Cape Town Revisited:
South Africa is both Modern and Quaint
By Janis Turk
In Evelyn Waugh’s classic British novel, Brideshead Revisited, the main character, Sebastian, muses, “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy, and then, when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”
Though I don’t plan becoming old, ugly and miserable, I get what Sebastian means.
As I am a travel writer, I am often asked, “Of all the cities and countries you’ve seen, which is your favorite?” I usually reply, “The place I’ve just been.” It’s almost true—my last destination is usually freshest in my mind and becomes, for a time, my ‘new-best-friend’ city. And though it would be hard to name my favorite place, I can name many where I’ve been happy.
I’ve seen some spectacular people, places, and things (how terribly lucky and grateful I am!) and the memory of them all has imprinted itself on my soul: the ruins of Petra in Jordan, the ancient medinas of Morocco, the cloud-capped mountains of China and the green-blue waters of the South Seas.
But one place I’ll never forget is South Africa. If I did have a list of favorites, it would surely rank near the top. This surprises some. So many think of South Africa as just dry endless bush country, but that’s because they’ve never been.
I suppose no one has ever told them that South Africa is civilized, peaceful and stunningly attractive—like Northern California in many ways, only far more beautiful. They haven’t heard about the crashing white waves that spray the rugged coastline, the verdant valleys of the lush wine lands outside Cape Town, the pristine whitewashed Cape Dutch farmhouses with thatched roofs that dot the hillsides, the world-class restaurants, charming wineries, exquisite hotels and extraordinarily kind people.
Modern yet Quaint
They don’t know that South Africa is thoroughly modern and sophisticated, while at the same time retaining a quaint, peaceful grace, respectful of its rich heritage. Also, many travelers don’t know that South Africa offers more value for one’s travel dollar than anywhere in Europe and that hotels there are more luxurious than perhaps any place they’ve ever stayed.
Each time I’ve been to Cape Town, I’ve thought, “I must come back here and stay longer.”
A good plan after a long but smooth South African Airways flight from the US is to arrange to stay at least one night in Johannesburg upon arriving before heading to Cape Town. After a day or two there, plan to hire a driver (its more affordable than you’d imagine) who can take you to areas along the coast and to the nearby wine country.
Visit areas like Stellenbosch and the Constantia Valley. Wander in little villages like Franschoek, or take the $1 train that edges the coastline and stops in all the sweet little beach towns. See penguins sun themselves on the warm sands of Boulders Beach, and watch the whales and great white sharks from a sturdy seafaring craft. If there’s time, try to work in a few days on safari near Kruger National Park if you can.
On my first trip to Cape Town, I stayed at Ellerman House, a boutique hotel overlooking the sea. But this time I opted to stay in the city center at the large and lovely new Taj Hotel.
Housed in what was originally the African Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers downtown, the Taj Cape Town suggests a sense of both historic grace and contemporary beauty. This luxury five-star hotel offers stunning views of famous Table Mountain.
Away from the tourist-filled Waterfront, but close enough to get there quickly by taxi, The Taj has all the warm touches of a fine European inn with the spit-and-polish posh of a British hotel. From the top of The Taj, the views are breathtaking, and as I overlooked the city I remembered why Cape Town makes my mental list of favorite places.
But the wine lands wooed me from afar, so the next morning when the driver came to take my friends and I on the 20-minute drive up to the Constantia Valley, I was eager to go. It’s wonderful to return to a place where you’ve been happy. One of the nicest vacations I’ve ever enjoyed was spent with a friend back in 2008 at the luxe Steenberg Hotel & Winery outside of Cape Town, so I was pleased to be able to be going there again.
Sometimes referred to as “Cape Town’s Vineyard,” The Constantia Valley is said to be the oldest wine-making region in the southern hemisphere, dating back to 1685. Today Constantia Valley is home to a chain of seven verdant wine farms, each with their own distinctive heritage and premium wines. The area produces some of the finest wines in South Africa—wines that consistently win accolades and international awards.
The Oldest Farm in the Valley
The Steenberg Hotel rests on the oldest farm in the Valley, and the hotel structures (most of which are original to the property but which have been modernized without ruining their “good bones”) warmly blend into their surroundings. As neat and orderly as its garden hedges and the rows of grape-laden vines surrounding the estate, the Steenberg is pristine and pretty, like a storybook farm.
Established by the Dutch in 1682 to provide provisions for ships along the spice route, the Steenberg was also the first farm on The Cape to be owned by a woman, Catharina Ustings, who came to the area in 1682, lived long enough to survive six husbands, and who, legend has it, was feisty enough to hunt down and kill a ferocious lion that had attacked and killed one of them.
In a diary entry from May 30, 1685, one guest to the area writes that Catharina’s “…first [husband] had been killed by a lion, the second by the Hottentots and the third probably by an elephant, for he [the husband] had gone out to shoot hippo for his family and was never heard of again.
Here she was with a house full of children and married to her foreman. Her nearest neighbour lived four hours away. Three times she had been comfortably off and well established and three times impoverished. Her farm consisted of 12 morgen of good grain land with sufficient stock for her needs. She was accustomed to ride astride, quite alone, to the Cape settlement and back in a remarkably short time and the manner of so doing would have terrified anyone who met her en route if they had not known who she was.”
Today, the spirit of brave Catharina lives on in the historic Steenberg farmstead, which still includes the manor house and buildings that have since been declared a national monument. Besides being a premier wine estate, The Steenberg is home to an 18-hole Peter Matkovit-designed championship golf course, several stunning Heritage Suites (built in what used to be the lodging for young single men), and 21 suites in what were the original manor house and barn buildings.
The Steenberg also boasts a five-star, world-class restaurant, Catharina’s, and a serene spa. Adjacent to a property, just a short ride up the hill by car, sits Bistro Sixteen82, a sparkling bistro-style restaurant and interactive wine venue featuring tapas and fine wine.
During both this and my previous visit to the Steenberg, I stayed in one of the elegant Heritage Suites. More like a house than a suite, the space is bigger than most peoples’ homes. With views of the vineyards, False Bay, the golf course, sprawling gardens, a patio and even my own private swimming pool, the suite encompasses one of three adjacent historic two-story buildings.
Its downstairs has a large living room, dining room, kitchen, downstairs bath and office space. Upstairs there are two master-style bedrooms with king-sized beds and two gigantic en-suite baths with marble floors, claw-foot tubs and walk-in-closet-sized showers. Understated and elegant, the décor was lovely.
My friends and I enjoyed a delightful Sunday jazz brunch and relaxing dinner at Catharina’s, as well as a glowing evening of wine and laughter at Bistro Sixteen82. A large colorful chandelier gave the contemporary bistro some sparkle, while the wine (which was as affordable as it was good) washed away any hard edges from our already smooth travels.
It’s been months since I was there, and I’ve visited other wonderful countries since then; still, South Africa’s allure trumps any other “new-best-friend” place. Yes, it’s hard to say exactly which top number Cape Town and The Steenberg rate on my list of favorite travel destinations, still I’ll always treasure the precious memories I’ve buried there. And unlike Sebastian in Brideshead, I’ve no intention of waiting long before I go back and dig them up.
IF YOU GO:
Be sure to visit …
And get there, direct, non-stop and in style from NY and Washington DC (and with one stop from many other US cities) on…
While in South Africa, be sure to take a side-trip to enjoy a few days on Safari at…
• Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, the ultimate safari experience, with several extraordinary camps adjacent to Kruger National Park.
Janis Turk is an award-winning travel writer and photographer, and a regular contributor to GoNomad. She is also the author of a new guidebook, Frommer’s San Antonio & Austin Day by Day. Janis divides her time between her home near Austin, Texas and her pied-à-terre in the New Orleans French Quarter.