South Africa, the Beginning: Cape Town and Cape Peninsula

A final view of Mt. Kilimajaro as we leave Kenya, the Zambezi River just above Victoria Falls
on a refueling stop in Zambia… and Cape Town, South Africa, here we come!

After our Kenya safari, it was time for 15 days/14 nights in South Africa. I wanted to spend the entire time in the Western Cape, exploring Cape Town, driving the famous Garden Route at leisure and doing a little wine tasting. We also wanted to make use of Hyatt anniversary night certificates that had been piling up during the pandemic but that would be expiring before too long. With Hyatt and Small Luxury Hotels having recently added the 3-hotel Liz McGrath boutique hotel chain in South Africa to its lineup, we had a great opportunity to get max value from those certificates.

I booked some hotels well before we left the States: I booked our first few nights in the Hyatt Regency Cape Town. I chose this hotel primarily because it was a very nice and convenient hotel at a ridiculously cheap price (especially with a buy-2-get-1-free member promo Hyatt was offering) and because I was braced for travel uncertainty from Kenya and didn’t really care if we missed a night or two at this hotel. (Uncertainty arose both from Covid issues and Kenya Airways’ reputation for canceling flights.) Then, I booked 3 nights using my Hyatt certificates at The Marine in Hermanus, a gorgeous Liz McGrath hotel on the cliffs of a picturesque coastal town known for great whale watching. Next, I booked our last 3 nights in South Africa at the Cellars-Hohenort (another Liz McGrath hotel) with David’s Hyatt certificates. The Cellars-Hohenort is a former winery located on spectacular grounds in the Constantia wine region and suburb of Cape Town, an easy drive to the airport for our departure flight home.

With these 9 nights booked, we were left with 5 free nights that I decided to leave open until we got to South Africa and could get the lay of the land. I rented a car for the 12 days after our first 3 nights in Cape Town so we were free to roam. I originally had in mind spending all 5 of our unbooked nights on the Garden Route, maybe breaking them up as 2 nights/2 nights/1 night, in some combination thereof. This turned out to be a fine choice as tourism was still way down due to the pandemic and room availability was not an issue.

We ended up staying 2 nights in Mossel Bay at a 2-bedroom/2-bath AirBnB apartment on the beach, 2 nights at a guest house in Knyzna with a balcony overlooking the “lagoon”and “The Heads” (an estuary and headlands opening to the Indian Ocean), and 1 night at a 4000-acre Afrikaaner ostrich farm inland. We really enjoyed our time in South Africa. With hindsight, the only thing I’d change is to skip staying in Mossel Bay and spend those 2 nights in the Stellenboch wine region. I’ll explain why in a later post since I’m going to break up our time in South Africa into several posts.

Cape Town the first time:

We landed at Cape Town Airport early afternoon, bought cheap MTN SIM cards at the airport, and hopped a taxi to the Hyatt Regency Cape Town. (We don’t usually buy SIM cards anymore since switching to T-Mobile, but decided that we wanted to get the best possible coverage because we’d had connectivity issues in Kenya and we planned to be driving long distances on our own in a country with a bit of a history of crime and violence.) I’d made no plans, anticipating a slow first day in Cape Town as we’d been up since 4:30am. So we enjoyed a little downtime before indulging in 2-for-1 local wine and happy hour small plates at nearby Iron Steak Bar. Our friendly young waiter reinforced hotel staff’s recommendation that we not walk around the area after dark, so we headed back to the hotel to later grab an uninspiring dinner and call it an early night.

The Hyatt Regency Cape Town is a very nice hotel with some drawbacks worth noting. First off, it’s located on the edge of the Bo-Kaap District, a neighborhood of colorful Malay-style buildings that makes every list of places-to-visit-in-Cape-Town I’ve seen. The area is definitely distinctive and lends itself to photos, but (on repeated advice) I never stepped out the door with a purse and staff warned us against displaying anything of value or walking after dark. To be fair, I don’t mean to imply that Bo-Kaap is a special case regarding security, our hotel’s warnings applied to strolls in the non-Bo-Kaap direction as well. For that matter, we were warned about walking after dark pretty much everywhere in Cape Town we went save for the V & A Waterfront.

Colorful Malay-style houses in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood

I’d hoped (and kind of expected) the locals would tell me the warnings about crime I’d read before arriving were overblown, but they did the opposite. Without fail, everyone we talked to in Cape Town advised us against walking even a couple of blocks and suggested we take Uber everywhere, which we did. We did walk around some during the day and we saw more than a few questionable characters, but we had only minimal hassles from panhandlers. Still, it wasn’t a great feeling to be so on guard and we missed the miles-long city rambles we love in Europe. Another issue we discovered in Cape Town was the unreliable electricity. Without warning, the power went off one morning and, after waiting thirty minutes for it to come back on, David called the front desk. “It’s load-shedding. Do you know what that is?” No we didn’t, but we do now. Apparently, South Africa has suffered an energy crisis with periodic rolling blackouts since 2007. There’s a handy app called EksomSePush that warns of impending blackouts, but how’s a foreign visitor to know if not told? The Hyatt Regency didn’t bother to tell us when we checked in or to post a notice anywhere of impending 2-hour blackouts. (Blackouts can run up to 8 hours at a stretch depending on the level deemed necessary.) At the Hyatt Regency, power goes off in all the rooms, only staying on via generator in the common areas. Thankfully, I didn’t have soaking wet hair when the power went off, but I can imagine some pretty inconvenient situations. We learned to ask when the next outage was and eventually, I discovered and downloaded that nifty app. More specifically to the Hyatt Regency, its restaurant is rather institutional and does not have a liquor license. It was a good thing we’d already had wine the first night, and with so much on offer in Cape Town, we never considered eating there again.

The Victoria & Alfred (“V & A”) Waterfront is a upscale leisure center of Cape Town. We hopped an Uber there our first full day and enjoyed exploring the shops, food stalls, bars and views of Table Mountain beyond the cluster of docked boats. Tour boats leave from here to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years and the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art is housed in an intriguing old silo. We liked the V & A so much, we returned for a second a visit to enjoy an outdoor waterside lunch at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel and a second visit to the African Trading Port. I could spend hours in this huge, multi-story store which offers everything from cheap souvenirs by the bushel to really spectacular (and spectacularly-priced) one-of-a-kind African works of art, ceremonial clothing, religious items, colonial-era goods and big game trophies. There’s a definite museum-quality to many of the items in the jam-packed rooms. [Note: South Africa is taking the pandemic seriously. Masks are required even on the open sidewalks and we saw police at the Waterfront reminding people to put on their masks or pull them up over their nose.]

The V & A Waterfront in Cape Town

A surprise favorite in Cape Town was the old fort known as the Castle of Good Hope. The fort houses so much more than we expected and we ended up spending hours exploring not just the old fortification, but the multiple museums explaining the history of Cape Town with maps and art showing the location of the original waterfront (now moved), reconstructed rooms from the 17- and 1800’s, and memorabilia and photos from pre-Apartheid multi-ethnic neighborhoods Bo-Kaap and District 6 where residents were forcibly evicted and sent to “township” slums. I’d listened to an excellent audiobook on the history of South Africa (“A Rainbow in the Night”) in preparation for this trip and the Castle offered so many images that served as perfect illustrations to the book.

The Castle of Good Hope, a fortress dating back to 1666
and the oldest colonial building in South Africa, houses multiple museums and displays

We really found the city itself to be more of a bar-and-eatery destination, albeit in a spectacular natural location. The ethnic diversity of the city does make the eating and drinking varied and interesting. We enjoyed wine tasting and small plates at Openwine a half block from the Hyatt Regency. Ostrich steaks for dinner at Kloof Street House were delicious and the eclectic Victorian atmosphere date-night-worthy. I’d heard so much about Cape Town and its beautiful setting that I was a little surprised at how few things felt like true must-sees to me. (Of course, this is just my humble opinion. With age and a lot of travel under my belt, I find I’m less inclined to feel pressure to visit a place just because it’s on someone else’s list if I’m just not feeling motivated for whatever reason.) All those lists end up including the Cape Peninsula and daytrips to wine country as part of Cape Town. Tabling the Table Mountain cable car despite the short drive from our hotel and giving Robben Island a pass due to unpredictable weather, we were ready to get out of the city and start our road trip. First up was the Cape Peninsula. I was excited!

The Cape Peninsula: Beautiful beaches, the end of the world, and penguins!

After doing a little research, I’d booked a Budget rental car at a downtown location a 10-minute walk from our hotel. We had the car for 12 days and we’d drop it off at the Cape Town Airport when it was time to fly out. Budget shares the downtown location with Avis and the same people staff the shared counter in a parking garage under a commercial building. Shortly after 10am, we drove our brand new 4-door Toyota Corolla back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and we were off.

We wanted to drive to the Cape of Good Hope at the very tip on the Cape Peninsula. There’s so much to see en route including swanky Camps Bay Beach and Chapman’s Peak Drive, often cited as one of the most beautiful coastal drives in the world. Honestly, all of the driving on the peninsula is pretty spectacular, but the stretch known as Chapman’s Peak Drive clings to some particularly steep mountain walls overlooking the water. This stretch is a toll road and offers plenty of pull-offs to admire the view. This doesn’t particularly discourage local vendors, and we saw several of those set up at the overlooks offering beaded statuettes and other souvenirs.

Starting off on the Cape Peninsula: Camps Bay Beach, Hout Bay,
Chapman’s Peak Drive, and Noordhoek Beach

From Chapman’s Peak we drove past the vast stretch of Nordhoek Beach then turned inland and crossed the peninsula to stop for lunch in Simon’s Town on the east coast. From there, we headed straight for the tip of the peninsula and Cape Point National Park, officially the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park. This meant we passed up one of the things I most wanted to see, the penguin colony at Boulders Beach, but we’d visit the penguins on the return trip north.

The main park road branches with the Cape of Good Hope to the right (west) as you head south. We opted to go there first just because the name was so familiar from childhood history and geography lessons. Clouds scudded by in the stiff breeze, seeming to change the weather from minute to minute. We passed ostriches grazing before parking to clamber over the rocks at the point. When we returned to our car, I found a large mama baboon waiting on my side. Signs warn about baboons everywhere we’ve been in Africa. (We were even told to keep our sliding glass doors in Kenya locked because they would open them and come in.) So when I saw that baboon waiting, I told David I’d get in on his side and climb over (right-side driver car). Just as I settle in, David says the baboon is charging a woman who had her hatchback open. The baboon jumped past her into the car. A family member helped her finally chase it out, but it made off with stolen loot:

Beware the baboons!

At the farthest reaches of the park is the Flying Dutchman Funicular which carries visitors to the new Cape of Good Hope Lighthouse. As with so much on this October trip in the time of Covid-19, we found few cars in the large parking lot and no wait to ride up. The view of this rugged spot where ships have braved the merging of two oceans for centuries really feels like the end of the world.

Cape Point

We timed our arrival at Boulders Beach near to its 6:30pm closing time. (Park hours in South Africa are seasonal, so check before you go.) After leaving the car in a nearly empty lot, we walked across a long and meandering boardwalk to the main entrance to the beach and penguin colony. First alerted by the smell, we found nesting penguins in the sheltering undergrowth all along the boardwalk. After paying the entry fee, the walk widened as it faced the open water and led to a viewing platform on the beach where many dozens of penguins milled about in the sand or swam in the surf. Wonderful! Only a few other people and a family we’d met back at the funicular joined us and we lingered until they left and we had the spot to ourselves. Baby penguins flapped and called for parental attention. A rainbow arched into the ocean. It was magical.

Boulders Penguin Colony

Having shut down Boulders Beach, we headed northward along the eastern coast of the Cape Peninsula then along the southern coast of the mainland towards our next destination, the whale-watching town of Hermanus. As one of our very favorite stays in South Africa, Hermanus and historic clifftop hotel The Marine deserve their own post, so that will be up next.

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