From the top of Table Mountain, once the clouds that swath it drift away, you can see the new football stadium 1,067 metres below. The great white ring dominates the city around it and faces out to sea and Robben Island. In the build-up to the World Cup in June, Capetonians are building new hotels, opening restaurants and putting their houses up for rent, eagerly anticipating the influx of international visitors.
I am staying at the Table Bay hotel, a huge affair with a soaring marble lobby and views of the harbour and Table Mountain. Sitting waterside in the lushly carpeted Atlantic Grill, eating seafood and sampling Western Cape Sauvignon, it’s easy to forget that we are on the world’s most troubled continent. In my 20 years writing about and filming it, I have never been anywhere that feels so un-African. I could be in Sydney. Later I wander through the soulless international shopping mall leading to the harbour, where there are more hotels, restaurants and bars. Even though I am in a working port, and cranes, hoists, containers and warehouses are visible against the backdrop of this shiny, new place dedicated to leisure, they look unreal, like props on a film set.
The Atlantic Seaboard, home to the continent’s most expensive real estate, could be Florida. We drive past block after block of neatly maintained apartments called Sandringham, Admiral’s Point or Prince Edward Mansions. They look as if they belong to an out-of-date suburban idyll rather than to post-apartheid South Africa, as do the ageing white women with their floral dresses and perms, who chat on the street corners.
It’s not until we are leaving the city that there is a familiar sight: a higgledy-piggledy sprawl of luridly painted shacks stretching along the highway for as far as we can see. Stones hold sagging corrugated-iron roofs in place under a messy mass of makeshift cable. Of Cape Town’s four million inhabitants, about half live in these townships.
But urban squalor is left behind as we motor on towards Stellenbosch, home to some of the country’s finest wines. South Africa is the seventh-biggest wine producer in the world, producing just over a billion litres a year. We visit Englebrecht Els, the vineyard half-owned by golfer Ernie Els. Overlooking lush, rolling countryside reminiscent of Provence, we taste four mighty reds. Then it’s on to the vineyard of Lawrence Graff, better known as a Bond Street jeweller than a vintner. The setting for our tasting, this time of whites and rosés, is less rustic and more opulent, with leather furniture and a notable South African art and sculpture collection on display.
Nearby Franschhoek is like a French theme park with boutiques, antique shops and cafés in pretty gardens lining the main street, Huguenotsweg, named after the French Protestant refugees who settled here in the 17th century. At Le Quartier Français, we eat home-cured charcuterie, oysters and springbok washed down by the hotel’s own wines.
The other side of Table Mountain is Constantia, renowned for its white wines. I visit the Uitsig estate’s La Colombe, where British chef Luke Dale-Roberts continues to keep the restaurant among the top 50 in the world, last year winning both best restaurant and best chef in South Africa. I eat exquisite food at a table dressed with crisp white linen in a gravelled, tree-shaded courtyard with a fountain. I could be in Tuscany.
I go to Fish Hoek to stay with a friend and she takes me to Kalk Bay to eat mussels. I’m reminded of a Greek fishing village as we watch the catch being brought in from brightly painted wooden boats. On Sunday we go to the Simon’s Town Tibetan Tea House for brunch. Now, among the stone Buddhas and wind chimes, I’m in Portobello. Two lesbians, eating vegetarian curry, coo over their miniature Doberman in a pink blanket. A couple of gay men arrive, bearing another tiny dog. Not so far away in Malawi they are still considering punishing homosexuality with death.
Even when we drive into the unspoilt wilderness of the Cape Peninsula National Park I feel I’m in New Zealand until I spot a family of baboons strolling along the road. At the Cape of Good Hope, Africa’s most southwestern tip, I brave the winds and climb the rocks. The air is mineral-rich with kelp and salt and the view of waves pounding this jagged, treacherous coastline is glorious. It is paradoxical that a place of such untamed elemental force and savage winds is home to the most apparently civilised country in Africa.
Cape Town’s natural beauty is outstanding and its food and wine are world-class. It’s a paradise if you are white and wealthy. Uneasily, I face the fact that the only black people I saw in restaurants were doing the serving. It is 20 years this month since Mandela was released. Has so very much changed?