Cape Town Revisited
A traveler returns to her favorite five-star South African locales
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—at least not anytime soon—I get what Sebastian means.
As I am a travel writer, I am often asked, “Of all places 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’m just not the all inclusive vacations kinda gal.
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. Actually, it is civilized, peaceful and stunningly attractive—like Northern California in many ways, only far more beautiful. Crashing white waves spray the rugged coastline, and verdant valleys sprawl across lush wine lands outside Cape Town, their hills dotted with pristine whitewashed Cape Dutch farmhouses with thatched roofs. South Africa is home to world-class restaurants, charming wineries, exquisite hotels and extraordinarily kind people.
It’s 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 good value for one’s travel dollar (currently the S.A. Rand/US dollar = 8.15) and some of the hotels there have been named the best in the world.
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. The first time I went to Johannesburg, I stayed in the trendy high-rise Melrose Arch hotel near a nice district of restaurants and shops. However, recently I stayed at a far finer spot: a villa at the posh Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, voted the second best hotel in Africa in the 2011 Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards.
This hotel has hosted notable guests like President Bill Clinton and Oprah. More impressive still, it was also originally a private home where Nelson Mandela stayed after he was released from prison. He wrote portions of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom there. Staying in such a special place was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even for one who travels as often as I do. While in Johannesburg, I visited the African market of Rosebank and met delightful people there and saw some wonderful local art. Then I flew on to Cape Town.
After a day or two in Cape Town, 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.
While my trip was a luxury one, you don’t have to spend a lot to enjoy South Africa. Visit areas like Stellenbosch and the Constantia Valley. Wander in little villages like Franschoek, where you can window-shop and sit in outdoor cafes. 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, and then I went on to visit the wine country near Franschoek where I stayed at the elegant hotel La Residence. But this time while in Cape Town 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. The 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. Cape Town also made the 2011 Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards as the top city in all of Africa and Asia.
There’s a perception about Cape Town that it’s terribly dangerous. However, one doesn’t get that sense at all while walking around downtown or sitting in cafes along the waterfront. With a friendly taxi guide, my friend and I even bar-hopped in the old Key-West-looking wooden two-story buildings downtown that hold Irish pubs and discos bulging with young people where we danced late into the night. As one would do in any foreign city, using caution is important.
Safe vs Sad
Cape Town has so much more to offer that is safe and beautiful than the side of things that is sad and dangerous. I spent an early morning walking alone in the park
downtown and visiting the waterfront in Cape Town—snapping photos and visiting with shop owners and kids on scooters. Local families, couples, and visitors filled the cafes and markets and the waterfront shops, too. It’s not that this city can’t be dangerous –as any city, it can be; however, it can also be safe and lovely too.
Many wealthy Brits have second-homes in Cape Town and along the coastline. I can certainly see why.
Cape Town is stunning, but the wine lands wooed me, 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.
Sometimes referred to as “Cape Town’s Vineyard,” The Constantia Valley is said to be the oldest winemaking 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 wines that consistently win accolades and international awards.
The Steenberg Hotel
The Steenberg Hotel, which was named the No. 1 hotel in Africa in the recent Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards, 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”) blend warmly 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 neighbor 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.
18 Holes of Golf
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, affordable urban-chic 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 made the room 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 since then I’ve visited other wonderful countries; still, South Africa’s allure trumps any other “new-best-friend” place.
Even if you can’t afford to stay in the high-end properties I visited, more affordable options abound, and you can still do a budget-friendly day of wine tastings and Sunday driving to the vineyards, restaurants, and wineries, or visit the little beach towns along the coast with their quaint shops, antique stores and cafes.
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. Unlike Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, I’ve no intention of waiting long before I go back and dig them up.
Be sure to visit …
• The Steenberg Hotel & Winery,.
• Catharina’s and Bistro Sixteen82,
• The Constantia Valley, – explore the region and visit wineries there like Eagles Nest and The Steenberg.
• The Taj, Cape Town,
• South Africa travel destinations,
• The Saxon Boutique Hotel, Villas & Spa, Johannesburg
And get there, direct, non-stop and in style from NY and Washington DC (and with one stop from many other US cities) on…
• South African Airways.
While in South Africa, if you can, 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. For more information, visit