Cape Town’s boast that it enjoys the most dramatic setting of any city in the world might just be true. This verdant oasis, sandwiched between mountains and sea, is, quite simply, stunning
Cape Town did not grab me when I first visited in 2004. The more I travel there, though, the more I like it and, thanks largely to its swathes of epic scenery, this oasis on the very southern tip of Africa has become my favourite city on the continent. The omnipresent bulk of Table Mountain, a dazzling seaside locale (it is flanked by the Indian Ocean to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west), cotton white beaches, rugged cliffs and the legendary Cape of Good Hope all combine to create one of the world’s truly great settings.
I didn’t take to Cape Town initially because it seemed disjointed - a group of striking locations lacking a cohesive centre. In retrospect, I was expecting a European-style old core, in which to amble away my time. Instead I got out and about and now really appreciate the spectacular surroundings.
Table Mountain, with its iconic flat-top, is the most famous sight of them all. No visit to Cape Town is complete without a trip up the hulking mountain, an ascent that most people make with the help of the cable car. The 10-minute journey brings you to a number of short walking trails that open up jaw-dropping views of Robben Island, Table Bay and the Cape Peninsula.
Happily snapping photographs, riding a cable car and soaking up those views, few visitors give much thought to Table Mountain’s fauna and flora. Yet this remarkable mountain is home to around 1,500 plant species – about the same number that grow in the British Isles. You are also likely to see dassies (rock hyrax), which resemble a cross between a rabbit and a rodent but are actually most closely related to elephants.
Also protected within the Table Mountain National Park (a natural World Heritage Site) is the Cape of Good Hope – a place of perilous sea cliffs, wild birds, lighthouses and shipwrecks. This legendary spot isn’t, as many people believe, the most southwesterly point of Africa; that accolade goes to Cape Point roughly 2km to the southeast.
To fully appreciate Cape Town’s natural beauty, trips to Robben Island and Boulders Bay are nigh on essential. The former is famous as the isle where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. As well as being a place where political prisoners were banished during the 60s, 70s and 80s, Robben Island is an important conservation area that is home to around 132 types of bird and 23 varieties of mammal. A favourite with visitors are the African penguins that were reintroduced here in 1983.
Another spot to see penguins is Boulders Bay. Lying 35km south of the city centre in Simon’s Town, this attractive bay lures tourists with its throng of the black-and-white birds. The sandstone boulders that litter the beach are also striking. Travelling to Simon’s Town by train provides a different perspective of Cape Town’s natural drama, as the track is sandwiched between rugged mountains and stunning coastline.
My favourite area of the city, though, is Camps Bay, home to one of Cape Town’s best beaches. Its fluffy white sand and the clear blue sea are reason enough to visit; then there is the sweeping mountain backdrop. Throw in Cape Town’s other natural attractions, such as Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Hout Bay, the rocky Champan’s Peak coastline and Noordhoek Beach, and it seems like its claim to have the most dramatic setting of any city on the globe may well be true.
Where to stay
The Table Bay Hotel: at the heart of Table Bay, this five-star hotel is an excellent base for exploring Cape Town. Rooms enjoy ocean or mountain views.
Where to eat
Codfather: excellent seafood restaurant in Camps Bay.