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Established in 1652 as a base for the migratory ships of the Dutch East India Company, Cape Town is the oldest city in South Africa. It’s also one of the country’s most scenic destinations, framed by white-sand beaches and the Twelve Apostles Mountain Range.
Table Mountain, declared one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature in 2011, is a major tourist attraction, and the Cape Town winelands continue to attract foodies and oenophiles alike. But what captivated me about Cape Town was its people, those who persevered during difficult times, fought for freedom and struggled to maintain their native culture.
The most rewarding aspect of my recent visit was a tour of Robben Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former high- security prison for political prisoners (including Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela) during Apartheid. Tours are typically conducted by ex-prisoners who have engaging personal stories to share. My guide and former political prisoner, Yasien Mohamed, even gave a tour to Mandela himself, who visited the island 14 times after his incarceration, once to light the Olympic torch.
Initially, my group toured the island by bus, seeing points of interest along the way including the prison house where Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan African Congress, was held in isolation; World War II fortifications; and the limestone quarry where Mandela worked for 13 years of his 18-year imprisonment on the island.
From his sparse 9-by-9-foot cell, Mandela penned his autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom.” He had to keep his writing a secret and, according to my guide, Mandela wrote on toilet paper and hid his manuscript in a nearby garden. Tourists can purchase a copy of the book along with souvenirs bearing Mandela’s prison number, 466/64, before they board the ferry back to Cape Town. Ferries to Robben Island depart four times daily from the V&A Waterfront. Tickets cost about $26 for adults and $13 for children.
Bo-Kaap, also known as the Cape Malay Quarter, isn’t on the radar of most tourists, but it should be. This hillside Muslim neighborhood was established centuries ago by freed slaves, many of whom were from Southeast Asia. Bo-Kaap is also the final resting place of Tuan Guru, who brought Islam to the Cape in the late 18th century. Here, modest homes line the streets like Easter eggs, conspicuously painted in teal, marigold, lime green and lavender. Cobblestone streets add charm and recall an era when horses were the primary mode of transportation (uneven cobblestones helped horses navigate the neighborhood’s steep streets). Residents, many hailing from Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of Africa, have little choice but to be early risers as Bo-Kaap’s 11 mosques call them to prayer five times a day, starting as early as 4 a.m. in the summer months.
Those who want to gain more insight into the community should head to the Bo-Kaap Museum on Wale Street to learn about local customs and beliefs as well as the ways in which the Bo-Kaap people were affected by Apartheid.
No visit to Bo-Kaap would be complete without sampling the local fare such as spicy Cape Malay lamb curry, crispy samosas or bredie (a slow-cooked tomato and lamb stew). For lunch, head to the Bo-Kaap Kambuis. Perched on top of Signal Hill, the eatery features traditional food and fantastic views of Table Mountain. Don’t be alarmed if you hear gunfire, however — the Noon Gun, a historic cannon fired Mondays through Saturdays at precisely 12 p.m., is a Cape Town tradition.
Getting There:While there are no direct flights to Cape Town from the U.S., clients can fly nonstop to Johannesburg and connect via a two-hour flight. South African Airways offers nonstop flights to Johannesburg from New York and Washington, D.C., and Delta Air Lines offers the same service from Atlanta. www.flysaa.com
Where to Stay:Located on the V&A Waterfront, Table Bay Hotel features 329 luxurious guestrooms and 24 suites. The iconic hotel has served as a respite for many dignitaries and celebrities, including President Barack Obama, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson. www.suninternational.com
Where to Eat:The Grand Cafe and Beach at Granger Bay is a trendy bistro on a private beach with a relaxed atmosphere, handcrafted cocktails and delicious, thin-crust pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven. www.grandafrica.com