How To Spend It

Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Cape Town

Under a World Cup spotlight, Cape Town is shining brighter than ever – with its outstanding natural beauty offset by new creative endeavours, says Maria Shollenbarger.

May 02 2010
Maria Shollenbarger

There’s nothing like hosting a globally anticipated sporting event to jump-start the fortunes of a destination. The day it was announced that South Africa was to be home to the World Cup 2010, some corners of the country went into protracted spasms of self-betterment; but Capetonians didn’t have much to do besides sit back and wait. Situated in a staggeringly beautiful natural setting and boasting world-class wine country, national parks and beaches all within a few miles of its central business district (CBD), Cape Town is not really a place in need of cosmetic ministrations.

In recent years, however, this city has realised new creative potential, with dynamic designers and entrepreneurs spearheading the revitalisation of once-decrepit neighbourhoods. And with the opening of some choice hotels and an ever-expanding culinary scene (and, thankfully, no shortage of outdoor attractions to counter the effects of enjoying it), Cape Town is more than ready for its close-up. So while you couldn’t miss the new 70,000-capacity Green Point Stadium if you tried – since the locals are endearingly incapable of not boasting about it – those of us who wouldn’t know Rooney from Ronaldinho will have just as good a time as all the football fans.

Just above the city centre several stretches of late-18th-century buildings have experienced a renaissance. Rechristened Heritage Square, they’re home to the lovely Cape Heritage Hotel, purchased and renovated to stunning effect in late 2008 by Johan and Victoria Nel (who spearheaded the preservation movement). Its 17 bedrooms are full of antiques that reflect the Cape’s varied history – Dutch brass lamps, tamboti wood beds, kilims – alongside locally designed contemporary furniture.

Those who prefer this sort of sweet originality to the big-name hotels might also consider the 12-suite Cape Cadogan, in a listed house just off Kloof Street (a perennially cool Cape Town address lined with small boutiques and cafés; Manna Epicure, with its Levantine-influenced menu, is the place for lunch). With an entrance on Kloof itself is the venerated Mount Nelson Hotel, which still has, it must be said, a faintly colonial air, but is absolutely worth visiting for Sunday-afternoon tea or a cocktail in its very chic bar.

Nearby Bree Street, meanwhile, has quickly evolved into a minor Restaurant Row. The three-year-old Caveau Wine Bar & Deli has a cosy, multilevel dining room and dozens of excellent wines by the glass. & Union, a boutique brewery and charcuterie, is much patronised by creatives sipping unfiltered ales and feasting on house-cured meats on the patio – a scene that could be in Bethnal Green were it not for the molten African sunshine. Across the street at Birds Boutique Café the Namibian owners create hummus-filled crêpes and fresh soups while their daughter, Frauke, produces the ceramics on which everything is served. And elegant Jardine, at four years old a Bree Street stalwart, fills its airy upstairs dining room with fans of its laid-back, but by no means unsophisticated, cuisine.

By contrast, Woodstock, a few miles to the east, still sits under the “up-and-coming” rubric. Vendors hawk pawpaw and Nelspruit oranges from carts in the street but it is also home to the Neighbourgoods Market – a dynamic scene of organic food traders and local fashion and product designers. Held every Saturday in a sprawling defunct biscuit factory that was refurbished in 2006, it is a prime people-watching experience. Several little shops line its perimeter, peddling ceramics, antique cutlery, handmade tea towels and vintage lamps, and, at lunchtime, you can feast on falafel, Cape Malay curries or oysters shucked while you wait, washed down with sulphite-free pinotage.

In the past couple of years Woodstock has emerged as the city’s dynamic art hub. A few galleries worth visiting are the bespoke art publisher Bell-Roberts on Sir Lowry Road (also, of late, home to South Africa’s biggest gallery gun of all, Goodman); WhatIf TheWorld, on Albert Road, run by Neighbourgoods Market founders Justin Rhodes and Cameron Munro, whose discerning eyes have earnt them a presence on the New York-Basel Volta Show circuit; and established Cape Town dealer Michael Stevenson, who represents photographer Pieter Hugo and Karoo-based ceramicist Hylton Nel.

Across town, below the candy-coloured houses of Bo-Kaap, The Waterkant is Cape Town’s perfectly restored design and decoration district. Hawksmoor Antiques, with its edit of fine furniture and paintings, is especially worth visiting. And it occasionally features the bespoke scents of local perfumer Tammy Frazer – also available in the lifestyle store at the wildly popular Grand, a new restaurant-cum-beach-club in nearby Granger Bay.

The V&A Waterfront – Cape Town’s tourist-centric face – is where the dauntingly slick One&Only opened in April 2009. Few fail to be wowed by the reception lounge and its reach-out-and-touch-it view of Table Mountain (incidentally, the exhilarating hike from Kirstenbosch Garden along Skeleton Gorge to its summit is recommended). The rooms are vast; islands reached via a footbridge are home to additional rooms and a massive spa, while the Goodman Gallery has a satellite space in the hotel’s mezzanine. Nobu and Maze are the dining options. It’s luxury writ large, with insistent punctuation: enjoyable, if not precisely subtle.

The Waterfront’s five-star stalwart is Cape Grace, which underwent a tip-to-toe renovation in early 2009, for which designer Kathi Weixelbaumer spent a year scouring the country for fine Cape Dutch and English antiques. The resulting design shows a deft balance of opulence and restraint; but then this is a winning hotel all the way round, which has garnered numerous awards for its service and still leads by a neck on that front. A half-dozen BMW 7 Series are at guests’ disposal, piloted by a team of affable, deeply knowledgeable guides.

Cape Town’s city centre may lack explicit charms, but it’s home to the Iziko Slave Lodge museum – a thought-provoking monument to South Africa’s own history and the greater story of human rights. In February it inaugurated a year-long exhibit dedicated to the life of Nelson Mandela, seen in part through original films and interviews. Directly across the street in a former bank is the new Taj Cape Town – the luxury hotel the CBD has needed for years.

Like most cities, this one has a few restaurant staples – places that made its gastronomic reputation what it is, and still rate today. At 95 Keerom creatively embellished Italian food is served in an elegant brick-walled room punctuated at its centre by a gorgeous mature olive tree. Just below colourful Bo-Kaap, equally colourful Ginja – blood-red walls, lavender accents, and pronounced “jin-ja” – specialises in dizzying fusions (lamb with miso-gorgonzola sauce; a preponderance of chocolate in savoury dishes). Wakame, a conch toss from the beach in Mouille Point, will be the thorn in Nobu’s side as it guns for the best-sushi-in-town title.

In November these were joined by a newcomer: Bistro Sixteen82 opened amid the Steenberg Vineyards in Constantia (already home to the lovely Catharina’s restaurant). Bistro diners can look right up into the cellar facilities through a glass wall in the white-on-grey dining room while sampling an original menu that’s strong on seafood and produce from the estate.

Another newcomer to the restaurant scene happens to be an ideal place to wrap up one’s visit. On a hill overlooking Camps Bay, in a restored late-Georgian watch house (once a favourite summer redoubt of Lord Somerset), is The Roundhouse. After decades as a twee teahouse favoured by Cape Town society, it reopened in 2008 as a fine-dining establishment. The restaurant serves four-, five- and six-course tasting menus and wine pairings that exclusively showcase local producers; even the mozzarella di bufala is made in Stellenbosch. The waiters are young people from the townships – participants in a free five-star hospitality training programme pioneered by owner Fasie Malherbe, which sees many matriculate to top jobs at the country’s exclusive hotels and game reserves. The Rumbullion Lawn (flip-flops and shorts welcome) seems tailor-made for sipping champagne and watching the sun dip into the Atlantic, setting the skyscraping range of the Twelve Apostles rosily aglow.

It’s an experience in which heritage, hospitality, progress and unforgettable vistas – in short, Cape Town at its best – are all gratifyingly manifest.