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Cape Town Overview
Editor's note: In 2009 it was reported that former Cunard ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2 -- recently purchased by developers with plans to convert it into a luxury hotel in Dubai -- was expected to serve as a floating hotel in Cape Town for 18 months, to coincide with the 2010 World Cup. However, in January 2010, plans for this were scuppered by the Cape Town port authority when it said it would not be able to accommodate the ship for the length of time requested.
Beautiful, sophisticated, socially progressive, democratic, engaging, hopeful -- words which all capture Cape Town's very essence. Table Mountain majestically holds court over the city, which is nestled between Table Bay on one side and the Cape Flats. This South African jewel is the ideal home base for intrepid travelers wishing to explore all of the Rainbow Nation -- from the Cape of Good Hope and, the rolling Winelands, to the adrenalin-charged safari game reserves, near the country's northeastern border.
This fishhook-shaped peninsula, lashed by the fierce Atlantic Ocean, is an enigma. Cape Town often feels more like an old European bastion than an African outpost. Since banning apartheid in 1990, the city has become more cosmopolitan, while still struggling with the effects of more than 40 years of social inequality. Case in point? Cape Town's Lamborghini dealership is just blocks from the massive townships east of Table Mountain. While apartheid may have ended nearly two decades ago, 50 percent of the population still lives in poverty today, and nearly 25 percent is unemployed. Yet, there's an infectious sense of hope there, and the residents are some of the friendliest you'll find anywhere in the world.
The 2010 World Cup soccer matches will be played in South Africa, and there's a great deal of building to capitalize on the influx of visitors. In Cape Town, you'll see the development of the new African Renaissance Stadium, near the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. (If you have time, take the stadium tour that also delves into the history of Cape Town itself.)
Whether you're most interested in learning about South Africa's tribal past; its wine lands; its Dutch, British, and Cape Malay influences; its freedom fighters, who helped to end apartheid; or simply its flora and fauna, Cape Town is mesmerizing.
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Other Africa Cruise Ports:
Alexandria • Cairo (Port Said) • Cape Town • Safaga • Tunis (La Goulette)
When in South Africa, you must observe the stalwart "sundowner" tradition of sipping a refreshing beverage while witnessing a spectacular African sunset. Whether you're at a bar on the Victoria Wharf, on the white sand beach at Camp's Bay, or out on safari, just about every South African enjoys an alcoholic libation while watching the sun slip beneath the horizon. Locally made Amarula liqueur -- made from the fruit of the marula tree -- is a favorite. Drink it on ice; it tastes a bit like Bailey's Irish Cream.
The population here is multi-lingual, but everyone speaks English. The three ethnic, tribal languages you'll hear spoken most often are Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans. In fact, South Africa will wow you with the nearly dozen official languages it embraces. Besides the four languages previously mentioned, you may also hear Sepedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swati, Venda, Tsonga, and Ndebele.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
While locals refer to their currency as the "buck", rand (ZAR) is the official term. Each rand equals 100 cents. Note denominations include R200, R100, R50, R20, and R10. The current exchange rate is one U.S. dollar to 9 rand. (We recommend visiting www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates.) While MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Diners Club are widely accepted, it's a good idea to carry rand for small, spur-of-the-moment purchases. There are many foreign exchange facilities in Cape Town, including American Express and Rennies Travel.
Where You're Docked
Most cruise ships dock at Table Bay Harbour, within walking distance of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. As a U.S. or U.K. citizen, you won't need a visa to enter South Africa. However, you will need a passport with four empty pages. It must also be valid throughout your stay, as well as six months after your departure.
Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, with Table Mountain in the distance, is a focal point of Cape Town and is home to shopping centers, restaurants, hotels, Two Oceans Aquarium, and the Iziko South African Maritime Museum. Begin your adventure at Victoria Wharf Shopping Center, a typical American-style mall, boasting 400 shops and dozens of restaurants.
On Foot. During the day, you can easily and safely walk from your ship to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront complex.
Via Taxi. Taxis are the best way to get around the city. You'll pay about R7 (75 cents) per kilometer. Restaurant hosts and shopkeepers will gladly call a cab on your behalf.
Watch Out For
Like other cities in South Africa, crime can be an issue in Cape Town. Safeguard yourself! Don't walk anywhere after dark. Don't wear expensive jewelry or carry lots of camera equipment in areas with which you're not familiar. If you rent a car, don't leave valuables in the trunk.
Iconic Table Mountain is the image most closely associated with Cape Town. Almost always blanketed by a "tablecloth" of clouds, the mountain actually dissects the city and offers views of Table Bay, Robben Island, the Cape Flats, and Cape Peninsula. If you wish to snap the quintessential photo of Cape Town, take the 10-minute cable car ride to the summit of Table Mountain. Go whenever the weather is good. If you wake to a sunny, cloudless day, run to Table Mountain! You may not get this opportunity again during your trip, since the clouds can roll in at any time. This entire area is part of Table Mountain National Park, and you'll find many hiking trails to suit all ability levels.
To learn more about South Africa's apartheid-tainted past, visit Robben Island. This outpost in the Atlantic Ocean was a prison during the apartheid years (1948–1990), when racial segregation was ruled by law. Political dissidents like Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe were sent here and treated brutally in the hope that they'd give up the fight for equality. That never happened. Today, former prisoners lead guided tours of the island, explaining what it was like and discussing the strides South Africa has made since banishing apartheid in 1990.
Visitors know they'll encounter the big five -- lion, leopard, African elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhino -- in South Africa. But most don't know that they can also visit with African penguins. In 1983, a pair of penguins showed up at Foxy Beach in Boulders Bay. Within a few years, the population had grown immensely. Today, there are more than 2,500 penguins in the Boulders colony, near Simonstown (40 minutes south of Cape Town). The best viewing spots are Boulders Beach, where you can mingle with the birds, or Foxy Beach, where you'll view the colony from a raised boardwalk (tel: 021-786-2329).
Arts and Crafts One of the pleasures of traveling so far from home is the opportunity to shop for truly unique items. In Cape Town, there's a variety of shopping experiences to appeal to even the most jaded browser. Look for pottery, beadwork, woodcarvings and wire baskets and sculptures.
Your quest begins at the wildly popular Greenmarket Square . You'll negotiate with craftsman, hailing from all corners of Africa, at this open-air market on the cobblestone streets in the central business district (on Burg Street between Longmarket and Shortmarket streets). The square is open every day, except Sundays -- when most vendors head to the Green Point flea market, near the soccer stadium.
On Long Street, just around the corner from Greenmarket Square, is the indoor Pan Africa Market (tel: 021-426-4478). Here you'll find woodcarvings, jewelry, paintings and more. There's also a lovely cafe on the upper floor. Since you're on Long Street, take some time to explore the many unique shops and restaurants in the area.
And finally, as you head back to your ship, consider a pit stop at the Red Shed Craft Workshop (tel: 021-408-7846) at Victoria Wharf Shopping Center. Local artisans sell a variety of wares there, and some even offer custom creations while you wait.
Diamonds and Gold. South Africa is known the world over for its diamonds and gold jewelry. You'll find many boutiques across Cape Town that will custom design perfect piece for you. Victoria Wharf (www.waterfront.co.za) is home to several reputable jewelers.
Been There, Done That
Walk with Chacma baboons. Conservationists from Baboon Matters offer two- to three-hour walking tours twice daily (except Sundays). Journey through fynbos (scrub-like vegetation) on the mountains, just twenty minutes south of Cape Town. The tour will set you back R250 (R125 for children under 12), but you'll come away with a greater understanding of these primates.
Meet a cheetah If you have free time, consider the Cheetah Outreach Education Center at the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosh, twenty-five minutes east of Cape Town. For R80 (R40 per child), you will be introduced to an adult cheetah. If he or she is in the mood, you will be able to get close and pet the animal. You'll also be introduced to Anatolian shepherd dogs that are being trained to scare cheetahs off local farmland.
Shark cage diving. Head to False Bay in Simonstown, and meet up with African Shark Eco Charters for the ultimate shark cage diving tour. Not that adventurous? No problem. You don't have to get in the cage; you can simply watch the drama unfold from on deck. You'll hold your breath in awe as Great White sharks approach the vessel, within inches of the divers in the cage and even breach the water. A once-in-a-lifetime experience! This is a popular pastime, and you'll find many operators offering similar trips.
Some of Cape Town's finest restaurants are closed for lunch, but you'll still find a huge variety of options for your midday meal -- including locally inspired Cape Malay, Indian, and Continental cuisine. Seafood is very popular there, so don't miss your chance to enjoy fresh fish and shellfish. The langoustines are a real treat!
If you wish to live like a local, head to any of the docks for fish and chips. Kalky's (tel: 021-788-1726) at Kalk Bay is a favorite. This place is as unassuming as it gets, with indoor and outdoor seating (tables and benches). But, the fresh hake, snoek and chips are delectable.
Panama Jacks, located in Table Bay Harbour, is a tourist favorite. The seafood-heavy menu features hake, trout, tuna, prawns, lobster, calamari, mussels, and more. The menu also features sushi and entrees like prime rib and lamb.
The Western Cape is also home to the Cape Malay style of cooking, brought to South Africa by Indonesians and Malaysians. Curry dishes, bobotie (minced meat, sweetened with brown sugar, raisins, and apricots), and samoosas are examples of this cuisine and can be sampled at Bo Kaap Kombuis (7 August Street, tel: 021-422-5446). You'll also be dazzled by the sweeping views of Table Mountain.
Here are our choices for the best ship-sponsored shore excursions:
Best Choice for Nature Lovers and Shutterbugs: Most visitors to Cape Town opt for motor coach shore excursions to the Cape Peninsula to see Cape of Good Hope -- the continent's most southwestern point, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. Keep your camera at the ready during the scenic drive to the peninsula; you'll want to capture the beauty of Bantry Bay, Camps Bay and Hout Bay, where you can watch Southern Right whales frolicking offshore. Most ship-sponsored excursions will also stop for a moment of reflection at the Twelve Apostles mountain range. Once at the Cape of Good Hope, you'll spot hundreds of different species of birds, Chacma baboons, wild zebras, elands, dassies, mongooses and other animals that call Table Mountain National Park home. You'll also visit the Cape Point Lighthouse, which boasts dramatic views of the ocean from cliffs high above. You can climb over 100 steps to the lighthouse or ride a funicular. On the return to your ship, you'll visit Boulders Beach for a meet-and-greet with a colony of African penguins and make a stop at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Duration: 8 - 9 hours.
Best Choice for Wine Connoisseurs: The wine lands, forty minutes east of Cape Town, are South Africa's answer to Napa Valley. Food and wine
aficionados shouldn't miss the chance to tour this premier wine-producing
area. Cruise ship excursions usually visit the following towns, all of which offer a variety of vineyard tours and excellent European-style restaurants: Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl. Your tour will
likely include a visit to the Stellenbosch Museum; free time to stroll the
Town of the Oaks and do some shopping while admiring the Cape Dutch,
Georgian and Victorian architecture; a wine tasting at a vineyard or two;
and lunch. Duration: 4 - 5 hours.
Best Choice for Adventure-Seekers: If you are planning an extended pre- or post-cruise stay in the area, definitely book a safari with your cruise line. Common packages include travel to the malaria-free Madikwe Private Game Reserve; Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve or Timbavati Private Game Reserve, both near Kruger National Park or Phinda Private Game Reserve in northern
KawZulu-Natal, South Africa. Some cruise lines also offer safaris in
bordering Namibia and Botswana or to nearby Zambia
for Victoria Falls. Most game lodges offer morning and afternoon game drives, walking safaris, all meals and some beverages. Duration: 1 - 5 nights.
South Africa's "Mother City" offers a plethora of luxury accommodations in and around Cape Town. For those wishing for a convenient home base for a pre- or post-cruise stay, consider these hotels:
For a super splurge, reserve one of 11 suites or the private villa at Ellerman House. This exclusive boutique hotel attracts the rich and famous; Oprah stays here regularly. This 1912 Edwardian mansion overlooks Bantry Bay, and every room offers knockout vistas in all directions.
Also on the wallet-busting side are the waterfront's Cape Grace Hotel and, in the heart of Cape Town, the magnificent Mount Nelson Hotel. These are the places to head for traditional afternoon tea.
For moderate prices in the waterfront area, choose from the more business-oriented Radisson SAS Hotel Waterfront and, at the base of Table Mountain, the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa.
Alternatively, book one of the self-catering apartment-style lodgings available in the area, including the VA Waterfront Apartments.
Staying in Touch
You will find a few Internet cafes in and around Cape Town, including M@in Internet Cafe; 50 Kloof Street and Cafe Erte; 256a Main Road, Sea Point.
For More Information
On the Web: Tourism Cape Town, the official tourism site for Cape Town and the Western Cape or; South Africa's official tourism department.
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Africa & the Middle East
Independent Traveler Message Boards: South Africa
--by Andrea M. Rotondo, a New York City-based writer, specializing in luxury cruise travel and romantic vacations. She writes the Luxury Cruise Bible blog at www.luxurycruisebible.com.