By Amy S. Eckert
A visit to this African nation pairs world-class cultural destinations with pristine beaches and savannahs for spectacular wildlife viewing.
In 2001, Cape Town faced a dilemma. Set on the south westernmost tip of Africa, overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean, the city offered picture-postcard vistas, rich history, fresh seafood restaurants and centuries-old vineyards. The city had all the ingredients of a dream tourist destination, except for one thing: A collection of 42 abandoned grain silos, spoiling an otherwise beautiful waterfront.
Enter Thomas Heatherwick, a British architectural designer. Heatherwick painstakingly sliced the towers into concrete cells of varying sizes and shapes, reconfiguring Cape Town’s eyesore into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), and topping it with a luxury hotel, The Silo Hotel.
MOCAA became Africa’s largest art museum, and its first major contemporary art repository. But it also transformed Cape Town into a major art destination and contributed to the popularity of the city’s V&A Waterfront.
Once devoid of visitors, the waterfront today draws visitors with traditional and contemporary art and clothing boutiques, and jewelry of blue African tanzanite. Restaurants serve platters of fresh-caught shellfish and tuna. And patrons linger over drinks on outdoor patios. Taken together, the attractions of Cape Town’s waterfront area have made the city one of Africa’s trendiest travel destinations.
Three Centuries of Cape Culture
Cape Town traces its roots to 1652, when Dutch navigator Jan Van Riebeeck landed. The spit of land offered shelter from unpredictable weather and waves. Van Riebeeck was sent by the Dutch East Indies Company to set up a supply.
Soon thereafter, Dutch settlers launched South Africa’s wine industry. Groot Constantia ranks as South Africa’s oldest wine-producing estate, founded in 1685 by Dutch East India Company governor Simon Van der Stel. The region’s winemaking tradition only improved when Van der Stel gave land to French settlers in nearby Franschhoek.
The Western Cape remains Africa’s most famous wine producer. Visitors to Groot Constantia, half an hour by car from downtown Cape Town, explore nearly 350 years of winemaking with tours of the original Cape Dutch manor house and tastings.
Wine tour companies transport visitors to estates throughout Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Along with stops at Groot Constantia are visits to Steenberg Farm, Leeu Passant and Babylonstoren, pouring crisp sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinotage, a South African original.
After learning about Cape Town’s European roots, a ferry trip across Table Bay explores another famous time in South African history — that of the apartheid era.
Nelson Mandela remained imprisoned at Cape Town’s Robben Island from 1964 to 1982. Extremely popular are the guided tours of this UNESCO World Heritage site, telling of the island’s founding, its history as a prison and the life and experiences of its most famous resident.
Across expansive prison yards, beneath guard towers and through empty cells, visitors file through the Robben Island complex, imagining the isolation once commonplace not only for Mandela, but for two other future South African presidents, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma. The visit culminates with a peek into the very cell occupied by the Nobel laureate for 18 years.
On the ferry back to the mainland, Table Mountain ranks as Cape Town’s most striking natural feature. One of South Africa’s most popular national parks, the mountain’s steep slopes rise more than 3,500 feet above the city. Table Mountain Aerial Cableway provides easy access to Table Mountain. Table Mountain Cafe offers scenic locations from which to enjoy the view, and for many, those vistas are reason enough to ascend the mountain.
But a more active exploration of the mountain offers glimpses of the Cape’s unique landscape. Experienced locals guide nature lovers along the mountain’s most popular treks, while other visitors explore the footpaths independently. Either way, hikers discover an environment of nearly 1,500 plant species, as well as red-winged starlings, orange-breasted sunbirds, male agama lizards, whose heads turn blue during mating season, and dassies — mammals that resemble overgrown hamsters. Near the seashore, the national park’s Boulders Beach offers swimming, sherbet-colored sunsets and a location for observing the resident African penguin colony.
Beloved though the penguins may be, most wildlife lovers head to South Africa set on experiencing a safari. Visitors can experience close encounters with South Africa’s famous wildlife in national parks, such as Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which crosses the border into Botswana, and Kruger National Park, in the nation’s northeast, as well as many others. There are even national parks known for their high concentrations of specific animals, such as Addo Elephant National Park and Mountain Zebra National Park.
In addition to South Africa’s national parks are a number of private game reserves, often adjacent to the parks, where wildlife is just as abundant but visitors have the assurance of riding with licensed guides, crowds tend to be smaller and accommodations range from budget-minded to palatial. Popular private reserves include Gondwana, Sanbona and Sabi Sand.
On safari, visitors often gravitate toward the “Big Five.” A holdover from a time when game hunting was commonplace, the Big Five consists of the lion, rhino, elephant, leopard and African buffalo, mammals thought to be the continent’s most dangerous game, and, by extension, its most prized, as their capture marked a deft hunter.
These days, travelers long to shoot wildlife with a camera. After years of work, experienced guides know where to take shutterbugs to spy elusive animals like rhinos and leopards. Across a vast landscape of gray-green grasses and acacia trees, guides drive deep into the wilderness, checking out secret watering holes, looking for telltale dust clouds or conversing by radio with other successful drivers. More often than not, travelers end a day’s exploration loaded with digital images — a pride of lions resting in the shade; a leopard napping after a kill; elephants grazing without fear.
Not part of the Big Five but no less thrilling are sightings of curious giraffes; hippos, who bellow from their muddy riverbanks; herds of graceful zebras; over a dozen varieties of energetic antelopes; and bands of warthogs scurrying wildly around their feet.
South Africa promises a magical world, one far away from buzzing mobile phones and the constant barrage of social media. You won’t miss them.
What part of South Africa do you want to explore? Your AAA Travel Agent can get you there! Call 800-750-5386 or visit AAA.com/Travel today!