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Cape Town Overview
Beautiful, sophisticated, socially progressive, democratic, engaging, hopeful -- these words capture Cape Town's very essence. Table Mountain majestically holds court over the city, found between Table Bay and the Cape Flats. This South African jewel serves as the ideal base for intrepid travelers wishing to explore all of the Rainbow Nation from the Cape of Good Hope and the rolling Cape Winelands to the adrenalin-charged safari game reserves, near the country's northeastern border.
This fishhook-shaped peninsula, lashed by fierce waters of the 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 years of social inequality. Case in point? Cape Town's Lamborghini dealership sits just blocks from the massive townships east of Table Mountain. Yet, there's an infectious sense of hope, and the residents are some of the friendliest you'll find anywhere in the world.
Cape Town offers a range of mesmerizing opportunities to learn about South Africa: its tribal past, wine region, Dutch, British and Cape Malay influences, and unique and striking flora and fauna.
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Other Africa Cruise Ports:
Alexandria • Cairo (Port Said) • Cape Town • Durban • Luxor • Safaga • Tangier • 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 Camps Bay or out on safari. Locally made Amarula liqueur -- made from the fruit of the marula tree -- is a favorite. Drink it on ice or knock it back in a "Springbokkie" -- a delicious double-layered shooter made with creme de menthe.
The population is multilingual, but English is most commonly understood. The three ethnic, tribal languages you'll hear most often are Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans, but you might also hear Sepedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swati, Venda, Tsonga and Ndebele. Among English speakers, a strong vernacular has developed, with several slang words that would be unrecognizable, such as:
Cooldrink: the common term for all fizzy drinks
Howzit? : how are you?
Just now: in the foreseeable future
Lekker: cool, nice, great
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Locals refer to their currency as the "buck", but the 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. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com and www.xe.com.) While MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Diners Club credit cards are widely accepted, it's a good idea to carry rand for small purchases. Cape Town offers many foreign exchange facilities, including American Express and Rennies Travel. Be aware when using ATM machines, and keep your pin number hidden, especially in busy downtown areas.
Where You're Docked
Most cruise ships dock at Table Bay Harbour, within walking distance of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. But some larger ships dock at Duncan dock, where you will require a taxi or transport organized by the cruise line to get to places of interest. 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.
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, with Table Mountain in the distance, is a focal point of Cape Town and is home to the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre, which features more than 450 shops, including fashion stores like Topshop and Mango, as well as markets, restaurants, hotels, the Two Oceans Aquarium, and the Iziko South African Maritime Museum. You will find plenty of ATM's and Internet cafes in the V&A Waterfront, as well as two information centers, found on Dock Road (alongside Ferryman's Pub) and at the Waterfront information kiosk in Victoria Wharf.
On Foot: During the day, you can easily and safely walk from your ship to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront complex if you are moored nearby. If you are farther away at Duncan dock, you should order a taxi.
By Taxi: Taxis are the best way to get around the city. Restaurant hosts and shopkeepers will gladly call a cab on your behalf. You can't hail a taxi on the streets of Cape Town, so order a cab by phone through one of the many taxi companies. They're not cheap, but they are safer than the mini-bus taxis -- especially at night.
By Train: The Southern Line Rail Route, which stretches from Cape Town to Simonstown, is highly recommended. The train stops at several beautiful suburbs and coastal villages. Train travel does not always run on time, so consider this when planning your day. Be aware of potential pickpockets.
By Bus: One of the best ways to get around is by using the City Sightseeing bus, which gives you the option of hopping on and off at various major attractions throughout the day.
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 bisects 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 because 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, several viewing platforms, two souvenir shops and a cafe.
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 enforced by law. Nelson Mandela was sent to the prison and treated brutally, and you can see the cell where he spent 18 years. 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. Ferries depart at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., weather permitting, from Nelson Mandela Gateway, at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.
Visit the African penguins. In 1983, a pair of penguins showed up at Foxy Beach/Boulders Beach. 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.
In Cape Town, a variety of shopping experiences might appeal to even the most jaded browser. Look for pottery, beadwork, woodcarvings and wire baskets and sculptures.
Your quest begins at the popular Greenmarket Square. You'll negotiate with craftsmen 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 African Market (021-426-4478). Here, you'll find woodcarvings, jewelry, paintings and more. There's also a lovely cafe on the upper floor. While 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 (021-408-7846) at Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre. Local artisans sell a variety of wares, and some even offer custom creations while you wait.
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 the perfect piece for you. Victoria Wharf is home to several reputable jewelers.
Been There, Done That
Animal lovers might consider checking out the Cheetah Outreach project at the Paardevlei development in Somerset West, 30 minutes east of Cape Town, where you will be introduced to an adult cheetah. If the animal is in the mood, you will be able to get up close. In addition to the world's fastest mammals, the center is home to caracals, servals, bat-eared foxes, jackals and meerkats, and the facility features viewing platforms with fantastic views of the Helderberg Mountains and a restaurant offering wine tastings.
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.
You'll find a huge variety of options for your midday meal including locally inspired Cape Malay, Indian and Continental cuisine. Seafood is very popular, so don't miss your chance to enjoy fresh fish and shellfish. The langoustines are a real treat.
Eat like a local and head to any of the docks for fish and chips. Kalky's (021-788-1726) at Kalk Bay is a popular option. This place is as unassuming as it gets, with indoor and outdoor seating (tables and benches). But, the fresh hake, snoek (the local speciality) and chips are delectable. (Kalk Bay Harbour, Kalk Bay; open Monday to Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Panama Jacks, 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. (Quay 500, Cape Town Harbour; open for lunch from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., closed for Saturday lunch.)
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 samosas can be sampled at Bo Kaap Kombuis. You'll also be dazzled by the sweeping views of Table Mountain. (No. 7 August Street, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town; open Tuesday to Thursday 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed on Monday.)
South Africa's "Mother City" offers plenty of luxury accommodations in and around Cape Town. If you're seeking a convenient home base for a pre- or post-cruise stay, consider these hotels:
Boutique: For a splurge, reserve one of 11 suites or the private villa at Ellerman House. This exclusive boutique hotel attracts the rich and famous; Oprah Winfrey stays there regularly. This 1912 Edwardian mansion overlooks Bantry Bay, and every room offers knockout views in all directions.
Also on the wallet-busting side are the waterfront's famous Cape Grace Hotel and, in the heart of Cape Town, the magnificent Mount Nelson Hotel. These also are the places to head for traditional afternoon tea.
Moderate: In the waterfront area, choose from the more business-oriented Radisson Blu 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 Waterfront Village.
Steer clear of the mass-produced wooden giraffes and elephants; they are not often a product of Cape Town. Some are made in China. Instead, look out for street sellers who make fantastic wire and bead sculptures and baskets; they are made by the road side, so each one is unique.
Best for Nature Lovers: Most visitors to Cape Town opt for motor coach shore excursions to the Cape Peninsula to see the 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 at the Twelve Apostles mountain range. Once at the Cape of Good Hope, you'll spot hundreds of 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 more than 100 steps to the lighthouse or ride up in 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 National Botanical Garden. Duration: 8-9 hours.
Best for Wine Connoisseurs: The Cape Winelands, 40 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 probably will 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 for Adventure-Seekers: If you are planning an extended pre- or post-cruise stay in the area, book a safari with your cruise line. Common packages include travel to the malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve, Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve or Timbavati Private Nature Reserve near Phinda Private Game Reserve in northern KawZulu-Natal. 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.
Staying in Touch
You'll find plenty of Internet cafes within the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre on the Waterfront. Around Cape Town, try Cafe Erte (256a, Sea Point), Karma Internet Cafe (12c Marine Circle, Tableview) and Double Click (Lood Street, Brackenfell).
For More Information
On the Web: Cape Town Tourism, the official tourism site for Cape Town and the Western Cape or; South Africa's official tourism department.
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--by Emily Payne, Cruise Critic contributor