Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cape Town: First Take

CAPE TOWN - It's my first time in Cape Town, South Africa's oceanside gem, and I'm impressed. I'm still looking around, so I don't know the place yet, but the first thing that strikes a new arrival is the beauty of the city and the site. Driving into town from the airport, it reminded me of San Francisco, with houses spilling down craggy hillsides to the water. It's winter here, and the weather, too, reminds me of San Francisco: fog, sunny breaks, lots of wind, temperatures in the 50s and 60s F.

Bish Desmond Tutu's activist center, St. George's Cathedral, is directly across the street from my hotel, the new Taj Hotel Cape Town, which officially opened with a big party last night with Tata and Sons Chairman, the courtly Ratan Tata, on hand for the festivities. It's an unusual but successful amalgam of two repurposed historic buildings with guest rooms in a third structure, a 17-story glassy tower. An old banking hall is now the lobby and bar area. Just outside is St. George's mall, a pedestrianized street lined with curbside merchants selling African keepsakes and what we'll generously term art. Long Street, the city's main boho shopping and drinking street, is nearby. So, too, are the Company Gardens, the former food-growing area - now a beautiful public park - founded by the Dutch East India Company centuries ago. South Africa's pretty parliament building is located in the park, as is the country's attractive National Gallery. The dramatic outcrop of rugged Table Mountain looms over everything.

Walking around the city is generally safe in daytime - it wasn't safe even 10 years ago - and the city and nation still seem to be on a high from South Africa's successful production of the World Cup in June and July. There are, to be sure, many people just shuffling along or occupying park benches, with nowhere to go and nothing to do - a reminder of continuing poverty and class conflicts. Many public sector workers are on strike, protesting low wages, and this is not going down well with the public itself, as essential services are being disrupted. The Johannesburg Star the other day caarried disturbing reports of women forced into delivering babies outside the gates of struck hospitals, with no professional care. Scarey.

For travelers, things are still generally fine, and if you can spare the time and money, making a journey here is well worth it. I'm off on a wine safari today - just my speed.

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