I had heard friends say that Cape Town is the most beautiful city in the world. I am not sure if this is right, but it is certainly not wrong. We had a chance to spent 3 days there on the front end of an overland trip from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls. Here is what we were able to do with just 3 days in this area.
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Renting A Car
What made me most nervous about this trip was renting a car. It wasn’t just that I would have to drive on the left. It wasn’t just that I would have to shift a manual transmission with my right hand. It was that I would have to do all of this after getting off two-night flights in a row. We had flown from San Francisco to London for 10 hours, had a seven-hour layover in London, and then flew another 12 hours down to Cape Town. Immediately getting in a rental car and driving is not something I would plan on doing unless you are confident that you can sleep on an airplane.
We landed in Cape Town at about 10 am local time. We got our Budget rental car and drove South to go to Boulders Bay Beach to see the penguin colony.
On the way, we passed through Simon’s Town and decided to stop for lunch. As we drove through town, there was some parking open on the side of the street, so I pulled over, and we noticed the Lord Nelson restaurant across the street advertising “the best pizza in town.” Someone working on the outside of the building told us that the pizza is handmade, so we tried it. There was a wood-burning pizza oven in the kitchen, and the Three Cheese pizza was really good. The pizza cost 100 Rand or under $10. The total with a large water and a soda was 150 Rand. This was a good introduction to the good prices we would find in South Africa.
Penguins at Boulder’s Beach Bay
We made the short drive from there to Boulders Bay to see the penguins. The entrance fee was 152 Rand each. We walked down the boardwalk and saw a few penguins sitting in creches with babies, often almost as large as the mother but all grey down. There were more penguins on the beach. The visit only took about 20 minutes but was fun.
We were there in late May, which is late Fall in South Africa, but the weather was beautiful shirt-sleeve weather. It does seem odd to be looking at a bunch of penguins and not needing to dress warmly.
We drove to Cape Point, the most southwesterly point of Africa (not the southernmost point, that’s about 200 km east). We paid a 360 Rand entrance fee and then another 80 Rand each to ride the funicular to the lighthouse. It is possible to hike up instead, but we weren’t up for that because we were still pretty jet-lagged. We could see both Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope from the top.
From the lighthouse, you can hike down to either of the two points or to the beach if you have more time and less jet lag than we did.
We left at about 2 pm to head to our hotel in Camps Bay. All of the routes had tolls, and the route we took was a really lovely scenic route which is the M6, Chapmans Peak Drive. The toll was 47 Rand.
Where to stay in Cape Town
We arrived at the Atlanticview Cape Town Boutique Hotel around 4:15. It’s a beautiful property overlooking the water in Camps Bay just south of Cape Town. The hotel is gorgeous, a small boutique hotel with only 9 rooms. We parked our rental car for a couple of days and got around via Uber or the hotel’s care service, which was available for an additional fee.
After dinner, we were back at the hotel early enough to join the complimentary wine and snacks that are served from 7 to 9 pm. Marijka was the host, and we met two other couples from the US, both of whom were on their honeymoon. Michael and Stephanie from southern NJ near Philadelphia, and Brandon and Monica from Binghamton and Toronto. We had fun chatting, and the snacks served were very elaborate canapes, including lobster and caviar.
Even the buffet breakfast was a pretty amazing spread, including tea and coffee, a basket of bread, yogurt parfaits, canapes of cheese squares stacked with ham between, and “egg rolls” with mushrooms. On top of that, you can order a hot breakfast if you still have room. I would recommend the french toast.
Where to Eat in Camps Bay
The staff recommended going to dinner at Bilbao or Zenzero in Camps Bay. We went to Bilbao for the sunset view since it is on the second floor of a building overlooking the beach (above Zenzero). Dinner was very good, with excellent service. Joan had breaded chicken with salad and sweet potato chips, and I had a beef skewer with pita and rice.
One of the main sites to see in Cape Town is Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many other anti-apartheid leaders were imprisoned. Boats leave for Robbin Island from the wharf near the Waterfront Clock Tower at 9 am, 11 am, and 1 pm. We opted for the first ferry to make the most of our day. Buy your tickets ahead of time and then either print out your ticket or bring your e-ticket. We got in a line that snaked up and across and downstairs and then into the waiting area to line up for the ferry. They boarded at about 8:50 am.
We arrived between 9:30 and 10, and we were directed to board one of a number of buses for the first part of our tour. Our tour guide was Kent, and he was very informative and interesting. The tour began with a drive around the island to introduce the history and the use of the island over time.
In the 1850s, it was an Irish mission and leper colony. The leper colony closed in the 1930s when a cure was discovered. It was a military base in World War II but was never attacked. There were 3 large guns, 9 inches, which could shoot 30 km. One remains on the island, but it was never used as it wasn’t completed until 2 years after the war ended.
There is an Islamic shrine on the island constructed by Muslim prisoners over the grave of Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura. The Prince, who was also an imam, was one of the first political prisoners on the island when he was exiled here in the 1740s. The island became a prison in 1961, first with convicted criminals and then increasingly with political prisoners.
There is a lighthouse on the island because there is a dangerous rock, Wahle Rock, in the harbor between Robben Island and Cape Toen. The lighthouse has a light that flashes for 5 seconds on and 3 off, which illuminates a reflector on Whale Rock so it will be visible to ships.
When it became a prison, the prisoners had to build the first buildings using limestone quarried from the island. As they dug the foundations of the prison, there were exposed to the grave areas of the lepers, and they were afraid they would get leprosy, but there were no cases reported. The young prisoners in the 1960s were forced to work, and when they refused because it was slavery, they were tortured. The Red Cross came in and inspected the prison in 1964 and forced some changes to be made.
Under Apartheid, blacks could only be out from 6 am to 6 pm, and they had to carry a booklet and show it when asked by the police. The booklet was called the “dompas,” or literally the stupid booklet. If they didn’t have that pass, they would have to pay a fine and serve up to 6 months in prison. On May 21, 1960, there was a large protest where crowds of protesters refused to carry their passes and went en masse to the police to turn themselves in. The dompas was finally discontinued in 1986.
We learned the history of Nelson Mandela, his time in Pretoria Prison, and then Robben Island. We saw the quarry where Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were assigned to work, which they actually preferred to being alone in their cells. Our guide referred to the cave where they would take breaks as the first post-Apartheid cabinet, as many of the new government leaders had been there together.
The bus tour ended at the prison, where former prisoners lead the tour. Our guide had been imprisoned with Mandela from 1986 to 1990. He described the letter censoring process with 4 methods from blacking out to cutting out content. We saw our guide’s former cell, which was a big room that held 40 people sleeping on mats (later bunk beds), and Mandela’s private cell.
The tour finished around 12, and the boat left at about 12:15. We were back at the waterfront before 1.
Victoria and Alfred Waterfront
We walked around the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and found lunch at the V&A Food Market, which has a number of good options. We had a cold Malay chicken wrap with feta and a pork belly wrap with apple. The total was 140 Rand, not counting drinks. We sat at a picnic table outside the market.
The waterfront area has a number of interesting shops, restaurants, and even some great street performers. There is also a large modern mall right next to the market. The name of the waterfront comes from Alfred the son of Queen Victoria, who visited the area as a midshipman in 1860.
The Two Oceans Aquarium is in the waterfront area, as well as a large Ferris wheel called The Cape Wheel.
We took an Uber to Table Mountain. I would again recommend getting your ticket online before you go to avoid time waiting in line. Joan had downloaded the Voice Map app and the audio guides for the lower and upper tramways. The lower one was intended to be used if there was a long line at the bottom, but our line wasn’t very long, so we only listened to a little.
The cable car up the mountain takes about 5 minutes and has a rotating floor so you can see the view in all directions while going up or down. The audio guide for the top led us around a loop trail, providing commentary on the history and geology of Table Mountain.
Table mountain has commanding and spectacular views of Cape Town and the vicinity.
We saw 2 deer of some kind on the next ridge and a couple of dassie near the cable car station at the top. The dassie looks like a giant gerbil but, oddly enough, is considered the closest living relative to the elephant.
We Ubered back to Camp’s Bay in time for the sunset and dinner before returning to the Atlanticview for another interesting evening of wine and snacks with our fellow guests, this time picking up tips for which local wineries to visit the following day from two guests from South Africa and from staff member Marijka.
After a great breakfast at the Atlanticview, we checked out and headed east to the Winelands.
The first stop was Vergenoegd, where they use ducks as pest control, so we stopped to see the ducks. We missed the parade, where they lead the ducks from the pond to the fields, and it was a little early to do a tasting, but we took a glance at the wines they have, and the host offered to let us taste their award-winning port. We really liked it so we bought a bottle ($17, less than half what we pay at home).
Our next stop was Spier, a very large estate that also has a large bird experience, where you can have an owl sit on your arm, and a crafts market that wasn’t open in this season.
We did two tastings with 6 wines for 40 Rand each, totaling about $6 US. We tried a Chenin Blanc, a rose, a Chardonnay, and 3 reds. Nothing quite stood out for us. We checked out the bird option but decided we were ok without large birds sitting on our arms. There are bird shows as well but the timing of them did not work for us.
Asara Wine Estate
We were staying at Asara Wine Estate, a beautiful setting with vines going up the hillside. Our map app led us to a long dirt road to get there, which we later learned is not the main entrance, but it still got us to the parking lot. We had a beautiful second-story room with a balcony and a view of the grounds. We decided to have lunch in the restaurant and split a Caesar salad and a burger The salad was fine, but it is hard to get a great burger outside the U.S.
After lunch, we did a wine tasting at Asara. We each got 5 wines for 80 Rand each, so about $12 each. We tried a white Cabernet, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinotage Rose, the Cape Fusion red blend (Pinotage, Shiraz, and Malbec), the Bell Tower (another red blend), a Pinotage, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Petit Verdot. We liked the Pinotage Rose and the Cape Fusion the best.
We decided to take in one more winery based on the recommendations to see the view at Tokara, up against the hills on the way to Franschhoek. For 100 Rand, you get 4 wines, a white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, a Syrah, and a sweet late harvest white. We liked the two blends. We stayed to watch the sunset and were back to Asara by 6.
We got reservations in the bistro for dinner at 7:30 and split a pizza with ham, and barely ate half so took the rest for the next day. We needed to request an adaptor from the desk as we didn’t have the right kind of plug for the South Africa outlets with three round plugs.
The next morning we left our hotel and drove the short distance to the Cape Town airport to catch our flight to Johannesburg. We spent only 72 hours in Cape Town but managed to fit in quite a lot. There is, of course, more to see, and frankly, I can imagine going back. We almost immediately began to talk about heading back to the area with some of our regular traveling companions.