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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

The U.S. State Department recommends "extreme caution" when visiting the "townships near Cape Town," but not Cape Town itself. Lonely Planet's "Cape Town" guidebook says these townships, ugly inland slums with no tourist attractions, "have an appalling crime rate," but "the rest of Cape Town is reasonably safe." And Weissman Travel Reports, a travel agents' tip sheet, says, "The Waterfront is both pleasant and safe, day or night." And that's how I found it too.

I ended my evening at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel, a warm, clubby 68-room inn where my huge, luxurious room cost $127 a day with breakfast. And quite a stunning breakfast at that, with sparkling wine, smoked salmon, an omelet bar and table after table of fruits, meats, fish, cheeses and pastries. The hotel, a coal warehouse that was refurbished as a hotel in 1990, was the first one built at the waterfront. From my bedroom, I had a view of the harbor and the two mountains that dominate the Cape Town skyline, Devil's Peak and Table Mountain.

The hotel prides itself on repeat business. Shortly after I arrived, the manager sent me a bottle of sparkling wine. And every day another gift arrived (the staff didn't know I was a journalist): biscuits and cheeses, a bowl of fruit, a bottle of red wine, a cap with the hotel's logo, all with a handwritten note.

On my second day I walked to the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre. An indoor, air-conditioned mall, it was thriving when I stopped by. Four tour buses were unloading passengers, mostly American. Inside the mall, the 230 shops and take-out food spots were packed. I heard French, Spanish, Italian and German and at least four of South Africa's 11 official languages. An army of sweepers kept the mall squeaky clean. I found shops selling glow-worm pencils for $1.25, Zulu baskets for $8, blown-glass vases from Swaziland for $3, enormous handmade drums and spears for less than $100, grotesque wooden masks for $8, and a kite the size of a condor for $80. Tacky souvenirs were in surprisingly short supply. At dozens of stalls, elegant and tasteful sweaters, wall hangings, tablecloths and figurines were for sale at prices that just knocked me out.

Entertainment, too, was a bargain at the waterfront. At Cantina Tequila, for a $2 margarita, I got to watch a four-piece band play rock classics with a beat so infectious that no one could stand still. The dance floor was jammed. Another night, I followed the limos, the tuxes and the scent of Giorgio to the Green Dolphin, where an evening of top-notch jazz cost me $1.50, the price of a glass of wine.

From the waterfront, it was easy to see the rest of Cape Town's attractions. Starting right next door to the Victoria & Alfred Hotel, Topless Tours took me on a cheery, two-hour romp through the city's high points for $5.75. I was free to get off at any stop and re-board later during the day for no extra charge. Our guide gave us a witty, well-informed capsule history of the city. We drove along Cape Town's dazzling corniche, its long Atlantic Coast drive with beautiful beaches on one side and the Twelve Apostles mountain range on the other.

I also used the Waterfront Shuttle, a group taxi service, and with three other people I paid $1.50 for the 12-minute ride to the entrance to the Table Mountain Cableway. Once I was on top of Table Mountain, 3,566 feet above sea level, I found gardens, hiking trails and great views of the city.

One of my most memorable events was a ferry trip to Robben Island, where then-rebel leader Mandela was locked up for 18 years after his 1964 conviction for treason. (Mandela also spent time in other prisons.) The island trips cost $16 and last for 3 1/2 hours. I boarded the boat early to get an outdoor seat. The weather was glorious, the view of Table Bay and the Cape Town skyline was stunning and the bar was open, but this was a high-minded crowd, about 60 of us. Half a dozen were leafing through Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," and the Malay woman beside me said she was going to pray at the Muslim shrine on Robben Island after the formal tour was over.

After 25 minutes, we disembarked on Robben Island, a nature preserve today. Long before we got to the prison barracks, our two buses passed springboks, jackass penguins, ostriches and a red-beaked oystercatcher. A former prisoner named Eugene led us on a walk through the prison. The highlight of the tour was a visit to Cell No. 5, where Mandela spent his prison years and where he began to write his autobiography. "I could walk the length of my cell in three paces," he wrote. "When I lay down, I could find the wall with my feet, and my head grazed the concrete at the other side."

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