Cape Town, South Africa is a long haul for Americans, but the trip is well worth it. However, so far away and expensive to get to, a trip to this part of the world might be a one-time deal.
“Come on down,” says Cape Town Travel, “It’s less than 20 hours from New York!”
Be wary of this “less than 20 hours” advertising. When we were crouched in South African Airways seats in New York, the pilot welcomed us with: “This is the second longest non-stop flight in civil aviation!” We were too cowed to ask “what flight is longer?”
So it’s a long haul. Is it worth it? Yes: in the sense there are many far-away places that you will visit once, to get them off of your bucket list; places that you’ve known about all your life and dreamed of visiting. It’s a bit like the Brian Cox’s “Pickles” cartoon where Pickles has this conversation as he sits with his friend:
Where would you like to go if you could go anywhere in the world?
Well, to tell the truth, I’ve always wanted to go to Timbuktu.
Timbuktu? Is that a real place?
Of course it is.
Huh! I always figured it was someplace fictional, like Kalamazoo.
So go on down to Cape Town. American travelers visiting for less than 90 days don’t need a visa and Cape Town is not a malaria area. It is a bustling, vibrant city and the tourist areas are probably safer here than in most major cities in the world; the Waterfront is gentrified and observation cameras are everywhere because tourism here is important.
Cape Grace Hotel on the Victoria & Albert Waterfront
It’s such a tiring flight you may want to splurge with your hotel then seek additional tours once you’ve covered the city. Hotel choices might include the tiny Cape Grace right on the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, Cape Town’s most popular tourist attraction. The Commodore, a Legacy Group hotel, stands in this same attractive area.
Another choice might be the upscale The Twelve Apostles, facing the Atlantic; a Red Carnation signature hotel voted the Best Spa hotel in Africa by Travel+Leisure World in 2012.
The architecture of the Victoria & Albert Waterfront is stunning. That’s the celebrated Clock Tower, top left. Cape Point, the tip of South Africa, lies a little to the west of Cape Town. The summit of Table Mountain (don’t call it Table Top!) is accessible by gondola.
Walking around the elegant Waterfront is both interesting and fun. You can’t get to Cape Point by foot — you need to take a coach tour to this windy spot where the cold Atlantic to the West meets the warm waters of False Bay to the East.
While there check out the lighthouse. The old lighthouse was built as a prefabricated cast iron tower in 1860 but was ineffective because the light could not always be seen due to fog! A new lighthouse was built after the furor of 1915 when the Lusitania, the largest cruise ship in the world at that time, was sunk by a German U Boat in the Irish Channel near Liverpool, England.
This is a convenient time to visit Boulders Beach and enjoy the antics of the African Penguins. The beach was created 540 million years ago.
The place you might now visit on Robben Island has a shorter history than Boulders Beach. A prison since 1650s it was where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated during apartheid. You can’t see his island from Cape Point, but you can see Table Mountain from Robben Island as you stand with the waves crashing at your feet.
Cell number 5, Mandela’s “home” for 25 years, is now part of the Robben Island Museum. The hospital looks clean but cheerless and the yard where he exercised bleak and dull.
The boat to and from Robben Island is stationed on the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. The Waterfront exhibits art and sculpture by local artists and is a shopping Mecca for those who travel only to shop.
The statue, top left, of Cecil John Rhodes recalls an earlier time in South Africa, the country’s colonial history. He founded the diamond company De Beers that, at the time, marketed 90% of the world’s rough diamonds. (Today it’s down to 40% and that suits a lot of people in Cape Town.) Bottom right is the upper part of the “Statue of a Man and a Woman in Cape Town” by Laurel Talabere.
As you walk around town you’ll notice somewhat the feeling of isolation and distance you have from the Western World. There’s a lot going on in Cape Town that we don’t hear about from its economics and politics to its music and sports. Not even having Matt Damon seemingly play rugby in a movie about Mandela makes what’s happening in this land coherent to strangers.
A signpost dramatizes how big the world is and how far you are from home. Murals carved on walls show Cape Town’s turbulent history. A visitor atop Table Mountain can see forever.
Most visitors to Cape Town have spent time and money to come so far and would want to do more to get value from the cost of air fare. It’s likely that, except for committed world travelers, a visit to this part of the globe is a one-time deal.
So what are the options?
Natives, while not enthused about their colonial history under first Dutch and then British rule, nevertheless agree the outlying land to the east has beautiful Colonial Dutch villages and homes. This is the land of South Africa’s wines.
Boschendal Manor House Museum explains the history of those times from when a Frenchman, Jean le Long, farmed the land in 1685 to when he sold it to Abraham de Villiers, a winemaker in 1715. Phylloxera overwhelmed the vineyards in 1897 whereupon Cecil John Rhodes bought the property. The 1812 manor house was furnished as a museum in 1976 and is now a protected National Monument.
Boschendal Manor House, a Dutch Colonial farmhouse, was built in 1812. The Heavy Dutch Staten Bybel, dated 1729, was brought by a settler from Holland despite its weight. It would be constant reference and comfort to the family.
Comment: Travelers can find crime on Earth everywhere they go. The current cover story for the March 11, 2013 issue of TIME magazine has Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic runner who competed on “blades” but fatally shot his girlfriend. The magazine says the shooting was based on “South Africa’s Culture of Violence.”
For travelers looking to do as much as possible, one option is to do it all or in part with a tour operator. If you’re interested then you can take the tour In the Footsteps of Mandela with African Travel (Slogan: We Know Africa), which has been in business for 36 years and has been recommended by National Geographic. The trip included two nights in a game preserve near Johannesburg.
If you’re more interested in a longer safari, with a possible extension to Victoria Falls, consider Lion World Tours, a company under the same parent organization as African Travel, namely the Travel Corporation — and now 45 years in business. This company (Slogan: Affordable South Africa) is offering incredible deals on specific dates in 2013 — but do your homework regarding Africa’s wet and dry season, because the weather does impact what you may see on safari.
For our interview with the chief executive of African Travel in March 2011 see Tips for Planning an African Safari.
Despite the advertising that Cape Town is less than 20 hours from New York, the reality for West Coast Americans is that you have to get to New York, first — then change planes in Johannesburg if you fly South African Airways.
From Atlanta you can fly direct to Jo’burg with Delta and from other U.S. cities via London with American or British Air.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.