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DESTINATION: SOUTH AFRICA

Cape Town's New Vibrance

Increased tourism and a bustling waterfront with bargains galore reflect a city energized by freedom

May 16, 1999|BARRY ZWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Barry Zwick is a Times assistant news editor

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — A plump fur seal pup sat on the pier near the water taxi stop. Walking by in a flowery African head scarf, a woman ate kabobs skewered on a broken coat hanger. At an outdoor bar, a blond woman in an orchid prom dress poured sparkling wine into tulip-shaped glasses. Two policemen trotted by on beautifully groomed horses. Five blue-black men so tall and lean they appeared to be on stilts hovered over a dreadlocked busker playing a didgeridoo.

It was getting dark in Cape Town, and I was at the teeming and vibrant Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, along with thousands of others who were celebrating life, prosperity and their fifth year of freedom. These are South Africa's own days of Washington and Jefferson, days when the Founding Fathers appear live on television. Both President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu live here in Cape Town, where it is the best of times for tourism. In the last two years, foreign arrivals have shot up 24%. A March 1999 Travel and Leisure poll rated Cape Town as one of the five top travel value destinations in the world.

And I can't disagree. In March I went to Cape Town, a southwestern seacoast city of about 800,000. It was a joy to visit, in no small part because it was such a bargain since the South African rand has lost about 20% of its value against the dollar in the past year. Cape Town has it all: mountains, beaches, clean air, great shopping, wonderful food and drink and friendly locals who are thrilled to have visitors after nearly 50 years as residents of a pariah nation.

South Africa's No. 1 tourist destination is the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, dedicated by Britain's Prince Alfred in honor of his mother, Queen Victoria, in 1860 and now the world's largest harbor-place project. Cape Town planners decided in 1988 to convert their dreary docks into a refuge for locals and a magnet for visitors. They built seven hotels, 40 restaurants, 300 shops, an aquarium, an IMAX theater and three museums.

On my first night in Cape Town I was at the waterfront at dinner time. Should I eat Chinese, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, Mexican, Californian or seafood? Do I drink the $8-a-bottle sauvignon blanc or the $10-a-bottle cabernet? I stopped at Aldo's, a sidewalk cafe on the bustling Victoria Wharf. "You'll like our wine list, sir," the maitre d' told me, and he escorted me to a prime table out in front under a red-and-white umbrella, overlooking the passing parade and the yachts in the harbor. A sommelier dropped by and said, "Nice view, pretty women, very cool."

I ordered a Dewetshof Chardonnay d'Honneur, the most expensive South African white wine on the list, for $10.25 a bottle. It tasted of fruit and vanilla, as the long wine list promised, and a bit of almonds too. Two waiters treated me like a high roller, asking if I was happy with my wine. It was a Tuesday night, and every table was taken. My waiter recommended the kingklip, a flaky local fish, at $7 for a complete dinner. "It's enough for two," he said, and sure enough, I spotted a young couple speaking Afrikaans splitting a fish dinner. My kingklip was superb; it looks like halibut, tastes like salmon and was served with a lemon remoulade.

When I finished eating it was 9:30 p.m., and the free concert in the nearby plaza was going strong. A seven-man band of Cape coloreds, the local term for people of mixed race, was playing, and the crowd was clapping and dancing. Band members played saxophone, accordion, trumpet, drums and what looked like a variety of gourd. Much later I followed them to their beat-up white camper van, but first I was stopped by security.

Oh yes, security. The security at the waterfront defied belief. I was stopped three times during my five-day stay. First, a guard near the Quay Four Tavern asked me, "Sir, are you aware of our no-firearms policy?" The second time, a policewoman in the same spot asked, "Sir, is that a gun in your pocket?" (No, it was my micro-cassette recorder.) On the third occasion, after I passed through the metal detector at Planet Hollywood, a young woman ran a wand over me and then patted me down with vigor.

Part of the heavy security is due to recent terrorist incidents. A bomb that went off on New Year's Day 1999, in the parking lot behind the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre on the waterfront, injured two people. And last August a bombing at Planet Hollywood killed a South African man. A local Muslim extremist group is suspected in both bombings. No charges have been filed, but security, already prodigious, has been beefed up.

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