Travel: Cape Town, South Africa

Crime writer Paul Mendelson has visited South Africa perhaps 40 times over a 25-year period. Here he gives his take on unmissable Cape Town

Cape Town sprawls out underneath Table Mountain. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Cape Town sprawls out underneath Table Mountain. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Unless you have a hankering to go on safari in Kruger Park or to hike the Drakensberg Mountains, head directly for Cape Town. Resist British Airways’ overpriced direct flights and travel via Johannesburg, Europe or even Asia. The extra few hours melt away once the warm Cape breeze hits you. With two hours’ time difference at peak season (November-March), there’s no jet leg.

Prepare online. Eschew internationally-priced main hotels for amazing guest houses or the ubiquitous Airbnb. Capetonians love Airbnb, offering owners precious hard currency, you a slice of the easy-living, sun-filled summer, in homely suburban cottages, slick city apartments or dazzling mountain or sea-view villas.

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You’ll want a car; avoid high-priced big-name firms and go local: two suggestions; Vineyard Cars in Claremont ( for brand new German cars or CarMania ( in Woodstock for an older mix of marques. Both prepare, deliver and organise your car super-efficiently. Bikers: pack your gear. Top quality machines are available from several companies.

Agaphantus africanus begins to bloom at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The number one attraction in Cape Town is The Waterfront. Depressingly, this is a shopping mall. A pleasant one, amidst working docks, great views back up to Table Mountain, an excellent selection of restaurants and bars. It’s as safe as it gets – but it’s a mall.

The next items on the touted tourist trail are much better. The cable car up Table Mountain (take a second layer, whatever the weather); the penguins at Boulders Beach, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens – book a Sunday evening concert – the setting is sublime (take a picnic and two extra layers). Cape Point: prise yourself out of bed early, get in the car or, better, hop on the bike and take the coastal roads through Kalk Bay and Simon’s Town to the Cape Point National Park (open from 6am). Take a bracing walk up the steps (there is a funicular railway from 9am) to the lookout and see the mythical meeting place of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Now, just as the coach-loads arrive, you drive away, detour down one of the side roads, past ostriches, antelope, around tortoises, to deserted white beaches. The wind will blow, the sea will be icy, but the beauty, clarity of view, freshness of air will bewitch you.

On your way back, stop at The Black Marlin, for decades a reliable seafood restaurant. Grab a late breakfast or an early lunch. Leave as the crowds arrive.

Stop off at Boulders Beach to stroll the boardwalk down to the penguins, maybe take a dip in the sea, watch local children dive from the eponymous rocks. When you reach Kalk Bay, park up, browse the shops and galleries, eat well but casually – try The Brass Bell: a Cape Town institution serving fish and chips, prawns and pizza right on the crashing surf or the Olympia Bakery for astonishing omelettes; take the winding road home in time to relax before your dinner plans.

Agaphantus africanus begins to bloom at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The one beach likely to be warm enough from which to swim is Muizenberg.

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Ignore signs to Surfer’s Corner and head for Sunrise Beach a kilometre further on. You’ll find shallow water with crashing waves, every age, race and class walking sand-encrusted dogs, playing beach games and watching kite surfers.

The days of a gentle pastoral tour of the Cape Winelands are long gone. Tourism has tainted the landscape and commercialised the vineyards. However, where the charm has diminished, the food and architecture are greatly enhanced. There are free guides to the Winelands everywhere, but I can recommend Tokara – good food, interesting architecture; Thelema for the wines, Graff Delaire for the views and Waterkloof, housed in an eco-friendly James Bond villain’s lair, perched on the mountaintop above Somerset West and Gordon’s Bay – spectacular views, excellent food, good wines.

There is, of course, golf – great golf – dozens of wonderful courses within an hour of the city, but I particularly like Clovelly GC just along from Kalk Bay.

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More European than African, Cape Town is supremely relaxing. Nowhere is ever more than smart casual, and super-casual usually hits the spot.

Long Street runs up the middle of town towards the Mountain, hosting the longest-established shops, bars and restaurants, but parallel Bree Street has become the cool younger brother, with designers and architects, bakers and beermakers taking up residence with their beards.

At night, lights gleam on shiny faces, smells waft the cross-streets, the Victorian balconies fill with revellers, music samples from doorways, smokers curate the nicotine curtain. First Thursdays (of each month) see art galleries and exhibitions stay open late, wine poured, artists expound on their work.

Cape Town food is best when modest, local and fun. Attempts at haute cuisine are pretentiously variable. Sushi, tapas, grills and brasseries are best – there is little to beat a great steak or grilled prawns – all at breathtakingly reasonable prices. The bar scene is wonderful, best off the tourist trail. Tjing Tjing – a rooftop bar off Long Street is a favourite, as is the local Power and the Glory on Kloof Nek Road. Café Mohito on Long Street is a Mexican joint, basic but huge fun, especially when the older locals begin to dance. Jo’burg and Pretoria are two small, sweaty bars, side-by-side on Long Street, music loud, packed.

Next morning, 8:45am on a Saturday – some will have come straight from the clubs – head for the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock. Breakfast and lunch is cooked at stalls, fresh produce abounds, Frank Sinatra sings, the atmosphere hums.

Feel free to roam. Greyton is a country village 90 minutes’ beautiful drive away. Walk the lanes, admire the cottages, lunch simply and well and head back home via Franschoek, a country culinary capital.

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Take the coast roads via Gordon’s and Betty’s Bays, through Kleinmond and down along deserted roads to Arniston, almost at Africa’s most southern point.

Take a walk through the functioning fishermen’s village, along pristine beaches, bathe in the warm Indian Ocean. Have a night in a local’s holiday home or the Arniston Hotel. On your return, slow down for Bredasdorp, a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere. You might see a lone man on a bleached bowling green, you might see no one. If you do, they’ll speak Afrikaans, and you’ll know you’re in Africa.

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As you drive away along an empty road, you will see the biggest sky you’ve ever seen, watch clouds cast shadows tens of miles wide across an endless landscape, see sheep, their coats pinky-orange from the dust, keeping their noses cool under the tail of the animal in front, a windmill silhouetted against a perfect blue sky.

If you take the Garden Route East from Cape Town, take the less-travelled way. Eschew the N2 freeway for the R62. This circuitous, wonderful road takes you through mountain passes, across the wilderness of the Little Karoo, passes through the country towns of Barrydale, Ladysmith, Calitzdorp (the port capital of South Africa) all the way to Oudtshoorn (the ostrich capital of South Africa). Then, drop south to Wilderness, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and the Tsitsikamma forest – by far the best of the Garden Route.

But, for all the excursions, Cape Town itself is best of all. Watched over by the mountain, lit by the gods, warmed by the people, the modestly irresistible quality of life, the culture and the African rhythms pulse through a place so instantly home-like, so uniquely African. n

• Paul Mendelson’s latest thriller, The History of Blood, set in and around Cape Town, is out now, published by Constable at £13.99.