It’s a chance meeting on Cape Town’s main drag, Adderley Street. I recognise a young South African couple immediately because we’d been chatting on the flight from Australia. “You’ve seen the Big Four,” notes the woman. “But next time let us show you some of Cape Town’s other fabulous attractions.” Her husband nods in agreement: “Visitors understandably concentrate on our main showpieces. But there’s so much more.”
Big Four? There’s flat-topped Table Mountain, symbol of South Africa’s most visited city - with its cable car overlooking the city and suburbs, beach-dotted coastline and countryside. And there’s the ferry to Robben Island, apartheid South Africa’s Alcatraz where Nelson Mandela - the country’s first democratically-elected president - languished for 18 of 27 years as a political prisoner. Rounding out this foursome: Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a working port with hotels, restaurants and shopping malls - and the picturesque wine district (40 minutes’ drive) anchored by Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek with their distinctive Cape Dutch architecture.
Whispers suggest there’s much more. I confirm this when I return, renewing contact with my travelling companions...for instance:
1: Big Game
Famed locales with wild beasts roaming freely are more easily accessed from Johannesburg (for Kruger National Park) and Durban. From Cape Town we day-trip to10,000-hectare Aquila and enjoy sightseeing from an open-sided safari vehicle to eyeball what in Africa are termed the Big Five: lions, elephants, leopards, Cape buffaloes and endangered rhinos - plus cheetahs, hippos, zebras, giraffes and many kinds of antelope. It’s a great way to see animals, I decide, if you’re time-poor.
2: African Penguins
I reach Simonstown, headquarters of the South African Navy, by commuter train from Cape Town. At its edge is aptly-named Boulders, a beach dotted with gigantic rocks. It’s one of the world’s best places to watch African penguins - a cute, small variety - waddle ashore at dusk.
A 10-minute drive from the city (public transport is adequate but car rentals are commonplace) is Cape Town’s hippest beach. A few minutes’ coastal drive further is restaurant-studded Camps Bay.
Just beyond the winelands is one of South Africa’s oddest towns. Few tourists visit - but more should. Established by German missionaries in the Dutch-ruled Cape in 1738, its pink-hued buildings radiate from a central square - a little chunk of Germany in South Africa. A Moravian church dominates; another building is now a museum. It’s a long day trip and there’s no accommodation but a 10-minute drive leads to similarly quaint McGregor, an arts-and-crafts village where several vineyard workers’ cottages been transformed into tasteful B&Bs.
Kirstenbosch National Botanic Gardens (15 minutes’ drive from the city) is the back-door to Table Mountain and starting-point for several climbs from easy to challenging (all require reasonable fitness). Many climb up and ride the cable car down. Paths wind between collections of African flora, with an aerial walkway at treetop level. A popular African-themed restaurant called Moyo is near the entrance with dishes from many parts of the continent.
6: Bo Kaap
A steep uphill walk from the city centre, it’s an easy walk down. Originally home to the Cape Malay minority (some of whom have stayed), in post-apartheid South Africa its brightly-hued houses - many with Table Mountain views - are sought-after addresses for young professionals. Galleries and restaurants cluster here.
7: Long Street
Back in the city, don’t miss Long Street. It’s the heart of backpacker territory with vibrant nightlife - a place of bars, restaurants, bookshops, souvenir outlets and quirky emporia such as two selling coloured beads which creative African craftswomen transform into jewellery and handicraft.
Separate from the winelands, there’s Constantia - typically 20 minutes from hotels, a small-but-closer suburban wine zone producing many award-winning wines (sold from cellar doors). Gleaming-white Cape Dutch-style buildings are a photographer’s dream.
9: Grand Parade
Cape Town’s heart (overlooked by City Hall, from which Nelson Mandela made a speech to thousands just hours after being freed from prison) is partly a parking lot. Bus stops line two sides. Flower-sellers cram colourfully at another edge. I sip a coffee and survey the city’s hustle and bustle.
One of several 'townships', it’s a mix of shacks and small brick dwellings. I visit with Brian Vandayar and his wife Melanie who head a charity sponsoring a Khayelitsha childcare centre. We’re entertained with song-and-dance performances, visit several local homes, sample food and drink in a shebeen (bars illegal under apartheid) and tour self-sufficiency projects.