Travel review: Cape Town, South Africa

The Steenberg vineyards, South Africa.
The Steenberg vineyards, South Africa.
  • With sterling storming against the rand, Cape Town makes for a great value break. Hannah Stephenson samples the highlights in 48 hours.
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Forty-eight hours in Cape Town – so much to do, so little time. But as a tag-on to a safari or the Garden Route, it’s worthwhile even if you can only spare a couple of days. Food, wine, culture and cabs are ridiculously cheap in this city thanks to the strong pound against the rand, so you’ll get more bang for your buck whether you’re paying for entrance tickets, wine-tasting or fine dining.

On my visit, I plan to take in the obvious highlights for first-time visitors. I start with a visit to the jewel in the geological crown of this diverse metropolis, the majestic Table Mountain, a sandstone wonder of the world which looms large wherever you go in the city.

The string of peaks known as the 12 Apostles are a favourite with hikers, but I choose to join the queue for half an hour to take the cable car on a five-minute ride to the top (adult return 225 rand/around £12.50). A revolving floor within the car ensures all budding photographers have a 360 degree bird’s-eye view.

Young visitors sunbathe on the rocks, others seek out the flora, fauna and wildlife – I see lizards, but there are also guinea-pig-like creatures called rock rabbits, or dassies, and nearly 1,500 species of fynbos, including proteas, ericas and reeds.

After Table Mountain, I head for the lush vineyards of Constantia, around 20 minutes away, to probe my palate with a wine-tasting session at Bistro Sixteen82 at Steenberg Farm, which produces some of the finest wine in South Africa.

“Bubbly” – a chardonnay which can’t be called champagne because it’s not made in the Champagne region of France – is paired with spoon-sized bites of Parma ham, figs and cheese, as the salty characters are said to bring out the best in the sparkling wine. Later, sauvignon blanc is matched with acidic flavours like goats’ cheese and tomato, to make the sauvignon taste sweeter. The red wine, which at Steenberg is predominantly merlot, is matched with fillet steak and pepper sauce.

To blow the cobwebs away after lunch, I head for Boulders Beach, home to colonies of African penguins nesting on the beach and waddling about on the rocks. You pay 60 rand (£3.30) to get in, but have good vantage points from the boardwalk. The penguins have been at the bay for just 30 years and legend has it that two broke away from a colony that was heading for the Antarctic, mated (penguins mate for life) and stayed at Boulders Beach.

Further up the coastline of False Bay, I stop off for souvenirs at the quirky, Bohemian seaside town of Kalk Bay, with its colourful antique shops and stores selling African trinkets, books, hand-crafted clothing, tableware and other ephemera.

After a full day, I’m ready to try some of South Africa’s finest fare. Cape Town offers a wealth of sophisticated dining based on local produce. I try springbok and ostrich while I’m here, as well as abundant seafood, from freshly caught tuna and angel fish to oysters, crayfish and scallops.

And you can enjoy fine dining relatively cheaply. We visit The Test Kitchen (www.thetestkitchen.co.za), highly acclaimed and voted the top restaurant in Africa by Restaurant Magazine, sampling a delicious and complex five-course menu with wine pairing. The cost? Around £49 per person – including the wine.

The next day, I venture to the spot I anticipate will be the highlight of my 48 hours – Robben Island. Catching the ferry from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the fashionable V&A Waterfront, a symbol of Cape Town’s resurgence post-apartheid with its trendy restaurants, upmarket malls, colonial-style buildings and working harbour, Robben Island and all it represents could be a million miles away.

It’s actually a half-hour boat ride to the island, a Unesco World Heritage Site, which had been used as a prison since the 17th century and also served as a leper colony and as a lunatic asylum. But its darkest time was from the early 1960s when it became a maximum security prison, housing the political enemies of the apartheid regime.

Although the last political prisoners left in 1991 and it closed as a prison in 1996, around 200 people, including ex-political prisoners, still live on the island.

Former inmates conduct the tours around the prison and our guide Ntando, imprisoned for seven years for being a member of the ANC and furthering its military aims, recalls how he was detained in a police station for six months where he was tortured, both mentally and physically, before being transferred in shackles and handcuffs from Johannesburg to Robben Island.

“We were somehow reduced to a non-living thing,” he reflects. “You were known by your prison number, not your name.”

It’s a quiet journey back to the waterfront, as visitors reflect on the supreme sacrifices made to secure freedom in South Africa. The whole tour (including ferry and guide) costs 250 rand (around £14). Unbelievable.

Back on the mainland, I experience the other extreme, namely fashionable Clifton, one of the wealthiest areas of Cape Town with its millionaires’ cliffside apartments and amazing views of Clifton Bay and the 12 Apostles rising above it.

Here, we stay at Cape View, which calls itself a “luxury guesthouse” but that’s a huge understatement. The 10 rooms, bright, white and airy, make you feel like you’re in a top designer’s dream house, yet it has a wonderful informality about it. The living area leads out on to a wide deck and the most breathtaking view of the glistening ocean and.

It’s a perfect place to unwind, watch the sun set and appreciate the best that Cape Town has to offer.

Checking my watch, I’ve done my 48 hours but boy, do I wish I had more...

• Hannah Stephenson was a guest of Qatar Airways (0333 320 2454, www.qatarairways.com), which flies daily from Heathrow to Cape Town via Doha. Round-trip prices start from £747 economy and £3,122 business class.

Steenberg Farm (www.steenbergfarm.com) has rooms from 2,650 rand (approx £150) per room per night, on a bed and breakfast basis.

At Cape View Clifton guesthouse (www.capeviewclifton.co.za) rooms start from 2,700 rand (approx £152) per room per night, including breakfast.