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For travelers to South Africa, a visit to Cape Town is a must. The city is by far South Africa's #1 destination, and it's easy to see why.
First, the physical setting is stunning, with Table Mountain (3,000 ft high) in the center of the metropolitan area, surrounded by many beautiful beaches. Very few cities (Rio and Sydney come to mind) can compete with Cape Town for sheer natural beauty.
Second, the dining, shopping and culture is world-class. In fact, Cape Town was voted this year's 'Design Capital' of the world. A number of neighborhoods (especially near the waterfront) are being rehabilitated and have become destinations unto themselves.
Third, the range of options of things to see and do is phenomenal, from abseiling off Table Mountain to hiking up Lion's Head, and much more. Finally, Cape Town is the perfect 'base camp' from which to explore the region, including vineyards, the Cape Peninsula, and many other wonderful places.
A few 'must sees' in/around Cape Town are:
Table Mountain Cableway - This is Cape Town's top attraction, so get there early to avoid standing in line for hours in the hot sun. From FEB to NOV the cable car opens at 8am, so my advice is to be at the station at 745am/8am at the latest, to be one of the first groups to go up. The later you arrive, the longer the wait. Once you reach the summit, there are stunning views from multiple lookouts, as well as hiking trails from one end to the other. For the more adventuresome travelers, I suggest hiking up to Table Mountain (2-3 hours, depending on how fit you are), which can be arranged by your tour operator or hotel concierge.
Castle of Good Hope and Company's Gardens - The castle was built by the Dutch in the 17th century, and today hosts a military museum and interior displays giving you a taste of what life was like when the Dutch governed the Cape Peninsula, Robben Island. This is a memorial to all the South Africans who were incarcerated here, including Nelson Mandela. A visit here is not for everyone, however. First, you have the ferry ride, which can be rocky and crowded. In addition, the visit to the prisons is moving and disturbing. If you are visiting, make sure you get tickets way in advance. Another option is to arrange a private boat to/from the island, via your tour operator or hotel concierge, to avoid the crowds.
Camp's Bay - My favorite beach in Cape Town will not disappoint you. This is a great place to come for lunch and take in the views of the sea and 12 Apostles mountains in the distance.
Outside of Cape Town, do not miss a visit to the Cape of Good Hope, Boulders Beach (to visit the African penguin colony) near Simon's Town, and catch the views of Hout Bay and Chapman's Bay on the way South. If your clients are interested in food and wine, suggest lunch at Chef Bruce's new restaurant in Simon's Town, called The Flagship. Lunch will be a 3 hour affair, but the experience is unforgettable, as Chef Bruce prepares a new menu every day, using only the freshest, locally sourced ingredients.
Wine country - The region East of Cape Town is the home of some of South Africa's best wines. Although you can visit for 1 day as a 'day trip' from Cape Town, my recommendation is to stay over in the wine country for at least one or two nights, to truly capture the flavor of this region and best experience the countryside. I will cover this in my next post.
Next: Where to stay in Cape Town and wine country.
Cape Town Hotels - During my recent visit to Cape Town, I had the opportunity to visit the 3 outstanding Signature hotels in Cape Town. Here are my impressions of each property, and what stood out for me at these hotels.
One & Only Cape Town
It opened 5 years ago. This is a large, modern, stylish hotel in the V&A Waterfront area of Cape Town. The hotel is really 2 properties in one. There is a large, main building; which houses the reception, main bar, two restaurants, fitness center and most of the sleeping rooms. And there is an island connected to this main building by a small bridge; which houses the spa, large swimming pools, and the Marina rooms. Getting from one building to the other only takes a few minutes. The hotel stands out for the very large public areas, which make a big impression as you arrive at the hotel. You have views of Table Mountain from the main lobby & bar, a popular spot for Capetonians. The hotel has two outstanding restaurants in the main building, Reuben's (open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) as well as Nobu. There is a 3rd restaurant, Isola, which is located on the Marina island across the bridge, next to the pool. Service on property is outstanding, from check-in to departure. Personally, I was blown away, time and again, with the caring, courteous, & efficient staff.
Rooms at O&O Cape Town are spacious, bright, and done in a contemporary design, and are roughly 40% larger than the competition, so you get great value for your money. If you are staying for 1 or 2 nights, I would recommend a room in the main building (the higher the floor the better, for the views of Table Mountain improve as you go up). If you are traveling with children, you want closer access to the pool, or are staying longer, then I would recommend the Marina rooms, as you feel you are more in a resort than in an urban setting. The hotel has a great children's program. Do not miss dinner at Reuben's 'chef table' in a private level above the main restaurant, an affair to remember.
Cape Grace, a member of Leading Hotels of the World LHW, is also located on the V&A Waterfront, not far from One & Only. Having said this, the 2 hotels could not be more different from each other. First, Cape Grace is surrounded on 3 sides by water, as it is built on top of a pier in the working waterfront. Second, the hotel has an intimate, boutique feel, from the moment you arrive. The property was completely redecorated in 2008 using antiques, hand-painted fabrics, nautical memorabilia, and an eclectic, more classic, 'Cape Heritage' style. The hotel offers 120 rooms, of which 40 are 1/2/3 bedroom suites. The property has over 260 staff, and some have been with the property since it opened in the 1990s. The focus of the hotel is on delivering exceptional service, and the property ranks high in Cape Town's Trip Advisor ratings. Notable features of the hotel: There is a great spa on the top floor, with 5 treatment rooms, a small swimming pool in the back of the hotel, a world-famous whiskey bar called Bascule, with hundreds of whiskeys from around the world, and a superb restaurant called Signal, which is a destination unto itself. The hotel is kid-friendly, and also offers BMW transfers to/from various destinations in the city. If you want a quieter room, book the 4th floor, as this is the adults-only floor.
In the center of Cape Town and 180 degrees different from the V&A Waterfront is the Belmond Mount Nelson. This is the "Grande Dame" of Cape Town, and part and parcel of the history of the city. The hotel was originally built in 1899, and has gone through various expansions and renovations since. Over the years, the hotel has hosted heads of state, Kings and Queens, Winston Churchill (during World War II), and countless long-haul cruise passengers, traveling to/from Europe on various ocean liners. The hotel is located in the heart of Cape Town's historic center, and has two entrances. One is a grand entrance, complete with big columns and stately palm trees, and a smaller entrance which enters from a quieter side street, The sense of arrival is wonderful, as you step into another world when you come in through the main doorway. Once you enter, you will see wood parquet floors, area rugs, paintings and vintage posters of 20th century ocean liners, grand flower arrangements, and a fantastic sense of charm, tradition, and history - without feeling old fashioned. The Mount Nelson has soul, character, and has remained a social hotspot for Capetonians of all ages. Afternoon tea here is a major event, with a buffet that will stop you in your tracks. (Advance reservations are a MUST). Because this was the first grand hotel built in the city, the Belmond Mount Nelson is set amidst sprawling gardens, with flowers, palm trees, huge trees, and beautifully kept lawns. The hotel offers 198 rooms total, with a large number being suites in various configurations. There are two heated pools, a charming spa, a fitness center and various dining venues to choose from, including the recently redone Planet restaurant. My favorite dining venue, by far, was having dinner at the Chef's Table in the Kitchen of the main restaurant -- a fun, lively, unforgettable affair. (Make sure you meet the pastry chef, who is a superstar and THE chocolate wizard). The hotel offers a complimentary shuttle service to the Waterfront, the Cable Car to Table Mt., or Camp's Bay. There are 9 different room categories, and 4 buildings to choose from (all next to each other), including the Main building, Green Park wing, Taunton House wing, and the cottages -- individual, stand-alone homes, complete with gardens and porches. During your stay, take time to wander around the hallways and public spaces, to soak up the ocean liner memorabilia, the watercolors, the ancient maps, the priceless art and the fun photos of grand dinners decades ago. Here again, service is exceptional. The team on property is at the top of their game and the staff goes above and beyond for the guests on property. The hotel truly is special.
Although South Africa has a number of exceptional places to stay, Liz Biden's Royal Portfolio stands out, for many reasons. First, all 3 properties currently in the collection were originally homes of Elizabeth Biden and her family. Over the years, each residence became a hotel welcoming guests, but in the process, the properties never lost the feeling that when you stay at a Royal Portfolio hotel, you are a personal guest of Liz Biden and her extended family of exceptional staff. Secondly, each room and public space was designed and decorated by Liz Biden herself. The properties, each with its own style, are filled with priceless antiques, original paintings, made to order or restored furniture, unique objects d'art, Persian rugs, the works. In a world of increasingly homogenized hotels, every room and space at a Royal Portfolio property is one of a kind. As a guest, you will be surprised and delighted with a very special design + style, and believe me, it is. Thirdly, the hotels are very special because of their size, accommodating no more than 20 guests at a time. Every guest is treated as an individual, and the staff goes above and beyond to meet and exceed guest expectations, down to the smallest detail. Finally, the overall quality of the experience, dining, and service, from arrival to check-out, is top notch.
During my visit to South Africa, I had the privilege of briefly staying at La Residence and Royal Malewane. One hour from Cape Town and a world away is La Residence. This estate, originally a plum orchard, has been converted into a working vineyard. The property is 5 minutes from Franschhoek, the elegant hub for the wine region, filled with smart shops, excellent restaurants, and a very sophisticated atmosphere. La Residence consists of two properties in one. You arrive at the main building, which has an enormous hall running the length of the building, complete with fireplaces and priceless chandeliers brought from India. This building has two wings, East and West, housing the property's 11 rooms and suites, on two levels. The word 'room' does not do the accommodations justice, as these are spacious, beautifully appointed suites, each decorated individually. Every room has a unique color and design scheme, so think of Asian-inspired rooms in mostly red, French Provincial suites with 4 poster beds in tones of yellow, and bright Indian-influenced rooms with striking colors. All rooms are charming, but my favorite was the Huguenot suite, at the end of the hall on the 2nd floor, with super views of the countryside and private terrace. In recent years, La Residence has expanded and added villas near the property, accommodating two, four, or six guests. This is the best of all worlds for families and friends traveling together, as you have the privacy of your own home, and the option to take advantage of all the services of the main building. There is a spa treatment room, infinity pool, outdoor gardens, a gym, and great public areas. Dinners are grand affairs, served in the main hall, every night. My advice is to spend at least 2 nights at La Residence, to get the flavor of the wine country and fully appreciate the property and surroundings, which include the towns of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, nature reserves nearby, horseback riding, visits to private vineyards and wine tastings, cooking classes, hikes, and much more.
Located in the Northern part of Kruger National Park, Royal Malewane is definitely one of the top safari lodges for sophisticated travelers visiting South Africa. You can arrive to the lodge a number of ways: via helicopter or small aircraft to the lodge's private airstrip, or via regularly scheduled air service from Johannesburg into Hoedspruit airport followed by a 45min drive, which is what I did last month when I visited. The benefit of flying into HDS airport is that you can bring in al your luggage, so there is no need to 'downsize' to a lighter, soft sided bag and leave your larger suitcase in storage, which is the case when you fly to many private airstrips in Kruger. The other benefit is that HDS is an airport with regularly scheduled commercial air service, so access is very reliable, year round, regardless of weather conditions.
Royal Malewane is located on a vast private concession, deep into the forest. You arrive at the main hall, with soaring wood ceilings and a warm, caring staff who will welcome you with open arms. This building is where you will find the main dining room, a small shop, and reception/living area. A series of boardwalks will take you to the 8 rooms and suites (here again, the word 'room' is a misnomer, as all rooms are very spacious). All accommodations offer space, privacy, outdoor terraces, private pools and views of the forest surrounding each room/suite. Rooms are decorated individually, in a more muted style than La Residence. Meals are offered in the main dining room and the staff goes above and beyond to accommodate individual requests. If you are fortunate, you will experience a 'Boma' dinner under the stars, an unforgettable meal. The suites are enormous, especially the Royal Malewane category, which can accommodate up to 4 guests. Note: the hotel has internet access, in case your want to stay in touch with home.
During your stay, you will have the opportunity to go out on two game drives, first thing in the morning and then again in late afternoon. If you can, ask for Juan & Wilson, the Ace guide and tracker team that are at the top of their profession, with skill and knowledge that will blow you away. In addition, you can get a treatment at the lodge's beautiful spa, work out at the gym or enjoy any number of optional activities, including Horseback safaris, hot air ballooning, visits to wildlife rehab centers, and more.
Most of all, what stood out for me at Royal Malewane was the staff -- caring, friendly, welcoming, kind, helpful. You will arrive as a guest, and you will leave as a friend.
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