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Special Travel Issue

Cape Town's Double Delights

On One Side Of Landmark Table Mountain Lies A Sophisticated City With New Cosmopolitan Sizzle. On The Other, Eccentric Old-world Villages Dot A Wind-swept Coastline.

October 13, 2002|TED BOTHA | Ted Botha last wrote for the magazine about the Dominican Republic.

One morning in January, the height of summer in South Africa, I took a walk on Table Mountain. The group I was with included a bearded historian from the University of Cape Town, a businessman and his wife, a lawyer, and an attractive female architect who also edits an Interview-like magazine called ADA. They all make a habit of getting up early every Sunday and hiking one of the innumerable slopes above their city.

Because Cape Town is spread across a 30-mile-long peninsula, where a mountainous ridge runs down its middle like a curvaceous geological vertebrae, the choice of climbs (as well as the views you get from them) is virtually endless. Starting at the Sphinx-like Signal Hill and Lion's Head that overlook the city center, the vertebrae spread out to Table Mountain and Devil's Peak, carry on down the vast Twelve Apostles and the precipitous Chapman's Peak, curve into the recesses of Silvermine and Red Hill, and end at Cape Point, where the land falls away into the tempestuous sea at the southern tip of Africa.

I don't hike much in the U.S., but in Cape Town you can hardly avoid it--nor do you want to. Like Los Angeles, the city literally smacks of good health and exercise. Paragliders leap off Lion's Head to land between the bathers on the beach at Camps Bay, cyclists whiz along the road that's etched into the hillside above the Atlantic seaboard, every car seems to have a surfboard attached to it, and people glow with sunny health. Even the restaurant menus have a proclivity toward fresh fish and hearty salads. In no city I've ever visited, not even L.A., is the air of well-being and relaxation so pervasive.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 158 words Type of Material: Correction
Cape Town synagogue -- In "Cape Town's Double Delights" (Special Travel issue, Oct. 13), it was incorrectly stated that a synagogue in the Cape Town suburb of Muizenberg no longer has a congregation. The synagogue currently has a congregation numbering about 50.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 03, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
In "Cape Town's Double Delights" (Special Travel Issue, Oct. 13), the photographs of the cable car to Table Mountain on Page 28 and the changing rooms at St. James Beach and flower market on Adderley Street on Page 29 should have been credited to Jason Laure.

And what better place to share in this spirit than on Table Mountain, which is in the midst of everything. One of the most unmistakable mounds of earth on Earth, the 3,000-foot-high mesa-like landmark guards Cape Town as much as it divides it, keeping fog to one side when there's sun on the other, holding wind from rain, and separating two worlds: Table Bay and False Bay. So geologically fractious is it that Capetonians give directions accordingly: A place is either in front of the mountain or behind it.

On this particular Sunday morning, though, i was going onto the mountain itself, and by the looks of it so were plenty of other people. By the time I reached the narrow road that bisects the flattop like a thin layer of icing in a cake, there were long lines for the cable car, the easier way up, while small groups of hikers were limbering up for the ascent by foot. One of those groups was mine.

The magazine editor, Jenny Sorrell, was our leader, and she set an easy pace up the steep climb. We stopped frequently to catch our breath, only to lose it all over again while sighing at the views below us.

The coastline of Table Bay stretches in a long crescent, beginning at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and the main harbor and then going around to the surfer and windsurfer beach of choice, Bloubergstrand, otherwise known as Big Bay. On the other side of Lion's Head and Signal Hill, which make up the rest of the mountainous amphitheater overlooking the city, lies the Atlantic seaboard. From where we stood, we couldn't see the so-called Riviera of Cape Town--Clifton, Camps Bay and Bantry Bay--but it is close enough for locals to designate it, too, as "the front of the mountain."

In the middle of the bay is Robben Island, all green and flat on the sparkling sea. Looking at it then, from on high, it was hard to imagine that for nearly four centuries it had been used for exile. The most recent (and very last) of the people jailed there were political prisoners, punished for fighting apartheid. The most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was freed in 1990. Four years later he became South Africa's first democratically elected president.

On a previous visit to the country, several years after Mandela had ushered in a constitution said to be the most liberal in the world, two things struck me: the huge number of changes that democracy had wrought and the small number of tourists who were coming to see them.

The popular belief back then was that foreigners were waiting for a sign that the country was "safe." Or would it become another African statistic? In the meantime, a land tailor-made for tourism--from the animal-rich game parks like Kruger, to the subtropical seaside city of Durban, to the snowy peaks of the Drakensberg--sat waiting. As for the gem in the crown, Cape Town, it seemed to be drawing more breathless comparisons than visitors: It Was San Diego With Mountains, Vancouver But Warm, The Next Sydney, San Francisco Without Bad Weather. For me it remained, quite simply, One of the World's Best-Kept Secrets.

Until now.

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