Nature is the predominant force in Cape Town. The city scatters down and around the slopes of several green peaks, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, Devil’s Peak, stopping at the ocean, at Sea Point and Green Point and the docks at the Waterfront from which you can see, on a clear day, the prison enclave of Robbin Island. Each afternoon, clouds pour from Table Mountain like a waterfall of whipped cream and in summer the light is thick and golden, covering everything in honey and the beaches in an iridescent haze. Cape Town light is far superior to any Instagram filter.
I lived here for a few months, in an apartment overlooking Clifton 4th beach. Each of Clifton’s four sheltered, boulder-strewn cuticles of sand are affiliated with different tribes: families, locals, dog walkers, the gay crowd etc. 2nd beach attracts an exuberant, fashionable lot and it was there I spent most of my afternoons, reading books but mostly ear wigging on other people’s conversations. (One particular unforgettable example of the democratic nature of Clifton’s beaches: an elderly hippy one afternoon, naked apart from a small drawstring pouch containing his unmentionables, performing sun salutations in obliviousness to the stir he was causing.)
Early morning and evening, the pavement below our apartment was used as a running track, people following the road all the way up from Green Point to Clifton and down to Camp’s Bay, past the surfers and pods of dolphins and seals and sea lions or – as was sometimes the case – the whales making their annual migrations past the city, flipping their enormous tales into the air as if waving hello. Just as in the beach cities of Los Angeles or Rio, Cape Town is a body conscious city. It’s the climate – all that flesh on show - but also something flashy in its character, the gold used as a neutral in most hotels and restaurants, the Botox clinics and advertisements for boob jobs and lunch hour injectables.
As if in response to and repudiation of this outsized glamour, a thriving creative scene has sprung up in the city. At the Woodstock Foundry, for instance, where furniture designers, galleries, design outfits and interiors stores have set up shop in a cool, contemporary space. The industrial area of Woodstock is also where you’ll find Cape Town’s most interesting art galleries: Blanc Projects, What if the World and Smac. It’s also the site of the weekend food market at the old Biscuit Mill, which houses arguably Cape Town’s best restaurant, The Test Kitchen. Book a table as soon as you book your flights. Actually, book as soon as you start thinking about taking a holiday to Cape Town. The food is superb and much in demand.
Elsewhere, head to De Waterkant, beneath the slopes of Signal Hill, for concept store and restaurant Loading Bay and Origin coffee, and an essential piece of Cape Town history: the Bo-Kaap area, streets of sorbet-coloured cottages that are the former residence of Cape Malay slaves brought to work in Cape Town from Malaysia and Indonesia. In order to understand how far South Africa has progressed (and how far it hasn’t), take some time to visit Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, and the District 6 Museum that tell the story of apartheid in South Africa. The era of segregation is far from over in a wealthy city like Cape Town and the divide between rich and poor, black and white, is vividly apparent. Taking a tour of Cape Town’s largest township, Khayelitsha, in the company of a resident-turned-tour-guide, proposes another side of the city and makes for a genuinely joyful encounter.
Also joyful is The Watershed at the touristy Waterfront docks. A converted boat shed with a cathedral-high ceiling, it hosts a huge number of stalls selling the best of local design, craft, fashion – including jeweler Pichulik – and homewares. If you only have 24 hours in the city, and are on the hunt for genuinely lovely souvenirs, go there. It’s worth visiting the grand dame of Cape Town hotels, the Belmond Mount Nelson, or the ‘Nelly’, as it’s affectionately known, the blush-pink gem of the city, with expansive gardens, elegant rooms, tea terraces, a buzzy bar, and views onto Table Mountain from a lawn pool worthy of a Slim Aarons photograph. Black birds with sleek seal heads balance on the edge of sun loungers, while the concierge comes poolside in his tails to run through guests’ dinner arrangements.
Places to Eat:
- The Test Kitchen; The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Rd, Woodstock, Cape Town; +27 21 447 2337; TheTestKitchen.co.za
- Salsify at the Roundhouse; The Roundhouse, Roundhouse Road, Camps Bay, Cape Town; +27 21 010 6444; Salsify.co.za
- Chef’s Warehouse and Canteen; 92 Bree St, Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town; +27 21 422 01 28; ChefsWarehouse.co.za
- Loading Bay; 30 Hudson Street, de Waterkant, Cape Town; +27 21 425 6320; LoadingBay.co.za
- Babylonstoren; Klapmuts Simondium Road, Simondium, 7670; +27 21 863 3852; Babylonstoren.com (Not in Cape Town, but completely worth the drive)
Places to Stay:
- The Pod Camps Bay; 3 Argyle St, Camps Bay, Cape Town, 8005; +27 21 438 8550; Pod.co.za
- The Silo; Silo Square, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, 8801; +27 21 670 0500; TheRoyalPortfolio.com
- Tintswalo Atlantic; Chapmans Peak Dr, Hout Bay, 7806; +27 21 201 0025; Tintswalo.com
- Belmond Mount Nelson; 76 Orange St, Gardens, Cape Town, 8001; +27 21 483 1000; Belmond.com
- Cape View Clifton; 232 Kloof Rd, Clifton, Cape Town, 8005; +27 21 438 8748; Rare-earth.co.za
Since going freelance, ex-Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar staffer Charlotte Sinclair has written for the FT, Conde Nast Traveller, Departures and How to Spend It. In between assignments she has also written two design books. You can find her posting on location at her instagram: @charlottesincs