Monday, July 13, 2015

At The Cape of Good Hope and Other South African Venues

Tuesday, July 7, 2015:
Cape of Good Hope and Other Venues

Breakfast at The Victoria Hotel:

            We awoke at 7.00 am, washed, dressed and went down to meet our friends in the hotel lobby as we were keen to make arrangements for transport to get us to the Cape of Good Hope—a good two hour drive from Cape Town. A short chat with the Concierge at the Hotel led us to a cab driver named Orion who offered to take us there and back on a half-day’s excursion. With that trip sorted, Llew and I could turn our thoughts to breakfast.

            Since the Victoria and Alfred Hotel has a sister hotel right across the street (The Victoria Hotel), we were entitled to have breakfast in that place too. We elected to try The Victoria Hotel and it turned out to be a much smaller restaurant with a much smaller buffet selection featuring Continental breakfast offerings. However, we were also entitled to choose items off the menu. I chose the V&A Special which turned out to be a full English with the most delicious sausages and bacon and potato rosti to die for. With sparkling white wine, guava juice, croissants with gooseberry jam and decaff coffee, I had myself a princely breakfast.

 Spectacular Drive Along the Western Cape Peninsula:
            At 9. 30 am, we were in Orion’s taxi heading out of Cape Town to The Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point on the Continent of Africa. It is approximately a two hour drive, but most visitors stop frequently en route to enjoy the smaller coastal towns with their pretty Dutch colonial ambience.

            Although it was a cloudy day and we did not see the sun at all, it was a simply spectacular drive. The road follows the coast through towns that are evocative of the country’s Dutch colonial past—Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek. In keeping with that theme, the cute houses that hugged the hills slithering down to the sea were in the Cape Dutch style, their front facades sporting the kind of colorful gables that made you believe you were somewhere on a canal in Amsterdam. Each town had its own railway station, built again in the Cape Dutch idiom—they looked as if they were in a fairytale.

Simon’s Town and its Penguin Colony at Boulders Bay:
Of the coastal towns we passed, Simon’s Town was certainly the largest and prettiest of them all. The train line that runs from Cape Town terminates at Simon’s Town—so someone wanting to reach the Cape of Good Hope in a more economical fashion rather than in a private taxi, could probably take the train to this point and then switch to a metered cab—as the entry to Cape of Good Hope National Park was a merely 12 minutes away from Simon’s Town.

Simon’s Town has a distinct colonial ambience—both British colonial and Dutch colonial. There is a large British hotel called The British right on the main drag with an appearance that was also reminiscent of the towns in the era of America’s Wild West. There were shops in colonnaded arcades before the residential quarters above. Shops featured antiques, clothing, souvenirs. It was all very charming indeed and had we more time, I would have requested Orion to stop and enable us to stroll through it for a bit.

We, however, were headed to the Penguin Colony at Boulders Bay—a lovely protected cove that houses three distinct species of African penguin. Once we paid the entry fee (60 Rands each), we were given brochures that enabled us to identify the three kinds. A well-constructed walkway led down to the sands of the beach that was punctuated with beach side vegetation—low bushes. They made the ideal hiding spot for the penguins that we just began to see at this point. Excitedly, we took pictures of the one or two we saw, but all the time we walked along the walkway further down to the very end of it—and what a sight awaited us there! There were hundreds of penguins at this point—either enjoying a swim in the surfy waters or relaxing on the sands. So many of them were nesting—we could see Moms-to-Be seated on straw-covered nests dug in the sand. Dads-To-Be walked up and down carrying shells in their mouths to make the nests more comfortable. In other nests, we saw several young penguins dressed, not in the black and white tuxedos that their parents sports, but in soft golden brown fur. It was simply a delight to take in their antics, to watch them waddle like little men all dressed up with nowhere to go. Others waded into the waters and then dived in suddenly to join their friends. It was easy to see why the penguins are such a huge attraction on the Peninsula and why every tour bus makes a mandatory stop there.

On to the Cape of Good Hope-- No. 4 in the Big Six::
            Standing on the southernmost tip of Africa is a deeply humbling experience, as we found out about half an hour later when our taxi entered Cape of Good Hope National Park. We paid the entry fee and drove for at least ten minutes through beautiful wilderness with scattered Cape foliage—low growing yellow and pink flowers and heather-like cover. The road then forked with one part heading off to the Cape of Good Hope, the other heading to Cape Point which is the rocky promontory that juts out into the water.  It gives you the distinct impression that as the Table Mountains (that start in Cape Town) make their way towards the tip of the Continent, they end in a single rock—with a whimper not a bang.

            To get up to the top of the rock that sports the lighthouse that has guided mariners for centuries across the Cape of Good Hope, there is a funicular train—return fare 55 Rands per head. It is quite appropriately called The Flying Dutchman and it whisked us up in minutes. Once we got out of the funicular car, we had about 100 steps to climb to get to the highest point on the Cape and it was there that we took a bunch of pictures. Gazing out at the point where two oceans meet—the blue-green Atlantic and iron-grey Indian Ocean, it caused me to be meditative—to think of how far I had come. Not just literally and in geographical terms but in terms of my state in life. While growing up, while getting to wherever it is one is, one never for a moment dreams that one will someday be at the Cape of Good Hope. When in Grade Six, learning about the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias who rounded what he called “the Cape of Storms” and who was succeeded by the world’s first circumnavigator Magellan who named it ‘The Cape of Good Hope’, I never thought that I would one day stand on this spot in the globe and take in the grandeur of the open seas spread out in front of me. Of course, we took many pictures to immortalize the moment before we made our way down to the base of the rock.

            It was at the café there that we picked up pizza and lattes and with the intention of tasting some Cape Malay cuisine, we ordered Cape Malay Chicken Curry pizzas which happened to be simply outstanding. If it was the only opportunity we would have to taste the local cuisine, we were glad we opted for this one.

 Ride Back Towards Cape Town:
               Back in the taxi with Orion, he drove us up the coast passing by the same towns through which we had ridden until we hit major road works—he then bifurcated and took an interior route, away from the sea. We were headed next to the Vineyards and Wineries because you cannot leave South Africa without becoming introduced to their splendid wines.

Toasting Each Other at Groot Costanzia-- No.  5 in the Big Six::
It was at the Groot Costanzia winery that we began our tour of the gorgeous vineyards region. One of the oldest Dutch-established wineries in the region, Groot Costanzia is built in the style of a Cape Dutch farmstead with barns, stables, garages (to park the wagons used for grape harvest) and a fine dining restaurant that overlooks a pond and the vineyards.

Llew and I headed straight for the Wine-Tasting area, purchased a ticket for 40 Rands each and found ourselves entitled to five wines from their large range. For the next 45 minutes, we stood at the counter with a lovely sommelier named Lynette Thornton who put us through the paces, taught us about the 5 Ss associated with Tasting: Swirl (in wineglass), Sniff (to ascertain bouquet), Sip, Swish (to back, sides and top of mouth since all our taste buds produce different notes),  then either Swallow or Spit. Between the two of us we chose ten different wines, each more delightful than the next. I ended with a Port—a delicious dessert wine. In-between tastings, we had bland dry crackers to clean our palates and prepare them for the next sip. It was truly a fun experience and given that we were tasting the products of the earth right in the spot where they were cultivated, we loved every second of it.

Coastal Tour on the Hop On Hop Off Bus:
We then jumped on the Hop On Hop Off bus and continued with our drive on the Vineyard Route which took us through several more wineries and vineyards. This part of Cape Town houses some of the city’s most affluent citizens whose real estate value is akin to some of the best homes we have seen in Beverley Hills, California, or in Southport, Connecticut. They were sprawling mansions fronted by gorgeously landscaped gardens and extremely high walls that are fully electrified for security reasons. Being that it is winter, there are no vines or grapes in the vineyards right now but the appearance of the plants, swooping down in a gentle slope to the main road was so soothing that even the drive was truly one of the highlights of our travels.,  

We switched to the Blue Peninsula Tour after completing the Purple Wine Tour and were very pleased to find out that it took a completely different route from our previous day’s one. We passed by Houts Bay where we stopped briefly for pictures, saw our first ever slum township in passing, and then took what I could only describe as a winding coastal route high in the mountains that was deeply reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast Drive in Italy or the Pacific Coast Highway in California. Repeatedly I found myself fascinated by the rich natural beauty of this city and its environs. Driving by the Twelve Apostles—the range of mountain peaks that includes Table Mountain, we saw them up close and personal. We passed Bahkoven and then Clifton before we were dropped off in the city at the start of the Bus Route.

A Walking Tour of Cape Town’s Historic City Center:
          Staying on the same bus at the starting point allowed us to get off at Stop 5 in the heart of the historical district from where we began Lonely Planet’s Walking Tour of the Historic District. On foot, we made our way to the Castle of Good Hope with its black stoned walls and low ramparts, to start our tour. We spied King Edward VII on a high pedestal right opposite the lovely City Hall building and the Parade Ground where slaves were once tortured and beaten in public. Taking a detour on a side street, we passed by the Slave Lodge where slaves were once bought and sold. Everywhere we walked we were made aware of the apartheid history of this nation and were conscious of how far this society has come as it now calls itself a Rainbow Nation. A few steps ahead is a tree under which slaves were selected and sold for the human labor market. We saw the first Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa that is called the Mother Church and off Adderley Street, we arrived at the section known as Company’s Gardens which comprises many buildings one of which is the resplendent Parliament House, a grand Neo-Classical structure designed in 1910 by Sir Herbert Baker, one of the architects of the city of New Delhi, together with Sir Edwin Lutyens. By this time, darkness had fallen over the city and since there were so many dodgy characters in the vicinity, Llew thought we should return to the hotel. It was not even 7.00 pm by this stage, but we felt extremely pleased about how much we had covered, how much we had seen and how fortunate we were to have had a chance to appreciate one of the world’s most up and coming cities. We were quite ready for a good dinner, by this time, and took a cab back to our hotel—a ten minute ride that cost us 50 Rands.                       

A Grand Dinner to Round off our Stay in Cape Town:
            Our friends had made plans to have dinner at Baia Restaurant on the V&A Waterfront—a fine seafood restaurant—and we hooked up with them to enjoy an incredible meal that started with a delicious Seafood Bisque and a range of appetizers including grilled scallops. Over a glass of chilled Riesling, we went on to enjoy a huge seafood platter with grilled prawns, langoustine and lobster tail—all succulent as can be with a very mild but scrumptious marinade. Dessert was three kinds of crème brulee followed by a range of teas and coffee. With the whole lot of us seated at the table, we caught up on the highlights of our day and expressed the feeling that our introduction to Cape Town had been simply awesome.

            Another fascinating day of our holiday had come to an end and we could not keep feeling that it was only getting better as each day went by. By the time we fell asleep, I realized that it was 12. 30 pm and with the number of messages I was picking up on my email and Whatsapp feed, I realized that it was already July 8—which meant that my birthday had dawned!!!
          Until tomorrow, cheerio!

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