Cape Town, the oldest city in southern Africa, is regularly heralded as one of the most beautiful on earth. The massive sandstone bulk of Table Mountain, often draped in a flowing "tablecloth" of clouds, forms an imposing backdrop, while minutes away, pristine sandy beaches line the cliff-hugging coast. Mountainous slopes sustaining the world's most varied botanic kingdom (some 9,000 species strong) overlook fertile valleys carpeted with vines, and driving from the highway you can spot zebra and wildebeest grazing unperturbed by the hubbub below. Every year brings a slew of new awards ("best value for money," "best city in the world to eat out in," "best destination in Africa and Middle East"), leaving no doubt that Cape Town is now a permanent fixture on the map of global hot spots. Yet the city feels -- and is -- very different from the rest of Africa.
Situated in the country's far southwestern corner, Cape Town is physically separated from the rest of the continent by a barrier of mountains. The hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters are Mediterranean, while the Atlantic Ocean is as frigid here as it is off the coast of Maine. Unique, too, is the Cape's architectural heritage -- Cape Dutch homesteads, neo-Gothic churches, Muslim minarets, and English-inspired Georgian and Victorian buildings speak of the influences of a multifaceted colonial past.
Inevitably, colonialism has left its mark on the residents of Cape Town as well; the majority of the population is made up of the mixed-blood descendants of European settlers, Asian slaves, and indigenous people. This Afrikaans-speaking group is referred to as the "coloureds," a divisive designation conferred during the apartheid era, when they were relocated behind Table Mountain into the grim eastern interior plain known as the Cape Flats. Since the scrapping of influx control in 1986, this area has seen phenomenal growth, and today squatter towns form a seamless ribbon of cardboard-and-corrugated-iron housing that most visitors only glimpse on their way from or to the airport. Cape Town's newest residents come from the poverty-stricken Eastern Cape, others from as far afield as Somalia, Angola, and Mozambique, making it one of South Africa's fastest-growing cities -- and unfortunately, the gangster-ridden Cape Flats have made it the most violent.
Although violent crime is mostly contained in these areas, visitors to Cape Town should take the same precautions they would in any large city -- don't wear expensive jewelry or flash fancy cameras, and be aware of where the latest crime spots are -- ask your hosts before you begin exploring, particularly the mountain or deserted beaches; sadly, you're usually best off where there are plenty of other people or where access is controlled.
Many who come to Cape Town choose to just whip straight out from the airport to the Winelands, where you can stay amid some of the best-preserved examples of Cape Dutch architecture and sample award-winning wines. This is a great area in which to base yourself if you're looking for a relaxing, rural escape, with the bright lights of the city a mere 60-minute drive away; the coastal town of Hermanus, "capital" of the Whale Coast, a 70-minute drive away; and the lakes, lagoons, and forests of the Garden Route an easy 4- to 5-hour drive along the N2. Alternatively, visit the Winelands or Whale Coast as a day trip, and base yourself here, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, where the sun sets on an unbelievably azure sea. Regardless of where you choose to stay, you will leave Cape Town wishing you had more time to explore, so do try to keep your itinerary flexible.
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