Thursday, 4 April 2013

Cape Town: What we did at the Waterfront

When I visited Cape Town as a penniless backpacker in 2001, I turned my nose up at the V and A Waterfront. It seemed far too touristy and commercialised for my liking back then - where was the grit and grime I'd traveled to South Africa to see? But on returning twelve years later with my boyfriend Tom, I've been pleasantly surprised. Yes, it's commercial; yes, it's a world away from the townships; yes, it has air-conditioned malls and international chain shops; and yes, it's a honeypot for tourists. But what they've done with the waterfront is fantastic and, like other redeveloped docks around the worldwide, it's a slice of city life that's pretty nice to soak up for a few hours.

Food glorious food

One of the best things about the Western Cape is the food: fruit is more flavoursome, meats more tender, seafood fresher, coffee richer and veggies crisper. Wherever you dine, your stomach will thank you for visiting South Africa, and for pure choice and variety, the V and A Waterfront isn't a bad place to start.

We I started at Vovo Telo, taking a seat  in the sun at this artisan bakery. After watching iced buns, fist thick lamb burgers and foot-long focaccia wedges arrive at people's tables, we ordered a succulent steak sandwich to share along with freshly ground coffee and just-squeezed satsuma juice. 

Next stop was the new-ish indoor food market next to Nobel Laureate Square. Housed inside a historic power station, this foodie heaven was opened in 2011 and aims to be on a par with the likes of London's Borough Market. Tom and I tasted our way through tidbits of ostrich biltong (cured meat), olive jam, wheat grass smoothies, hot cross bun ice-cream (it's Easter), dim sum and an assortment of spicy African sauces, before buy a splodge of frozen yoghurt finished with passion fruit slime and plump raspberries. 

For fresh fish with harbour views, the Harbour House is hard to beat. After an uncouth starter of oysters on ice, salmon sashimi and steaming mussels - we ordered all our favourite starters, just because 'we could' - I tucked into pale Cape Salmon while Tom devoured chunks of rare tuna almost two inches thick.

What else is at the Waterfront?

Boat trips galore: It's long been the point of embarkation for trips out to Robben Island but the Waterfront is also the place to hop on a harbour tour, go jet-boating, set sail on the Jolly Roger, take a sunset cruise with champagne or go wildlife watching. Simply stroll along the harbour-side and hop on.

Non-stop shopping: Expect everything from Rip-Curl and Zara stores, to indigenous art and local crafts. There are more than 450 shops spread across the indoor site - mainly in the multi-story indoor mall. Personally, shopping like this isn't how I'd choose to spend my time here, but if there's something you need to buy while you're here, I'd be amazed if you couldn't get hold of it at the harbour.

Tourist attractions: There's a diamond museum and a diving centre, a playground and a pirate boat, an aquiraium and adrenaline sports, bicycle rental and a big wheel, history and helicopter rides, seal watching and a cinema. For ready made rainy day attractions and family fun, there's certainly lots to choose from if you're not the sort to venture city-wide. What's more it's still a working harbour and there's plenty here for history-buffs.

A novel way with Coca-Cola crates at the V and A

A historic working harbour

Arrival in Cape Town: fancy frames and friendly faces

Having taken an evening flight from London to Amsterdam on Good Friday, my boyfriend Tom and I spent the night in the Ibis Amsterdam Airport hotel, waking to snowflakes the following morning. Twelve hours, three in-flight meals and several films later we touched down in Cape Town, picked up our hire car and made our way to Atlantic Point Backpackers.

It's more than ten years since I was last in Cape Town, having stopped here back in 2001 on a post A-levels trip around the world. Returning now with a few more rand in my money-belt, I had decided to swap a city centre dorm room for a double room near the waterfront, but was still taken by surprise at the stylish decor and slick interiors at our hostel.

Designer wallpaper, handcrafted picture frames, a swish new kitchen and a mini putting green outside by the pool: is this the norm for backpackers in Cape Town these days? I certainly wasn't complaining.

Excuse the mess - focus on the funky frames & wallpaper instead!

Located a few minutes' stroll from Cape Town Stadium, at Green Point (built in 2010 for the FIFA World Cup), arriving at Atlantic Point from the airport was fairly easy. Having read several scare stories and warnings not to drive in Cape Town at night, we'd been reassured by friends that we'd be fine, so long as we stuck to the main roads and central areas.

The swish new kitchen at Atlantic Point Backpackers

While Cape Town's reputation for crime and danger shouldn't be shrugged off, neither should you come here expecting every other person to pull out a gun. Being aware of your belongings, sticking to street-lit areas at night, and taking taxis when you have no idea where you're going are safety precautions you should probably take in any big city and, with the crime rate in Cape Town, it's wise to take all this a little more seriously.

But speak to the people who live here and you'll realise that not everyone who lives in a township wants to mug you and that the locals don't live in constant fear for their lives. Cape town is packed with happy, friendly and super smiley people who are ready to share their city but if you plan on staggering around drunk at night, flashing your iPad about and carrying a wallet that bulges with cash, you'll be rich pickings for other backpackers, let alone the locals.