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Interview with Alannah Eames

November 29, 2011 1 comment

Read about my favorite city, most memorable aircraft experience, places I wouldn’t return to and travel tips  in this interview published in The Sunday Times.

Click here to read more.

Do it all in two wild weeks…

How often have you dreamt about standing right next to the thundering Victoria Falls, enjoying a sundowner on Cape Town’s stunning Table Mountain, shopping in Johannesburg, gliding in a dugout canoe through the swamps of the Okavango Delta and sleeping in a remote bush tent… but thought it not possible as your budget – and holiday leave – only stretches to two weeks.

Well, it is doable. In January my husband and I explored Southern Africa in 15 days. We spent five days in Cape Town, a weekend in Johannesburg, two days at Victoria Falls and five days in the Okavango Delta, taking in the best of South African, Zimbabwean and Botswanan sights and culture.

 

"Do it all in two wild weeks", by Alannah Eames

Click here to read the full article by Alannah Eames in the travel section of the Sunday Times, Malta, July 24, 2011.

“I’m at the bottom of the world – well almost!”

February 8, 2011 4 comments

Cape Town's famous Victoria & Alfred Waterfront with Table Mountain in background (under the clouds).

It’s five years since I’ve been in Cape Town and, although it feels like just yesterday that I strolled through the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront admiring the majestic Table Mountain and dodging the hordes of tourists, something feels different.

Table Mountain really is there, hiding under the "tablecloth".

It first hits me as we land at Cape Town airport at the end of December, the height of the South African summer season. The most southernly city in Africa can get windy (especially because the next piece of land is Antarctica) but this is really windy and despite the azure blue color of the sky, there is a huge cloud permanently plastered to the top of the Table Mountain for the next three days (“the tablecloth” as it’s called), while another top attraction – the rotating cable car is not running due to the winds. “The weather’s been strange the past few weeks,” our hotel receptionist tells us. “It was nice last week but it’s going to be very windy the next few days.”

The second thing that strikes me as different is the airport. Like Jo’burg (Johannesburg) Cape Town also attracts international long-haul flights but it’s always been ten times smaller than OR Tambo in Johannesburg. Now, it’s more sparkly, modern, bigger and different with a bit more of an international feel to it. Apparently, since hosting the World Cup in 2010, South Africa pumped money into developing the infrastructure, airports included. The vast Cape Flat slum areas still lie sprawled along the highway from the airport to the city, a stark reminder that in 2010 the UN said South African cities were among the most unequal in the world. The millionaire enclaves on the other side of Cape Town and expensive cars parked along Camps Bay, further evidence that in this part of the world the rich are filthy rich and the poor extremely poor.

Mention “South Africa” to most people and Cape Town will be the first thing that springs to their mind. The city – often listed as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and one of the most common places on people’s “bucket list” – conjures up images of endless coastline, majestic mountain tops, fantastic wine, great food, great white sharks and pretty colonial towns. Even though it has a population of around 3.5 million, it feels more like a small town as the city center itself is actually pretty small. But actually most of these things are not in Cape Town itself but within a one-hour drive of the city. I blew up my expectations of Cape Town grossly five years ago and got disappointed when I first saw the desolate slum areas, the somewhat scruffy city center and the uber-touristic Victoria & Alfred (V&A) waterfront which turns a part of colonial history into a commercial enterprise … yes, it is pretty, yes it’s very European but for us Europeans, we don’t want pretty or European – we want Africa, well I do anyway!

Cape Town attracts just about everybody – from surfers, outdoors lovers, gays, old, young, models, jetsetters and now “Black Diamonds” (the emerging South African black middle class). It should feel cosmopolitan but I just feel cut off from the rest of the world by this massive chunk of a mountain.

So first impressions aside, after the usual haggle at the airport to get a car rental (despite waving my prepaid voucher, they have no car, and worse still, no booking for us and make a new one) … this, at least, was the same experience as five years’ ago. At peak times, there are simply not enough cars to go around in Cape Town and the only way to see the Cape area and to get out and about is by renting a car. Almost an hour later, we leave the car rental office with a car, luckily, even if it is a smaller one than what we had booked and paid for. Renting a car in Cape Town is a “must” as it gives you freedom, flexibility and it’s much safer and cheaper than using local taxis.

Like five years ago, I’m not overly impressed by the city itself so we soon head out to enjoy the magnificent scenery as we drive down past Camps Bay, the winding rocky coastal road along Chapman’s Peak, stopping off to view the cute, and protected, African penguins at Boulders Bay and for some delicious fresh shrimps and mussels at Simon’s Town, the base of the South African navy. From there it’s on to the Cape Point National Park – there’s a traffic jam getting into the park – and to the Cape of Good Hope. The rugged coastline, short heather bushes and windswept barren landscape remind me of the west coast of Ireland today as the temperatures have dropped to 16 degrees Celsius. But once we spot the famous Cape baboons – which are unique as they fish for shellfish – I remember I’m actually at the bottom of Africa. Many tourists mistakenly believe that Cape Point is the most southernly point in Africa but if you read more carefully, you will see that it is actually the “most south-westernly point in Africa”. It’s the Cape of Good Hope that attracts me most. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by this rocky outcrop which has conjures up images of shipwrecks and sailors battling its fierce currents and rocky promontories.

African penguins at Boulders Bay.

There’s plenty of accommodation choices in Cape Town – from backpacker hostels and self-catering apartments to luxury hotels like The One & Only which will set you back at least EUR 600 per night. We choose a reasonably-priced chic, city boutique hotel appropriately called Urban Chic Hotel on Cape Town’s vibrant Long Street. This is one of the best streets to stay on – lots of quirky cafes, unassuming restaurants and lively bars within walking distance – and in a country renowned for its crime, this is a safe street to walk on. The rooms are modern and airy with earthy neutral colors and some have side views over Table Mountain. The reception staff are friendly…the only thing I can complain about is the breakfast which is not the best in the world.

A "quiet" Long Street which turns into the heart and soul of the city at night.

Thanks to the reception staff, we find a great restaurant just a block away called Five Flies. South African food is rarely, if ever, bad and you are spoiled for choice with restaurants in the Cape area but this one has become one of my favorites. It is housed in a historic Cape Dutch building with a maze of interconnecting rooms, wooden beams, a small yard area, a bar upstairs and super-friendly service. The chargrilled steaks are delicious as are the local wines to wash them down. We like it so much, we go back on the second night and I try the beetroot and roasted butternut with goat’s cheese, pumpkin seeds and pink grapefruit dressing which is delicious.  We round off our evening in Cape Town with a few drinks in the lively Irish Bar on Long Street where a super-energetic DJ is the life and soul of the party.

The next day I notice another difference in Cape Town from five years’ ago – the shopping mall at the V&A Waterfront has quadrupled in size. Five years ago, people used to tell me that Cape Town was great for shopping and when I asked them “where” they used to tell me to go to the V&A Waterfront and the Clock Tower mall. But compared to shopping in Jo’burg’s fantastic Sandton Center, these two Capetonian retail outlets with their weird selection of stores and tacky souvenir shops didn’t exactly scream “shopping paradise” Now, however, the shopping mall has dramatically improved and, if like us, you’re off on safari, head straight to the Cape Union Mart which has great safari clothes at a good price. You also get your 14% tax back. This is also different than five years’ ago as now it’s quite a cumbersome process to reclaim the VAT at the airport – you no longer get cash back on departure but after queuing for half an hour you are handed a visa card to which your cash rebate will be credited six weeks after you leave the country. Not the smartest or most shopping-friendly solution as instead of spending the money again before leaving the country, it means I will spend it in six weeks’ time (if the system really works) in Europe. Another con now of shopping in South Africa is that the Rand (ZAR) is much stronger now against the Euro, meaning you pay more. South Africa is still reasonably good value and money still goes far, but definitely not as far as it stretched in the past.

My top 10 recommendations for the Cape area:

  1. Watch the African penguins at Boulders Bay
  2. Enjoy a sundowner at Camps Bay
  3. Indulge in a steak and bottle of local wine at Five Flies
  4. Take a day-trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years
  5. Take a spin in the rotating cable car up Table Mountain for spectacular views
  6. Don’t miss a photo opportunity at the Cape of Good Hope
  7. Drive around the bends of Chapman’s Drive in a convertible
  8. Spend an evening bar-hopping in lively Long Street
  9. Bend your credit card in the malls at V&A Waterfront
  10. And … drive … do the  “Whale Coast” route from Cape Town to George and visit the stunning Cape Winelands around Stellenbosch and Paarl
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