Cape Town

This South African jewel long irresistible for its beauty now lures visitors with a booming art scene, as well

BY SARAH KHAN — Winter 2018

ou know ostriches can kill you, right?”

These aren’t words I want to hear from my tour guide when in a traffic jam precipitated by the aforementioned bird, who’s eyeing me as he trots alongside the car with his peculiar gait. Despite the pleasant weather and scenic surroundings, I happily keep my window tightly rolled up. But while the ostrich does look a touch surly, he eventually decides he can’t be bothered and carries on down the road.

I’m an hour outside of Cape Town on my way to the African continent’s southwesternmost point, and while you don’t find lions or elephants roaming the wilderness in this corner of South Africa, ostrich sightings are par for the course. Away from the city, the rugged terrain doesn’t look too different than it might have in 1488, when Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to round the continent: Sheer granite mountains draped in the region’s distinctive fynbos vegetation loom on one side of our car; blue Atlantic waters brimming with shipwrecks churn tumultuously below the cliffs on the other. The temperamental ocean at this juncture, where the frigid northbound Benguela and balmy southbound Agulhas currents collide with a might that has led countless ships to their untimely demise, compelled Dias to dub the area the Cape of Storms. In what might be one of the earliest instances of savvy PR spin, Portugal’s King John II eventually recast it as the Cape of Good Hope.

A century after Dias’ arrival, British explorer Sir Francis Drake pronounced it “a most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the Earth.” Now, 430 years after that, the city similarly enchants my friend Sarah. “I keep trying to get the perfect picture, but I give up,” she says with a wistful sigh. “Pictures just don’t do Cape Town justice.”

I agree. In the four years I called this scenic stretch of the world home, I never captured an image that adequately replicated what my eyes witnessed every day. Only Sydney, with its spectacular coastline ringed with Victorian architecture, and Rio de Janeiro, marked by a similarly dramatic mountain-ocean convergence, can hope to rival Cape Town’s sublime beauty. But while they make valiant attempts, neither Sydney nor Rio can hold a candle to the Mother City, where the vast mesa of Table Mountain dominates the skyline and pristine white beaches scallop the city limits. Even though I moved back to the U.S. more than a year ago, the fair cape keeps luring me back. This time I’ve brought a friend, so she can see my former home through my eyes.

Today, Sarah and I are navigating the Cape Peninsula, an essential half-day circuit for first-time visitors. Aside from exploring the Cape of Good Hope, we pause for coffee on the beach in chic Camps Bay, cruise along Chapman’s Peak — one of the world’s most scenic coastal drives, a breathtaking backdrop for BMW and Mercedes commercials — and visit the African penguin colony that resides on Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. The black-and-white birds comically flap around in the waves, in the shadow of the massive granite formations that give the beach its name. “Cape Town is so beautifully diverse,” our guide, Ryan van Reenen of Explore Sideways, tells us. “In a small geographic area we have bush, we have forest, we have sand dunes, we have animals. We can see a lot in one day.” And we do.

“Did you ever wake up and pinch yourself, knowing that you lived in the most beautiful city?” Sarah asks me.

I did indeed, almost every day.

Cape Town’s grand landscape. PHOTO BY KYLE MULOF/IMAGEBRIEF.

The city’s natural majesty isn’t all that hooked me, though. While a resident, I witnessed firsthand the rise of a diverse arts and design scene, a long-simmering creative brew that has bubbled over with the hotly anticipated opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa this past September. The first major institution dedicated to showcasing the dynamic works being produced across the continent, the museum inhabits a striking tower on the V&A Waterfront. U.K. starchitect Thomas Heatherwick reimagined a historic grain silo on a scale that has the art world speculating that the undertaking could be the next Guggenheim Bilbao, 20 years on. Where Cape Town’s charms were long the purview of nature lovers, the city now welcomes art aficionados by the planefuls.

Lionel Smit’s large-scale rhino sculpture at the Belmond.

Art and nature converge at the 196-room Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, where celebrated artist Lionel Smit has splashed a massive rhino sculpture with his signature broad strokes of color, as part of an initiative to raise awareness for the endangered animal. Gleaming from a top-to-toe redesign of its lobby and public areas, the historic Pink Lady, as she’s affectionately known, ranks as a Cape Town icon. The Mount Nelson has a long tradition of showcasing South African artists; aside from Smit’s rhino and his paintings in some of the cottages, guests find an ever-changing roster of sculptures in the gardens, and the hotel counts Cyril Coetzee, Nelson Mandela’s portrait artist, as artist-in-residence. You can sit for a portrait with Coetzee, whose Mandela painting was made into a South African stamp in 2008, commemorating the leader’s 90th birthday.

Regularly showing his work in Hong Kong, London, Sydney, and beyond, Smit is rapidly gaining acclaim overseas for his vibrant paintings, sculptures, and video work. Last year, his massive bronze sculpture Morphous held court in New York City’s Union Square. “When I came here from Pretoria 10 years ago, Cape Town was a small little town in the art world,” Smit tells me over tea by a roaring fireplace at the hotel. “It’s crazy how much it has been growing since then.” He’s talking not only about the influx of artists but also the explosion of world-class galleries, such as Everard Read, the Goodman Gallery, and others across the city, a testament to local artists’ commercial viability. “I think MOCAA is awesome. It’s like putting the cherry on the cake. It’ll change African artists’ points of view of themselves — it creates a platform for African artists to explore their work on a global scale.”

Ellerman House art gallery. PHOTO BY ETCHED SPACE.

Along a tony stretch of the Atlantic Seaboard, home to some of the country’s most expensive real estate, the Ellerman House hotel presides over a cliff in Bantry Bay; it’s home to what I’m convinced is the city’s best vantage point for sunset. But guests of the 13-room, two-villa estate have access to so much more than a scenic perch: More than 1,000 artworks collected by billionaire Paul Harris, one of the founders of South African bank RMB, hang in its hallways. Harris, a passionate patron of South African talents, plays an active role in the acquisition and placement of every piece, ranging from colonial paintings by Thomas Baines, Thomas Bowler, and Frans Oerder to modern works by William Kentridge, Gerard Sekoto, and even Smit. It’s one of the most representative South African art collections, making a visit to its contemporary art gallery an essential primer before a visit to Zeitz MOCAA — but only if you’re staying at the hotel. As would be the case in any private residence, the entire property is off-limits to everyone but Ellerman guests. “The South African arts scene is eclectic,” says Talita Swarts, the hotel’s art guide. “Artists are taking what they like from the different cultures and mixing it up. For long we’ve been overlooked. Zeitz MOCAA is opening us up to the world.”

Cape Town’s creativity also shines in the dining scene. I’ve long waxed adoringly about the chefs conjuring up culinary wizardry across the city, from Luke Dale-Roberts’ Test Kitchen, which regularly earns him global accolades, to the international fare on offer in the stalls at the artisanal Neighbourgoods Market. In just a few days, I return to my favorites and see to it that Sarah, a jaded New York City food snob, has some of the best meals of her life. At the laid-back Chefs Warehouse, we sit around long wooden tables and share Liam Tomlin’s seared tuna with curry emulsion and a fondant spin on South Africa’s traditional malva pudding. At Shortmarket Club, helmed by Dale-Roberts’ disciple Wesley Randles, a dapper mustachioed host guides us to our seats and aproned waiters with bow ties and suspenders wheel trolleys brimming with gin and oysters to the table. At Neighbourgoods, we inhale ostrich burgers without the least bit of guilt about feasting on our former foe.

Granary Cafe at the Silo Hotel. PHOTO BY MARK WILLIAMS.

On our last afternoon, I head to V&A Waterfront to behold the venue that has the whole city abuzz. The district tops the list of Africa’s most visited sites, thanks to a popular mall and countless restaurants and attractions; Zeitz MOCAA occupies a stretch of the Waterfront not far from where visitors board the ferry to Robben Island, the prison-turned-museum where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27-year sentence. We first ascend the tower that looms over the museum to visit the Silo Hotel, where we can gaze out upon Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Robben Island itself from the rooftop terrace. Over lunch at the hotel’s chic Granary Café, I watch helicopters take off in the distance to give visitors a glimpse of the stunning scenery I’m gazing at from my nest, up in the glass bubble formed by Heatherwick’s distinctive curved windows. The 28-room art-filled hotel became Cape Town’s most coveted address as soon as it opened last March, thanks in part to owner Liz Biden’s signature decorative flair — she brings her love for exotic leathers, animal prints, and kaleidoscopic colors to the industrial building, softening what could have been interpreted as a stern and sterile bolt-hole by the mind of a less imaginative designer.

After lunch, we ride the elevator back down to see what emerged from Heatherwick’s mind. I’d been following Zeitz MOCAA’s road to its September grand opening ever since Heatherwick first announced his plans for the museum in 2014; I took tours of the interior when it was still a construction site, then again when it was almost complete. Now I’m visiting the space with some art installed but before the crowds descend — and from the second I step in, I’m mesmerized. My neck immediately snaps back in an attempt to take in the full perspective of the cavernous cement-clad atrium, a symphony of sinuous lines meticulously cleaved from the original silo’s cylinders, resulting in an ethereal chamber with light filtering in at unexpected angles. Heatherwick preserved and incorporated original details throughout, from pockmarked pillars to the grain elevator to subterranean tunnels.

“You can see the history,” says registrar Owen Martin as he guides Sarah and me through the museum. On different floors, we preview some of the most vibrant works created on the continent since 2000: Athi-Patra Ruga’s performance-based photographs; Lungiswa Gqunta’s politically charged mixed-media installations; Mohau Modisakeng’s riveting reimaginings of weapons of violence as beautiful pieces of art; Mouna Karray’s surrealist self-portraits. “There’s a recurring theme of politically engaged artists speaking about histories of colonialism, governance, and capitalism in Africa,” says Martin. “Many artists are taking ownership of their history through visual art.”

While Cape Town’s art scene is being galvanized by these creative talents, in my mind, the city’s ultimate masterpiece remains its spectacular sunsets, and choosing a place to watch our final Capetonian sunset is no easy decision. After debating our options — taking the cable car back up Table Mountain a second time; strolling along Sea Point Promenade; returning to Ellerman House’s tiered cliffside gardens — Sarah and I decide to climb to the top of Lion’s Head, the sheer conical spire that looms over one end of Signal Hill. It’s a less challenging hike than its neighbor, Table Mountain, and in some ways more rewarding, since you take in ever-changing views as you wrap around the peak, which reinvigorates you whenever you feel your energy begin to flag. We arrive at the top just as the warm embrace of golden hour cloaks Cape Town, and for the umpteenth time we try, and fail, to properly commit the view to our iPhones.

“You can’t really appreciate sunset until you’ve seen one from the top of Lion’s Head,” Sarah says. So we put our phones away to do just that.

Belmond Mount Nelson: from $445.
Ellerman House: from $665.
Silo Hotel: from $855.

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Explore this emerging isle that’s now accessible by air from South Africa


Until now, a defiant island geology — which, as Charles Darwin put it, “rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean” — held the subtropical island of St. Helena, and its population of 4,500, firmly in an earlier century. But a feat of modern engineering and a new boutique resort have this remote isle in the South Atlantic about 2,000 miles off the South African coast moving forward and finally ready to welcome visitors.

It took moving a mountain and nearly $328 million to build St. Helena’s new airport, which opened late last spring. In October, South Africa Airlink broke the isle’s 500 years of isolation with its first commercial weekly service out of Johannesburg; five-hour flights on new Embraer E190s replace the five-day sea voyage from Cape Town. Then, in November, the South Africa-based Mantis Hotel Collection company opened the Mantis St. Helena boutique property ( with eight Heritage rooms in the 1744 East India Company Officers Barracks and 22 new-build, contemporary rooms.

The long wait to discover this off-the-beaten-path island was worth it. With a tangible history that includes Napoleon’s historic Longwood House estate (where he was imprisoned for his final years), carefully maintained forts and fortifications, and a ecosystem that boasts flora and fauna cataloged by Darwin, exploring it merges history and beauty.

If you’re an avid hiker, set off through the forest to Sir Edmond Halley’s 1676 observatory, summit the island’s highest peak to see the Norfolk pines rumored to have been planted by Captain Cook for navigation, or skirt the steep red cannon-studded cliffs that overlook the clear blue sea. Out at sea, snorkel with whale sharks and dive perfectly preserved wrecks in the uncrowded ocean.

From the planet’s most isolated golf courses (maintained by goats) to what’s reportedly the world’s oldest animal (a giant tortoise called Jonathan, above, that lives on the governor’s lawn), St. Helena entices with quirks and charms. Inhabited by friendly locals known as Saints, the isle offers the rare chance to visit a place virtually untouched by the outside world.


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