in the spotlight
Volume 16/Issue 21

Cape Town -- Great Views All Around
by Brian Sands

As the seasons begin to change and summer turns into fall and then winter, those who wish to stay in the summer mode should consider a trip to South Africa. As summer heats up there, a visit to Cape Town might be just the thing to cure those wintertime blues.

First colonized in the 1600s by the Dutch and later by the British, Cape Town dominated South Africa until the late 1800s when gold and diamonds were discovered further north. Since the abandonment of apartheid, Cape Town with its beautiful scenery and ethnically diverse population is rightfully claiming its place among the world's top tourist destinations. And summertime is the time when the boys come out.

The Top Sightscapetown

Arriving in Cape Town, the first thing one sees is Table Mountain which serves as the city's southern border. It's big. Really big. Rising 3,500 feet above sea level, over 1,400 species of plants can be found on its wide, flat summit. And the views! On a clear day, you truly can see forever.

The hardy among us may want to hike up to the top via the hour+ long Platteklip Gorge path. For the rest of us, plan on taking a bus or taxi to the Lower Cable Station and then the new Table Mountain Rotair, a cable car whose floor rotates as it ascends, for the five minute ride to the summit. Try to get there 2-3 hours before dusk so you'll have a chance to explore the various walks. And bring a picnic and a bottle of champagne for the perfect way to watch the sun set in the Atlantic Ocean.

A somewhat more serious atmosphere is evident on Robben island, South Africa's Alcatraz where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for nearly two decades. Since January 1997 the island has become a museum and thrice daily tours of it depart by boat from the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, a mail complex and commercial harbor.

The tour consists of two parts. First, a bus takes you around the island. My guide, a lovely young lady, gave a history of the island and its use as a leper colony, mental hospital, military base and place of banishment for West African slaves, South African tribal chiefs who resisted colonial rule, World War 11 prisoners and, of course, opponents of the apartheid regime.

As we drove along the island's perimeter, in addition to turtles, deer and a variety of waterfowl, we saw a church built for lepers (1895), a still-working lighthouse from 1863, the wreck of a Chinese cargo ship (1977) and the lime quarry where prisoners were made to work under brutal conditions. What appeared to be a simple pile of rocks there was actually a memorial created by political prisoners, led by Pres. Mandela, during a 1995 reunion.

The second part is a tour of the prison itself led by former political prisoners. My guide was Lionel Davis who was jailed from 1964-1971. With a remarkable degree of equanimity he told us of the inhuman treatment that was inflicted on the prisoners and how, in part, this led to some of the principles of justice enshrined in South Africa's new constitution. He showed us the yard where prisoners toiled at meaningless tasks and the solitary confinement cell that was Mandela's home for many years.

All of us on the tour marveled at how little bitterness Davis displayed towards his former captors. With quiet dignity, he summed up those years as "times when we laughed and times when we cried."

No stay in Cape Town is complete without a tour of the Cape Peninsula. I went with Daytrippers which did an excellent job of hitting all the highlights. They also provide bicycles for about an hour's worth of highly enjoyable cycling through lovely countryside.

penquins We visited the seal island in Hout Bay, saw spectacular scenery along Chapman's Peak Drive and enjoyed lunch in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve where wild ostriches had their own lunch not far away. We went to the historic Cape Point lighthouse and finished up at the Boulders Beach penguin colony, home to hundreds of these cuter-than-cute birds including some newborn chicks. it was a wonderful way to spend a day.

Other Sights

If you should happen to have a rainy day or extra time in Cape Town, there are many other sights to see, like St. George's Anglican Cathedral which is a handsome edifice from whose pulpit Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached against apartheid. On display there is a section of South Africa's AIDS Quilt and a guest book opened to the page where Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip and Pres. Mandela signed it in March 1995.

The Michaelis Collection of Dutch and Flemish art is housed in the beautifully baroque Old Town House. More contemporary and local artwork can be found in the South African National Gallery, while the South African Museum features life-sized reconstructions of tribal camp-scenes and superb displays of natural history including Stone Age archaeology and ocean life.

deWet In the Koopmans de Wet House you can get a sense of how an affluent merchant family lived in the early 1800s. Even better is the South African Cultural History Museum which has everything from a fascinating exhibition on native South African tribes to rather stodgy displays of Greek, Roman and Chinese artifacts to fun exhibits of toys and musical instruments to recreations of early twentieth century tailor's, chemist's and cabinetmaker's shops.

If you're ready for a rest, then take a breather in the Botanical Gardens, originally established as a vegetable garden to supply local settlers and visiting ships with fresh produce. An AIDS Memory Rose Garden was dedicated last year. garden

Gay Sites

The epicenter of Cape Town's burgeoning Gay scene is along Waterkant Street and Somerset Road. As such, a wonderful place to stay is The Quarters at 76 Waterkant St. I really appreciated its central location which allowed me to walk to nearly all the places I wanted to visit.

Owner Gerhardt is absolutely charming and makes you feel right at home in his tastefully decorated guest house. He mothers you with large breakfasts and advice on what to see and do. His rates are reasonable though be aware of some hidden charges like a 14% tax on anything you charge through him-but that's a minor quibble and he did promise that a new computer program would tax only appropriate items. Overall, Gays and Lesbians could not ask for a nicer, friendlier place to stay in Cape Town. E-mail him at for reservations.

Close by the Quarters two restaurants offer topnotch food experiences. Cape Manna (34 Napier St.) features traditional Malay cuisine prepared by Chef Achmat whose partner John is the host. I figured if it was good enough for Madeline Albright who dined there last December, it was good enough for me.

I began with a velvety curried butternut soup and then splurged on the chef's table of four excellent dishes my favorite being the denningrleis, a subtly spicy mutton stew served with yellow almond rice. Somehow I still had room for their Malva pudding, a spice cake with sauce that has the consistency of bread pudding. Yummy.

Cafe Manhattan (74 Waterkant St.) is a friendly drinking and dining establishment open from noon till late. Their mackerel salad was superb and their seafood platter was almost as good. For many, their bar is the first stop of the night.

Though I didn't have a chance to eat there, On Broadway (21 Somerset Rd.) seems to have a nice Mediterranean deli-style menu. I did, however, catch the new "Mince" show there featuring drag dames Keiron Legacy and Lili Slaptsilli and playing to packed houses of Gays, Lesbians and "vibey" straights.

In this classic drag show, my favorite was an old Marlene Dietrich number "I've Got a Lamppost Strapped to My Back." Yet the apotheosis of race and gender-bending was the new RuPaul/Martha Wash "It's Raining Men" in which a white South African male appearing as a blond gal created the illusion of an Afro-American guy who appears as a blond gal.

Down the block is the Bronx/Angels/Detour complex (27 Somerset Rd.). I never could figure out which name went with which venue but it really didn't matter. The dance floor thumped with megaloud techno music while the bar section featured a Monday night karaoke that came alive whenever Spike and his Sarah Brightman-like voice took the mike. And I'll never forget when the hunky dj did his version of "If I Was a Rich Man."

Last but not least on the tour was Company (16 Hudson St.) a leather and levi bar with a cool pinball machine. It's a get-down-and-dirty kinda place especially in the summertime when an outdoor back patio invites fun. Which is when we're having winter. Which is why now's the time to start planning a trip to Cape Town.

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