I recently returned home from an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime journey exploring Cape Town and the surrounding region. I spent a week in the Mother City as the guest of Cape Town Tourism and it was my first time visiting both South Africa and Cape Town. I learned a lot that week, about myself and about this incredible city poised on the southern tip of Africa. While I thought I was reasonably prepared before the adventure began, I was surprised by some of the things I encountered in the great coastal city of Cape Town.
1. Beauty – I travel a lot, I think that’s fairly obvious. I’ve seen thousands of beautiful landscapes, buildings and vistas and frankly it takes a lot to impress me anymore; call me a jaded traveler I guess. But Cape Town had me from the moment I first saw the majestic Table Mountain and Twelve Apostles mountain range. Like a miniature New Zealand, around every bend and turn in the road lay before me a spectacular example of Mother Nature at her finest. Yes, Table Mountain is stunning and a treat to see every day, but there’s much more to the beauty of the area. The ocean, the city skyline, the waterfront area and the Mother City’s people are all beautiful in very different ways. This beauty can’t be contained though, it spills out into the nearby towns and communities from Hout Bay to Cape Point; the entire Cape area suffers from an incredible embarrassment of riches.
2. History – I admit it, I was woefully underprepared for my trip to Cape Town. I had conducted some introductory research, but not the exhaustive historical examination I normally like to perform before the start of any great adventure. That’s why I suppose I was surprised to learn of the long and rich history of the city and why Cape Town is called the Mother City. The modern state of South Africa started in 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck landed on the shores of the Cape, finding a way to connect the wealth of the East Indies with Europe. That started an undeniably eclectic and interesting history that persists to this day. In more recent times the dark history of apartheid has left its scars upon the city; a fact from which no one hides and instead seeks to learn from every day. Whether your interest is ancient or modern, history is everywhere in Cape Town.
3. Variety of Activities – I love urban travel, but I’m also realistic when managing my expectations. When I visit a new city I expect to tour museums, see historic buildings and enjoy new restaurants and cafes. But Cape Town surprised me with her variety of adventure, outdoor activities as well. It starts with the city’s most recognizable sight; Table Mountain, which you may hike up, and abseil back down. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can jog up nearby Lion’s Head mountain and paraglide down to Camps Bay where a beach-side massage may be in your future. A short drive away is perhaps the most adventurous of adrenalin pumping activities, great white shark cage diving. In what is commonly referred to as shark alley, you can join other thrill seekers as you descend into the chilly waters for an experience you’ll never forget. This is one of the best places in the world to get impossibly close to these majestic and misunderstood giants of the sea, and it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
4. Weather – Cape Town is well known for its warm, sunny summer days, which is also when tourists from around the world invade by the hundreds of thousands. What isn’t as well considered is Cape Town in the winter, probably because it’s more unpredictable. I’m a big proponent of off-season travel; it’s cheaper and usually a lot more enjoyable when you’re not part of a mob. I know I as lucky when I visited, the weather was near perfect. For the first few days there wasn’t a cloud in sight and it was even warm, prompting shorts on more than one occasion. Then on the last day of my trip winter returned, bringing cold temperatures, light rain and a gloomy sky. But unlike other areas of the world, the rain doesn’t last for very long and by the afternoon the sun had returned and our spirits were again lifted. I also understood what Capetonians often say, that Cape Town experiences four seasons in a day.
5. People – What transforms any city into a great, world-class destination isn’t an attraction or famous sight, it’s the people. Again I was the victim of poor research which, had I conducted any, would have immediately revealed that Cape Town is exceedingly diverse. Thanks to a strange and absolutely unique history, people from around the world have immigrated to this city by the sea, from Malaysians to Eastern Cape people and of course the British and Dutch. Over time this influx of people has created one of the best examples of city melting pots I’ve ever seen and it defines the city. The food is perhaps the best way to see this wonderful diversity first hand, especially if you take a Cape Malay cooking class. Malaysians were brought to Cape Town early in its history and their culture has evolved over time to the point where it’s just part of Cape Town’s fabric. I took a cooking class in the home of a Cape Malay woman in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood of Cape Town, learning how to hand turn samosas and even baking roti bread from scratch. More than delicious food though, I learned about the history and culture of the Cape Malay descendants and only afterwards was I truly able to appreciate the great history of the city.
Have you ever been to Cape Town? What surprised you?