City break: Cape Town

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Cape Town is the gateway to glorious South Africa and the perfect place to bag the holidaymaker's Big Five: shopping, eating, culture, partying and beaches. But there are more compelling reasons to visit this city...

City break: Cape Town
South Africa is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of democratic elections. And despite the pain and trauma that mark its history and the problems posed (huge gaps between rich and poor, how to empower an underprivileged population), hope runs high in this newly born country and a special energy of human spirit circulates. Add in Cape Town's dazzling physical presence at the foot of Table Mountain and the cuff of a crashing Atlantic, and there are compelling reasons to go. Essential information

First time visitors should plump for guidance, at least for the first day. Most of Cape Town is safe and clean and pleasingly cosmopolitan, but South Africa is a complex country where 40% of the population live below the poverty line. Street crime is high. So until you get a sense of where you should and shouldn't be going, how to deal with the parking attendants lurking on every road you'll ever want to park on, or the street people who come to car windows at traffic lights asking for money, then get some orientation on a tour. After that, roaming on foot is easy and if you don't feel confident enough to hire a car, cabs are cheap enough to take anywhere and everywhere. Capetonians are a friendly and sociable bunch, and fun is not hard to find. Tipping is the norm and begins at 10%, bargaining is not. Don't forget to leave a little something for low-paid invisible staff members on departure. Where to stay

The quality of accommodation is high and the prices are low (ludicrously so, when you compare to London). There are hostels, B&Bs, luxurious hotels and everything in between. No.1 Chesterfield in Oranjezicht, is an extremely comfortable place to unwind with a gorgeous garden and small pool. Like many private hotels in Cape Town it's actually a big house run by a family. If you want to preen and be seen, head for the Miami-like vibe of Camps Bay, where you'll find the elegant and upmarket Bay Hotel. Romney Park Luxury Suites in Green Point, offers a home from home if you're lucky enough to live in a spacious white apartment with a spa and wellness centre downstairs. Sights & activities

You're face to face with nature and the elements anywhere in Africa and Cape Town is no exception. Taking in sundown from Table Mountain is the definitive local experience. The 1000m ascent is demanding (and steep) but the sense of achievement equals the height scaled. The cable car is a less exhausting route. (Sundowning is something of an institution and Capetonians either head for the hills or to Camps Bay to enjoy a drink as the sun slips away.) The ocean is far too cold to swim in unless surfing's your game, but great for whale, seal, or penguin watching: head for False Bay and Simon's Town. North of town at Blouberg beach you'll see thrill fanatics doing amazing tricks with body-kites and an incredible view of Table Mountain. The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens are beautiful and worth a visit too. Less pretty but pretty important, is the District 6 museum - a departure point for township tours. Robben Island, the sight of Mandela's incarceration, is now a world heritage site and a must see. Visitors to this historic place are given a fascinating tour by ex-prisoners. You'll probably pick up on a hippy vibe in certain shops and cafes in town, but a short ride out to Observatory will intensify the experience. There you'll find the Crystal Wizard, a shop stocked to the brim with beautiful stones, and the enjoyably eccentric A Touch Of Madness Cafe (at its best during the evening). Interesting shops abound in Cape Town, beginning with fabulous South African crafts on Kloof Street Gardens (start at Heartworks and work down), taking in contemporary interior design emporiums, and finishing with funky and vintage boutiques on Long Street. The vast Waterfront mall is worth inspecting for its dockside dining opportunities. When to go

Cape Town is south of the equator and has a temperate climate, so anytime is good, but summer (our winter) offers the best weather. Food & drink

Fantastic food is one of the joys of holidaying in South Africa and in Cape Town you'll be dizzy with the variety of cuisine on offer. Because of the ready availability of fish, fruit and vegetables there is a heavenly array of healthy but scrumptious eateries. There are places to pose in Camps Bay, ultra chic venues in town, and special places pocketed away awaiting the curious traveller (Perima's indian restaurant in Claremont being a case in point). How to get there

Cape Town is an 11-hour flight away and several big operators run the route, including British Airways and South African Airways. For further information check out www.southafrica.net.
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