November 2011: South Africa - who knew?
As Ellen passed the mid way point of her 8 week European innovation project she needed a break. I met her in Johannesburg where she was running a workshop and we flew immediately to Cape Town. There, we stayed at the 'Cape Grace Hotel' and, once again, being a 'Tablet Plus' member got us upgraded to a huge suite with terrace over the pool and right on the Victoria and Albert harbor.
Immediately I noticed that the Volvo Ocean Race boats were to arrive the next day. This is the Formula 1 of boat racing and these stripped 50 footers took 22 days to sail down from Spain in some horrific winds. So bad, that of six boats that started, three dropped out with damage too severe to carry on. Their presence and staggered arrivals made the port pretty lively for days with lots of parties, etc. Right away the boats were put up on cradles a few hundred yards off our terrace for repairs where they will stay for 10 days before sailing on to Rio, Miami etc. for the next six months.
The 'Cape Grace' is a wonderful hotel and it has the best concierge services we’ve ever seen. While Ellen relaxed I took the opportunity to go to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was kept as a political prisoner for 18 years during the apartheid regime. A desolate place, the tours are given by the former wardens and prisoners which makes it really moving. No surprise, the prisoners were all black and the wardens all white.
We took the rotating cable car up to Table Mountain, the giant flat topped peak that overlooks Cape Town and is sporadically open due to winds and clouds. The sky can be completely blue but giant clouds form over the mountain and tumble down its sides like a waterfall. On our third day it was completely clear and worth the wait with stunning views out over the ocean and the eastern beaches.
Another day Andrew, our favourite concierge, got us a car and driver to drive us to the wine areas of Stellenbosch and Franshoek. I've never been a fan of SA wine as I've had some bad whites and their Pinotage can be vile. But, our guy took us to the Hartenburg Winery where he arranged to have us taste their reserve Shiraz wines. They were fantastic, incredibly cheap and we followed that up with lunch at their terrace restaurant called 'Terroir '.
Stellenbosch is a lovely whitewashed, low rise Dutch university town surrounded by fields of vines. Fransheok is much smaller, one main street much like (and looking like) Niagara on the Lake. Our driver dropped us off and we walked the length of the street stopping at a stunning Relais and Chateaux called 'Le Quartier Francaise'. Pretty little town and only an hour out of Cape Town.
We also used the hotel car and driver to take us to the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost part of Africa. A gorgeous twisty coast road made more interesting by the 32 2012 Porsche 911's that were being used as demos for a journalists 'ride and drive'. Wherever we went a pack of snarling 911's were never far behind.
The Cape is a park and you are warned about the baboons when you enter. No wonder, they are as big as an 8 year old and have huge fangs. The view from the lighthouse at the Cape is breathtaking and the list of shipwrecks that litter the coast is too.
On our drive we noticed solitary guys with giant binoculars and walkie talkies sitting on the roadside overlooking beaches, some a half a mile away. Our driver said these were professional Great White Shark spotters. Despite the water being just over 60 degrees year round there are lots of surfers and the occasional idiot tourist who feel the need to go in the ocean. These spotters look for shadows the size of a minivan in the very clear waters off the beach and warn the lifeguards to raise different colored flags. Their website indicates this is not a small problem. Great White Shark attacks on the Western Cape average 3 a month and, in December 2007 there were 17 attacks in that month alone. It seems the Brit tourists tend to ignore flags of any color and they often have to be restrained from jumping into the surf and pretending to be an appetizing seal.
Camp’s Bay - Twelve Apostles
For our last three days we moved east to Camp's Bay and the 'Twelve Apostles' resort just outside of town. Again, 'Tablet Plus' got us a suite over the pool and the ocean. Their 'Leopard Lounge' has a big terrace where everyone goes to watch the incredible sunsets.
More compact than Cape Grace, 12 Apostles was somehow built on protected land and sits all by itself a few miles out of town. We took their shuttle into Camp's Bay which is really a little like South Beach in Miami. Sidewalk cafes, shops facing an enormous pure white beach and crystal clear blue water (which I assume is just a holding room for the Great Whites).
All in all this was one of our better trips and in many ways a complete surprise. We loved Cape Town for its beauty, its great vistas, its great food , wine, incredibly affordable prices and lovely people of all races who seem to get along just fine.