TRAVEL: PAUL MENDELSON
After a quarter of a century and around forty visits, acclaimed novelist Paul Mendelson writes exclusively for Queen and Country magazine about his beloved Cape Town.
Unless you have a hankering to go on safari in Kruger Park or to hike the Drakensberg Mountains, head directly for Cape Town. South Africa's coastal gem has been voted many times as one of the best cities in the world to visit. Resist British Airways’ overpriced direct flights and travel via Johannesburg, Europe or even Asia. The extra few hours melt away once the warm Cape breeze hits you. With only two hours time difference at peak season (November – March), there’s no jet leg.
If money’s no object, book Ellerman House, exclusive and private, right on the sea, the Silo Hotel amidst the working Waterfront docks, or The Cellars Hotel, out of town in the pastoral Constantia suburb – two beautiful cape Dutch houses, or go full-on colonial at The Mount Nelson Hotel in the centre of town – haunt of film stars, face-lifts and the best formal tea on the African continent.
Prepare online. Eschew internationally-priced main hotels for amazing guest houses or the ubiquitous Airbnb. Capetonians love Airbnb, offering owners precious hard currency, you a slice of the easy-living, sun-filled summer, in homely suburban cottages, slick city apartments or dazzling mountain or sea-view villas.
You’ll want a car; avoid high-priced big-name firms and go suburban: two suggestions; Vineyard Cars in Claremont for brand new German cars or CarMania in Heathfield for an older mix of marques. Both prepare, deliver and organise your car super-efficiently. Bikers: pack your gear. Top quality machines are available from several companies.
The number one attraction in Cape Town is The Waterfront. Depressingly, this is a shopping mall. A pleasant one, amidst working docks, great views back up to Table Mountain, and an excellent selection of restaurants and bars. It’s as safe as it gets - but it’s a mall.
Across the Harbour, it’s moving in the right direction, with the opening of the Thomas Heatherwick-designed Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in former grain silos, and some intriguing architecture in the new developments surrounding it.
The next items on the touted tourist trail are much better. The cable car up Table Mountain (take a second layer whatever the weather); the penguins at Boulders Beach, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens – book a Sunday evening concert – the setting is sublime (take a picnic and two extra layers). Cape Point: prise yourself out of bed early, get in the car or, better, hop on the bike and take the coastal roads through Kalk Bay and Simon’s Town to the Cape Point National Park (open from 6am). Take a bracing walk up the steps (there is a funicular railway from 9am) to the lookout and see the mythical meeting place of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
Now, just as the coach-loads arrive, you drive away, detour down one of the side roads, past ostriches, antelope, around tortoises, to deserted white beaches. The wind will blow, the sea will be icy, but the beauty, clarity of view, freshness of air will bewitch you.
On your way back, stop at The Black Marlin, for decades a reliable seafood restaurant. Grab a late breakfast or an early lunch. Leave as the crowds arrive. Stop off at Boulders Beach to stroll the boardwalk down to the penguins, maybe take a dip in the sea, watch local children dive from the eponymous rocks.
When you reach Kalk Bay, park up, browse the shops and galleries, eat well but casually – try The Brass Bell: a Cape Town institution serving fish and chips, prawns and pizza right on the crashing surf or the Olympia Bakery for astonishing omelettes. Go smarter and book a table at the ideally situated Harbour House. Take the winding road home in time to relax before your dinner plans.
The one beach likely to be warm enough from which to swim is Muizenberg. Ignore signs to Surfers Corner and head for Sunrise Beach a kilometre further on. You’ll find shallow water with crashing waves, every age, race and class walking sand-encrusted dogs, playing beach games, ogling kite surfers. This endless beach of white sand is not for sun-bathing , this is a walking, running, surfing and splashing in the waves beach.
You want to mix with the beautiful people? Head to Clifton beaches. Overlooked by towering apartments, this is where you sunbathe, preen, be seen. Those afflicted by gym obsession, rejoice, for here your work will not have been in vain.
Take Chapman’s Peak Drive, the serpentine road cut from the rock face, to Noordhoek, the longest stretch of white sand you could ever imagine, pounded by white crested rollers. Walk it on foot or hoof. A sunset ride in the shallows is unforgettable.
The days of a gentle pastoral tour of the Cape Winelands are long gone. Tourism has tainted the landscape and commercialised the vineyards. However, where the charm has diminished, the food and architecture are greatly enhanced. There are free guides to the Winelands everywhere, but I can recommend Tokara – good food, interesting architecture; Thelema for the wines, Graff Delaire for the views and swanky restaurants, and Waterkloof, housed in an eco-friendly James Bond villain’s lair, perched on the mountaintop above Somerset West and Gordon’s Bay – spectacular views, excellent food, good wines. Stellenbosch is full of history, a fine selection of Cape Dutch architecture and tempting contemporary eateries.
For the sporting, there is tennis, bowls, and great golf – dozens of wonderful courses within an hour of the city, but I particularly like Clovelly GC just along from Kalk Bay.
There are international grounds for both cricket and rugby next to one another in Newlands (a southern suburb, 15 minutes out of town). Both are world class venues, worth visiting for their setting alone. Newlands village also boasts some great restaurants, frequented by the sporting stars: Patina – a super steak restaurant; El Burro – a Mexican joint; and The Creamery – an ice cream parlour open til late and always busy.
More European than African, Cape Town is supremely relaxing. Nowhere is ever more than smart casual, and super-casual usually hits the spot. Long Street runs up the middle of town towards the Mountain, hosting the longest established shops, bars and restaurants, but parallel Bree Street has become the cool younger brother, with designers and architects, bakers and beer-makers taking up residence with their beards. Cross streets between the two are filled with cool bars, tattoo parlours, art galleries and clubs.
Lunchtime is quieter, parking is easy and cheap, views bright and sparkling. At night, lights gleam on shiny faces, smells waft the cross-streets, the Victorian balconies fill with revellers, music samples from doorways, smokers curate the nicotine curtain. First Thursdays of each month see art galleries and exhibitions stay open late, wine poured, while artists expound on their work.
Cape Town food is best when modest, local and fun. Attempts at haute cuisine are pretentiously variable. Sushi, tapas, grills and brasseries are best – there is little to beat a great steak or grilled prawns - all at breathtakingly reasonable prices.
The bar scene is wonderful, best off the tourist trail. Tjing Tjing – a rooftop bar off Long Street is a favourite, as is the local Power and the Glory on Kloof Nek Road. Café Mohito on Long Street is a Mexican joint, basic but huge fun, especially when the older locals begin to dance. Jo’burg and Pretoria are two small, sweaty bars, side-by-side on Long Street, music loud, and packed.
Next morning, 8.45am on a Saturday – some will have come straight from the clubs – head for the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock. Breakfast and lunch is cooked at stalls, fresh produce abounds, Frank Sinatra sings, the atmosphere hums.
Despite some of the older South African men being - how shall I put this politely? - of the 1970s, the city is metrosexual, relaxed and accepting. The Waterkant (a few hundred meters from the centre of town) is awash with gay-friendly accommodation, bars and nightlife, in-season very much a café culture, with steep cobbled streets on which you stride, strut or mince past the beautiful people who come out to play.
Cape Town is enthralling and magical, but if you enjoy some leisurely touring, feel free to roam. Greyton is a country village 90 minutes beautiful drive away. Walk the lanes, admire the cottages, lunch simply and well and head back home via Franschoek, a country culinary capital.
Take the coast roads via Gordon’s and Betty’s Bays, through Kleinmond and down along deserted roads to Arniston, almost at Africa’s most Southern point. Take a walk through the primitive fishermen’s village, along pristine beaches, bathe in the warm Indian Ocean sea. Have a night in a local’s holiday home or at the Arniston Spa and Hotel. Simple and delightful.
On your return, slow down for Bredasdorp, a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere. You might see a lone man on a bleached bowling green, or you might see no one. If you do, they’ll speak Afrikaans, and you’ll know you’re in Africa. As you drive away along an empty road, you will see the biggest sky you’ve ever seen. Watch clouds cast shadows tens of miles wide across an endless landscape, see sheep, their coats pinky-orange from the dust, keeping their noses cool under the tail of the animal in front, or a windmill silhouetted against a perfect blue sky.
Travel an hour North to Riebeek Kastille, a perfect country town with lovely restaurants, head west to the towering surf of the South Atlantic and seaside towns like Paternoster or the calm lagoon at Langebaan. Eat the contents of the sea, drink the West Coast wine.
If you take the Garden Route East from Cape Town, take the less travelled way. Eschew the N2 freeway for the R62. This circuitous, wonderful road takes you through mountain passes, across the wilderness of the Little Karoo, passing through the country towns of Barrydale, Ladysmith, Calitzdorp (the port capital of South Africa) all the way to Oudtshoorn (the ostrich capital of South Africa). Then, drop south to Wilderness, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and the Tsitsikamma forest – by far the best of the Garden Route.
But, for all the excursions, all the unmissable attractions, Cape Town itself is best of all. Watched over by the Mountain, lit by the gods, warmed by the people, the irresistible quality of life, the culture and the African rhythms pulse through a place so instantly homely, so uniquely African.
Paul Mendelson’s latest thriller Apostle Lodge, set in and around Cape Town, is available now.