Going native in Cape TownComment on this story
Cape Town - If there ever was a road to nowhere this is it. The infamous unfinished Eastern Boulevard freeway ends abruptly, challenging, mocking the function of the highway. It is not quite the idyllic Cape Town vista I hankered to see, though it is an unofficial landmark.
It is thought to embody the lackadaisical Capetonian mindset – riding waves rather than finishing projects. It’s not very photogenic. Nevertheless I take a succession of snapshots from the window of my room on the 19th Floor of the Southern Sun Waterfront. The name of the hotel is slightly misleading; it’s near but not at the Waterfront, which is a huge relief. I don’t want to be rooted in tourist central, though after a week or so in this city I realise you are always sharing pavement space with tourists. It is also hard to steer clear of them in a hotel in this central location.
I like to distinguish myself from them but I’m no different; I too am yearning for that blissful mountain-sea Cape Town experience. My vision is driven by a spectacular Cape Town vista wallpapered on one of the interior walls of my gym in Joburg. I’ve been staring at it for over a year. Its supposed to help us pretend that while we are strapped to an immovable bike in the basement of a building, we are actually careening along a path at the top of a mountain overlooking the sea. It’s a nice fantasy.
Cape Town is the ultimate escape for Joburgers, though we rarely admit this in the company of Capetonians. The rivalry between these two major South African cities is bitter. Joburgers are thought to be crass, hungry materialists concerned with image and Capetonians are supposedly navel-gazing hippies holding on to the last vestiges of the last colonial outpost. These stereotypical notions might be overstated generalisations but in reality, different mindsets prevail in these cities. It may have something to do with their differing topologies and the kind of lifestyles they engender. Sea air does something to the mind and spirit as does the sight of the Ponte Tower. I temporarily want to shrug Joburg off me. It has to be done from time to time.
It’s easy getting into the Cape Town vibe. After a quick shop along the bottom end of Kloof Street, I emerge with my Cape Town look; a mismatched outfit, vintage sunglasses and an overpriced statement necklace by Katherine-Mary Pichulik. There are a number of quintessential Cape Town looks but I’ve chosen to embrace the fashionable unputtogether look that says, “I know what is in fashion but don’t want to play by the rules.” It’s all about contradiction; a chiffon skirt with a T-shirt. There are lots of cute boutiques in this city; shopping is an overlooked pastime here.
I never leave without a look in at Purr and Take Care on Kloof Street and Afraid of Mice, Me Me Me and Mungo and Jemima on Long Street. Such an activity is usually followed by a coffee and slice of cake at a quirky café, which are in abundance. I grab a cuppa at YoursTruly on Long Street. It is a sliver of café with a small garden flowing from an array of pots on the pavement.
The Southern Sun Waterfront is well located on the edge of town, which means I can walk into the city. This way I don’t have to hassle with parking. Finding it in this town is a bitch; it’s expensive too.
Capetonians have a completely different relationship to their inner city than Joburgers. There was no mass exodus in the late 1980s, businesses stayed put, as did hotels. So it’s never been disowned by the white middle-classes. It was never caught in a serious state of degradation and entropy. This means that a drive to reclaim it and celebrate it has been obviated, though it doesn’t feel like all Capetonians inhabit it; it feels cut-off in some ways from life that maybe exists elsewhere.
My city hotel-hopping escapade includes a stay at the Southern Sun Cape, which by the looks of its dramatic eighties lobby with its grand piano, vaulted glass interior and long-dangling light fixtures, has enjoyed a long-life in the centre. It’s slap-bang on St George’s Mall, which means you are right in the thick of the city. Not that it is “thick” in the Joburg way. The streets are clean, pavements are even. There is no chaos, no lines of hooting taxis and crowds of jaywalkers. This is what makes it easy to be here, though you keep wondering whether it is an African city at all. Where is the informal industry, the loud music blaring from damaged speakers and the cheap Chinese knockoffs being flogged on the pavements? Some people like Cape Town because these elements are absent. “The city is so much nicer than Joburg’s” observes a man as we descend in a glass lift along the exterior of Southern Sun Cape, offering spectacular views of St George’s Mall.
There is some informal trade on St George’s Mall. A trendy food market takes place once a week. Small makeshift stalls colonise this paved corridor, selling everything from over-decorated cupcakes to freshly made dim-sum. I buy a bag of biltong that turns out to be the best I’ve ever eaten and a toasted ciabatta with proscuitto, which gets blown to the ground after two bites. There is a galeforce wind, which burrows through the city at inopportune moments. Earlier that day a radio announcement warned people with small pets not to take them outside; they might be blown away. I keep looking out for flying poodles.
The food market is so-Cape Town; fashionable, good food can just about be snapped up anywhere. Some stallholders here also trade at the Biscuit Mill in Woodstock – an industrial area that has been caught up in a cycle of gentrification.
I find myself making frequent visits to Woodstock. I’m here for the inaugural Art Week Cape Town, which runs in November, and many of the participating commercial galleries are in this unprepossessing neighbourhood. Many artists have studios here too. If you miss the traffic, the suburb is only a 10-minute drive from the centre. I like this about Cape Town; everything is really close by.
The gentrification that has been slowly taking hold of Woodstock is quite unlike what has occurred in the east-side of Joburg’s inner city. The regeneration cycle has evolved along more conventional lines, with artists first taking studios in the suburb, before gallerists and other lifestyle-oriented businesses piled in and secured its trendy cachet. As far as I am aware, there isn’t a single property developer driving it; so it’s rise is gradual and more fragmented.
The Biscuit Mill, a complex with décor stores, restaurants such as Luke Dale Robert’s Test Kitchen, is quite a number of blocks away from where a cluster of galleries – The Goodman, The Stevenson, Blank Projects – are located. Whatiftheworld gallery have also moved into the environs, so Woodstock makes the perfect destination for a day of gazing at art and grazing on good food.
The Kitchen, run by Karen Dudley, is a popular lunch spot, but the establishment is so tiny that when I meet a friend here for a meal we can’t find anywhere to sit – sitting outside isn’t an option with gale-force winds blowing. We settle on a similar-kind of eatery across the street called The Deli. Like The Kitchen they also serve a buffet with a selection of salads with a choice of a protein. It’s not as quirky inside; there are no second-hand knickknacks creating an ambience but the food is reasonable and healthy.
Hopping from hotel to hotel in the city centre, means I get to see Cape Town’s city from a variety of different angles. It’s like I am circling the city. While at the Southern Sun Waterfront, I meditate on the infamous unfinished Eastern Boulevard freeway, at The Southern Sun Cape I can lie in bed and gaze at Table Mountain that sits above the city’s skyline. The scene that greets me each morning isn’t predictable; the weather keeps shifting the mood. Some days the mountain is crisp and rugged up against a blue, blue sky. On other days it’s covered in mist and clouds, as if it’s hibernating.
It brings to mind Ian Grose’s multiple renderings of Lion’s Head, which were on show at the Absa
gallery in Johannesburg recently. This young local painter was forced into presenting multiple renditions of this fixed natural landmark for the simple fact that it continued to change. Perhaps this is how they hold sway over the population.
Joburgers always tease Capetonians about their unswerving reverence for Table Mountain, but when you are staying here it’s hard not to become one of its disciples for the simple fact that it constantly intrudes on your vision, your life. You can feel its presence even when you are not looking at it. For this reason everything is oriented around it. During a yoga class the teacher asks us to bend in the direction of the mountain, though it is out of sight. Everyone in the class, including myself, knows exactly where it is, as if it has some invisible gravitational pull.
The Cullinan is almost adjacent to the Southern Sun Waterfront, but from my hotel window I am greeted with a view of the docks. The Cullinan is an imposing building, its neoclassical façade makes it appear like a town hall, bank or government building, so it fits in with the architectural character in the city centre. An architect friend of mine would probably call the architecture here “rational”: it’s all symmetrical, organised. This is in contrast to the small, narrow, higgledy-piggeldy homes everyone lives in.
The Sea Point Promenade beckons in the early evening; it doesn’t take me long to get into the routine of running along this paved corridor adjacent to the sea. In the hotel gym I discover that Cape Town is jogger’s paradise. They have a map showing all the jogging routes around the city. The Sea Point, Mouille Point run is the easiest; there aren’t any hills. The route up to Lion’s Head is for braver folk.
The Sea Point Promenade is close to the hotel, and a cool breeze comes off the ocean while you watch the sea crashing and thrashing about, threatening to intrude on the land. Young mothers with prams, ageing gay men in tight vests, Japanese tourists in suits, inebriated young men from the township all plod along this path daily, giving you a sense of Cape Town’s diverse population.
Given my fixation with this seafront strip I’m delighted to discover that La Splendida is situated along it, though in Mouille Point. It’s quieter at this end of the promenade and though a main road separates this hotel from the seafront, it doesn’t interfere with the view or my experience of it from a sea-facing suite on the second floor. An all-white room with wooden floor boards, it feels like a beach establishment, rather than a city one, though I’m less than five minutes away from the city centre. La Splendida has an unassuming façade. It’s a good find; it may only be a three- star establishment, but its location is ideal and my room is stylish and chic. The V&A Waterfront is within walking distance and on my first night I sup on fresh crayfish at OYO restaurant and cocktail bar, which is right on the jetty.
My daily run along the Sea Point Promenade provokes smirks from my Cape Town-based friends – “it’s so Cape Town”, they say with a glimmer of recognition, believing I have become acclimatised to the way of life here. It’s clearly a gradual slide; I have yet to attend a gong-meditation session, which seems to be all the rage. It only takes place when there is a full moon and it entails the participants lying on their backs while someone bangs on a gong.
The most perplexing habit that seems to unite Capetonians is their constant desire to get out of Cape Town and “into nature”. From a Joburger’s point of view, the city of Cape Town is firmly rooted in nature, is inescapable from it. We consider a Cape Town jaunt as immersing ourselves in the natural world, or as close to it as we are willing to do, so it is most disconcerting to hear Capetonians discuss getting out of Cape Town.
The closest I come to getting out of Cape Town, is a windy day at Noordhoek beach after a spectacular drive along Chapman’s Peak. Noordhoek seems to be permanently windswept. This could be the reason why this beach is always empty. Most people take refuge inside The Foodbarn at the Noordhoek Farm Village, a small complex of shops and restaurants.
A bona fide two-day sojourn away from Cape Town comes in the form of a stay in Constantia at one of The Last Word’s establishments in this area.
Admittedly, it’s only a half hour from the city centre, if not less, but it must count as an out-of-town destination. For starters you’re in a designated wine-growing area. It boasts its own mountain range, the Constantiaberg, and there are forested areas too.
As is the case with all other Last Word destinations, this Constantia establishment is located inside a renovated residential property, so it’s not a conventional hotel or B&B.
Our suite is massive with a giant TV set at one end and a modern Victorian bath at the other. This kind of luxury getaway probably isn’t what Capetonians have in mind when they go to be “in nature” – I imagine they prefer to feel the ground beneath their bodies at night as they lay their heads down on a wooden log pillow, the grass tickling their toes.
Kalk Bay is a stone’s throw from Last Word Constantia, so on our first night we head to this quaint neighbourhood for a slapup dinner at Harbour House, where I sink my teeth into a seared tuna steak. Clearly, I’m not roughing it in nature, but the restaurant is almost precariously embedded on the rock at the edge of the ocean. Waves beat against the glass windows. You aren’t dining by the sea here, but in it and feel as if at any moment you could be swept away into its dark blue depths.
You don’t need a map to locate the wine farms in Constantia; most of the ones we want to visit are dotted along the same road as The Last Word Constantia. The Steenberg wine farm boasts a very smart restaurant and wine tasting centre, which is nestled in a lush green manicured lawn beside rows of vines. A large abstract grape sculpture dangles over a bar where you taste the wines.
The restaurant comes highly recommended, but the wines don’t impress, so we drive on to Constantia Uitsig, where we end up buying a case of wine before settling in for an informal lunch on a patio outside River Café.
If we had planned in advance and were in the mood for haute cuisine we should have booked at table at La Columbe, a top-notch restaurant that is also situated on the farm. It’s all about food in this part of the world.
By the time I head back into Cape Town wine bottles are clinking in the boot and I feel well rested, though after two weeks in this city, I’m itching to get back to Joburg. No doubt after a few weeks back staring at Cape Town’s vistas plastered on the wall of the gym I’ll be dreaming of returning.
In the city:
Southern Sun Waterfront: This establishment is ideally positioned; you can access the city by foot or the V & A. It’s not exactly a budget hotel but its affordable and tasteful.
The Cullinan: has recently been treated to a R40 million upgrade, so it’s never looked better. This is a grand hotel with a stunning poolside area for sundowners or tea. The suites are plush with two bathrooms; one for you and one for visitors to your mini-lounge.
It is the ideal suite for entertaining; it boasts its own espresso maker, a fully stocked bar and a mini-bar catering for foodies – this is Cape Town – with everything from home-made toffees to designer crisps.
There is a gym on the ground floor and the valet parking service means you don’t have to waste anytime in some dank parking lot trying to remember what your hired car looked like.
Southern Sun Cape: This is another grand Tsogo Sun establishment that has maintained its foothold in the city. You are in the centre of everything here. Its décor has a distinctly Eighties feel, it’s very flashy, though tasteful and classic. The rooms are large and suites come with two bathrooms. With an espresso maker at your disposal, getting up for a buffet breakfast shouldn’t be a problem.
If you bag a suite in the upper reaches of this large hotel, you will be greeted by a fantastic view of Table Mountain. The service here is outstanding; the staff seem to predict what you will want before you even know what you might need.
For information on Tsogo Sun hotels visit: www.tsogosun.com
By the Sea:
La Splendida is a great find. It isn’t easy locating an affordable hotel on the beachfront in this city. Mouille Point is a fantastic location for two reasons; you’re by the sea and the city. This may be a three-star hotel but the décor with its beachhouse all white vibe is spot on given its proximity to the sea.
This hotel underwent a refurbishment before the World Cup, so the bathrooms and rooms are right-up-to-date. On the ground floor is Sotano, a vibey café, where you can eat all your meals, though you are in walking distance from some good restaurants. They offer live music on a Sunday afternoon, so don’t plan on a Sunday afternoon nap.
For information on Splendida visit: www.newmarkhotels.com
Last Word Constantia: This is small establishment so expect personalised service.
Shortly after checking in I received a call to find out whether I would be interested in a slice of cake. This hotel is well-known for it’s afternoon teas; people travel from near and far for a high tea in the garden-facing conservatory.
The suites here are capacious; you will feel as if you have a small retreat all to yourself. It also helps that you have your own private patio that leads into a large manicured garden.
The reception staff are incredibly helpful, and will recommend where to eat and travel and will even make the arrangements.
The hotel is a stone’s throw from all the main wine farms in the area, and is close to all the Muizenberg suburbs if you fancy spending time by the sea.
To make a booking visit: www.thelastword.co.za
l Mary Corrigall was a guest of all these establishments during her stay in Cape Town. - Sunday Independent