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Leave winter behind and spend Christmas in Cape Town

TravelBy Fay Brophy
Table Mountain towers over magical Cape Town
Table Mountain towers over magical Cape Town

People are funny. Like, so many find the idea that I would go to Cape Town for Christmas absolutely appalling. “But how can it be a proper Christmas

“But how can it be a proper Christmas when it’s 30 degrees?” they squeal. And “what about the turkey?” And “it’s so far away...”

In who’s warped world is Ireland’s driving rain, biting wind and sub-zero temperature more appealing than Africa’s glorious summer sun? And Cape Town is 12 hours from London - it can take students longer to get home to Kerry from their digs in Dublin at Christmas time. Don’t get me started on bloody turkey, tubs of Roses, mince pies, tins of biscuits and all the other gluttony that leaves the nation feeling bloated and remorseful well into the new year.

I’ve been going to Cape Town for Christmas for years, and if you can get your head around breaking with tradition and jetting off for festive fun in the sun, I’ll eat my sunhat if you don’t agree that a couple of weeks of Vit D in the depths of winter is the best tonic in the world. 

Christmas in the Cape is the trip that keeps on giving - it’ll get you through dreary November, it’ll carry you though the party fatigue during December and, on your return home, it’ll block off the most depressing month in the year, January, as you’ll still feel the sun in your bones, and the world’s best food and wine in your belly. The memories with last a lifetime.

As Christmas falls in the middle of the South African summer, there’s always a wonderful holiday vibe in the Mother City. While shops and restaurants are all open as normal, the schools are off, and many businesses and all construction companies close up to enjoy the season of good will with family and friends. Which makes December/January the best time to visit.

Christmas is celebrated by most Capetonians, as almost 80 per cent of the population belong to various Christian faith groups. So don’t worry about missing midnight mass as there’s plenty of services to go to (if that’s your bag).

If soggy sprouts, naff Christmas jumpers and hedonistic office parties are your thing, stay put and try not to snap at the mother-in-law again over dinner. But if you’ve got a bit of adventure in you, and you love good food and wine, read on and head to the other hemisphere this December. Some traditions are made to be broken - and then new, far better ones can be made.

The only 'snowman' you'll see during a Cape Town visit

GETTING THERE

There’s more flight options to Cape Town than ever before. The most sensible, most enjoyable and least tiring route is the night flight with British Airways via Heathrow. Get to London early, enjoy a long, leisurely lunch, sleep the whole way to South Africa - and when you wake, your dream will only be starting.

I always find the best prices are through Expedia.ie. It trawls through hundreds of flight options and delivers the best-value routes and options. 

Expedia has become one of the world’s most widely used travel booking sites, and offers the best loyalty programmes, with incredible perks and discounts. I had registered as an Expedia+ member ahead of previous trips, so I now have ‘gold status’, which means points I earn can be redeemed for discounted, or even free, hotel rooms and holidays, +VIP Access Hotel upgrades, priority customer service and access to brilliant exclusive offers.

Once you have the Expedia app downloaded to your smartphone, all your bookings (flights, hotels and activities) pop up on it, so you can manage it all in your hand. The app also alerts you to any flight delays or changes.

If you’re travelling British Airways, pay the extra €120 to upgrade from economy to World Traveller Plus. It’ll be the best money you’ll ever spend - a wider seat with greater recline, head rest and foot rest and extra leg room to stretch out. AND double checked-in baggage allowance. It’s the savvy traveller’s Business Class. 

WHERE TO STAY

When visiting South Africa, two weeks is good, three weeks is bliss. Spend your first five or six days in Cape Town, then tour the winelands and beyond (Check out my 'loop' tour details here). 

When it comes to hotels, the five-star Table Bay is the jewel in Cape Town’s crown. It commands one of the best addresses in the city, at the end of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. And with that address, comes the best views; of Table Mountain, the harbour and of Robben Island, where the late, great Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years by the South African apartheid government. Fitting then that Mandela himself officially opened the contemporary-Victorian 329-room hotel in 1997. 

There are three restaurants (and a hangover-inducing 6,000-bottle wine cellar), a spa, outdoor pool... Plus, it’s just a few minutes’ walk from the designer and jewellery shops of the V&A (where many Irish men seal the deal with diamond and tanzanite engagement ring). 

If you book your flight and hotel together through Expedia.ie, you’ll get the best room rates. 

GETTING AROUND

In South Africa, you need to rent a car. Driving around Cape Town is a cinch - the  road infrastructure is excellent, road signs are of the highest international standards and they drive on the left-hand side of the road, like in Ireland.

Car rental prices are exceptionally reasonable, but creep up at Christmas time.

The best value you’ll get is if you pre-book through Expedia.ie when booking flights. 

BEST FOOD AND WINE

Breakfast: Cafe Caprice, Camps Bay. www.cafecaprice.co.za

My favourite best breakfast spot. Incredible healthy smoothies, and the best eggs Benedict - and views of Camps Bay beach. 

African: Gold, Green Point. www.goldrestaurant.co.za

A traditional culinary experience (14-course Cape Malay and African menu) and interactive entertainment. 

Local: Societi, Company Gardens. www.societi.co.za

This fab bistro and wine bar is a definite locals’ fave. Starters from €4.50, mains from €10. Arrive in an Uber taxi and get 30% off your bill!

Fine dining: Aubergine, Company Gardens. www.aubergine.co.za

For sophisticated dining and wining book a table at multiple award-winning, Aubergine. Three courses for c.€35. It’s a gastro experience.

Seafood: Harbour House, Kalk Bay. www.harbourhouse.co.za

Head to Kalk Bay for the day (40 mins from Cape Town), and be sure to book a window seat in Harbour House in advance. Enjoy incredible seafood and views. Push the boat out - a three-course lunch (for three people) with crayfish, wine and champagne cost me less than €100.  

Best experience, location, food & wine: Catharina’s at Steenberg Farm, Constantia. www.steenbergfarm.com

Just 15km south of Cape Town’s city centre is Constantia, one of the most prestigious and affluent suburbs of Cape Town. Known as Cape Town’s Vineyard, and home to eight award-winning wine estates, it is a must-do-daytrip. And when the 12noon-daily cannon on Signal Hill blows, indicating that’s it’s time for the first drink of the day, make a charge for the Steenberg Wine Estate (founded in the 17th Century), which has, over the years, been decorated with every possible food and wine award going. 

Archie Maclean

After you have sampled what the cellar has to offer, Catharina’s Restaurant is what you will be toasting for years afterwards. This is gourmet with a capital G. Breaking new ground on the culinary frontier, Scottish chef Archie Maclean’s signature ‘contemporary heritage’ dishes include seared tuna wrapped in crisp salmon skin, salmon trout served with a horseradish and sour fig risotto, panfried crocodile tail and grilled zebra loin.

Starters are from €5, and mains from €10. An eight-course tasting menu costs just €70, and includes wines from Steenberg and leading estates in the area.

Best place to be seen: Bungalow, Clifton. www.thebungalow.co.za

Bungalow is where all the cool and gorgeous people go. Enjoy stunning fish, meats and sushi in the uber relaxed setting where there’s nothing between you and the Atlantic Ocean. Barefoot is the new Louboutin there, as you can kick back in the afternoon with cocktails, chilled-out tunes and soak in the sun.

Bungalow

Best Sushi: Kitima @ Kronendal, Hout Bay. www.kitima.co.za

Get to Kitima in Hout Bay for THE most sensational experience. Each dining room in this old Cape-Dutch-style homestead dating back to the 17th Century oozes with elegance and opulence. The menu is a compilation of various traditional Asian cuisines and the sushi is the best I’ve ever had. Don’t leave without trying a Sparkling Mojito.

GREAT HIKING

If you’re a walking fan, pack your trainers and water bottles - Cape Town has the best hiking tracks that are just minutes from the city centre. Take in the natural fynbos, panoramic views and wildlife as you scale the ‘top three’ - Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. 

My favourite is the Platteklip Gorge route to get to the top of Table Mountain. It’s a nice challenge that takes less than three hours, and when you reach the top (1,086m above sea level) the views of Cape Town’s coastline, the city centre and the  southern suburbs are out of this world. Enjoy a cooling beer at the top and catch the cablecar back down. 

Lion’s Head is stunning, but not for the faint-hearted or anyone with touches of vertigo. Extreme caution is needed. 

Devil’s Peak (1,000m above sea level) is a moderately difficult bushwalk.

GREAT MARKETS

In the centre of the city, in Greenmarket Square, there is a colourful, bustling market where stall holders come from all over Africa to sell their fabrics, sculpture, art, beadwork and African curios. For the same type of shopping, I prefer the smaller Hout Bay market. 

For food, check out the Oranjezicht city farmers market. And for higher-end arts, crafts and top-notch food (go hungry), head to the Old Biscuit Mill market in the vibrant Woodstock neighbourhood. Buy lots of art - original canvases are so creative, cost next to nothing, and brighten up Irish homes.

SO MUCH TO SEE AND DO

Hop-on, Hop-off Bus Tour

€13 www.expedia.ie

Explore the city at your own pace. Hop off to shop at Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, and at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Visit the Castle of Good Hope and the oldest colonial building in SA.

Constantia Zipline

€81 www.expedia.ie

At Silvermist Mountain Lodge and Wine Estate, this thrilling ride covers 2.3 km over 11 platforms, with a highest point of 155m. Killer views.

Table Mountain Cableway

€16.50 www.tablemountain.net/

Visit the top of Table Mountain early into you trip as, if winds come in, the cable car won’t operate.

Penguins @ Boulders Beach

€4 www.capetourism.co.za

Head to Simon’s Town, home to the South African Navy...and a huge colony of super-cute African penguins who paddle around Boulders Beach.

Faces of Cape Town Tour

€111 www.expedia.ie

This tour brings you to the township of Imizamu Yethu in Hout Bay, where a guide will tell you the story of how the township came to be during the Apartheid era. Then it’s on to one of the older parts of Cape Town, the Bo-Kaap, where Dutch settlers housed labourers from Malaysia, India, and the Middle East. Includes a Malay lunch.

Kirtstenbosch Concert

Prices vary. www.webtickets.co.za

Summer Sunset Concerts at Kirstenbosch are an experience. Pack up a picnic with lots of wine, and enjoy top artists in one of the most magnificent botanic gardens of the world. 

Aquila Game Reserve Day

€170 www.expedia.ie

Following a buffet breakfast, set out on a guided game drive to spot The Big Five - lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and, if you’re lucky, leopards. Learn about the conservation work in the reserve over lunch, and visit an ostrich farm afterwards.