California Dreaming in Cape Town
Beer, wine, and sunshine lessen the nuisance of therolling blackouts in a city of extremes and contradictions.
Photo by Kristan Lawson
At dinnertime, the lights are out on Cape Town’s liveliest avenue. The kitchens are closed, the sound systems silent. The sun is sinking, but the air is warm. Patio tables line the sidewalks, lit candles their centerpieces. Their occupants smoke and drink and chat amiably, suggesting that all is well.
Placards on the gables of Long Street’s ornate Victorians read 1898, 1895—they’ve seen it all over the past 120 years. During the 1970s and ’80s, theaters here showed anti-apartheid plays. Now, Long Street is a bohemian haven of cafes, shops, hostels, bars, and restaurants: A slightly grimy nightlife destination for the club-averse set, it’s Cape Town’s Bourbon Street. Behind the Victorians’ wrought-iron balconies and balustrades—including those of the Beerhouse, one of Africa’s biggest beer bars, its facade painted a youthful, blaring mustard-yellow—loom modern office buildings in silver and gray.
And everywhere, the power is out. The city’s power supply is in sad shape, so Eskom, the public utility in charge, has since 2008 pursued a policy euphemistically but officially known as “load shedding.” Two-and-a-half-hour blackouts roll regularly through Long Street and the surrounding city center; Capetonians respond with a blend of frustration and good-natured resignation.
To wit, outside Sgt Pepper, a lounge/bar/restaurant housed in a sky-blue-and-white Victorian, a sign optimistically announces: “Load shedding menu — Burgers and salads.” The burgers were presumably pre-cooked. Inside it’s dark. The waitstaff is nowhere to be seen. Two young men sit alone on the vast balcony, absorbing the day’s final light while gazing jealously at a Beerhouse balcony half-full of Sunday-evening revelers. At least the taps are still flowing.
Cape Town is cliché in that it’s a city of extremes and contradictions. It’s culturally and creatively wealthy but, in the eyes of many locals, bureaucratically inept. It’s a city ringed by world-class beaches—just ranked second-best on the planet by National Geographic—and punctuated by flat-top Table Mountain, hurriedly rising 3,500 feet into the heavens above sprawling inland suburbs.
Take the N2 from the airport and pass ramshackle apartheid-era townships in Africa’s capital of cool, where corrugated roofing and walls frame squat, square homes crammed together beneath spiderwebs of power wires. Surprisingly few miles away on a highway trafficked by diesel-exhaust-spewing jalopy pickups with men riding in the beds and brand-new Aston-Martins are multimillion-dollar old-money estates and über-modern ocean-view homes owned by the likes of Warren Buffett and South African-born Silicon Valley titan Elon Musk.
Color lines were drawn in this city and throughout South Africa for 46 years; 20 years later, they’ve yet to be erased. But language lines are more fluid: Large numbers of black, white, and Asian Capetonians speak Dutch-derived Afrikaans, which appears in public signage everywhere English does.
The “Mother City” harbors all. Often compared to San Francisco but feeling as much like Los Angeles, Cape Town is liberal, cosmopolitan, and modern. Unlike San Francisco, it sees an average of 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, a hair less than L.A. It’s one of the world’s most multicultural cities, and with 3.8 million people; it’s also nearly as big as L.A. It’s the most popular international tourist destination in Africa. And it’s old—by American standards at least, having been founded in 1652 as a supply station for Dutch ships rounding the cape to East Africa or India.
A taste of that history is available 15 minutes from the city center at Groot Constantia, South Africa’s oldest wine estate. You’ll conclude that only tourists visit it once you peek into its lobby and see Indians, Germans, Americans, and other foreigners bearing cameras around their necks. But for its proximity to town and rich past, it’s well worth a visit and $4 wine-tasting. Picnicking among the restored 17th-century Cape Dutch structures is optional but encouraged. The beating heart of the South African wine industry is another hour’s drive away in the town of Stellenbosch, and while in both cases the stuff is excellent and dirt-cheap, South African vinophiles still revere Napa Valley.
Bay Areans will find so much familiar in Cape Town that they might wonder why it took a 24-hour flight to get there. The Mediterranean climate and the Northern California-cool Atlantic waters; the trail-laced Table Mountain National Park and the spectacular 1,300-acre Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden on its southern slopes; the vibrant, populist V&A Waterfront and the gentrifying Woodstock neighborhood, where popped collars and flip-flops concede to coiffed beards and skinny jeans: Cape Town sure can feel like a California dream, rolling blackouts included. Vacationing there, you might even get comfortable shedding your own load.
Beerhouse, 223 Long St., 021-424-3370, www.Beerhouse.co.za
Sgt Pepper, 194 Long St., 021-424-5608, www.SgtPepper.co.za
Groot Constantia Wine Estate, Groot Constantia Road, 021-794-5128, www.GrootConstantia.co.za
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Rhodes Drive, Newlands, 021-799-8899, www.Sanbi.org/Gardens/Kirstenbosch