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Overview: We spent 6 nights in and around Cape Town, including the peninsula.
Just to be clear, we did like Cape Town, and indeed all of South Africa, very much.

Scroll down for the stories, or skip directly to a section:
Airport Arrival, 4 of 5 stars - strongly recommended! V&A Waterfront, 5 of 5 stars - do not miss! Robben Island, 5 of 5 stars - do not miss! Township Tour, 3 of 5 stars - recommended! Downtown, 5 of 5 stars - do not miss! Table Mountain, 4 of 5 stars - strongly recommended! Cape Peninsula, Departure By Car
Satellite Photo: See this satellite map of the Cape Town area with pushpins and then zoom in at least once. Or the South Africa satellite map.
Airport Arrival: From Jo'burg, we enjoyed business class on our 2 hour, 10 minute flight to Cape Town on South African Airways, inc. champagne before takeoff and yet another meal. There wasn't much exciting scenery (desert, mountains), until we circled around the shorelines near Cape Town (possibly over False Bay). Around 16:30, the temperature was sunny and warm (25° C), though it had been hot (over 30° C)
Nuclear Reactors? Our hostel sent their shuttle van to pick us up at the Cape Town airport, a free service if you stay a few nights (#nights varies whether private or dorm rooms). It's always nice to have somebody waiting at the airport for you, holding a sign with your name on it. The driver was a middle-aged white woman who enjoyed answering questions about Cape Town and the expected 6 weeks of rolling power blackouts we had read about in the newspaper on the flight, and the fire on the slopes of Table Mountain started by a careless smoker (which killed an elderly tourist). She also complained about being retrenched out of her good accountant-type job, due to the hiring of blacks.
On the way into town along the N2 highway, we passed what I thought was a nuclear power plant (it certainly looked like a nuclear tower) but later found out was a disused coal burning electrical plant. We also saw the "ramp to nowhere" at the end of the downtown end of the elevated N2 highway, a site often used in movies.
Hover over me!
We stayed 6 nights at the favorite Big Blue Backpackers/Hostel. What? Susan in a hostel? No way! Well, we had a comfortable private room with a double bed and en-suite bathroom (shower, no tub) which was large enough to have nightstands and a loveseat (and one bunk bed in addition to our bed. So it was really like being in an inexpensive hotel that doesn't gouge you for every little thing :-) They have a bar, an Internet Café, self-catering communal kitchen and of course a tour desk that offers candid advice and well-priced tours. The backpackers was a quirky pair of connected Victorian houses, located in the Green Point area, a 15 minute walk to the touristy V&A Waterfront development (though it's unsafe to walk between the 2 places at night, so a taxi was required). In fact, the hostel had a big security gate with camera, and tall razor-wire topped walls around the property.
We settled in, luxuriating in the thought of not moving for 6 nights, then walked 5 minutes around the corner to Main St and chose the favorite News Cafe for dinner. They had a non-smoking section, as well as patios though it was too chilly for that in the evening (we were wearing long pants and sweaters!) We enjoyed live music: a female vocalist/guitarist doing cover songs. The tasty simple dinner was better than pub grub, especially Susan's toasted Haloumi and avocado "sandwich." My tramezzini was an interesting variation on the sandwich theme.
V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront: The morning began with a tasty, healthy, filling breakfast consisting of muesli, fruit salad, yoghurt, toast, small fruit juice, coffee and a packaged muffin (handy for a snack later) at the hostel (only R25 pp). As the hostel didn't have laundry facilities (which surprised me) and we had lots of dirty laundry from Zanzibar, we dropped off our laundry at a nearby laundromat on our way by foot to the Victoria & Albert Waterfront (named after the Queen and Prince of England; known locally as the V&A Waterfront). It's a big tourist area with shops, restaurants, attractions (inc. the aquarium), cruises etc. in a working harbour. Most importantly, the tours to famous Robben Island prison depart from here.
Tip Tip: Book your Robben Island tour in advance to avoid disappointment and to schedule your day better.
We took Susan to a medical clinic in the same building as the huge Tourist Info office at the V&A Waterfront, which was not the SAA travel clinic that the hostel had pointed us to. Recall that Susan had been quite ill in Zanzibar a few days earlier, and we needed to double check some things. We purchased tickets for the Robben Island tour later that day at 16:00 and then enjoyed lunch at Den Anker (The Anchor), the oldest Belgian pub/resto just across from the famous clock tower and swinging pedestrian bridge. We sat inside because the wind was too cool and the clouds were moving in.
On leaving the restaurant, I accidentally bumped into the corner of a table, which hit my pocket, and more specifically the shutter of my digital camera in that pocket! In fact it bent the shutter inwards such that it wouldn't open; I had to unbend the shutter manually to make the camera work again!
Robben Island: Leaving from the V&A Waterfront, the 5 of 5 stars - do not miss! Robben Island (prison) Museum and Tour you've been dying to hear about! Historically significant in that most of the political prisoners were sent here, including of course Nelson Mandela who spent 19 of his 27 years in prison here! Robben Island is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nelson Mandela's Cell The island itself is a 12km ride away on a fast power catamaran, offering great views back towards Cape Town and Table Mountain. We also saw some whale spouts, which was unusual for that time of year.
First you get a 45 minute narrated bus tour of the island, inc. the lime quarry with "hole university." This is followed by a 30 minute guided tour of the prison, inc. some time to read the "Cell Stories," a collection of artifacts and stories from different former inmates in 40 isolation cells.
One thing that makes the tour especially fascinating is that the tour is led by former political prisoners. Our guide that day was "Sparks," who had spent 7 years at Robben Island as a political prisoner himself! It was both amazing, and a further testament to Nelson Mandela's vision of reconciliation in freeing and uniting the country, that "Sparks" (and other ex-political prisoners) were able to forgive his former jailors and bear them no ill will.
The experience was very moving, enlightening, appalling and sad.
I almost hate to mention it (so as not to take away from the historical poignancy of the visit), but as an added bonus, there is a small penguin colony on the island near the ferry dock. Very cute!
Back at the V&A Waterfront, we searched the modern mall for a suitable restaurant for dinner as we were quite hungry already. We settled on Primi, an Italian restaurant whose main feature that night was immediate seating. The hot beef salad was very tasty and large; the pizzas brought to other tables looked tasty. Sitting at a table near the bar, we noticed that the Passion Cordial which Susan liked was from the Rose's brand (as in Rose's Lime Cordial, Rose's Grenadine) and they also had a Rose's Kola Tonic (say what? we didn't try that one).
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: Tip Tip on taking a taxi from V&A Waterfront back to Big Blue Backpackers.
Kids in the Township Township Tour: The next morning, a Tuesday, we set an alarm so we could enjoy the hearty breakfast before the 8:30 pickup for our township tour with Sam's Cultural Tours.
Read about the fascinating 5 of 5 stars - do not miss! township tour, including visits to the District Six Museum, a shebeen, a dormitory, a sangoma, a crèche and a carpet-weaving project for mothers.
We were starving by the time we returned to Cape Town, 30 min later than anticipated (which is positive, as it meant we had spent more time seeing things!). We immediately headed to the News Cafe for lunch. After ordering, I quickly returned to our backpackers to drop off our day bags and get more cash for lunch and picking up our laundry. We enjoyed a tasty, relaxing lunch on the patio with partial sun, flipping through the local newspaper. The fruit shakes were especially refreshing.
We picked up our sizeable laundry and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the backpackers. We had expected to meet my friend Phil (short for Philippa) for dinner, but she left a message for us at the backpackers rescheduling for the next day.
We walked back to the V&A Waterfront in the early evening. We browsed the Cape Union Mart, an outdoor clothing/gear store similar to REI and MEC stores in the USA and Canada, respectively.
We enjoyed a lovely 2 hour dinner with good live jazz (nightly) at the Green Dolphin, sitting at a table directly in front of the stage. While both of our fish dishes were excellent, Susan's Cape Salmon lacked that distinctive salmon taste and pink colour. We later discovered at the aquarium that my Kingklip was a local deep water fish (white meat). They had two different cover charges for the live jazz depending on whether or not the table had a view of the stage; the price difference was so small that I recommended getting the "sighted table" (view of the stage).
Downtown: Wednesday, March 1 was Election Day, so many business were closed, though thankfully not all of the tourist attractions. It was a cold, windy and gray day. Before heading out from the hostel, we researched car rentals on the Internet, as we wanted to pick up a car the next day, 2 days earlier than our original reservation with Europcar. This became a bit of a nightmare, as Travelocity did not properly forward our reservation to Europcar.
We crossed the street and waited for a bus, but hopped in to the "more expensive" minibus shared taxi which arrived first, for the brief ride to downtown, getting off at the main Long Street.
We popped into 2 of the 3 car rental agencies near that intersection, but the rates were no better than our online booking.
We perused the 3 of 5 stars - recommended! Gold Of Africa Museum with its wide array of gold artifacts and jewelry, much of it symbolic. For example, the statue of a chief holding an egg: authority must be exercised with care (if the egg is held too tightly it will be crushed; if not held firmly enough it will fall and break). There was also a wild, mural-sized timeline detailing from late 19th Century Europe, as well as other great civilizations (Egypt etc.) and a full-on biblical timeline.
We walked down the pedestrian St George's Mall, almost deserted due to the election, and ate a quick shawarma lunch with an excellent mint tea. As we sat outside, the wind blew dust on us and knocked over the parasol; meanwhile, the Turkish proprietor shooed away a particularly annoying beggar.
We visited the 3 of 5 stars - recommended! Slave Lodge Museum, one of the oldest buildings in South Africa, dating to 1660. It contains (too much) info on the slave history, including the nearby slave auction spot under a huge tree that still stands today.
There was an interesting contemporary exhibit containing quotations and info about the "potential of the human spirit" from a wide-ranging group of notable scientists, athletes and artists.
We had difficulty finding a taxi to the aquarium, so we kept walking along a few streets in the direction we were headed, until we made it to a busy intersection and finally hailed a taxi.
The 3 of 5 stars - recommended! Two Oceans Aquarium at the V&A Waterfront is small but interesting, worth the visit. There are some very interesting creatures, including some giant spider crabs - and I mean huge - their bodies were ½m wide, with another 1m worth of legs in each direction! Also the bizarre slime-coated snake-like hagfish, which I would see in a TV documentary a few months later!
Susan had a cold and wanted to relax in the evening, so we grabbed some stuff from a pharmacy in the mall and a quick fast-food meal for Susan. We walked back to the hostel, a few minutes late for meeting up with my friend Phil (Philippa, aka Phlea), who came by the hostel to pick us up for an evening out. Brendan, an Aussie on a 3 years, 4x around the world (so far!) backpacking mission, was driving a rental car, taking Phil and I to the posh Atlantic suburb of Camps Bay, where Phil's friend Pips (also Philippa) lived at her parents' rented house with a terrific view.
I hung out for the evening with Pips and Phlea and some of their uni friends (breaking out the boxed wine, as they had all but emptied the liquor cabinet the night before :-) chatting about this and that. Brendan drove Phil back to town early in the evening, as she had to finish watching a movie, which had been interrupted the night before due to the rolling power blackouts. Pips went to bed somewhat early, and when we left after midnight, we had trouble unlocking the front door to get out (no, we weren't drunk).
With no fruit salad available this morning, we headed into town for breakfast. After waiting a few minutes at the bus stop, we grabbed a taxi into town. We walked along Long St and enjoyed a tasty "brunch" at Lola's Café, sitting inside because it was too cool outside. Browsing the shops along Long St, I noticed a preponderance of boho-chic clothing stores, often with half-height gates in front of the door, requiring you to buzz and be let in (due to shoplifting concerns).
Squirrel We walked through the Company's Gardens, where we fed nuts to squirrels; one particularly cheeky one sat on my lap, then peed on my leg.
At the far end was the excellent 3 of 5 stars - recommended! Planetarium. The show was the "wrong" one (not about the southern sky) but turned out to be a moderately interesting show about a new massive observatory in South Africa; Susan managed to fall asleep, so maybe it's not that interesting. Also, they had a very interesting fossil section - apparently the Karoo, a semi-desert area we would visit later, is a major paleontological area. We really didn't give the planetarium enough time to do it justice.
We walked through downtown towards the Waterfront Holiday Inn (not to be confused with the V&A waterfront) to pick up our rental car. Click here for more info on our problems booking this car online (note that usually I have no problems with Europcar).
We drove back to the backpackers and phone Pips regarding dinner; she arrived soon thereafter with Brendan and another friend (but unfortunately Phil was busy). For flexibility, Susan and I followed them in our rental car... our scenic drive took us around the point again, then past Sea Point, Clifton, Camps Bay and down the west coast, through Hout Bay, across scenic tolled Chapman's Peak, then cut across the peninsula via Silvermine Nature Reserve, past Muizenberg and into Kalk Bay. Some of the areas had no power at the time, which also knocked out traffic signals (called "robots" here).
Dinner with friends We enjoyed dinner at the Brass Bell, a multi-sectioned resto/bar nestled between the train station and the sea, with a nice view and warm enough behind/under the glass in the upper section. The food, company and conversation were all very good.
Pips and her friends said the restaurant was "cheap" so we expected a student dive; it's not, and in fact it was one of the more expensive Kalk Bay restaurants in our guidebook (when we looked it up the next day).
We also learned about parking "attendants" on the streets of South Africa. Basically they are non-White entrepreneurs, who hang out and keep a loose eye on your car in exchange for a tip (say R2, always paid it when you return to the car; sometimes they ask for money up front, and they might not be around when you return).
We drove back to the backpackers via the fairly direct M3 highway straight north to Cape Town (despite warning about not driving at night, which seemed aimed more at bad parts of town and rural highways). Plus, having been in the car with Brendan the night before, I could see it wasn't a big problem.
Table Mountain: The next morning we drove to the V&A Waterfront for another quick doctor consultation and split one large breakfast plate at the pancake resto near the clock tower.
Table Mountain Cableway Then on to the 5 of 5 stars - do not miss! Table Mountain Cableway, the base of which is only 10 minutes from downtown. The round gondola, with a rotating floor so everyone gets some of the good views, takes you up to the 1085m peak of Table Mountain, which dominates Cape Town's skyline. The top is indeed very flat, as you might expect of its "table" name.
It's much cooler and windier up top; it was windy and downright chilly (I should have brought socks and a sweater - my long pants and a light jacket were not enough; I even had to put on my gloves while taking pictures!).
Tip Tip: Make sure the weather is good, and dress very warmly!
The views are spectacular, looking northwards over downtown Cape Town and across the water to Robben Island; to the west are the ritzy Atlantic suburbs including Camps Bay.
Unfortunately Susan had to descend after 10 minutes as her head cold caused too much pressure in her ears. Shortly after that, they stopped allowing people up due to the high winds; I also heard "stay near to the top gondola station" alerts on the loudspeakers.
I spent another 30 minutes going around the Agama Walk (the shortest of 3 walks) to take pictures. They had nice fynbos ("fine bush") inc. heaths, reeds and proteas along the walk, and some rather large not-shy dassies (rock hyraxes, like the ones we saw in Tanzania).
Penguin Warning Cape Peninsula: After Table Mountain, we spent the rest of the day driving around the 4 of 5 stars - strongly recommended! Cape Peninsula (inc. a penguin colony) to the south (see the stories on that page). The next day, after getting our rental phone and driving through the colourful Bo-Kaap area next to downtown, we spent the afternoon driving on the cape again, to soak in the scenery in daylight.
On our last day in Cape Town, we finally took care of our mobile phone rental. The Europcar location didn't have the promised phone, so we drove to the V&A Waterfront to get our "deal" at the Vodacom shop in the mall. Oddly, the cost of renting a SIM chip is the same as renting a phone, but for the latter you need to buy extra insurance at the store (otherwise a lost/stolen rental phone costs you R2000!) Susan's phone wasn't unlocked -- we should have brought mine, which is -- so the 4 week phone rental cost us an extra US$45 in insurance.
Departure By Car: Late on Saturday afternoon, we finally bid adieu to Cape Town and drove to Stellenbosch in the wine region, about one hour east of Cape Town.
Lunch at Den AnkerR129.50 + tip
½kg musselsR39
house Beligan draft beerR18.50
passion & tonicR12
Dinner at PrimiR90 + tip
hot beef saladR40
½ plate pastaR30 approx
passion & tonicR10.50 approx
Lunch at News CafeR138 + tip
burger w/ cheese & avocadoR39
jalapeño steak wrapR37
mango madness shakeR19
strawberry banana shakeR19
café lattéR14
Dinner at Green DolphinR248 + tip
line fish (Cape Salmon)R85
Kingklip (deep water fish)R93
glass red wineR15
glass white wineR12
1L mineral waterR16
malva pudding (dessert)R27
"Brunch" at Lola's CaféR80.50 + tip
eggs lolaR29
fab fry upR29
orange juiceR13

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