Cape Town calling

It was back in 1850 that Sir Francis Drake described Cape Town as the "fairest cape in the whole circumference of the earth." Fast-forward a few hundred years and Drake’s declaration still rings true.

After a few grim decades, when the thought of visiting Cape Town and feeling the sun on your face was heavily tempered by the specter of violent crime, the city is once again back on the map, having firmly established itself as a travellers’ haven. It might be possible to have a bad time in Cape Town, but it’s hard to see how.

For in the aptly named ‘Rainbow Nation’, visitors can effectively combine a spectrum of different holidays in just one trip. The tourist target boasts an embarrassment of riches; its got awesome mountains, world class beaches, excellent surf spots, game reserves galore, cultural rewards in the shape of the city itself and scores of scenic attractions.

Other pluses? There’s the ridiculously warm weather for starters, then there’s the small matter of money. Prices are reasonable, if not remarkably cheap (the exchange rate is favourable) with alcohol – especially if you’re arriving from the UK – being particularly good value. I was bowled over by many a mojito (a pop at just £3) and could quite happily have drank cocktails crowded with umbrellas all day long…What’s more, take a trip to Cape Town – arguably one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities on the planet – and you’ll find that you have no jet lag to contend with.

The likelihood is that Table Mountain will be your first introduction to the city and chances are it will be covered by its familiar barrister’s wig of white cloud. You could take the cable car (which revolves so that the tourists don’t elbow each other for the best views) but we recommend walking seeing as anyone can take the cable car. The best time to make the climb (or should that be crawl?) is early morning when the climate is cooler. Be sure to take plenty of provisions, a waterproof jacket and to wear sensible shoes for climbing to the top is tougher than it looks. Persevere however, and you will be rewarded with fantastic views.

After the magnificent mountain, most tourists flock to the Waterfront, much like bees to a honey pot. Often referred to as the V&A, the Waterfront is one of Cape Town’s most successful tourist areas and consists of restored wharfs and warehouses full of shops, restaurants and cafes. It’s easy to spend all your time at the Waterfront enjoying the spectacle of buskers and the lively acts at the amphitheatre, but don’t. It’s perfectly pleasant but then so are garden centres.

Instead view the V&A as a gateway to Robben Island(419 4200) where the late, great Nelson Mandela and many of the countries top politicians were imprisoned during the apartheid era. Proclaimed a UN World Heritage Site in 1999, visitors are shown around this shrine to struggle by ex political prisoners who work alongside ex wardens making it the best demonstration of reconciliation. You’ll learn much of what happened to Mandela and other inmates and at the end of the tour, you can ask your guide any unanswered questions. One word of warning: do book in advance as tickets sell like hot cakes.

The District Six Museum(25 Buitenkant Street, 466 7200), which is as much for the people of the now vanished District Six area as it is about them, is another must see. It allows for a glimpse into a world seldom seen by tourists – or for that matter locals – and acts as a reminder that there is more to the Mother City than convertibles and cocktails.

Culture vultures should also check out The Castle of Good Hope(787 1082), the oldest colonial building in South Africa.

Keen to get back to nature? Take a trip to Boulders Bay and you can tick ‘penguins’ off the list – 3,000 of them to be precise. In addition to penguins, expect to see colonies of seals, pods of dolphins and if you’re lucky – whales. The best spot though, to see these super sized mammals frolicking in the ocean has to be Hermanus, 60km east of Cape Town.

Alternatively get your adrenaline going with a spot of shark diving. Those for whom adventure is high on the agenda are able to enter the water and see the ocean’s oldest predator through the bars of underwater cages. We’re not going to lie to you, it is a scary, spine tingling experience but simultaneously it’s a safe, fascinating and ultimately an unforgettable one. Everyone under the sun offers the opportunity to see the powerful beast up close in his natural element, but we recommend going with Shark Diving Unlimited(028 384 2787,www.sharkdivingunlimited.com,) run by the knowledgeable Mike Rutzen; one of the few people in the world to free dive with white sharks. Past customers include Princes Harry and William, Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt no less and if it’s good enough for royalty (Hollywood and other), it’s good enough for me…

After an idle trip? Wander out west for some wine tasting in Stellenbosch and leafy old Franschoek. Both are just a short drive from the city, with no exercise involved except for the lifting of a wine glass to taste the liquid of life. Yet while vines and wines do dominate proceedings, it’s not solely about getting sloshed. The areas are remarkable for more than their quality of wine, being packed full of architectural gems.

Alternatively take life at a chilled pace in the teensy towns of Kalks Bay – an attractive fishing harbour home to many antique and art shops– and Simonstown, stopping off at trendy deli-café, The Meeting Point (98 St Georges Street, 04 786 1986) for lunch.

Beaches more your bag? Cape Town is blessed with beaches. Indulge in a long, leisurely coffee at one of the many cafes at Camps Bay where you can ogle the effortlessly gorgeous, long limbed locals basking in the sunshine. (You won’t see many soaking up the surf as the waters are cold enough to keep even the keenest of swimmers out of the ocean). Another option is to cruise along to Clifton, a stretch of stunning white sand that is divided into four exclusive beaches. But choose your beach carefully; one and two are for the bodies beautiful, while three has a reputation for being a gay haunt and four is for families.

Beyond the beaches, make for the Cape of Good Hope(780 9010) – even the most jaded of travellers cannot fail to be amazed by the sheer natural beauty of the reserve, now part of Table Mountain National Park.

If all that still sounds a little too energetic, you can always just relax at a restaurant, party up a storm at La Med (Glen Country Club, 438 5600) – a sizzling hot sundowner spot – or indulge in a spot of shopping. Yes, good retail therapy is another of Cape Town’s many attractions. Clothes, shoes and accessories are not only a steal but their quirkiness makes a refreshing change from the chain stores that dominate Dubai. For prêt a porter fashion at purse pleasing prices visit the aforementioned V&A Waterfront which has a huge choice of shops and stalls as well as a shed selling traditional township goods or lively Long Street – stacked as it is with second hand bookshops and streetwear boutiques. For innovative keepsakes that aren’t mass produced, try Greenmarket Square while the Pan African Market(76 Long Street, 426 4478) is also a good place to head for traditional handicrafts; think beadwork dolls, toys made from recycled tin cans and wire sculptures.

Essentially a trip to Cape Town cannot be described as effortless. It can be a daunting destination; make no mistake there are definitely less complicated cities to visit. Aids is all pervasive, poverty is prevalent and crime is very real (expect to see heavy security systems in place anywhere and everywhere). Despite all this, don’t be deterred from visiting. For the most part Cape Town is upbeat and the energy that throbs this colourful city is so contagious that it will leave your heart humming and your spirit singing for weeks afterwards. The hardest part is coming back: you’ll have checked house prices before leaving. For Cape Town is like coffee; it gets in your bloodstream, picks you up and leaves you wanting more…

IN THE KNOW

Sleeping:
There’s an array of accommodation options to suit all budgets. Backpackers can’t go wrong with Nelly’s Lodge(36 Milton Road, 448 6536) – a clean and friendly Observatory establishment presided over by the indomitable Nelly. Alternatively try Ashanti Lodge(Hof Street, 423 8721) if only to see that budget need not mean basic. For blow the budget luxury, head for the Mount Nelson(76 Orange Street, 483 1000) or the Twelve Apostles Hotel(Victoria Road, 437 9000) – both are of a sumptuousness that is simply gob smacking. The Twelve Apostles has the added attraction of the Sanctuary – a spa whose design is as breathtaking as the treatments are soporific.

Local Eating and Drinking:
Surf ‘n’ turf no longer heads the menu. Cape Town is home to world-class restaurants and is the place to sample some exceptional eateries. Don’t leave without trying a few Cape Malay dishes; South Africa’s oldest fusion cuisine. Get stuck into bobotie (curried lamb or beef mince), biltong (dried meat) and malva, a delicious sponge dessert, at Khaya Nyama(267 Long Street, 424 2917).The Africa Café(108 Shortmarket Street, 422 0221) represents another good place to get acquainted with African cuisine; diners are treated to no fewer than 15 different dishes. For colonial style nostalgia, afternoon tea at the Mount Nelson(76 Orange Street, 483 1000) cannot be beaten. Expect a spread of scones, sandwiches and sweet treats so vast that only the biggest of bellies will be able to contemplate eating again that evening. Want to eat alfresco? Any of the eateries overlooking Camps Bay should fulfill your criteria with Tuscany Beach(41 Victoria Road, 438 1213/0558) being a particular standout. For those on a tighter budget, Crush(100 St Georges Mall, 422 5533l) is a good bet. Try the ‘super food salad’ (R35)– an enticing combination of spinach, alfalfa spouts, rocket, roast butternut, feta, quinoa, fresh mint and lemon juice – proving that healthy food need not be boring. Alternatively seek out Diva’s(88 Lower Main Road, 448 0282)where you can feast cheaply on Italian fare in a faded Venetian atmosphere. When it comes to nosh and nightlife, hit any of the establishments in City Bowl.