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A first visit to Cape Town, South Africa's oldest city (founded by the Dutch in 1652 as a supply station), can be rather confusing. Most people, for example, incorrectly assume that it's located at the extreme southwestern tip of Africa. Actually, the Cape Peninsula extends 40 miles farther south to the Cape of Good Hope. Also, visitors are often disoriented by the fact that downtown Cape Town faces not south or west but due north, across Table Bay. The essential landmark here is Table Mountain. Classic postcard views show the familiar flat-topped silhouette merely as a backdrop to the city. But in fact Cape Town has grown up the entire way around this colossal mass of rock.
On day one you might drive the full 360-degree circuit, which takes about an hour. Begin at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, once part of the city's docks and now smartened up and home to dozens of inexpensive restaurants, hundreds of shops, and several of the better hotels. Heading south (and traveling counterclockwise), you quickly come to Sea Point, a neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings, where Atlantic rollers smash themselves to turquoise foam on the protective seawall. Half a mile farther on are three of Cape Town's most desirable residential districts, their houses stacked up a precipitous hillside in a manner reminiscent of the Côte d'Azur. Bantry Bay, with its Millionaires Mile, is known locally as the home of "serious money," in contrast to neighboring Clifton, said to be the preferred address of "old money." Camps Bay tends to be favored by Cape Town's young and beautiful crowd, who pose decoratively at sidewalk cafés, sample the sushi at Codfather (yes, really), or just hang out on the superb white-sand beach.
After Camps Bay comes a stretch of protected and undeveloped coastline before you reach Hout Bay, a picturesque commercial fishing harbor. There the road turns inland and north, ascending toward Constantia, a lovely residential district of mansions, vineyards, and brilliant subtropical vegetation. Nearby are the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, where on Sunday evenings in summer concerts are staged in idyllic surroundings. Moving on, you skirt the district of Newlands, once known for its rugby and cricket stadiums, but these days a hot neighborhood overtaken by successful young people. The epicenter of the fashionable activity is Melissa's, a gourmet food store and café. Finally, as the road swings west again, the shining expanse of Table Bay comes into view once more and you descend past Cape Town University into the business district and the city center.
Cape Town Facts
BEST TIME TO VISIT High summer in Cape Town is December to March, when the temperature rarely exceeds 85 degrees. The city is often less crowded in February and March. Winter (June through August) can be fairly cold and wet.
TELEPHONE NUMBERS South Africa code: 27. Cape Town code: 21.
GETTING THERE South African Airways (800-722-9675) flies nonstop from Atlanta to Cape Town (14.5 hours) three times a week; and from New York's JFK to Cape Town, with a stop in Johannesburg, five times a week.
VISAS U.S. citizens need only a valid passport to enter South Africa.
LOCAL TIME South African Standard Time is six hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Daylight Saving Time.
MONEY South Africa's unit of currency is the rand. $1=R8.21
TAXES (VAT) South Africa imposes a Value Added Tax of 14 percent, included in the price of most goods and services. On departure, visitors can reclaim some of their VAT expenses on goods being taken out of the country.
TIPPING Tipping (10 to 15 percent) is customary in restaurants and hotels.
SAFETY In general, Cape Town is relatively safe and certainly has experienced nothing like the violent mayhem that has engulfed Johannesburg in recent years. But it pays to be careful here, as in any metropolis. Despite being the political and administrative heart of the city, central Cape Town has recently acquired a reputation for street crime; hence, visitors should avoid it after nightfall.
Places to Stay
Kensington Place is an exquisite property in a peaceful, leafy, residential neighborhood in the foothills of Table Mountain. There are just eight rooms, decorated in a refined contemporary style: a neutral palette of mostly white, cream, and oatmeal complemented by dark, tropical-hardwood furniture and the occasional flamboyant (for Cape Town) detail such as a Persian rug or zebra-striped sofa. Bathrooms are state-of-the-art, with power showers and sunken tubs. DVD players and data ports are standard. Surrounded by gardens and virtually smothered by purple jacaranda in spring, the hotel nonetheless has stunning views of Table Mountain. The staff is incredibly obliging. The only major drawback is the tiny saltwater pool, great for cooling off but of little use for serious exercise. Rooms, $210-$260. At 38 Kensington Crescent, Higgovale; 424-4744; www.kensingtonplace.co.za.
Cape Grace Located on the Waterfront, with an incomparable backdrop of Table Mountain, the Cape Grace is the most highly regarded of the city's big, full-service hotels (121 rooms, suites, and lofts). When the vast new marina is completed nearby, its setting will be even more animated and stylish. The Cape Grace is classic and elegant, with heavy floral fabrics, Oriental carpets, and traditional furniture in the British manner. The atmosphere of the hotel's recently revamped restaurant, One Waterfront, is lighter and more contemporary, its raw-silk furnishings, in claret and gold, complemented by bronze sculptures and flower arrangements. Its South African fusion cuisine (Karoo lamb; Cape Malay vegetable curry) is among the best in the city. Rooms, $450-$1,285; dinner, $50. At West Quay Road, Waterfront; 410-7100; www.capegrace.com.
Ellerman House This boutique property of 11 rooms, occupying a neoclassical mansion built in 1912, is the leading competitor for the title of Cape Town's best address. Ellerman House strives to preserve the atmosphere of a private residence (nonguest visitors are strongly discouraged), an ambition in which it is remarkably successful. Public areas are decorated with antique furniture and a notable collection of South African fine art, while spacious guestrooms have luxurious touches such as mohair blankets and heated slate bathroom floors. Maybe the most memorable aspect of the place (aside from its stunning 80-foot outdoor swimming pool) is its magnificent position on a terraced hillside, which affords all but two of its rooms spellbinding, uninterrupted views of the ocean from private balconies and terraces. Unlike most hotels of a similar size, Ellerman House has a dining room that competes quite well with the best restaurants in the city. Rooms, $430-$990; dinner, $50. At 180 Kloof Road, Bantry Bay; 430-3200; www.ellerman.co.za.
Mount Nelson Hotel The shift in the urban center of gravity from downtown to the Waterfront has left Cape Town's most celebrated hotel somewhat stranded. This 104-year-old dowager still assiduously cultivates the atmosphere of a long-vanished colonial era. After a recent million-dollar refit however, the famous pink walls are pristine, with spacious, conservatively decorated rooms and suites (lots of chintz and comfy armchairs) providing solid traditional comfort. Service is friendly and prompt, and the huge swimming pool is as magnificent as ever. Rooms, $630-$1,470. At 76 Orange Street; 27-21-483-1000; mountnelson.co.za.
Constantia Uitsig This unique 16-room hotel (complete with its own cricket ground, sometimes used as a practice field by the South African national team) is attached to a small vineyard in the Constantia Valley, a ravishingly picturesque region just 20 minutes from the city center. The atmosphere is addictive, with repeat winter guests checking in for a month or more. (If you want to stay in January or February, make a reservation at least a year in advance.) The accommodations are contained within a series of former estate cottages, immaculately whitewashed and with green tin roofs, all facing manicured lawns and tree-lined gardens. The decoration is traditional, with heavy floral fabrics and antique furniture. There are also two exceptional restaurants: La Colombe, widely considered the top restaurant in Cape Town, serves outstanding Provençal cuisine in a light, bright, airy dining room. Highlights include grilled medallions of springbok in orange-and-cranberry jus with Cape Malay spice and a dark-chocolate terrine with caramel sauce (reservations are essential at least a month in advance in high season). Stiff competition comes from the Constantia Uitsig Restaurant, a more businesslike setting in which the focus is northern Italian. In the estate shop, wine tastings are held throughout the day. Rooms, $280-$625; dinner at both La Colombe and Constantia Uitsig Restaurant, $90. Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia; 794-6500; www.uitsig.co.za.
The Place on the Bay is a small block of apartments directly overlooking the beach in Camps Bay. From the outside, the cream-and-pink stuccoed building looks fairly anonymous, but the huge top-floor apartment—The Penthouse—is magnificent. As soon as you step out of the private elevator you're overwhelmed by light, sea air, and an astonishing view. The Atlantic literally looks as if it's breaking at the end of the terrace. (In fact the ocean is about 150 yards away.) The Penthouse has two bedroom suites, a plunge pool on an elevated deck, a splendid living room with a separate dining area (which seats 12 comfortably), as well as a small kitchen and bar. Although the apartment is opulently furnished with gilded mirrors, heavy brocades, and contemporary South African art, its real glory is the huge terrace, with its unforgettable 270-degree view encompassing the ocean, the beach, the Camps Bay promenade, and the majestic sequence of massive cliffs known as the Twelve Apostles. The Penthouse has an extremely obliging manager, Keith Blake, who caters to the guest's every whim, a private chef (at an additional charge), and two maids. The Penthouse, $975-$2,440. At the corner of Fairways and Victoria Roads, Camps Bay; 438-7060; www.theplaceonthebay.co.za.
Hemingway House is a complete contrast to The Place on the Bay: a single-story 19th-century building, once a Masonic Lodge, located in a quiet cul-de-sac near the Mount Nelson Hotel. Here everything faces inward, in the manner of the southern Mediterranean. Four double rooms are arranged around a quiet courtyard with a sunken pool. The public areas, including a ten-seater dining room, have been stylishly decorated by owner Josie Hemingway with an international collection of artifacts: camel blankets from Niger, icons from Istanbul, lacquer ware from Thailand, and an outstanding collection of early-20th-century black and white photographs. The house has a full staff and a private chef can be arranged. A wonderfully harmonious enclave of old-world serenity. $ Rooms, $220-$270; entire house, $1,255. At 1 Lodge Street, Oranjezicht; 461-1857; www.hemingwayhouse.co.za.
La Residence, a stunning five-bedroom mansion, is in Franschhoek, a pretty town of galleries, restaurants, and food shops in the wine country, 45 minutes east of Cape Town. Surrounded by lavender fields and olive groves, this is a little patch of Provençal heaven, 5,000 miles from home. Decorated by owner Liz Biden in a "French Château" style, the 85-year-old property is a trove of art and antiques, some from Europe, some from French Canada, set around a cloistered courtyard with a splendid swimming pool. On a clear evening the view from the patio, as the Franschhoek Mountains turn from pink to purple, is sensational. A talented private chef (who trained with Alastair Little in London) can prepare superlative cuisine in any style, while the house also comes with a butler, chauffeur, and full domestic staff. Entire house, $1,830-$3,050, depending on number of rooms booked. At Domaine des Anges, Franschhoek; 761-8292, or 15-793-0150.
Cape Town is all about seafood. The cold-water currents, which make it almost impossible to swim in the ocean, are much beloved by fish and shellfish.
Wakame seats 120 people inside and 80 on a deck overlooking the bay and Robben Island. The decor is contemporary, with pale wood floors and neutral tones. Two huge fish tanks cover one wall. The cuisine is Asian Fusion, with world-class sushi and sashimi. Otherwise, try the local fish "straight up," or grilled, especially the sesame-crusted tuna and Cape salmon. Dinner, $32. At corner of Beach Road and Surrey Place, Moullie Point; 433-2377.
Baia On the Waterfront, this chic new dining room also has a great outside deck overlooking the bay and Table Mountain. This is the place to come for superlative Namibian oysters as well as a full range of local fish. Dinner, $55. At 6262 Victoria Wharf, V & A Waterfront; 421-0935; www.eatingout.co.za/online/baia.
Melissa's This great food shop and café has several locations, but the original is in Tamboerskloof, just south of the city center and close to some of the city's most interesting shops. Delicious food to eat in or take out: beet, feta, and spinach salad; outrageous chocolate cake. Perfect for a leisurely couple of hours on a Sunday morning spent reading the papers (on the house). Melissa's Chilli Ginger Jam is a specialty, but so are her homemade cookies and the world's fattest vine-ripened sultanas. At 94 Kloof Street, Tamboerskloof; 424-5540.
Victoria & Alfred Waterfront The development of the Waterfront is generally considered to be the biggest thing to have happened to Cape Town in the past quarter century, though its atmosphere can be an acquired taste when several large cruise ships are in port. The aquarium, with its tidal kelp forest and huge shark tank, is remarkable. Boats leave from The Waterfront hourly to Robben Island, Nelson Mandela's prison, with trips often overbooked and advance reservations essential.
Charles Greig Cape Town's leading jewelers and the place to buy diamonds. The 100-year-old family company offers innovative as well as traditional designs and an incomparable selection of stones. 6224 Victoria Wharf, V & A Waterfront; 418-4515; www.charlesgreig.cc.
Lorenzi These specialists in leatherware offer bags and belts, in local materials such as ostrich and crocodile. Funky designs are available in a range of unusual colors. 6245 Victoria Wharf, V & A Waterfront; 419-0359; www.lorenzi.co.za.
Heartworks This gallery offers an eclectic range of crafts chiefly from KwaZula-Natal: woven-wire bowls, bangles, ceramics, and the odd children's toy. $ At 98 Kloof Street, Tamboerskloof; 424-8419. Heartworks This gallery offers an eclectic range of crafts chiefly from KwaZula-Natal: woven-wire bowls, bangles, ceramics, and the odd children's toy. $ At 98 Kloof Street, Tamboerskloof; 424-8419.
African Light & Trading is well known for its modern interpretations of age-old themes. Exceptional furniture in such local materials as antelope horn and ostrich shell is made by artisans who are skilled in traditional techniques. At 31 Wesley Street, Gardens; 462-1490; www.altrad.co.za.
With the recent favorable exchange rates, this is an excellent time to consider buying contemporary South African painting and sculpture, much of which is of high quality, as well as being remarkably inexpensive by international standards. An excellent source of advice is David Tripp of Cape Town's Everard Read Gallery (418-4527; www.everardread.co.za).
Those interested in superb 18th-century Cape Dutch furniture, often made from striking indigenous woods and heavily embellished with silver, should get in touch with Deon Viljoen ($ 686-4344; www.deonviljoen.com) to make an appointment to visit his private gallery in Newlands.
African Leisure Travel Owners Tish Reader and Julia Naughton are thoroughly familiar with all the more esoteric aspects of Cape Town life. Their long-established company can offer assistance with private guides as well as sophisticated private itineraries. For information, 797-1373; www.africanleisuretravel.com.
About This Guide
PRICES In U.S. dollars.
RATES For high-season double occupancy, from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.
RESTAURANT PRICES Dinner for two, excluding wine and service.
SYMBOLS $ Hotel is a member of Fine Hotels & Resorts. Accomodations must be booked through PTS or CMS to obtain benefit.
PLATINUM CARD TRAVEL SERVICE (PTS) or Centurion Member Services (CMS). For assistance with travel to Cape Town, or any other destination in this issue, call 800-443-7672 (PTS) or 877-877-0987 (CMS). From abroad, call 602-537-4000 collect.
Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in May 2003, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.