S. Africa enjoys a boom in tourism Cape Town: Among the attractions are white-sand beaches, nature reserves, vineyards and a stunning mountaintop view.

January 04, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, S. Africa -- Internationally shunned during the shameful years of apartheid, this "Mother City" of South Africa is these days becoming an increasingly popular destination for foreign visitors.

It's hardly surprising, of course, given its breathtaking setting beneath Table Mountain and the myriad attractions it can offer, from palm-fringed, white-sand beaches to wild nature reserves, from gorgeous vineyards to a dazzling Water Front mall.

To show how pent-up was the overseas demand for travel here, in the 12 months after the 1994 election of the country's first majority black government under President Nelson Mandela, tourism to Cape Town jumped a staggering 49 percent.

Opening a new hotel on the harbor here earlier this year, Mandela predicted that by the year 2000 South Africa could earn $4 billion from 2 million tourists. Such a boom would provide more than 800,000 jobs and make a crucial contribution to the government's master plan for economic expansion.

"Provided that we strive for these targets with the participation of affected communities, provided that we do so with respect for the natural environment, then tourism will be a vital force for the sustainable development of our country," Mandela said.

South Africa faces stiff competition, however, from other newly accessible countries, particularly those of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and China.

Nevertheless, tourism here, according to the Central Statistical Service, jumped 7.8 percent last year, despite South Africa's troubling image as one of the most violent, crime-plagued countries in the world.

Tourists, who stay an average of 21 days in the country, usually spend about half their time in the Western Cape. The rest may be split between Johannesburg, the energetic commercial capital of Durban, the Indian Ocean playground and the major games parks, most notably Kruger National Park to the north.

The climb for fun

So what is there to do and see in Cape Town?

Taking the funicular to the top of 3,500-foot Table Mountain is a must. It costs about $11 to return, but is worth every penny. The floors of the new Swiss-made cable cars revolve 360 degrees during the journey. One minute you are confronting the sheer rock face of the mountain, just feet away; the next you are overlooking beautiful Camp's Bay, miles away beneath Lion's Head Mountain.

Slowly your eagle's-eye view turns to the busy harbor and the downtown skyscrapers.

It is literally a tour d'horizon, which is repeated at your leisure once you arrive on the flat mountaintop, with its crisscross of pathways allowing you to take in the view of choice. There, to the south, you can see the Cape of Good Hope, the turning point for ships sailing the Atlantic and Indian oceans and playground of whales.

It is easy to spend an hour at the mountaintop. But you can quickly be caught by the clouds, which descend virtually without notice. Fortunately, they sometimes clear just as quickly, reopening the scenic panorama.

Cape Point, surrounded by a nature reserve, is another mandatory outing, taking you along a mountainous shoreline as dramatic as anything Italy's Amalfi coast can offer.

At sea level, a nearby wonder is Hermanus Bay, one of the most popular whale-viewing areas. There you have a good chance of seeing the whales surface for air, their huge tails slapping the chilly waves as in a scene from "Moby Dick."

Then there is wine country to the east of Cape Town, where vineyards stretch in orderly rows up the mountain slopes around Stellenbosch and Paarl.

But perhaps the pleasantest wine trip is also the shortest -- to Groot Constantia, the oldest of the Cape vineyards just outside Cape Town and now run as a working winery by a trust. Its beautiful white, Dutch, cape-style buildings, with their ornate gables, date back to the 17th century. The main house and the old cellars are now museum pieces, showing how the early landed gentry here lived and made their money.

There are tours of the working cellars, and a wine shop with tasting facilities, where for about $2 you can sip 10 wines, ranging from a reserve cabernet sauvignon to a refreshing Gewurztraminer.

Just along the road from Groot Constantia are the botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch, another big attraction, with its wide selection of indigenous plants, providing year-round color and a pleasant couple of hours for any visitor.

Wool shop

A little farther afield, but still within an easy hour's drive of Cape Town, is Dombeya, an unusual wool shop in the mountains. Here, local artisans spin, weave and knit an irresistible collection of sweaters, mats and blankets. You can watch the artisans at work before deciding which of the many mohair creations suits you. It's a little piece of heaven, set in beautiful Swiss-like countryside. A simple lunch of home-baked pie and salad on the terrace or in the garden fills out the delightful experience.

Back in Cape Town, there is always the Water Front, a mixture of shops, restaurants, craft markets and hotels that rivals many an urban redevelopment in the United States, including Baltimore's famed Harborplace.

And, if you run out of things to do on land, you can always take a boat trip to Robbin Island, the former penal colony that was Nelson Mandela's home for many years. Whoever would have thought that people would line up to go there?

But they do. It is now one of the most popular -- and perhaps the unlikeliest -- of Cape Town's many tourist attractions.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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