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Glorious Return to South Africa--Two Weeks in October

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Nov 7th, 2013, 10:29 AM
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Glorious Return to South Africa--Two Weeks in October

Having just returned from a trip that ranks up there with the best of my life, I will offer some details in a short trip report. Please feel free to ask any and all questions on topics I have, or have not, covered here.

I had traveled previously in West and East Africa, but it was not until 2007 that I took my first trip to southern Africa--South Africa, Vic Falls, and two camps in Botswana (see trip report on this forum for details). My partner had never traveled to Africa before.

I had pored over the Africa forum on this site, so I had a formed a general plan that would include Cape Town, Londolozi, and one other camp. But I turned the actual hotel, lodge, and in-country air bookings to Liesl Matthews of Southern Destinations, the Cape Town agency that had so brilliantly planned my first, more complicated trip. This proved to be a wise decision. I should add that this is one of only a handful of times (I can remember only two) that I have used a travel agency to plan a trip. I was more than pleased with the agency and recommend them highly.

http://www.southerndestinations.com/



Knowing that I wanted to combine the Sabi Sands with another landscape within the country, Liesl offered a few ideas including Mashatu, Phinda, and Tswalu.
We settled on Tswalu, a luxury camp in the Kalahari.

This was the plan we formulated last spring:

7 nights Cape Town, Mt. Nelson Hotel
4 nights Londolozi Pioneer Camp
1 night Johannesburg
3 nights Tswalu in the Motse camp

I booked the international flights from New York’s JFK on KLM. We would fly overnight to Amsterdam and connect with the direct Amsterdam-CapeTown flight, with arrival in Cape town in the evening of the day after departure. On the return, we departed Johannesburg on the night flight, arriving early morning in Amsterdam. Due to the long connection time, we were able to spend a few bonus hours in Amsterdam itself before boarding the last, sad homeward leg, to JFK.

I bought travel insurance from Travel Guard, via InsureMyTrip.com but thankfully, we did not have to use it. We also filled our prescriptions for malaria medicine, said to be necessary for travelers to the Sabi Sands/Kruger areas.


Liesl at Southern Destinations was handling all the details, so after buying the KLM tickets and the insurance, I turned my attention to one of my favorite topics: Food. My first trip, when I also spent a week in the city, confirmed that Cape Town and its surroundings comprised an outstanding gastronomic destination. There seemed to be so many inviting restaurants, but after lots of online reading, and querying (see thread below)


http://www.fodors.com/community/afri...ant-advice.cfm

followed by consultations with Liesl, who knows her way around a dinner plate, I formulated a list that would include what seemed to be the most interesting local restaurants. One of the these, The Test Kitchen, which I imagine tops most lists of the best in the city, needs to be booked many weeks, if not months, ahead of time. I chose to have Liesl book them all for me about two months before departure.

In Cape Town:

Pot Luck Club
The Test Kitchen (two dinners)
La Colombe
The Greenhouse
Nando’s

In the Winelands:

We had originally planned to have Sunday lunch at Babel, but once we arrived and sought local advice, we switched to the restaurant at the Delaire Graff wine estate outside Stellenbosch. (Babel will wait for the next visit!)


More soon...
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Nov 7th, 2013, 06:58 PM
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So jealous ... just starting to think about a trip for next summer. Very excited to hear more!! Thanks for sharing your adventures!!
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Nov 8th, 2013, 01:48 AM
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I can guess well from your post that you had a great time there. Therefore, according to you which place you will suggest us to must visit when we are at South Africa.
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Nov 8th, 2013, 05:59 AM
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Looking forward to reading more about South Africa. Always enjoy your TRs, and have been thinking about SA at some point - although I'll want to ride the train.
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Nov 8th, 2013, 10:19 AM
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Thanks, Thursday, and vice versa...you have such a terrific collection of reports on your blog, and with photos, too. I did ride the Blue Train on my first visit to SA. But as you know, there is another train, with a more down-to-earth price, that seems to garner good reports.

I have been overhearing my partner (never been to anyplace in Africa) on the phone with friends and each time when they ask, he exclaims, "This was by far the best trip I've ever taken..just amazing, incredible," etc etc.
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Nov 8th, 2013, 10:25 AM
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We used Liesl at Southern Destinations for our trip to south Aafrica in August for our family of 7 (grandparents, parents and 3 girls aged 8 10 and 12) and she gave us a wonderful itinerary with great guides and accommodation. Couldn't have been more pleased.
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Nov 8th, 2013, 10:32 AM
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We also used Liesl at Southern Destinations for our trip to South Africa in August for our family of 7 (grandparents, parents and 3 girls aged 8, 10 and 12). It couldn't have been better with great guides and accommodation. In Kruger we had our own camp at Little Jock with our own chef, staff and guide. While you are in Cape Town arrange a guided tour to Langa Township. It was very worthwhile and the people were friendly and four ladies sang and danced for us on the street then gave us a big hug and little children came up and took our hands and walked along for a while. Varied accommodation from very very poor to nice little bungalows.
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Nov 8th, 2013, 01:25 PM
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That's wonderful, Mhwhite. I have recommended Southern Destinations to several friends here in New York and all were extremely pleased with Liesl, and with the agency.

Here is a bit more information, on packing, aimed mostly at first-time visitors to the region, or first-time safari-goers.


A word on packing, from a serial over-packer:

On my last, month-long, trip to southern Africa, the combination of bringing “too much stuff,” and the strict weight restrictions of the small planes that service the safari camps, combined to force me to check a suitcase in the storage area of OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg. Due to the inconvenience, and to the fairly shady, or at least mixed, reputation of this facility, I was determined to fit everything into my large L.L. Bean canvas duffel bag, plus small carry-on backpack and rather large handbag. (My partner also took one, smaller duffel, and one wheeled, Eagle Creek carry on bag; I did manage to sneak a few purchases into his bags as the trip progressed; I also again mailed home a(n) expensive package of purchases from PostNet in Cape Town)

I cannot remember exactly what I brought along, but I do remember that is was FAR TOO MUCH!! Having two pair of shoes, one pair of lace-ups and one pair sandals, plus a pair of flip flops/thongs, was perfect, although I know realize what veteran safari-goers already know: Sandals are not ideal footwear on game drives.

Where I went wrong was in bringing 4 pair of pants: Two pair of jeans, one black (intended for evenings in Cape Town but not absolutuely necessary, and one gray, which was heavily in rotation). One other pairi of pants, and one pair black leggings, never worn. Because mercifully, I had lost weight since my last trip, I left my zip-off “safari” pants (which have never, ever been zipped off) at home and brought a new pair of “safari” pants which rolled up to calf length. I also brought about 5 short sleeved t-shirts, one “nice” white shirt that I planned to wear at night on safari but which remained snug in my bag for the entire trip, and 2 long-sleeved black t-shirts (why two??) and a pair of shorts for lounging in the room. Too much, considering that both our camps included daily laundry service in their all-inclusive price.

I brought one “nice” cotton jacket, which I rarely wore. Brought one microfiber black, zippered jacket from L.L. Bean, which I wore a lot. My khaki Tilley hat, which tied snug under the chin, was also heavily used.


However, I did not take the advice so generously offered here to bring a wool scarf, gloves, and a warm hat for cold mornings and evenings. (see last part of planning thread, also linked above:


http://www.fodors.com/community/afri...-vs-phinda.cfm


Not only that, I did NOT have a heavy, or even medium-weight jacket.


And so I was very, very cold-- no--I was freezing, during the first part of the morning drives and the last part of the evening drives. (Vehicles did have blankets, and at Tswalu they supplied hot water bottles. Even so, it was cold in mid-October, in both the Sabi Sands and at Tswalu.

Lodge gift shops do sell some of the items that I had neglected to bring (I bought a fuzzy hat at Tswalu, and both Tswalu and Londolozi sold jackets, hats, gloves, and fleeces) but there is no guarantee that you will like these, or that your size will be in stock. And they are expensive, as compared with the prices at, for example, Cape Union Mart, the chain of camping and outdoor apparel and accessories with a convenient-for-tourists branch in Cape Town at The Waterfront. (My partner's one purchase of the trip was a 90 ZAR baseball cap emblazoned with the Big 5 from Cape Union Mart. He prizes it very highly and was distraught when it blew off his head during a nighttime game drive at Tswalu. (My Tilley hat, which tied under the chin, remained firmly in place even during the bumpiest and fastest off-road drives) Thankfully our diligent ranger, Kyle, and tracker David, were able to recover the hat after repeated, spotlit drives back and forth along the track in the Land Rover)



Apart from all that, aimed for first-time safari-goers, I will also offer this thought: Most of the other guests at our two lodges were veterans, and many had been to a dozen or more camps in various regions of Africa. Almost NONE of these lovely people were kitted out in ensembles of khaki safari gear--zip-off pants, Buzz-Off insect proof shirts, etc etc. (I did see a few cameras whose long lenses were shrouded in camoflauge, though)

What did they wear? Most of them (almost all Europeans apart from a couple from Johannesburg who were at Londolozi for the wedding of one of the Varty daughters, and one couple--he originally from Zimbabwe; she of French/Phillipine heritage, both now living in Singapore--who shared our vehicle for two days of drives, also at Londolozi) sported jeans, t-shirts in sober colors, regular sneakers/trainers with socks, and headgear that included quite a few baseball-type brimmed caps.

There was one khaki-encased older woman, a travel agent from Florida, and one of the few Americans we encountered, who had obviously done a lot of hunting of Africana souvenirs--her sneakers dangled furry animals from the laces and her tote bag sported other furry mammals, porcupine quill earrings festooned her ears and beaded Masai and faux elephant hair bracelets her wrists. Her logo-stamped clothing attested to the other camps she had visited. She looked faintly ridiculous. To me.

Apart from observing my fellow, more experienced, guests, I asked rangers, camp staff, and assorted South Africans and the consensus was: “When we go on safari ourselves, we wear jeans, comfortable tops and, often, baseball caps.”
I will remember this for next time! Just make sure to leave the bright reds and chartreuses behind.

As for Cape Town, the city is casual with a capital “C.” I could probably count the number of men I saw in suits on one hand (these seemed to be business travelers staying at the Mt. Nelson; we certainly saw no one wearing a suit and tie in any of the excellent restaurants we visited.) I wore black jeans almost every night in Cape Town, and my partner wore cotton trousers in a neutral color. Blue jeans would have been fine as well, as long as the ensemble was well-fitting, neat and clean and paired with footwear other than beach shoes. The general style of dress was much more relaxed than in our home city, New York, and more akin, I suppose, to California.
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Nov 8th, 2013, 05:48 PM
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Looking forward to more! Miss reading about your prune june induced regular companions.
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Nov 9th, 2013, 07:55 AM
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Marija your memory is enviable! They are still going strong, and most regular, I assume! But after a semi-disastrous trip to southern Italy (Prune juice to be found in certain health food stores and large supermarkets, but not in the coveted small cans) two years ago, we are not planning any more trips together.
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Nov 9th, 2013, 01:22 PM
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Here is a bit more:


We arrived at the spiffy and modern Cape Town airport (CPT) at 9:30pm. After collecting our 2 checked bags, we exited the baggage claim to find our guide, Charlie Ratcliffe waiting for us with a big smile. My friends and I had hired Charlie, through Southern Destinations, on our 2007 trip and I was very pleased that he was free to squire us around this time. It is certainly possible to fend for oneself in the city and surroundings, by using either rental car (left-hand side of road driving was intimidating) or by taking taxis within the city and day tours to see the surroundings. One certainly does not “need” to hire a guide, but we were very happy that we did, as it made things that much more convenient, not to mention that Charlie now felt like an old friend. He would be with us for the next 5 1/2 days, picking us up at our hotel in his roomy new van around (9:30am and returning us about 5pm most days.)

After the easy drive from the airport, we arrived at the Mt. Nelson and checked into Room 326, a junior suite. The room was attractively furnished in a traditional style; the mattress was very comfortable; the bathroom with bathtub and separate shower was large. Public areas retained their architectural detail (the hotel dates from 1899 but has obviously been redone) but were not stuffy or staid. Best of all, the hotel has two swimming pools (normally both are heated but the heater in the Oasis pool was broken at the time of our visit). We were very pleased.


http://www.mountnelson.co.za/web/oca...lson_hotel.jsp


After a lovely breakfast on the Oasis terrace the next morning, we swam and relaxed before being picked up by Charlie about 1pm. I am normally very susceptible to jet lag, but felt none on arrival in South AFrica. Maybe this is because we had all day to relax on the plane before arriving in the city. (It did take me more than a week to get back to “normal” on the way back).


The next few days passed in a whirl of color, taste and sound. And views!
The first day, like all the rest, was brilliantly sunny and cool. Our first stop that first afternoon was The Castle of Good Hope, built by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th Century as a maritime replenishment station. (30 ZAR admission)


http://www.castleofgoodhope.co.za/




We followed this with a visit to the fascinating, sad, and very moving District Six Museum:


http://www.districtsix.co.za/

(As luck would have it, one of our taxi drivers that week had lived in District Six and told us some fascinating stories of life there, and the struggle to gain compensation from the government years later for the loss of his home at the time of the forced removals) There is also at least one former resident who works as a guide in the museum. As those who have visited the city know, the area once occupied by this lively mixed race neighborhood remains largely a barren swath near the center of Cape Town.

Next: Table Mountain, a national park and World Heritage site within the city limits that I had been unable to fit into my last trip. We were whisked in a revolving cable car to the top, where the views, and the natural landscape, has few rivals for magnificence in any city I have visited. Colorful sunbirds, furry dassies (rock hyrax), swooping kestrels, masses of wildflowers, steep granite precipices rising up from turbulent turquoise ocean...just glorious!


http://www.sanparks.org/parks/table_mountain/


The penguins of Boulders Beach, Chapman’s Peak Drive, the Cape of Good Hope, Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, the Winelands--we took in all the traditional, gorgeous sites in the next few days. I am not sure that any other city can match the scenic bedazzle of Cape Town, and that includes Hong Kong and San Francisco, two cities renowned for panoramic views.

And best of all, we ate and drank, and ate and drank, and ate and drank, at a succession of fabulous restaurants!


I will return soon with details on where we dined.
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Nov 10th, 2013, 08:39 AM
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CAPE TOWN RESTAURANTS (and one restaurant in Stellenbosch)



(In all cases except Delaire Graff outside Stellenbosch, and the snacking we did at The Old Biscuit Mill and the V&A Market on the Wharf, and a take-away from Nando's, all of our meals were dinners) We reached the dinner restaurants by taxi from the Mt. Nelson; at his request, the taxi driver that we used for the two Constantia restaurants waited for us and drove us back at the finish of both meals. For the meals closer to Cape Town, we had the restaurant phone a taxi for us after dinner.

We had no real problems with taxis but I will say this: Make sure that the meter is turned on, unless you know the fare and are willing to drive off meter. Two or three times the drivers neglected to turn on their meters, once claiming that the meter was broken and stating a fare that we knew was too high. When I asked to return to the hotel, his meter suddenly fixed itself.

Second point: Not all taxis, in fact no taxis that I recall, have GPS. Make certain, therefore, that you have an exact address and directions, especially if you are venturing to the suburbs. We got lost in the dark near Constantia, trying to find The Greenhouse, driving round and round on the dark, winding roads, until we were able to find someone to help set us on our way.




This site of our first dinner in the city, this is the more casual of the two restaurants helmed by famed local chef, Luke-Dale Roberts, in the Old Biscuit Mill, a renovated factory complex in the slowly gentrifying but still raffish neighborhood of Woodstock, about a 20-minute drive from the central business district.

The Pot Luck Club occupies the 6th and top floor in the silo of the complex and sports all the requisite features--steel and glass, weathered beams-- familiar to those acquainted with the current industrial chic design ethos. Window seats benefit from a sweeping view of the city and suburbs. The menu, of course, focuses on “small plates” and the influences are global with Asian flavors accenting most dishes. Dress is very casual and our fellow diners seemed to be locals in their 20s and 30s.

The exchange rate at the time of our visit was R10 to USD$1, very good for those armed with US dollars and at least 20% more favorable than my last visit. Food and wine prices in this gastronomic capital were, therefore, more than reasonable for us.


We had an assemblage of dishes from the various menu categories--Salty, Sweet, Umami, Sour, Bitter, Sweet.

Crispy Curried Celery Leaf--Fried with a shatteringly crispy crust, this jumble of celery leaves pungent with aromatic curry was near the top of the list on that first evening. Essential! (R30)

Fried Calamari, Turmeric and Ginger Dressing with Fresh Leek and Chili Salad.
Good, but more sauteed than fried, as I recall. (R70)

Blockhouse Battered Hake with Cardamom and Saffron Mayo. Fish and chips, again with a perfect battered outer shell and perfectly cooked white fish. (R50)

Chinese-Style Short Ribs with Dark Beer and Doenjang Glaze. The sous-vide equipment here, as at many of today’s eateries, sees heavy use, and as we’ve sometimes encountered, the results are not always an improvement over the more traditional slow braise. This holds true especially with the tougher cuts of meat, as exemplified by these short ribs. It sounded promising, but the although the flavors worked, and presentation was lovely, the meat was a tad dry. (R80)

5-Spice-Glazed Pork Belly with Cured Roasted Apple, Grated Halvah (!) and Crackling. A flavor bomb! Difficult to imagine, but the pork belly meat was on the dry side, otherwise this would have found its way into the top-dishes-of- the-week list. (R80)

Mushrooms on Toast, Grated Lemon, Parmesan Porcini Dust. Very good, but not much porcini flavor. (R65)

Melted Chocolate Fondant with Stem Ginger Ice Cream. Outstanding! (R60)

With a bottle of Paul Cluver Close Encounter Riesling, from the Elgin Valley in the Western Cape, (R215), the dinner for two totalled R778, or about US$80.

The one-way taxi ride from the hotel (we made the round trip to three dinners within the Old Biscuit Mill) averaged in the area of R70-R80.


http://www.thepotluckclub.co.za/about.php
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Nov 10th, 2013, 11:56 AM
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More! Lovely trip report eks!
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Nov 11th, 2013, 05:57 AM
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The African penguins at Boulder’s Beach, Chapman’s Peak Drive, the Cape of Good Hope--these and more had us ooohing and ahhing on our first full day in the city. Rather than plan a sit-down lunch, we headed first for Tokai, where a branch of South African "fast food chicken" chain Nando’s occupies an unassuming mall just off the highway. We stopped in and assembled a take-away order that would include Nando’s famous spice-marinated grilled chicken (available in three levels of heat from mild to extra hot, all with Peri-Peri sauce, and in two non-spicy versions), and several side dishes. (R145, including drinks, for 3 of us).



http://www.nandos.com/

Chicken safely stowed in Charlie’s van, we set off on the circuit that took us to see the famous African penguins at Boulder’s Beach, after which we relaxed on benches facing the sea at Buffels Baai, where I had my first taste of Nando’s.

For those unfamiliar with this chain, I will say only that I wish we had a branch in New York. Excellent price/value ratio, very tasty chicken (I ordered the hot, which was pleasantly spicy); terrific cole slaw (I did not like their Peri Peri spinach, however). I imagine the quality varies from branch to branch, because the Nando’s dinner we had on our last night in the city, purchased at a Kloof Street branch near our hotel, was not quite as good. Or perhaps it was the astounding scenery! In any case, inexpensive and tasty.

After lunch, we continued on our circuit, with the Cape of Good Hope as a highlight. (You do need to hone your aggressive side, however, if you want to have your photo taken behind the famous sign; some foreign visitors are blissfully unaware that others are waiting, and some seem to believe that they are Marilyn posing in Bert Stern’s studio, camping and vamping for long minutes while other seethe.)


All in all, a fabulous day, capped off by a marvelous dinner at a restaurant reputed to be among Africa’s best:


LA COLOMBE


La Colombe is tucked into a charming farmhouse structure amidst the vines and gardens of the Constantia-Uitsig Estate about a half-hour’s drive outside the central city. As noted above, we took a taxi and the driver offered to wait and drive us back after dinner. (we had some interesting conversations with this driver who, like many we met, is an immigrant from the D.R.C.) The meter, on arrival, read R265, but we left a generous tip. I had dined previously at the estate’s more casual restaurant, Constantia Uitsig, which is slated to close soon, but had never visited La Colombe.

The French name had put me off a bit; I feared that the place might be formal and the food overdone. I need not have feared. This is a cozy farmhouse restaurant, all whitewashed walls sweeping up to a peaked ceiling accented with painted beams. Lots of wildflowers. A terrace opens to a courtyard centered on a fountained pool and edged by lush gardens.

This season, evening diners were seated inside. We were handed a printed menu, augmented by specials written on an ambulatory blackboard. Our fellow diners were dressed casually, for the most part; one single gentlemen wore blue jeans and a pressed shirt and did not look out of place. Now, on to the food:

Although there are tasting menus (5 courses for R310) we ordered a la carte.

Already acquainted with the luscious oysters of the western coast, I chose a half dozen from Saldhana Bay. When I could not decide between the raw and the Champagne-poached, the waiter suggested three of each. Both versions were outstanding! (R28 each). Essential, for oyster lovers.

My partner ordered a half order of a nightly special, Spring Pea Risotto. Creamy, bright, and all around delicious. (R75)

Our main courses were, for me, Assiette of Suckling Pig, various pig parts including loin, crepinette, and belly, accompanied by pickled red cabbage, smoked pureed potatoes, creamed leeks, and a sauce of quince and beet juice.
Excellent! (R220). My partner had the Duck special; although I neglected to take notes, this was also an excellent dish, served with a healthy serving of duck foie. (R265)

With water, and two glasses of Bukkettraube from Cedarburg (one of my favorite wine discoveries on this trip) dinner for two totalled R874, before tip.
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Nov 11th, 2013, 05:59 AM
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I forgot; keep in mind that La Colombe is one of the city's few top restaurants open on Sundays.




http://www.constantia-uitsig.com/pag...la-colombe.php
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Nov 11th, 2013, 11:23 PM
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Yes well said Ekscrunchy, La-Colombo Is most loved and has most awarded restaurants.
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Nov 12th, 2013, 04:34 AM
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A BIT ON SNACK FOOD, AND SHOPPING

New since my last visit to Cape Town is the V&A Market on the Wharf, a former electric power station now enclosing row after row of food stands comprising a permanent food bazaar featuring edibles from mango-carrot smoothies and Belgian waffles to biltong (the kudu is excellent!) and samoosas (what we in the States know as samosas). Open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:30am to 6pm, this is a good place to head for a snack, or many snacks, at reasonable prices. You can devour your purchases on site, or the benches and tables outside the building.

http://www.marketonthewharf.co.za/


Not far away, inside the Waterfront mall, a branch of the upscale supermarket Woolworth’s was my source for interesting dried spice blends, boxes of Rooibos (often called red bush in the US) tea, jars of chutney, and bottles of Peri Peri sauce and Rose’s Lime Juice, made here with cane sugar instead of the corn syrup found in the US-sold product. (Yes, I did mail much of my bounty home, from PostNet, increasing the total price of each item by three or perhaps more).

Speaking of shopping, we made the requisite stops at the multi-leveled and jammed-to-the-rafters Pan African Market, and at Greenmarket Square (look carefully and you might find some intriguing items among the heaps of souvenir-ey Africana). (I bought long necklaces whose beads are made from lacquered, coiled newspaper; (R40 each)

On Long Street, at #72-74, the upscale two-level Tribal Trends, carries decorative wares and jewelery from many sub-Saharan countries, much of it made for the shop. Prices are on the high side; quality is very high, and the staff is absolutely lovely.

Another must shop is Exclusive Books. Although most of the Waterfront is devoted to chain stores familiar from many big cities, this bookstore is a standout. They carry books on all topics but the interest, for me, is their vast selection of books on Africa and Africa-related topics.


In or near the Bo-Kaap district, there are several shops offering intriguing handcrafts and artwork whose profits go towards bettering the living standards of people in the various townships around Cape Town. Among these are: Monkeybiz http://www.monkeybiz.co.za and

Streetwires, http://streetwires.co.za/

and another nearby shop whose name I have forgotten but where I bought a cute set of neck collar, bracelet, and earrings made from colored buttons (R85).


There is a clutch of interesting shops in Die Waterkaant district, as well as at The Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, which was the scene of two of our best meals of the trip, at The Test Kitchen.
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Nov 12th, 2013, 09:52 AM
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I'm following along, looking forward to the rest of the report!!
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Nov 12th, 2013, 12:20 PM
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Thanks!

I forgot to mention that, on our day trip around the Cape Peninsula, we saw more than a dozen Southern Right whales just offshore. The viewing was as good as I had had in Hermanus on the last trip.

Also saw baboons, antelope and ostrich near Cape of Good Hope.
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Nov 13th, 2013, 07:40 AM
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Loved those noisy penguins at Boulder's beach. Sounds like you (once again!) honed in on great food.
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