Cape Town Travelogue: Part 1

Tell a person from East Africa or West Africa, or even other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, that you are going to South Africa and they will inform you, usually in short order, that South Africa is not like the rest of Africa. Having traveled to a few other countries on the African continent I find myself saying the same thing to first time visitors to South Africa. And, within the country affectionately referred to as the “Rainbow Nation” itself, Cape Town is like no other city in South Africa. Actually, Cape Town is like no other city in the world.

Minnesotans visiting South Africa are best served by flying from Minneapolis to Amsterdam (eight hours) and then from Amsterdam to Cape Town (12 hours). Yes, it’s a long flight, but with personal entertainment systems featuring films, games, television programs, and music at each seat, and a can’t-put-down book tucked into your carry-on bag, you will be surprised how smoothly you can journey halfway around the world.

Most tourists quickly walk through customs and baggage claim at the Cape TownInternationalAirport. It takes a bit longer these days to maneuver to ground transport or the rental car agencies. The airport, like much of Cape Town, is preparing for the World Cup in 2010. Construction cranes in the city are as common as the street peddlers hawking newspapers and magazines at traffic signals.

Cape Town is a hot international destination and, given its relatively stable government and economy (at least by African standards), should remain so for the foreseeable future. Barring a major catastrophe, the World Cup could firmly establish Cape Town as one of the destinations for travelers seeking natural beauty, magnificent food and wine, a diverse nightlife, and a complex, yet fascinating, post-apartheid history – the final chapters of which are still to be written.

Seasons in South Africa are the opposite of seasons in the U.S. Minnesotans are guaranteed a respite from winter if you travel to Cape Town between November and April, with January and February generally being the hottest months. In mid-summer, it’s not unusual for temperatures to climb above 90 degrees in Cape Town and even higher in wine country. On those days, even locals will complain by saying, “It’s Africa hot.”

Don’t think that just because we are hearty Minnesotans that winter in Cape Town (July and August) will feel balmy to us. It can be cold. I mean sweater, coats, caps, and gloves cold. The cold is exacerbated by the fact that since the winter is so short, most homes have no central heating. I happened to live in Cape Town one winter. During the day I would work at an unheated community center in the townships. At night, I would hurry back to Cape Town where I would take a hot shower, put on warm clothes, and huddle next to a space heater for the remainder of the evening. I warned my partner, who was visiting me that winter, about the cold. Being a true northerner, however, he assumed that Cape Town could never be bone-chillingly cold, and he arrived with shorts and t-shirts packed in his luggage. When he awoke on his first morning in Cape Town to snow on TableMountain (a once in a decade occurrence) we made a beeline to the V&A Waterfront for him to buy warm clothes.

South African travel books tend to get the checklist of “must see” and “must do” sites and activities correct. There are a few insights into the MotherCity (the title bestowed on Cape Town as the first colonialized city in the country), however, that publications like the Lonely Planet and Frommer’s sometimes miss.

For those insights…check out the next installment of Cape Town Travelogue.

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