History and scenic views aside, culinary delights are also something to look forward to in Cape Town.
I’m normally not a morning person. But by 5am on my first full day in Cape Town, the sun has risen high enough to peel back the curtain of night and reveal the majesty of Table Mountain. My hotel balcony provides a front-and-centre seat for this morning tableau.
Sleep no longer interests me.
I sip hot tea, nibble the chocolate truffle left during turndown service the night before, slide open the doors and take in the view.
Cape Town’s iconic formation – a flat-topped mountain that rises 1,086m above sea level and looks as though its peak has been sliced off – has presided over more than three centuries of history in this, the Mother City of South Africa.
People around the world are noticing the country. Bolstered by a strong exchange rate, overseas tourists – Americans, in particular – are flocking to the Western Cape region to experience the beauty and charm of its land, people and culture.
The New York Times in November named Cape Town the No.1 place to go in 2014 (on a list of 52 destinations around the world). Lonely Planet named the city No.3 of 10 destinations on its Best in Travel 2014 list.
And the city will hold the title of World Design Capital for the year. It will host many events that showcase the theme “Live Design. Transform Life,” an effort to “position Cape Town as a leading global city – a hub of creativity, knowledge, innovation and excellence”, tourism officials say.
This is a place that stays firmly grounded in its history yet bursts at the seams with excitement for its future.
Almost nowhere is this more easily experienced than on a culinary tour of the city and its outlying wine region. Cape Town has become a new frontier for chefs around the world, such as Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, who opened the first and only South African outpost of his eponymous restaurant Nobu there in 2009.
At every turn, it’s also possible to savour the traditional dishes, speckled and spiced with global influences, that helped shaped the region. And in the Cape Winelands, centuries-old winemakers are using new technology to produce world-class wines.
On a sunny Saturday morning, locals pack in, elbow to elbow, to the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill, a bustling “village” of restaurants, cafés and shops in the Woodstock neighbourhood, which is undergoing a renaissance much like that of Fort Worth’s near south side.
Local vendors sell organic dried fruit, dozens of types of mushrooms, freshly baked macaroons, flatbread pizzas, pork belly pies, ice cream and hundreds of other products and foods. Some give out samples; all allow patrons to enjoy their purchases on long tables in the middle of the market.
I arrive with a small group on an excursion with two Cape Town food and travel experts, Dawn Jorgensen and Ishay Govender-Ypma; they run The Food and The Fabulous Food Tours, customisable food experiences that delve into the heart of the city’s culinary scene.
Before 11am, I’ve tasted craft beers from Darling Brew, noshed on velvety mozzarella di bufala from Buffalo Ridge, sipped a tall rooibos iced tea, chewed on tuna Biltong (a South African jerky) and sampled a favourite local pastry called a Flying Dutchman, which closely resembles a New Orleans beignet.
This is just one example, our guides tell us, of an emerging “market culture” in Cape Town and a new commitment to support local farmers and food purveyors.
The Old Biscuit Mill is home to a charming gourmet boutique deli called Saucisse that specialises in hard-to-find meats and cheeses of the area, and to a coffee shop called Espresso Lab Microroasters, which serves up single-origin coffee creations for which people line up out the door on Saturday morning.
With the summer sun searing, our “fab food” tour takes us a step further back in time, to the Bo-Kaap, or Cape Malay Quarter of town. With its brightly coloured semi-detached homes, Bo-Kaap has become a backdrop for high-fashion magazine shoots.
We feast alfresco on a lunch of traditional Cape Malay foods such as lamb curry and samosas, prepared by women who have made it their mission to preserve the beloved food of their ancestry by conducting these tours and compiling recipes into a forthcoming cookbook.
No “local food tour” would be complete, of course, without a dip into the local beverage scene. Craft brews are big news. In the early evening, still with our expert food guides, we find ourselves at the Beerhouse, a new watering hole on vibrant Long Street that actually does have 99 bottles of beer on the menu. We “rock around the clock”, sampling 12 brews.
After a dinner of traditional sausage called boerewors at the Gourmet Boerie cafe, our group bar-hops down Long Street among crowds of mostly young Capetonians who are making the most of a mild summer Saturday night.
Craft beer may be a new trend here, but throughout South Africa, there is a long and rich history of producing first-rate wines – and lots of them. Less than an hour’s drive out of Cape Town, rows and rows of vineyards climb the mountainsides.
Traditional white Cape Dutch-style homes dot the landscape, and bright pink bougainvillea grows next to the road in this picturesque countryside.
With its mild Mediterranean climate and limited rainfall, the Western Cape region has been home to a wine industry dating to the 1600s. Today, wines from the region are scoring ratings higher than French Burgundies in worldwide competitions.
Entire vacations can be spent in the wine country; it would be a shame for teetotallers not to spend at least part of one day taking in this beautiful scenery, too. Many of the wineries offer daily tours and tastings.
Visitors can easily drive in and out of the city or make a home base of one of the region’s charming towns – Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Paarl – which abound with boutique hotels, shops and eateries.
Accompanied this time by Luvo Ntezo, award-winning head sommelier at One&Only Cape Town resort, my group’s day in the winelands begins with breakfast at Le Quartier Francais, an exclusive but cosy hotel in Franschhoek.
A buffet as colourful as the Provencal-style hotel itself includes treats like sticky buns, passion fruit cocktails and a homemade Nutella-style spread. The hotel is home to another of the region’s top-rated restaurants, The Tasting Room, headed by imaginative chef Margot Janse.
The first of two wine tastings of the day comes in Stellenbosch at Tokara, a sprawling operation that produces a variety of site-specific wines, made entirely of its own grapes, in three distinct vineyard areas. The wines – red and white, sweet and dry – are made to the highest standards.
My favourite in a tasting of eight wines (and a brandy, which Tokara also makes) is the 2012 Director’s Reserve white, a blend of 74% sauvignon blanc and 26% semillon grapes. I could drink this with every meal.
Tokara also is home to a thriving olive oil business. A restaurant serving locally sourced cuisine, a deli shop selling gourmet goodies like truffles and coffees, and an outdoor playground area with sweeping views of the mountains beckon visitors to linger from day to evening.
On the drive to the town of Paarl, to the second winery of the day, Nederburg, a mid-afternoon rain invites a rainbow to reach down from the sky and across the mountains. It’s a sublime scene.
Nederburg, founded in 1791, is one of the region’s best known wineries. The Nederburg Auction was established in 1975 to showcase the country’s finest wines. The annual event has become one of the five most important auctions in the world; it’s a glamorous, invitation-only social occasion.
After a tasting of more than a dozen wines – my favourite is another white, a blend of eight grapes called Ingenuity – we relax on the lush grounds of Nederburg’s stately Manor House. The gabled, thatched-roof Cape Dutch home was built in 1800 by the winery’s founder. Today, it’s a national monument, restaurant and visual icon of the region’s wine industry.
We sit on outdoor benches, relax on swings in the big trees and sink our feet into the lush lawn as we sip our last glasses of wine before heading back to the city.
The five-year-old One & Only Cape Town resort, home base for my visit, has hosted a roster of VIPs from every corner of the globe. Its seven-story Marina Rise, steps from the stylish Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, offers 91 spacious rooms and suites, all of which have either “my” magnificent view of Table Mountain or of the pretty harbour side; 40 more rooms and suites get their own private island.
The hotel boasts the largest infinity pool in South Africa, and the passion fruit mojitos from Isola restaurant on the hotel’s private island make the perfect poolside sip.
Less than 24 hours after my journey there from New York, nothing feels better than a 50-minute massage. “You had some ‘crunchies’ in your back”, I’m told as I’m led by my massage therapist to the dark and serene relaxation room.
One & Only is home to chef Matsuhisu’s Nobu, where classic Japanese cuisine incorporates South African seafood. A seven-course family-style dinner there is an event.
Local celebrity chef Reuben Riffel debuted his first Cape Town restaurant, Reuben’s, at the hotel in 2010. Here, I eat local oysters and drink champagne with breakfast, and at dinner, sample smoked springbok – an antelope-gazelle with meat that is lean but flavourful.
Adjacent to Reuben’s is sommelier Ntezo’s domain: The stunning, tri-level glass and steel Wine Loft houses more than 5,000 bottles. Ntezo knows each one well; at just 31 years old, he is a skilled sommelier whose talents and palate are highly sought after. South African Airways has called upon him more than once to help pick the in-flight wine menu.
Summertime in Cape Town means warm, mostly dry days to take a cable car up to Table Mountain, lounge on the beach at Camps Bay, take a ferry ride for a tour of Robben Island or enjoy an evening picnic at an outdoor concert in the lush Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
On my last night in town, I indulge myself in some childlike fun – a ride on the Ferris wheel on the V&A Waterfront at sunset. A 12-minute, four-cycle ride affords views that rival those of the birds flying beside me.
I can see to Robben Island in one direction, get up close to the city’s gleaming soccer stadium in another. And then, as the sun sinks lower and the sky grows pinker, I spot it: the white “tablecloth” of clouds. Rolling in and spreading out over Table Mountain.
It makes my last sunset in this exotic and storied city as memorable as the first sunrise. – Fort Worth Star-Telegram/ McClatchy-Tribune Information Services