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

By Jason Cochran, Wednesday, Mar 24, 2004, 12:00 AM

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).

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).

A less frenetic option, the loopy St. John's Waterfront Lodge in Green Point (6 Braemar Rd., 439-1404), near the pastel-splashed gay district of De Waterkant, is a melding of two houses, so it has two of everything (including pools) and 12 doubles for $32 to $37. Around Signal Hill in beachy Sea Point, an unrelated St. John's Lodge (9 St. John's Rd., 439-9028, stjohnslodge@mweb.co.za) stands next to the local ANC office. It's very basic-bed, table, wardrobe, and equipped kitchen--but even more inexpensive: Prices start at $22 for a single without bath and peak at $35 for a double with bath.

Cozier are the B&Bs, usually clustered in quiet residential areas away from public transportation and charging $30 to $35 per person during the April-to-September low season, when weather can bluster, and as much as twice that in the country's summer. The sleek Bayview (10 De Hoop Ave., Tamboerskloof, 424-2033, bayviewb@iafrica.com), with stylish art and wonderful skylight views of the mountains, charges a negotiable $40 in high season, $30 in low. Every room has a patio, and you can raid the fridge whenever you want. Bluegum Hill Guest House (Merriman Rd., Green Point, 439-8764, bluegumhill.co.za), clinging to Signal Hill, flaunts a stunning 180-degree view of Table Bay from its backyard; rates start at $48 in season (September through April), including a sumptuous breakfast served outdoors.

Reasonably priced hotels exist mostly downtown, where some travelers don't feel comfortable after business hours. Two I can recommend: the atmospheric 33-room Metropole Hotel, an antique with a still-running 1894 cage elevator (38 Long St., 423-6363, standard doubles $30-$45), and the unadorned, midsize Tudor Hotel on Greenmarket Square (424-1335, from $63 with breakfast).

By the way, every day except Sunday, Greenmarket Square is also the site of a tourist-oriented bazaar (most of the trinkets are really Nigerian or Kenyan); bartering is crucial. For local crafts--more of a rarity--try Masizakhe (419-2716) at the V&A Waterfront shopping mall. Its wares typify the resourcefulness required of Cape Flats living: Old oil cans are twisted into $13.50 baskets and $22 dolls are fashioned from discarded clothes.

Getting around, staying safe

By day, skip the slowpoke buses and patronize the minibus taxis (a.k.a. kombis) that ply Main Road from Camps Bay through Sea Point and Green Point to the Waterfront and into City Bowl. Hail one and enjoy the harrowing thrill of a Manhattan cab ride. Some white Capetonians will tell you to avoid what they denigrate as "black taxis"--and if you're hitching to the Cape Flats slums, where turf wars are common, heed their advice. But otherwise, I've used minibuses hundreds of times without incident.

For destinations not near the minibus routes, phone Rikki's (423-4888), which will load you into its teeny pickups (bakkies) and take you anywhere in town, including the Table Mountain cableway station, for $1.25 to $1.90. Taxis flag at $.75  and cost $1.50 per kilometer ; reliable companies include Sea Point Taxis $1.25/kilometer (434-4444) and Marine Taxis (434-0434). Use them at night when the streets become less safe.

Which brings us to crime. It's true that theft occurs here more often than in many American cities. Counter it by taking the same precautions you'd take in any new city. By keeping my appearance neutral, my wallet light, and not wandering around on foot at night, I spent six months here without even a hint of trouble. The bombings splashed all over the media are overplayed; usually targeted at gay bars and police, in the last three years they've led to three deaths - no different than tourist-thronged London. Simple street smarts should see you through quite nicely; don't let scare stories cheat you out of the eye-opening, mind-expanding experience that is Cape Town.

A Cape crusade

South African Airways (800/722-9675, flysaa.com) and Delta (800/221-1212, delta.com) fly direct to Cape Town from Atlanta (15 hours); SAA returns via Fort Lauderdale.

Specialty travel vendors such as Magical Holidays (800/228-2208) and 2Afrika (877/200-5610, 2afrika.com) can often cut you a deal for $1,090 or so round-trip, usually via Europe. You may pare costs slightly by flying into Johannesburg (served by more airlines, and by SAA from New York) and taking a two-hour connecting flight (about $150 round-trip). Recently, Iberia Airlines (iberia.com) has been slashing rates down to the $500 level; we have no idea how long that will last, however. Air France (airfrance.com) is one final source to check.

2Afrika also offers air/hotel packages that in the October/November shoulder season, for example, can mean $995 plus taxes for extendable round-trip airfare and five nights' hotel in town.

To book B&Bs in the Western Cape area try the Portfolio Collection (portfoliocollection.com), which lists nearly 300.

For more information, call 212/730-2929 or visit gocapetown.co.za. When dialing Cape Town, use the prefix 011-27-21.