Cape Town is unlike any other city. With its breathtaking natural scenery, welcoming people, famous harbor, abundant wildlife, world-class restaurants and wines and multicultural influences, it has grown into a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city since the end of apartheid. With all Cape Town, along with the surrounding region of South Africa, has to offer travelers, most find one visit to Cape Town is not enough.
Mr. Harper, along with Harper Alliance hotel partners, shares his exclusive insight about the area.
What do first-time visitors find surprising about Cape Town?
Mr. Harper: “The sheer physical beauty of the place. On a sunny day, the view of Table Mountain and the so-called Twelve Apostles (a line of secondary peaks) is breathtaking. I don’t think there is another city in the world that has a more dramatic natural setting. And the Franschhoek Valley, less than an hour from The Waterfront, is arguably the world’s loveliest wine-producing area. When the sun is shining, make an anticlockwise circuit of Table Mountain. Drive southwest, through Bantry Bay and Clifton, and pause for a coffee overlooking the white sands of Camp’s Bay before continuing south along the rugged, wave-dashed Atlantic Coast to picturesque Hout Bay. Then head back north through Constantia, the city’s most desirable residential neighborhood, past the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and Cape Town University. If you don’t stop, the entire trip takes less than an hour. I guarantee that you’ll start looking at real estate agents’ windows, checking out the price of properties. I fantasized for years about owning a winter place in Cape Town. Still do, actually.”
Harper Alliance Partners: Visitors don’t expect the mix of cultures found in Cape Town, say Nick Dreyer, general manager at Ellerman House, and Simon Mandy, operations and marketing manager for the Royal Portfolio, which includes Birkenhead House and La Residence. “Since its founding, Cape Town has been a melting pot of culture and influence,” Dreyer says. “What differentiates it from other cities is that it’s small enough to actually feel all the influences. You can drive 10 minutes and feel the effects of Malay culture, French, Dutch and English Colonialism.”
When is the best time for a visit to Cape Town?
Mr. Harper: “Thanks to the South Atlantic, Cape Town’s weather is changeable and hard to predict. Winter can be wet, windy and miserable. Cold-water currents flow up from Antarctica, so the sea is always chilly. The best weather extends from November (late spring) to April (fall). High summer, January, can be idyllic, as there is invariably a breeze off the ocean and it seldom becomes excessively hot.”
Harper Alliance Partners: “Cape Town is a year-round destination with a wide variety of attractions to impress even the most seasoned of travelers,” de Klerk says. “To enjoy the glorious summer weather and long days of sunshine, the best time to visit is between December and February.” Mandy agrees. “Traveling is always better when the sun is shining, and South Africa’s summer is idyllic,” he says, suggesting that October through March is a good time to visit. Wagner recommends August to October, “when the spring flowers are abundant and beautiful.” Meanwhile, Dreyer says Cape Town’s winter weather has gotten a bad rap, noting that “the weather in winter is comparable to an English summer.”
What sites and activities do you recommend to enjoy South Africa’s wildlife and natural beauty?
Mr. Harper: “Summer in Cape Town is the rainy season in South Africa’s principal wildlife areas, such as Kruger National Park and the adjoining Sabi Sand Reserve. (The best months in the northern game areas are May through September.) In summer, you can either go to a game reserve in the Eastern Cape such as Kwandwe or head farther afield to Botswana and Namibia.”
Harper Alliance Partners: The wildlife reserves in the Eastern Cape—while perhaps not as well-known as others—offer amazing opportunities to see the region’s wildlife, says Liz McGrath, proprietor of The Collection, which includes The Plettenberg. For local flora, Mandy recommends the Western Cape’s Floral Kingdom, “which has one of the largest varieties of plant life in the world,” he says. Leah de Klerk, PR executive with Cape Grace, suggests a number of activities to explore the environment of the Western Cape, such as paragliding off Lions Head, a 2,195-foot mountain; sailing around Table Bay; abseiling down Table Mountain; shark cage-diving and whale-watching in Hermanus and Gansbaai; enjoying a horseback wine safari in Stellenbosch or Franschhoek; or taking a hot-air balloon ride at sunrise in Paarl.
What are some hidden gems in Cape Town and the surrounding region?
Mr. Harper: “I always enjoy going to have lunch at Constantia Uitsig, a hotel at the back of Table Mountain, which has a fine French restaurant (La Colombe) and an excellent Provencal/Mediterranean restaurant (Constantia Uitsig Restaurant) in an 1894 homestead. Just 20 minutes from downtown Cape Town, the property is surrounded by a century-old wine estate. In fact, the Constantia Valley was the original heartland of South African wine, and the history of winemaking there dates back to 1685. The sweet Vin de Constance was a favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had it shipped to St. Helena as a palliative for his exile.”
Harper Alliance Partners: “The regeneration of some of the old city suburbs cannot be missed,” Dreyer says. “Salt River and Woodstock are these grungy suburbs that now have the most wonderful Saturday markets, tiny cutting-edge art galleries and bespoke design stores.” In the Cederberg Mountains, about 270 kilometers from Cape Town, visitors can explore the history of the Bushman tribes and the fascinating rock art sites they left, says Jill Wagner, marketing manager for Red Carnation Hotel Collection, which includes Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat. “Guests should not miss guided excursions to view these paintings, which will transport you to the days when the Bushman roamed the area,” she says. According to Mandy, “In Hermanus, one is spoilt with must-see sites and hidden gems. The cliff path walk that meanders along the coastline is breathtaking. During the whale season, one can walk for miles through the coastal fynbos and catch regular glimpses of the whales breaching.” De Klerk recommends Blouberg Beach, about a 15-minute drive from Cape Town. “Blouberg Beach boasts glorious white sands and the most spectacular panoramic views of Table Mountain,” she says.
Are there any particular stretches or sites of the Garden Route, along South Africa’s southeastern coastline, that visitors must see?
Mr. Harper: “I particularly like Hermanus at the western end of the Garden Route, just 90 minutes from Cape Town, where I recommend Birkenhead House hotel. It is a wonderful place to relax and to gaze at the ocean. And from June to December, the southern right whales pass by.” (August to October is the peak season when sightings are virtually guaranteed, either from boats, or from eight miles of coastal path.)
Harper Alliance Partners: “The Garden Route’s location in relation to Cape Town and its quaint atmosphere make it a must-see,” says Mandy. He recommends exploring the towns of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. “This is one of the most beautiful areas of the southern cape and home to many little family-owned restaurants, artisanal producers, writers, stunning championship golf courses and white sandy beaches.” McGrath notes that the Garden Route “is famous for its unique flora and majestic indigenous trees. Traveling the Garden Route, one enjoys exceptional sea views on the one hand and views of lakes and mountains on the other.”
What makes the Cape Winelands district special or unique? What wine-related excursions do you recommend?
Mr. Harper: “No one should visit Cape Town without spending a day in the adjacent Winelands, which are less than an hour’s drive away. The scenery is glorious, and the food and wine are world-class. The prettiest place is Franschhoek, and there are few more idyllic places for lunch, or dinner on a summer evening, than Le Quartier Francais, a charming (Harper-recommended) auberge at the top of the town’s delightful main street.”
Harper Alliance Partners: Dreyer and Mandy echo Mr. Harper: “If you venture out of the city, the Winelands have some of the world’s leading wine estates,” Dreyer says. “L’Ormarins and Waterford wines are simply unbelievable.” Adds Mandy of La Residence, which is located in the Winelands: “The growing areas around Cape Town are not divided into regulated appellations, and coupled with the dramatic landscape, South Africa is able to produce the most incredible range of individualistic vintages. Many of the regions within the Winelands are blessed with long growing seasons resulting in some of the finest examples of new-world wines.”
Are there any Cape Town or South African dishes or foods you highly recommend?
Mr. Harper: “The fish and seafood are wonderful in Cape Town—thanks to the cold waters of the Atlantic—and there is a delicious local species called snoek. It’s an oily fish, part of the barracuda family, and South Africans like to grill it on a braai (barbecue) and serve it with roasted sweet potatoes. Cape Town has an extensive connection with Malaysia—Malays are great seamen—and the Cape Malay lobster curry is a local delicacy. If you are feeling adventurous, you can try wild game: wildebeest, kudu, impala, warthog, gemsbok, eland and springbok all feature on Cape Town menus.”
Harper Alliance Partners: “South Africa’s cuisine has become recognized worldwide for its innovative and progressive take on classical European- and French-style cooking,” says McGrath. De Klerk recommends bobotie (also spelled bobotjie), a dish of minced meat baked with an egg-based topping. Other dishes de Klerk suggests include waterblommetjiebredie, which is meat (typically lamb) stewed with waterblommetjies, a type of flower; koeksisters, a doughnut that is twisted or braided and covered in sugar; and Malva pudding, made with apricot jam and typically served hot with ice cream or custard. Wagner notes that South African specialties, such as guinea fowl tagine, are staples on Bushmans Kloof Head Chef Floris Smith’s menus.
Do you have any practical advice, such as about health and safety, for visitors?
Mr. Harper: “Cape Town is a healthy place: It is too far south for malaria or tropical diseases of any kind. Unfortunately, South Africa still has a chronic problem with long-term unemployment—currently running at around 25 percent—and this creates social alienation and crime. Many South Africans supposed that when the apartheid system was dismantled, the country would be set on a path toward widespread prosperity. When this did not prove to be the case, some people became severely disaffected. On the notorious Cape Flats, many people still live in Third World slum conditions. Cape Town is not Johannesburg, where residents shelter behind high walls and razor wire, but it is still a place where it pays to be careful, especially after nightfall.”
Harper Alliance Partners: “Obviously, wherever you are in the world, it is necessary to always be cautious and not to venture into the wrong areas,” McGrath says. De Klerk agrees. “Always be vigilant and aware of your surroundings and your possessions, just as you would in any other large city. We do not advise that people walk around the city alone at night time, rather catch a cab,” she says.
If you had to describe Cape Town in five words, what would they be?
Mr. Harper: “Sun, scenery, wine, flowers, civilized.”