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
Roaming farther afield
Don't miss the Cape Flats, the impoverished sprawl beginning five miles from downtown, past the white-dominated slopes of Devil's Peak; in the Khayalitsha district alone, 1.3 million souls jam into a space designed for 350,000. Under no circumstances should travelers attempt going on their own, but (though one may debate the propriety of poverty-gawking as a holiday activity) the shantytowns are well worth a guided tour. They'll be the most haunting excursion of your trip--perhaps of your life. As wide-eyed children stream barefoot from squatters' huts to stare at the novelty of you, even "budget travel" feels downright decadent. A three-hour excursion from One City Tours (387-5351; $38, or $47 with an African lunch) is the cheapest and one of the least exploitative; it's led by Gladstone, a man who actually lives in Khayalitsha.
Some popular attractions aren't accessible by public transportation, so rent a car from the likes of Value Car Hire (696-5827), whose manual-transmission compacts go for $28 daily, including 90 free miles. Extra miles generally cost 18 rand each, which can rack up, so you may want to arrange an unlimited-mileage car through Avis (800/331-1212) or Budget (800/527-0707) before you leave home for about $30 to $40 per day. Both have offices at the airport and on Strand Street, but both will limit your free miles if you wait until arriving to reserve.
The most popular out-of-town excursion is Cape Point, where the Cape of Good Hope bucks and tapers into the sea like the vestigial tail of a dragon. The rental car's free miles will barely get you there and back, but even with the $5 entry fee, going this way still beats tour prices, which start at $40. On the dramatic drive (90 minutes each way), stop at the 3,200-bird Jackass penguin colony at Boulders Beach (786-2329; $2.25) past Simon's Town.
The intrepid can head three hours southeast of town to desolate Cape Agulhas, the true dividing line between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Halfway there, stop along the ten-mile-long bay of Hermanus, where June through November you can enjoy what's probably Earth's best land-based whale-watching free of charge. On the way back, take one of the world's great driving routes: the heart-quickening Clarens Drive, which dances along the seaside cliffs between Rooiels and Gordon's Bay, the town whose beaches line the warmest waters.
Fans of the grape will love the 40-odd elegant wineries around Stellenbosch and Paarl. Most vineyards encourage visitors, but not all are alike. Some of the cheaper estates are Hazendal (903-5112), where tastings are free; Simonsig (888-4900), where they are $1.25 with a take-home glass; and the Bottelary (882-2204) on Bottelary Road near Stellenbosch, a wine co-op where bottles start at $.88 each. For their hidden charges and highfalutin gift shops, big-ticket wineries such as Spier are best avoided, unless it's for the privilege of petting the rare cheetahs in the nonprofit sanctuary on its grounds (809-1188, .cheetah.co.za; $4.45 adults, $1.90 children).
Wrap up your week with a visit to a certain Evita Bezuidenhout. In the former railway station of the aptly named hamlet of Darling (an hour's drive north of town on the R27), cross-dressing satirist Pieter Dirk-Uys portrays his nationally beloved creation--a politics-drenched analogue to Australia's Dame Edna Everage--as you enjoy a traditional South African meal. A basic understanding of national history is essential, but if you tell Evita you're a neophyte, she'll tailor her performance to help you along ($6.25; from Cape Town, 022/492-2831, evita.co.za; ask for English performance schedule). As the '60s-kitsch dining hall fills with steaming bobotie meat pies ($4.45) and honey-soaked koeksisters pastry ($1) being served, Evita lampoons fundamentalist Afrikaaners, dishing up spicy racial commentary to indulgent laughter and sloshing wine. "We apologize for apartheid," she solemnly chirps. "Yes, we're very, very sorry . . . that it didn't work."
Sleeps & souvenirs
Since the end of international sanctions, the deluge of tourism has fed a burgeoning lodgings industry; steer clear of the big name-brand hotels and you're off to a good start. At the rock-bottom end are several dozen hostels (most charging just $10 year-round for a dorm bed), many of which have diversified to include simple private rooms for couples and families. One, Ashanti Lodge (11 Hof St., 423-8721, ashanti.co.za), is a manse that boasts a golden veranda, lots of burnished wood, and a cheap cafe. Poolside doubles cost about $35, or $40 with private bathroom (called an "en suite" here in South Africa).