If you do a lot of international business travel, chances are, like me, you often find yourself in some fascinating cities with only a few hours of free time. You really want to see the place, but you just don’t know where to start. After two one-day trips to South Africa’s second city, Cape Town, though, I think I’ve finally broken the code. I know how to spend one great day in any city in the world.
During my first visit to Cape Town in 2010, I had to fly to Copenhagen after spending a day, which in itself was an adventure, I hired a car and had the driver take me through most of the city’s historically famous neighborhoods. That was interesting, but I wanted more. My next trip gave me the opportunity to discover that you can, in fact, do more — much more.
Bus Tours Open All of Cape Town
In May 2012, I had to go to Johannesburg for a conference. I knew this would probably be my last visit to South Africa for a while, and I had promised my wife a vacation there before we moved from southern Africa back to the United States. Since the conference was to take place after the Mother’s Day weekend, I suggested a weekend in Cape Town followed by a day of shopping in Johannesburg while I attended the conference. To my surprise, she agreed.
The pressure was now on; based on airline schedules, we would have about 30 hours of sightseeing time in Cape Town, so I had to make it count. Thank the stars for the Internet. I was able to get information on day trips in and around the city. More importantly, I discovered the City Bus Tours.
From its headquarters near the Clock Tower at Cape Town’s waterfront, City Bus Tours offers hop-on, hop-off tours on regular schedules from early morning until evening that cover every major historical or cultural attraction in and around the city. You can take the Red City Tour, which circumnavigates the city from the Waterfront to Table Mountain and down along the beaches to the south, or the Blue Peninsula Tour, which does part of the city, but then goes out along the Cape into wine country. If you’re interested in fine wines, there are special all-day wine country tours available. You can even arrange a boat ride through the Waterfront or to Robbins Island, the location of the prison where Nelson Mandela was held.
The bus tours offer the flexibility of hired cars at a far lower price. An adult ticket on the Red or Blue bus tour, good for all day, costs 150 rand (approximately U.S. $25 at current exchange rates). With buses running about every 30 minutes, you can get off and explore an area to your heart’s content, and then hop on the next bus and off to the next.
From Turf to Surf
Starting at the Waterfront, the Red Route takes you through the historic areas of downtown and out to Table Mountain. The cable car ride to the top and a few hours exploring the panoramic views will leave you breathless. From Table Mountain, the next interesting stop is the Camps Bay area, a trendy, upscale residential area along the beach where you can see surfers even in the winter months. Depending upon how long you spend at each stop, there can be time to even do a significant part of the Blue Tour along the peninsula and down to South Cape.
The tours all end back at the Waterfront, which is a great place to end the day. With an astonishing collection of restaurants offering everything from seafood to fried chicken, from fancy wines to beer and ale, and a chance to rub shoulders with the people of Cape Town, it’s unbeatable.
Cape Town doesn’t have the bustle and commerce focus that characterizes Johannesburg, nor does it offer quite the range of wildlife you can find in places like Kruger National Park or in the resorts of the Kalahari Desert. What it does offer, though, is a colorful snapshot of South Africa’s history and a willingness to go the extra mile to welcome short-term visitors. What it gave me, in addition, was the knowledge that you can get to know a place in a relatively short time if you’re prepared to meet it halfway.
South African Airways has frequent daily flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town, with arrival times that will enable you to jet in, arriving early enough in the afternoon to get settled in a hotel and enjoy its vibrant night life. Departures make it possible to have a full day of touring and catch a flight back to Johannesburg, arriving in time for a quiet supper and a good night’s sleep.
Where to Stay
If price is no object, there is perhaps no better place in Cape Town than the famous Cape Grace in the Waterfront area. I stayed there the first time I visited the city, and it was fantastic. For a romantic Mother’s Day stay, though, I chose the historic and picturesque Table Bay Hotel. Both are expensive, but worth every penny.
The Table Bay Hotel
Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Cape Town 8001
Reservations (USA and Canada): 800-745-8883
Note to editor: Photo captions (photos by Charles Ray)
1. Historic Table Mountain can be seen from many vantage points in Cape Town
2. Even in winter, surfers ride the waves off the coast.
3. The downtown areas of Cape Town are vibrant and rich with the history of this diverse city.