CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The problem with returning to a beloved vacation spot is that it can rarely live up to your memories. A dozen years ago, my family went to Cape Town, where daughter Megan was doing a semester abroad. The four of us mapped out a route from the western to the eastern Cape, which included four stops.
To this day, we agree it was our best family vacation ever.
Recently, Megan and I decided to do a reprise of that trip: Cape Town, wine country, the Garden Route, and a wildlife safari. We made the same basic stops as our 2006 trip, but each one offered a new discovery: an untouched beach, a family-owned vineyard with stellar wines, hikes that tested our lungs and my knees.
And then there was the cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal, running flat out in a game reserve that left me, if not the cheetah, breathless.
We began on New Year’s Eve in Cape Town. It’s summer there now, and as Boston was suffering sub-zero temps, we were enjoying sunshine in the 80s. One of our first stops was Green Market Square, where booths overflow with crafts such as colorful batiks; hand-painted wooden bowls; and my favorite, all sorts of animals fashioned from wire and beads.
There is now a very proud kudu head hanging on my living room wall. It cost about $45, and not a drop of blood was shed.
On to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in the heart of the city. When I was last there, it was an indoor/outdoor marketplace overlooking the bay, with a front-row view of Table Mountain. In the past decade, it has morphed into a sprawling mall, with 450 retail stores and a massive ferris wheel with long lines.
A beautiful new addition, however, is the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, in a converted grain silo that features modern art from all over the continent and diaspora.
But nearly 25 years after apartheid officially ended, Cape Town remains a tale of two cities: the breathtaking town catering to tourists, and the deplorable township slums tourists see as they leave the airport.
A few words of caution. There is street crime, as airport signs warn, and many ATMs are guarded by police.
And South Africa is suffering a severe drought, with water in Cape Town expected to run dry by April. Water is being rationed, over-users are being fined, and on Day Zero, municipal taps will be largely shut off until rain falls. For tourists, hotels warn against overuse and remove plugs from bath tubs.
One fine day, Megan and I decided to hike up Table Mountain, which should take around two hours. We took a route from Kirstenbosch Gardens, since I’d never seen this World Heritage Site that boasts 9,000 species of flowering plants.
Long story short: We never got up that infernal mountain. After nearly three hours of getting lost while staggering, stumbling, and limping along this trail and that, we called it quits. My advice: Take the cable car up and hike down. Or as we did the next day, hike nearby Lion’s Head, which offers wrap-around views of Table Bay and the city.
You can’t go to Cape Town without seeing Cape Point, or the Cape of Good Hope. It’s about as far south as you can go on the continent, and offers stunning views of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. We looked for the baboons that followed us last time, but all we saw was a sign that said: “Baboons are dangerous and attracted by food.”
Our cabby told us about an astonished couple preparing to get their daughter from her car seat when a baboon popped into the back, grabbed the baby bottle, chugged it, and then gave it back to the baby.
On the way back, we stopped in Simon’s Town to see the colony of endangered African Penguins that live on Boulders Beach. To the delight of visitors who watch from a boardwalk, the penguins waddle, swim, build nests, and groom each other.
Another spot Megan loved from her university days was Clifton Beach — actually there are four of them — just north of the city. From the beaches, you can see the Twelve Apostles, a series of craggy cliffs along the coast.
It’s a great place to have a “sundowner,” or cocktail, and watch the parfait-colored sunsets. Call ahead for a reservation at the Hussar Grill in Camp’s Bay, where they grill all sorts of African game. We tried the eland, a type of antelope; and ostrich. Yes, they both tasted like steak.
As we were leaving Cape Town, we rented a car and headed to the Garden Route, where years ago — in the South African winter — we had seen the endangered Southern Right Whales come to calve. This time, it wasn’t whale season. But on a major highway, we were stopped by police officers because hundreds of sheep were crossing over to a nearby pasture.
Six hours east of Cape Town, we arrived in Knysna, a picturesque town where we walked for hours on nearly deserted beaches. That evening, we took a sunset cruise to The Heads, where the peaceful lagoon opens to the churning ocean. Our captain poured Sauvignon Blanc and shucked oysters pulled fresh from the water.
The next day at a farmer’s market, we bought aloe for our sunburn. We also bought some elephant dung notecards, which are actually very pretty. And no, they don’t smell.
South Africa is always a bargain for Americans. At a top-rated seafood restaurant near Knysna, we ordered crabcakes that were $2 each and delicious. And almost anywhere you go, you can get a good glass of wine for as little as $3; a great one for a couple bucks more.
We woke early one day and drove to Tsitsikamma National Park, an indigenous primeval forest, and set out for the Storms River Mouth Trail. We walked over a suspension bridge and Megan took off for the peak while I found a rare shady spot overlooking the ocean.
Serendipitous stops are often the best, and such was the case with the Bramon Wine Estate. We pulled in for lunch, and loved everything about it, from the tables set amid the vineyards to the delicious small plates and the glasses of sparkling Blanc de Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc ($4 each).
After four days exploring the Garden Route, we agreed that it was our favorite last time, and this time.
But we were looking forward to the Inverdoorn Game Reserve & Iziba Safari Lodge. Our first day there, we got a wake-up knock at 5 a.m. for a 6 a.m. game drive. We hoped to see Africa’s famous big five: the elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo, and leopard. Last time around, at a different game park, we’d missed the leopard.
From our Land Rover, we saw rhinos, ostrich, zebras, and wildebeests. We glimpsed three lions lazing under a tree. We spied giraffes grazing at the tops of sweet thorn trees, elephants peeling and eating bark, hippos mostly hidden in the water, and the elusive African buffalo. But we never spotted a leopard.
Inverdoorn has a cheetah rescue and rehab center, and the highlight for us was seeing a cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal, chasing a lure in a blur of fur and feet.
After two days, we drove on to our last stop, Stellenbosch. At the Devon Valley Hotel, we were greeted with a glass of wine on a terrace overlooking vineyards.
Stellenbosch, the heart of South Africa’s wine industry, is also a university town with Jonkershoek Nature Reserve nearby. Uh-oh. Another “Megan hike.” Fortunately, this was a short one on a hot day, with a cold Chenin Blanc at the end.
There are dozens of wonderful vineyards — winemaking here goes back to the 17th century — but book your tours beforehand. We booked with Jordan Wine Estate, as I had met owners Gary and Kathy Jordan last year at the Boston Harbor Hotel Wine Festival. Their property is beautiful and their wines win international awards.
A worker drove us into the vineyards in a Land Rover, stopped at the white wine vines and poured us some wonderful Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, in front of those grape varietals. In the farmhouse cellar and tasting room, we inspected bottles whose labels bear interesting names and stories, such as The Long Fuse Cabernet Sauvignon, The Prospector Syrah and Nine Yards Chardonnay.
In the United States, their wine is marketed as Jardin because in Napa Valley, there is also a Jordan Winery — not owned by Gary and Kathy.
At the end of our South Africa trip, we were sun-kissed and sad to leave this beautiful country. I’m already anxious to return. After all, I still haven’t seen the African leopard.
But I wonder: Can another trip live up to the memories of this one?