CAPE TOWN, South Africa – One of the world's most beautiful cities is probably one of the cheapest.
Cape Town, the sparkling jewel in South Africa's tourist crown, regularly wins international travel awards. It combines excellent infrastructure and hotels with magnificent beaches, wildlife and winelands, making it a favorite among business conventions and wealthy surf and safari seekers.
But even for those on a budget, the so-called Mother City is as welcoming as its name. Best news is the weakness of the South African rand, which make dollars and euros go further.
GETTING THERE: Only a few airlines fly straight to Cape Town, so direct flights from London are full and discount fares rare. Delta flies from New York via Senegal. Emirates via Dubai often has bargains. In addition to South African Airways, budget airlines like 1Time and kulula.com fly from Johannesburg into Cape Town. (Don't panic if kulula staff announce the plane has landed in Zimbabwe — they love joking).
The airport tourism information desk arranges bus shuttles to the city at $12 per person and less for subsequent passengers. The Backpacker bus charges $15 and its Web site — http://www.backpackerbus.co.za — has good tips on travel and accommodation. Or ask your hotel or guesthouse to meet you. Metered taxis are expensive and there is no regular bus or train service to the city center. If you are renting a car, shop around for deals for foreigners.
GETTING AROUND: Cape Town lacks a decent public transport system. It's worth hiring a car at least for a day or two. Most hotels and hostels offer peninsular and wineland tours. Some take bikes along with them.
Minibus taxis are used by locals and will give you a cheap, genuine taste of South Africa. But they are not for the fainthearted, despite efforts by the government to persuade minibus drivers to upgrade their vehicles and respect basic rules of the road. For a more predictable alternative, the Explorer double-decker open-topped bus has a hop-on, hop-off system, with the red line serving the city and the blue line surrounding areas at a cost of $20 per adult for a universal 24-hour pass. You can walk around most parts of central Cape Town without fear of crime during the day, unlike Johannesburg and Durban. But at night take a taxi, even for short distances.
WHAT TO SEE:
_Table Mountain. This is Cape Town's icon. You can hike up or down (a steep 1.8 miles on the Platteklip Gorge trail) but check at the information booth on conditions (strong winds are common). The return trip by cable car costs $14.50, with discounts for children and students and sometimes in early morning and evening. Operating times depend on season and weather. Be prepared to wait at busy periods. Details at http://www.tablemountain.net.
A wonderful alternative to Table Mountain lies just across the road. Signal Hill has no lines, no hassle, no fees. Just uninterrupted 360-degree views of the city from the winding road. Join the locals at full moon and walk up and down the mountain (about 90 minutes each way) for an unforgettable experience. Remember, there is safety in numbers.
_Robben Island. The wind-swept island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned is a must. The trip takes 3 1/2 hours and costs $15 (children half-price). Book well in advance at http://www.robben-island.org as it's hugely popular. Also, for just $1.50, visit the District Six Museum, which highlights the injustice of the apartheid era and the forced relocations of nonwhites from the vibrant city center to dismal Cape Flats townships, which are still home to the majority of the population. (Robben Island will be closed the first two weeks of November while authorities remove an infestation of rabbits.)
_Waterfront. The harbor and shopping complex is home to pricey hotels and boutiques. But you can soak up the sea air and enjoy live entertainment for free. There are restaurants and fast food joints for all budgets. Or pick up a picnic at the Pick 'N Pay supermarket.The world-class aquarium is fab for both kids and adults.
_Beaches. The powder-white sand of Camps Bay and Clifton are the places to chill — and literally freeze in the Antarctic-influenced currents, even on scorching days. For swimming, the saltwater, open-air pool in Sea Point costs next to nothing and is in a breathtaking location on the beach, with a huge grass area for sunbathing. Weekends are packed but weekdays often empty (unless you coincide with a school outing, which adds to the fun). Take your own padlock for the lockers.
For less frigid waters, head to Fish Hoek and Muizenberg on the other side of the peninsula, which is warmed by the Indian Ocean currents. Muizenberg is a hotspot for surfers. Take time to chat with shark-spotters positioned on the beach and an overlooking hill to sound the alarm about occasional Great White visitors. (If you really want a close encounter, try shark cage-diving in Gansbaaii, a couple of hours drive away with transport offered from the Waterfront.)
SIDE TRIPS: A Cape Peninsular tour is a full-day highlight either with an organized group or (better) on your own. Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope are the best-known attractions. Beware the baboons who aggressively search for food. (We once watched a hapless tourist getting out of his car for photos as a baboon jumped into the driver's seat next to the man's hysterical wife!!)
Next to Cape Point, an ostrich farm offers guided tours, but you can also watch the mighty birds for free.
Farther down the road toward the naval base of Simons Town, you can swim with penguins at Boulders Beach, which boasts a thriving colony of endangered African penguins. It's magical, and the birds are unfazed by humans.
Watch fishermen at work in the beautiful harbors of Kalk Bay and on the other side of the peninsula, Hout Bay. Hout Bay also offers 45-minute trips (about $4) to smelly but spectacular Seal Island, home to thousands of seals. World of Birds, also in Hout Bay, is great value for the money and popular with families. It also has giant tortoises, wallabies and squirrel monkeys (tourists are allowed into their enclosure twice a day).
Chapman's Peak leading out of Hout Bay is one of the world's most scenic roads but is currently closed following rockfalls. You can go halfway up to the picnic spots and, between August and November, feast your eyes for free on southern right whales. (Hermanus, the main center for whale-watching, is about two hours out of Cape Town).
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens are much loved among locals for their Sunday evening summer concerts. Take a picnic and get there early.
DINING OUT: By international standards, restaurants are cheap in South Africa. It's easy to have a slap-up dinner for around $10. Fish is superb — try the firm juicy kingklip — and fish 'n chips on the seafront is hard to beat. Local cuisine includes Cape Malay curries and bobotie (a dish with minced meat). You rarely pay more than $1.50 for a coffee and there are great, cheap local beers and wines. Unlike other African countries, the water is safe and most restaurants happily supply a big jug of free tap water. Even the Waterfront has cheap options with pizzas, wraps, kebabs and noodles. There are plenty of eateries in Long Street — the nightlife center — in the trendy Waterkant district and along the Camps Bay beach. For unrivaled views at affordable prices, book a table in the Ritz hotel's revolving restaurant in Sea Point. Even if you are trying to save money, don't skimp on the customary 10 percent tip as waiters rely heavily on it to supplement their minimal wages.
SLEEPING IN: At the Waterfront, the Breakwater Lodge — a former prison — is the cheapest option. There's an abundance of reasonably priced guest houses and B&Bs in central locations like Gardens, Tamberskloef, Sea Point and Green Point. Prices vary with the season but it's easy to find a double room with private bathroom for less than $100 — often much less — and some establishments offer self-catering. The official Cape Town Web site http://www.tourismcapetown.co.za has listings but doesn't provide links or prices. So try http://www.capestay.co.za. There's plenty of choice in vibey hostels offering clean dormitory as well as private accommodation at even lower prices than guesthouses. These include http://www.longstreetbackpackers.co.za and http://www.catandmoose.co.za on Long Street. Quieter but also central are the recommended http://www.backpackers.co.za and the lovely Ashanti Lodge http://www.ashanti.co.za. In the suburb of Observatory, popular with students, is the Green Elephant, http://www.hostels.co.za. There are also many choices in Cape Town's surrounding areas like Kalk Bay, Hout Bay and the lovely university town of Stellenbosch in the winelands.
WHEN TO GO: Spring (September to November) offers a floral feast in the Table Mountain national park. Mid-January to April is also a great time to visit. Mid-December to mid-January it seems as if half the country descends upon Cape Town and it gets packed and pricey. Avoid June to August unless you like wind and rain - but even then there are glorious sunny days as well as cut prices.