Fast forward to our dusk Cape Town landing. The Cape is immediately stunning, with a cool Atlantic breeze pushing fog over Table Mountain. Uber works great and gets us to our Breakwater Lodge. Originally built as a prison for British convicts in 1859, the facility has been cleverly remodeled and turned into a Marriott hotel and houses the University of Cape Town’s business school. This cement walls with turrets atop, steel doors, and smallish cell-sized rooms give it a lot of character, and the location is fantastic – right on the waterfront, just below Signal Hill.
Friday we woke to crystalline skies so hurried through a fine breakfast to venture out. The open-top City Sightseeing bus provides an affordable means of touring key sites so we hop on, plug in to the audio tour and enjoy the tour for a few stops until we reach the colorful neighborhood of Bo-Kaap, tucked onto the northwest flank of Signal Hill above downtown. Formerly misnomered as the Malay Quarter, Bo Kaap is where imported Indonesian and Indian laborers settled. Some say the residents used colorful paints to rebel against drab pre-apartheid era dress codes; others say they the illiterate homeowners shunned written street names and numbers so used colors to distinguish their homes and provide directions: “we’re in the green house between the pink and blue houses”. Times are better now and multi-cultural, well-located Bo-Kaap is experiencing gentrification, but still retains a strong Muslim influence.
Hopping back on the City Sightseeing bus we continue to Table Mountain, and board the tram which whisks us 1,000 fee up the sheer cliff to the clear, cold summit. We’re not well prepared for the bluster and race around the top snapping pix and taking in the views between shivers. We’re lucky to have summited in between clouds and crowds, retreat to the comfort of the convenient internet lounge above the cable car station for hot chocolate and more views.
Back on the bus we cleaved west between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head to reach the quaint beach side community of Camps Bay, where building codes provide unrestricted ocean views and Cliffside restaurants invite. To this Northern Californian it felt laid back and beach beautiful like Aptos near Santa Cruz. We drove on past Clifton and we disembarked at Sea Point for a seaside stroll. The travel sites don’t speak much of Cape Town’s tidepools, but they are plentiful and rich. The beaches mix shells with sand – so much so that you wouldn’t want to walk barefoot. Atlantic sea temperatures are cold here: as with California’s northern coast, summer winds blow the ocean’s surface out to sea and nutrient rich waters well up from the depths attracting the higher end of the food chain, including penguins, seals and the famed Great Whites.
In Sea Point, overbuilt apartment blocks and roads obscured the sea’s charms. There was a fine large art-deco swimming pavilion worth the attention of families with more days in the Cape. After a soulless stroll, we elected to hop back on the bus, which took us past the majestic Cape Town Stadium built for the 2010 World Cup. Back at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, we found the food market, a cavernous shipyard warehouse redeveloped into a permanent food bazaar with yummies from just about every continent. We staked out a people-watching perch on the 2nd floor and devoured burgers, fish & chips, tapas, and the sights and sounds of other happy visitors doing the same.
Cape Town feels a lot like San Francisco – a bite-sized city with accessible harbors, vineyards, sea sides and mountains; diverse friendly and welcoming. The history is rich and full of somber lessons of tolerance conquering bigotry… a comforting message in today’s Trumpian time. Lodging is expensive but transport and food is reasonably priced, and the strong dollar makes it an affordable and fun family experience… maybe the best city yet in our travels. I’d consider living here or visiting more often if it weren’t in such a far-off corner of the world … but perhaps isolation is part of its’ secret sauce.
With full bellies, we wander among the crowds and through the Wharf on this sunny Saturday. We pause to enjoy the local bands and buzz, detouring through the mega-mall for an air-conditioned route towards the jetty, then arc back towards the wharf’s playground and stumble across the Jetty 1 exhibit, the somber disembarkation point for Robben’s Island, where Mandela and other Apartheid-era political prisoners were sent to be hidden from the world. There the boys took in the story of Robert Sobukwe, considered by the Apartheid governments to be more dangerous than Mandela and imprisoned in Solitary year after year by virtue of “Sobukwe clause”, a statute which was invoked to arbitrarily extend his imprisonment year after year after year.
Sobukwe led the Pan African Congress and its non-violent March 1960 nationwide protest against the hated Pass Law, which required blacks to carry a pass book at all times. Crowds and tensions grew with the hours and an inexperienced cop’s first shot was followed by others, resulting in the Sharpeville Massacre… a tragic even that now turned international opinion against the Apartheid regime and led to its isolation. Today March 21 is commemorated as Human Rights Day. Heavy.
Emerging into a happier day outside we crossed the harbor on a swing bridge and continued our Apartheid history tour a Nelson Mandela Gateway, today’s boat launch for tourist treks to Robben Island. Lacking time and advance planning, we simply strolled the Gateways’ exhibits, which provided another good overview of the tragedies of Robben Island. South Africa and Cape Town seem to have done a noble job of coming to terms with its apartheid past; America and Charleston have a good model to follow.
After a long day of touring we took some feet-up time back at our Breakwater prison-hotel – another triumphant vehicle of constructive remembrance – then returned to a seafood restaurant on the Wharf. En route we noticed a lot of smoke in the air and traced it to nearby Signal Hill… we live in fear of fire in the drought-dry Sierras but the locals didn’t seem to be too worried… “oh the City will take care of that”. The fire grew over the course of our dinner and became worryingly spectacular after dusk, but the locals remained blasé. Checking the web, we learned that urban fynbos fires are commonplace here… often started by homeless cooking fires. A reminder that tourists see only the best sides of Cape Town.