Does South Africa Deliver? Florin R. Ferrs flies there to find out.
South Africa has been in the travel map a lot lately, with its vuvuzelas in the news during a great world cup this year, I was itching to find out if this country could really possibly deliver all the travel treasures it promises.
I found a deal on my favorite international airfare portal for a flight on South African Airways to Cape Town via New York and Johannesburg, with a feeder flight from California to New York on Virgin America. I decided to book 2 separate roundtrip flights in order to spend one night in New York each way to break up the trip (I’m glad I did).
When it came to finding hotels in Cape Town, I found out that most hotels start from $100 and up. Backpacker hostels are a cheaper option, but I wanted a private bathroom, so I decided to use AirBnb.com. They are a San Francisco based website that puts you in touch with apartment owners from all over the world, enabling travellers to avoid hotels and save money, while getting a more localized experience.
My apartment owner turned out to be an artist from Leeds, England that purchased a cosy vacation studio apartment in downtown Cape Town, located walking distance to most of the sights, inside a cool building with an interior courtyard with shops that cater to traveller’s needs (from laundry service, to a curry, plus a corner shop and an internet cafe). The apartment owner was also able to organize covered parking with 24 hour security for my rental car (a bit of a necessity in Cape Town, more on that later).
Cape Town itself is small enough to walk, but the Cape of Good Hope region south of the city includes some of the most awesome drives on the planet, so a car rental was recommended. I booked a car for 10 days on the vayama.com, their car broker works with local companies in order to score the best price. I was a bit apprehensive about driving on the “wrong side” of the road, but the car rental company didn’t seem concerned, so I decided that I shouldn’t either.
With Lonely Planet South Africa in hand I start my 5 hour red eye flight to New York on Virgin America. The lights inside the cabin are purple and the pilots wear the same uniforms as the air hosts (all black). I’m trapped inside a cheesy nightclub in the sky. The seats in coach class are a bit narrow, but are all leather and come with a personalized video screen, so it’s already several notches above US legacy carriers (thanks Sir Richard Branson).
After a day sightseeing in New York (they have tables and chairs in Time Square now!), I spend one night in a hotel near JFK, as my South African Airways flight departs at 10.30 AM the following morning. The new JFK inter-terminal train is sleek and convenient (I still remember the old horrible bus). I settle down for the 15 hour flight to Johannesburg. South African Airways provides personal video screens in coach class, so I decide to catch up on a few indie movies (The Kids Are Alright). Soon after take off the air hosts delivered drinks, I ask for South African wine and receive 2 miniature bottles so it’s a great start. The service on South African Airways is old fashioned good, with great food in coach class and snacks and drinks during the flight.
Three movies, several naps and a breakfast service later, we finally fly over Johannesburg. The city sprawls over several freeways and suburbs that are surrounded by heaping piles of gold mine slag.
After speedy immigration in Jo’burg, we are soon on our way to Cape Town. South African Airways serves drinks and sandwiches on their short domestic flights (beer, wine, water, juice), compared to the small cup of orange juice you get on a 5 hour coast to coast USA flights, it feels positively lavish.
We finally land in Cape Town on a glorious sunny southern spring day. The view of Table Mountain from the airport is mind boggling. It’s time to collect my rental car and drive British style. Thanks to Google Maps Street view I’m already familiar with the freeways and the turns I need to take in Downtown Cape Town in order to get to my vacation apartment (thanks Google).
Early the next day, I head to Boulders Beach to see the penguins. The Drive south is amazing, reminiscent of Southern France, with cafes and restaurants along palm lined beach boulevards. I am soon motoring along Chapman’s Peak Drive. This is the road the tour books rave about. Paradise on earth comes to mind as I drive up a steep mountain road above powder white beaches with azure blue waters. I finally get to Boulders, and I can hear the penguins, they make a loud, donkey like moan that has given them the nickname of Jackass Penguins.
The beauty of Boulders Beach is that you can actually swim with the Penguins. They have one cove for penguins and another cove for humans. The “human” beach is a magenta blue swimming pool, perfect for kids. The boulders that give the beach its name spread out protectively, giving the penguins a perch from witch to spy down on the bathing humans. I wonder what they think? We came all this way to see them, but they end up staring back at us.
Next Week: Part 2 Driving trough Elephant territory in Addo Elephant Park.