When it comes to good looks, Cape Town would win the belt in any beauty pageant: a city lapped by pristine waters, festooned with fynbos flowers, and with the mighty Table Mountain kissing the clouds at its center.
In recent years, the eclectic city has cemented its appeal with world-class galleries, designer hotels and boutique wineries leading the way.
Add to that the relaunch of direct flight routes from London and South Africa’s most fashionable city, and it makes for an irresistible prospect for a break. Here’s how to explore it.
A mountain of culture and a wonderful promenade
There is something strange in the water. Beneath my kayak, fronds of kelp sway like a ballet, the sun beats down on my hat, and a few feet ahead of my small boat, what looks like an overturned tree plows its way onto the ocean’s surface.
Lizzie Pook shares her guide to exploring Cape Town and nearby Franschhoek. Above is Cape Town with the glorious Table Mountain kissing the clouds in the background
It moves, slowly, then falls to its side, so I can see that it is, in fact, a huge seal. Row forward to see better. He opens one eye and idly appraises me, before returning to his all-important quest for relaxation.
I am in the sparkling waters of Granger Bay, taking in the views of Cape Town from the ocean with Atlantic Outlook Adventures (atlanticoutlook.com).
We’ve already seen penguins, dolphins, and sunfish, and looking back I can see the city’s iconic Table Mountain centerpiece towering above it all.
If you trade in your flip-flops for sneakers, you could hike one of the many trails that meander through the mountain. Or perhaps take the leisurely cable car to the top, from £10 each way (tablemountain.net), to contemplate this bay and its picturesque surroundings, including the ferry that goes to the famous Robben Island (robben-island.org.za), where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for the better part of two decades; the sparkling Atlantic Ocean; and the winding coastline of the Cape battered by foaming surf.
Fortunately, though, you don’t need to break a sweat to get your cultural fix in Cape Town. From bohemian Long Street to the surfboards and seafood restaurants of exclusive Camps Bay, there’s an undeniable energy buzzing through its streets.
And that is no more present than at the V&A Waterfront (in front of the sea.co.za) – an attractive cultural center that surrounds the pier where restaurants, boutiques and bars attract locals and tourists alike.
Here, the Watershed Craft and Design Market is an easy place to spend an afternoon, with over 150 stalls showcasing wares by local creatives, from forward-thinking beauty brands to home chocolatiers and biltong makers.
You can take a ferry to the famous Robben Island (above), where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for the better part of two decades.
Those looking for even more low-key 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 famous regional milk tarts and koeksister desserts.
Back on the Waterfront, the impeccably polished One & Only Cape Town is the place to stay. As soon as I walk through its doors, I am in awe of the epic views of Table Mountain framed within a large wall of glass behind the center bar.
The hotel blends seamlessly into the waterfront itself with a wide, clear canal meandering through its center, where fitness-minded locals practice their paddle boards and swim in the clean water. There’s also a spa and a tranquil pool surrounded by striped loungers, where the peace is broken only by a family of otters coming to drink.
The rooms are equally impressive, awash in soft textures, a putty palette, and expansive mountain views. You don’t even need to leave the building to enjoy the best of Cape Town’s delicacies. The on-site Nobu Restaurant features Michelin-starred master chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s world-famous Japanese-Peruvian fusion.
Lizzie (not pictured) watches penguins, dolphins and sunfish while kayaking off the Cape Town coast.
The hotel also hosts a wine festival each February where the country’s most exciting and experimental winemakers come together to reveal their latest products, while head sommelier Luvo Ntezo is heralded among the best in the world.
Cape Town has countless picturesque places where you can enjoy stellar views along with your dinner. During my stay, I gaze at the yachts bobbing gently on the dock as I discover Inverroche amber oysters at Harbor House (harbourhouse.co.za) on the waterfront. I also enjoy 180-degree sea views while tucking into braaibroodjies, the far superior South African equivalent of a grilled cheese sandwich, at Salt & Sage (saltandsage.co.za) in Bantry Bay.
Lastly, I smile at the resident African penguin colony at Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town, while The Beach Hut’s salted caramel ice cream (la-cabana-de-la-playa-ice-cream-shop.business.site) flows stickily down my wrist.
Drink it in: Lizzie is ‘in awe’ of the epic views framed within a vast glass wall behind the center bar at the effortlessly polished One & Only Cape Town (above)
One of the locals: Lizzie ‘smiles’ at Cape Town’s resident African penguin colony
Finding good food in Cape Town is not a surprise, but I am much more surprised to find diamonds. Shimansky (shimansky.co.za) is one of South Africa’s most highly regarded jewelers, sourcing ethically sourced diamonds with a 100% conflict-free guarantee.
I get to put on overalls to handle and polish a tiny diamond myself, and wander through the museum and showroom in the Clock Tower grounds to marvel at the gems in their cases, learn how they are cut and sorted and discover the intriguing story of the glowing stones.
Cool off in the Cotswolds of South Africa
Think of Franschhoek as the Cotswolds of the Western Cape: pretty box of chocolates, filled with boutique producers and well-heeled mini-breakers, and surrounded by luscious natural scenery.
Just under an hour’s drive from Cape Town, it’s the perfect combination for city breaks: a place to slow down and enjoy the century-old vineyards, wildflower meadows and Cape Dutch architecture.
Franschhoek translates to French Corner, commemorating the Huguenot refugees who were given land here in the 17th century as they fled persecution in France. It’s also the smaller and slightly more refined sister to Stellenbosch, the Cape’s other well-known wine region.
The elegant Mont Rochelle, owned by Sir Richard Branson, is one of the best places to stay here. With 26 rooms in three elegant buildings, it is located on a hill overlooking the charming city and was built as a country house in the 19th century.
Lizzie says that the elegant Mont Rochelle (above), owned by Sir Richard Branson, is one of the best places to stay in Franschhoek.
When I arrive, Cape Doctor (the term locals give to the province’s strong winds) is in full force, sending the brilliant agapanthus swaying and ruffling the fur of the farm’s bouncy resident cat, Blom.
The setting is nothing short of idyllic, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in these places, particularly in the form of the historic Wine Tram that weaves its way through willow trees and vineyards, stopping at wine farms for leisurely tasting sessions. .
In the 1800s, this line carried meat and fresh produce to all the farms in the area. Now it is possible to visit six in one day, but we only do it two. Most impressive is the Grand Provence Heritage Wine Estate (grandeprovence.co.za), voted one of the 100 best vineyards in the world.
There’s a fine-dining restaurant where we eat Franschhoek trout and lamb sous vide, discerningly sampling their luscious GP MCC Brut, Angels Tears rosé and cabernet sauvignon as we go.
The historic Franschhoek Wine Tram winds through willows and vineyards, stopping at wine estates for leisurely tasting sessions.
Back at Mont Rochelle, head winemaker Michael Langenhoven explains how everything on the estate is picked by hand, with 15,000 tons of grapes a week being used to create his semillon, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. The juice is already fermenting for the sparkling wine that they intend to produce next year.
As we empty our glasses, the moon emerges, a clean and polished plate that seems to balance perfectly on the top of the mountain.
We take it as a cue to head in for tofu gnocchi and devilish chocolate cake at the cozy Country Kitchen restaurant.
We raise another glass to these wine lands 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 bed and breakfast 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 economy class return and £3,885 high class return. Daily services continue until March 25, 2023 and then restart from October 29 (virginatlantic.com).