CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Above the hip-pulsing Latin rhythms mixed with a side of dance music in the
Cubana Lounge -- a trendy bar in the fashionable de Waterkant neighborhood of Cape Town -- James K., a thirty-something interior designer who's become my guide for the evening, shouts to make himself heard as the barman performs tricks involving fire and alcohol.
"Listen to this music," he says, emphatically pointing toward the ceiling as if trying to explain a time and place, "this is not Africa." When we return to his friends, balancing fistfuls of mojitos, he makes the point again. "Look at these people," motioning at his own entourage and then at the rest of the crowd, which would not look out of place in SoHo or SoBe. "This is not Africa either. This is South Africa."
It's an astute observation. Cape Town is not what people think of when they think of Africa. But neither is it the final post-apartheid outpost of European colonialism or the Ibiza of the Southern Hemisphere, as others claim.
It is a Cape of contrasts, for sure, and no other city better exemplifies the eclectic, electric mix of people and cultures that symbolize the polyglot nickname South Africa has pinned upon itself since the rise of democracy: "a rainbow nation."
Often referred to as the Mother City, Cape Town is the oldest established settlement in South Africa.
Founded in 1652 as a stopping point for Dutch East India Company trading ships, it occupies a setting of extraordinary beauty near the southernmost horn of Africa, straddling the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, which meet near the Cape of Good Hope.
Since then it's been a way station for every ship, sailor and pirate seeking a fortune in the East.
The resulting hodgepodge of colonialists, entrepreneurs and reluctant settlers served to create a mixed-heritage blend of cultural tolerance and acceptance. It's no wonder that post-apartheid, Cape Town has become one of the world's top tourist destinations.
Restored and maintained as a working harbor, one of the biggest attractions is the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, which offers a plethora of things to do and see. It's also a prime location for high-end hotels with views to die for.
Table Bay Hotel at the Waterfront is one of them. Situated at the far end of a pier, its rooms feature a panorama of the city with iconic Table Mountain as a backdrop.
The resident Camelot Spa offers the perfect antidote to the 20-hour flight from New York City: an African Signature Treatment utilizing the latest uber antioxidant, rooibus tea, along with African mud, and ending with a four-handed massage. The treadmills in the gym look out over Table Bay and Robben Island, providing one of the best places to watch the sunrise.
At the Waterfront's pier head, check out the
Two Oceans Aquarium, displaying the panoply of South Atlantic sea life in a massive open-ocean tank. The nearby
Maritime Museum focuses on the city's development and includes an exhibit floating in the Basin -- the SAS Somerset, a Naval Defense Vessel.
The necklace of low-rise malls and stalls, mingled with markets, cafes and cabarets could keep you strolling the waterfront into the night.
Of course, you should jump on board a boat to complete the experience. Full-time charter services can get you anywhere on any type of ship imaginable, from a little speedboat to a fully-masted schooner.
Take a day-long jaunt along the entire coast, past the impressive estates of Sea Point to the pristine beaches of Clifton, Camps Bay and Llandudno; marvel at the dramatic beauty of Cape Point -- the last tip of land this side of Antarctica -- before continuing on to Boulder Beach for a swim with the penguins.
Taking the ferry to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment, is also a must.
A look into his tiny prison cell, guided by an ex-political prisoner who explains what life here was like, first-hand, will put a lump in your throat and have you realizing just how far this country has come in such a short period of time.
Dine and Wine
When hunger pangs strike, head into the city center, or City Bowl, as it's commonly called.
Cape Town's scenic setting and cosmopolitan vibe has been attracting top chefs from across the world, and Cape cuisine, as it's becoming known, is a heady mix of the Dutch, French, German, Indian and Malaysian influences that have made this city a multiculti paradise.
Try stylish eatery
Savoy Cabbage for its sugar-cured springbok (think African venison) and soba noodles. For live jazz and smoked alligator, check out
The Cape Colony, voted one of the top 10 hotel restaurants in the world. Along Kloof Street -- the Dining Mile to those in the know -- the casual Cafe Gainsborough doesn't take reservations, so get there early for a sidewalk spot to enjoy the view of Table Mountain. Reboville, a former bank now specializing in local seafood to order, features over 12,000 bottles of wine in the original vaults downstairs.
Speaking of wine, a trip unto itself (or a lost weekend, depending on your thirst) is to spend a day or two driving the beautiful Winelands, just a short drive out of the city.
It's home to many of the country's star vintners such as
Klein Constantia (the latter famous for the Vin de Constance that caused Jane Austen to wax rhapsodic).
Or check out oenophile
John Platter's definitive guide to South African vineyards and buying tips.
Alternatively, make your way to neighboring
Stellenbosch and use the hop-on, hop-off Vinehopper Bus to tour five of the estates without worrying about getting behind the wheel.
Whatever you do, be sure to "discover" a bottle of savory Pinotage, which South Africa claims as its own. It was created here in the early 20th century by blending pinot noir with hermitage.
To sweat out all that alcohol, Cape Town has plenty for the outdoor enthusiast, too. After all, this city is surrounded by an enormous national park.
Hikes through the forests and mountain trails are easily accessible, waymarked and even offer baggage portering. An expedition up to the top of Table Mountain is a must-do. (Go early, before "the tablecloth" -- the white clouds that envelop the mesa-like top each afternoon -- obscures the view.)
On a clear day, you can see both sides of the Cape as it juts into the ocean, and the views of the 12 peaks of the 12 Apostles are inspiring -- if only they didn't block the view of Cape Point at its tip.
If that's not how you like to sweat it out, Cape Town's famed nightlife is headquartered in de Waterkant. A derelict part of town five years ago, it's now the hottest neighborhood in town with some of the best preserved colonial architecture. Try the Cafe Manhattan or the big dance floors of Opium.
The famous explorer Sir Francis Drake called Cape Town "the fairest cape in all the circumference of the earth." Almost 500 years later, you'd be hard-pressed to prove him wrong.
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Michael Nassar is an independent writer and theatrical producer based in New York. He is a frequent contributor to Spa Magazine, AsiaSpa and NY Daily News.