There are plenty of places to fly to for winter sun, but only one place that offers five-star hotels for the price of a B&B in Lyme Regis. South Africa has always been good value for British visitors, even five years ago when there were 11 rand to the pound. Now that figure is closer to 23 rand. For visitors, an entire country is half price. This freak situation may not last; so there might never be a better time to visit.
The choices are almost overwhelming — safaris, Anglo-Zulu battlefield tours, scenic drives in the Drakensberg mountains — but Cape Town is a wonderful place to start. There’s a comfortingly British feel to the city: the surfer dudes and the beachside bars and restaurants of Camps Bay wouldn’t look out of place on Cornwall’s north coast.
You can go anywhere in South Africa and buy delicious street food for a pittance — but what distinguishes Cape Town is its world-class restaurants. Nine of us, family and friends, went out last week to visit my sister, who is very helpfully a travel agent there. We’d troop out for a big lunch by the beach — cocktails, beers, calamari; the full works — and the bill would come to £15 a head. Every time you’re presented with a bill in South Africa, it looks like a mistake. You feel almost guilty signing it. But it’s a feeling that you can quickly get used to. One night we went to the Roundhouse, perhaps one of the best restaurants in Cape Town. We indulged in an eight-course taster menu, each dish paired with a local Stellenbosch wine. £50 a head, that cost, and we were splashing out.
The drawback for any British tourist is all the other British tourists. On the next table next to us in the Roundhouse, some Brits got carried away by it all and starting singing Abba. It’s a sore point for the locals. During the Test matches the Barmy Army have been singing ‘23 rand to the pound, 23 rand to the pound’. They were quieter than usual in the stands, though — half of them were ensconced further back in the boxes and executive suites.
The other drawback is getting there. Cape Town is 6,000 miles away from London and the air fare can be pricey. I went via Dubai on Emirates for about £650, but my advice would be not to. You end up spending 17 hours on two planes, plus ages on buses around Dubai’s vast airport. It’s best to fly direct and risk a last-minute ticket: a friend did this recently with British Airways for £700. Then enjoy the extraordinary landscapes, the warm weather and the beaches.
Make sure you hire a car and driver from £40 (or just a car for £15), and spend a day tasting in the winelands (each vineyard offered a session for about a pound a head, as did the Van Ryn’s brandy distillery). While you’re at it, offer a sarcastic toast to Jacob Zuma. The South African president is a disaster who has been destroying Mandela’s legacy and his country’s economy. He’s the reason your trip will be so cheap. The happiest I saw my South African friends was when a hawker approached the car at some traffic lights with a #Zumamustfall bumper sticker. ‘Yes,’ one fist-pumped, ‘it’s catching on.’ Until Zuma does fall, there’s frankly only one thing you can do to help out the poor South Africans: go to Cape Town and spend.