When it comes to good looks, Cape Town would win the sash in any beauty parade – a city lapped by pristine waters, festooned with fynbos flowers and with the mighty Table Mountain kissing the clouds at its centre.
Over the past few years, the eclectic city has been cementing its pull with world-class galleries, design-led hotels and boutique wineries leading the charge.
Add to that the relaunch of direct flight routes from London and South Africa’s hippest city makes an irresistible prospect for a break. Here’s how to explore it.
A mountain of culture and a wonderful waterfront
There’s something odd in the water. Below my kayak, fronds of kelp sway balletically, the sun beats down on my hat and a few yards in front of my little vessel, what looks like an upended tree breaches the ocean’s surface.
Lizzie Pook shares her guide to exploring Cape Town and nearby Franschhoek. Above is Cape Town with glorious Table Mountain kissing the clouds in the background
It moves, slowly, then flops over on to its side, so I can see that it is, in fact, a ginormous seal. I scull forwards for a better look. He opens one eye and appraises me idly, before returning to his very important pursuit of relaxation.
I’m on the mirrored waters of Granger Bay, taking in the sights of Cape Town from the ocean with Atlantic Outlook Adventures (atlanticoutlook.com).
We’ve already spotted penguins, dolphins and belly-flopping sunfish, and looking back to land I can see the city’s iconic Table Mountain centrepiece rising above it all.
If you swap your flip flops for trainers, you could climb one of the many trails that snake up the mountain. Or perhaps take the leisurely cable car to the top, from £10 one way (tablemountain.net), to look down on this bay and its picturesque surroundings – including the ferry making its way to famous Robben Island (robben-island.org.za), where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for the best part of two decades; the glittering Atlantic Ocean; and the winding coastline of the Cape pummelled by frothy surf.
Luckily, though, you don’t need to break a sweat to get your culture fix in Cape Town. From the bohemian Long Street to the surfboards and seafood restaurants of high-end Camps Bay, there’s an undeniable energy that hums through its streets.
And that’s no more present than at the V&A Waterfront (waterfront.co.za) – a cool cultural hub surrounding the quay where restaurants, boutiques and bars lure in locals and tourists alike.
Here, the Watershed craft and design market is an easy place to while away an afternoon, with more than 150 stalls showcasing wares from local creatives, from forward-thinking beauty brands to home-spun chocolatiers and biltong makers.
You can take a ferry to the famous Robben Island (above), where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for the best part of two decades
Those seeking even more under-the-radar shopping should head to the vibrant enclave of Bo-Kaap – a patchwork of brightly painted Cape Dutch and Cape Georgian houses where you’ll find the best street food in town, from salomie (a curry roti wrap) to the region’s famous milk tarts and koeksister desserts.
Back at the Waterfront, the effortlessly polished One & Only Cape Town is the place to stay. As soon as I step through its doors, I’m staggered by the epic Table Mountain views framed within a vast glass wall behind the central bar.
The hotel seamlessly blends with the waterfront itself with a wide, clear canal winding through its centre, upon which fitness-minded locals punt their paddleboards and swim in the clean water. There’s also a spa and a tranquil pool fringed with striped loungers, where the peace is shattered only by a family of otters coming to drink.
The rooms are similarly impressive, awash with soft textures, a putty palette and expansive mountain views. You don’t even need to leave the building to enjoy Cape Town’s finest delights. The on-site Nobu restaurant showcases the world-famous Japanese-Peruvian fusion of Michelin-starred master chef Nobu Matsuhisa.
Lizzie (not pictured) spots spotted penguins, dolphins and belly-flopping sunfish while kayaking off the coast of Cape Town
The hotel also hosts a wine festival each February where the country’s most exciting and experimental winemakers congregate to reveal their latest products, while head sommelier Luvo Ntezo is heralded among the best in the world.
Cape Town boasts countless picturesque places at which to gobble up stellar views along with your supper. During my stay I ogle yachts gently bobbing at the quay while shucking Inverroche amber oysters at Harbour House (harbourhouse.co.za) on the waterfront. I also soak up 180-degree ocean views while nibbling on braaibroodjies – the far superior South African equivalent of a grilled cheese sandwich – at Salt & Sage (saltandsage.co.za) in Bantry Bay.
Lastly, I grin at the resident African penguin colony at Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town while salted caramel ice cream from The Beach Hut (the-beach-hut-ice-cream-shop.business.site) streams stickily down my wrist.
Drink it in: Lizzie is ‘staggered’ by the epic views framed within a vast glass wall behind the central bar at the effortlessly polished One & Only Cape Town (above)
One of the locals: Lizzie ‘grins’ at the resident African penguin colony in Cape Town
Finding great food in Cape Town is hardly a surprise, but I am far more taken aback to stumble upon diamonds. Shimansky (shimansky.co.za) is one of South Africa’s most esteemed jewellers, sourcing ethically mined diamonds with a 100 per cent conflict-free guarantee.
I have a chance to don a boilersuit to handle and polish a teeny tiny diamond myself, and stroll around the museum and showroom at the Clock Tower precinct to marvel at the gems in their cases, learn how they are cut and graded and uncover the intriguing history of the gleaming stones.
Cooling off in South Africa’s Cotswolds
Think of Franschhoek as the Cotswolds of the Western Cape: chocolate-box pretty, filled with boutique producers and well-heeled mini-breakers, and surrounded by exquisite natural scenery.
Just under an hour’s drive from Cape Town, it makes the ideal pairing for stays in the city – a place to slow down and soak up the centuries-old vineyards, wildflower meadows and Cape Dutch architecture.
Franschhoek translates as French Corner, commemorating the Huguenot refugees granted land here in the 17th Century as they fled persecution in France. It is also the smaller, slightly-more-refined sister of Stellenbosch, the Cape’s other well-known wine region.
The elegant Mont Rochelle, owned by Sir Richard Branson, is one of the finest places to stay here. With 26 rooms across three chic buildings, it’s set on a hill overlooking the charming town and was built as a farmhouse in the 1800s.
Lizzie says that the elegant Mont Rochelle (above), owned by Sir Richard Branson, is one of the finest places to stay in Franschhoek
When I arrive, the Cape Doctor – the term locals give the province’s strong winds – is in full force, sending the bright agapanthus swaying and ruffling the fur of the farm’s floppy resident cat, Blom.
The spot is nothing short of idyllic, and there is a lot of fun to be had in these parts, particularly in the shape of the historic Wine Tram which wends its way through the willow trees and vineyards, stopping at wine farms for leisurely tasting sessions.
In the 1800s, this line ran meat and fresh produce to all the farms in the area. Now it’s possible to visit six in a day, but we make it to just two. Most impressive is the Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate (grandeprovence.co.za), voted one of the top 100 vineyards in the world.
There’s a fine-dining restaurant where we tuck into Franschhoek trout and sous vide lamb, discerningly sampling their exquisite GP MCC Brut, Angels Tears rosé and cabernet sauvignon as we go.
Franschhoek’s historic Wine Tram wends its way through the willow trees and vineyards, stopping at wine farms for leisurely tasting sessions
Back at Mont Rochelle, head winemaker Michael Langenhoven explains how everything on the farm is hand-picked, with 15,000 tons of grapes a week being used to create their semillon, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. The juice is already fermenting for the sparkling wine that they intend to produce next year.
As we drain our glasses, the moon emerges – a clean polished plate that appears to balance perfectly on the mountaintop.
We take it as our cue to move inside for tofu gnocchi and devilish chocolate torte at the cosy Country Kitchen restaurant.
We raise another glass to these winelands and the farmers who first plied their trade here hundreds of years ago.
Rooms at One & Only Cape Town start at £812 per night on a B&B basis (oneandonlyresorts.com); rooms at Mont Rochelle start at £252 per night, including a complimentary wine-tasting session and daily transfers to Franschhoek (virginlimitededition.com). Virgin Atlantic flies daily from Heathrow to Cape Town direct, from £764 return in economy and £3,885 return in upper-class. Daily services continue until March 25, 2023, and then restart from October 29 (virginatlantic.com).