain is a must (cable car around $10.50 round-trip, $6 one-way). But Cape Town's most compelling sights evoke the brutality of the generations-old apartheid regime, which finally ended in 1993. That's one reason why the city's top draw is actually a mall: the V&A Waterfront, an appealing (though Americanized) bayside hub for shopping, partying, and eating in all price categories. Here, you see, is where tourists also catch the ferry to Robben Island, the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela spent nearly 20 years on work detail as a political convict. Operated by the ruling party, the ANC, it's the most expensive attraction in town: about $13 for three-and-a-half-hour visits to his cell, which leave hourly across from the vaults at Victoria Wharf daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (419-1300, about $6 for ages 4 to 13; book at least a day in advance). Unfortunately, although dolphin sightings are common during the ferry ride and tours are led by former prisoners, the commentary provided is something of a letdown.

Actually, Mandela split his 28 years of incarceration between three jails. One of them, Pollsmoor, is still open, and--get this--doubles as one of the biggest budget dining secrets of Cape Town. The on-premises lunchroom, staffed only by supervised, nonviolent inmates, offers the rare opportunity to interact with a South African living on the firing lines of the social and racial war that still rages.

Inmates crave interaction with interested outsiders, and as a bonus, prices are astoundingly low: sandwiches for 30 rand to 50 rand, sirloin steak and potatoes for $6, and banana splits for $1. The food is frankly unremarkable, but the chance for an up-close look at apartheid's legacy is priceless (Orpen Rd. near Tokai; call 700-1270 for entry instructions).

Perhaps the most moving reminder of the former system's evil is District Six, a deceptively placid meadow that was the site of a thriving downtown tenderloin bulldozed in 1967 to force nonwhites to move out to the Cape Flats. A nearby church is now a heartbreaking memorial featuring a floor-wide map where former residents still leave touching reminiscences about their lost homes (25A Buitenkant St., 461-8745; free). It's a refreshing museum in a place still surprisingly rife with paeans to oppression (such as a memorial to British colonialist Cecil Rhodes and another to the Afrikaans language).

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