CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — I thought I was journeying into Africa last month, but now I'm not sure where I was.
For a first-time visitor like me, South Africa is a kaleidoscope of shifting scenes and world cultures.
Braking for baboons in the road was unmistakably African. Yet a few miles away, penguins strolled the shore. Antarctica?
The rolling Winelands region of the Western Cape was a dead ringer for California's Napa Valley. Or was it the Netherlands, dotted with gabled, thatched-roof houses?
Shantytowns, where much of the black African majority dwells, could have doubled for any in the developing world.
And slicing into steak at Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant in Cape Town? I could have been at the haute chef's outposts in New York or London or West Hollywood.
South Africa itself is a rich stew, or bredie, as they call it in Afrikaans, the local Dutch polyglot. Especially if you have only a week to sample it, as my partner, Wesla, and I did on a tour package that took us to Cape Town and a game park near Johannesburg.
Our schedule was so packed with sightseeing and the pace so breathless that we jokingly called our trip "a good overview of places you might want to visit in South Africa."
Just to get there and back from Los Angeles required 2 1/2 days in planes and airports.
"This is the price you pay to come to see Africa," said Patrick, the representative of Thompsons Africa, our trip's local operator, who met us at the Johannesburg airport on the way to Cape Town.
It was worth it, especially with the U.S. dollar buying about nine South African rand in April, up from as little as seven last year. Our travel package cost less than $2,500 per person, including airfare, hotels, game drives and tours. Take-out sandwiches cost less than $2; a cross-town cab ride was $6.
In our brief stay, we logged priceless moments in this dynamic nation of nearly 50 million. Already sporting the most advanced economy in sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is feverishly sprucing up its airports, stadiums and tourist facilities to host the nearly half-million visitors it expects for the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in summer 2010.
Our four nights in Cape Town, the country's legislative capital, confirmed its reputation as one of the world's most eye-popping cities. It blends the azure-bay setting of San Francisco with the laid-back ambience and casual chic of Los Angeles.
"Is this your first time in Cape Town?" asked Nazeem, the driver who shuttled us from the airport to the Commodore Hotel at the city's touristy Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.
When we replied yes, he said, "You'll be back, I promise you."
Like many South Africans we met, Nazeem was candid, friendly and fiercely proud of his country, whose diversity stems from its complex history.
A short review:
South Africa's original residents included San hunter-gatherers, or Bushmen, and Khoikhoi farmers, followed by Bantu-speaking peoples from central Africa.
In the 17th century, the Dutch (later known as Boers or Afrikaners) arrived in what is now Cape Town, where the Dutch East India Co. set up a supply station for trade ships. They later imported slaves from around the world.
The British, after landing in 1795, battled the Boers for control of the region. In 1910, the country came together as the Union of South Africa.
In modern times, South Africa was infamous for apartheid, a brutal system of white-minority rule and racial separation that began crumbling in 1990 after decades of struggle.
Four years later, Nelson Mandela, who spent nearly 30 years in jail for his anti-apartheid activities, was elected the country's first black president. His party, the African National Congress, still leads the country, which wrestles with apartheid's legacy of racial animosity, poverty and crime.
In Cape Town, a city of more than 3 million, we encountered living history in Noor Ebrahim, 65, an education officer at the fascinating District Six Museum, which commemorates a multiracial neighborhood that was bulldozed in the 1960s and '70s to make way for white residents.
"I was kicked out in 1975," said Ebrahim, whose Indian-born grandfather owned a ginger-beer business in District Six. "I cried, I was so angry."
Like many South Africans, he told us he had forgiven the former regime.
"We are God's creations," he said. "We are only one race. I am South African."
The museum was the highlight of a three-hour walking tour ($13) that we booked with Cape Town Tourism. Also worthwhile if touristy: a dinner and cultural show at the Gold of Africa Museum, included with our package.
Cape Town's notorious winds thwarted a cable-car trip up the iconic, 3,563-foot-high Table Mountain, which overlooks the city. No matter. Our guide drove us to nearby Signal Hill, for another sweeping vista.