Posted by: Gideon | September 5, 2010

Cape Town with Kids: Is Winter (July/August) a good time of year to visit?

It was winter in Cape Town and we had come armed with raincoats and expectations of poor weather. In fact, we expected Cape Town to be the very worst World Cup location weather-wise, but since it is my home town that was where we would be basing ourselves.

Very quickly we put the raincoats away – it was a blazing hot day when we climbed Table Mountain (see previous post), and we were soon on Camps Bay beachfront, not swimming mind you, since the water was still freezing, but the kids stripped off their shirts and ran into the waves as they hit the beach. Camps Bay is an upmarket suburb on the Atlantic Coast about 20 minutes from downtown, and it has a great beachfront strip filled with great restaurants, ice cream places and of course Nandos, our favourite South Africans spot for almost any meal.  The wide sand beach is great in summer, and we found it fantastic in winter as well – backed by grassy banks, the beach has huge rocks at the end, ideal for clambering and exploring.

Mr Vuvuzela - Cape Town 2010

From Camps Bay we went to nearby Clifton, the riviera of Cape Town and well known as having the most expensive real estate in South Africa. Clifton has four incredible beaches, each one separated from the next by huge rocks that must have fallen down the mountainside millennia ago. We had a great time navigating our way from 4th Beach to 1st Beach through the rocks and some surf (quite rough surf!), before taking the easy way out and walking back to our car on 4th along the road above.

Winter continued to amaze us – sunny days, and t-shirt weather for our kids, for whom the Cape Town winter was much like the summer back home in Vancouver. We loved downtown Cape Town – buzzing and bustling with markets, street vendors and many township artists exhibiting their work along the pedestrianized St Georges Street. It is quiet clear how in the space of just a few years Cape Town has been transformed into one of the most popular tourist cities in the world – a plethora of new very high end hotels have opened up in recent years, and the city is thriving.

Nelson Mandela's cell - not much more than this!

I took the two older kids to Robben Island, the former high security prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for close the 30 years. While I was growing up in Cape Town, I could see Robben Island from my house on a good day, and it was beyond my comprehension what life was like there. It was like a different planet. Today, you need to wait in a long queue for your place on one of the ferries that take tourists to the Island throughout the day.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Robben Island is a sombre reminder of how cruel humans can be to one another. The prison building is not spectacular in any way – rather, it comes across as a place where people were sent to be forgotten about. Rather like the dungeons in the Bastille. Yes, there may have been light coming in through these bars on the window, but Nelson Mandela’s cell was tiny, and he had to sleep on the floor for much of his time there.   It was immediately apparent to us why escape would have been impossible – even if someone had miraculously escaped from the prison building itself, the sea is freezing and the waves that pounded the shore on the day we were there would have put off the most intrepid surfer.  The kids came away in a subdued mood – they had been to Alcatraz before- which in itself is a fascinating place and the “quintessential” prison of movies and TV – but Robben Island is something altogether different – the prison is small and unassuming, but it is very clear that someone sent there was shut away from the whole world, perhaps for ever.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that every tour is conducted by a former prisoner! The description of prison life is so absolutely first hand that the overall experience is one of extreme realism. One caveat – the kids struggled with our tour guides accent – I found myself having to explain to them what he was saying.

On another day we went to Boulders Beach in Simonstown. Boulders is famous for its African penguins which make the beach their home. Some years ago we had been to Boulders in summer, and we had shared the swimming beach with the penguins making for a most incredible experience. This time however, there were no penguins on the swimming beach – rather, we had to walk to the other side of the reserve to the section that is better protected from people (i.e. closed to swimmers). Here we saw many penguins, but only from the distance of a boardwalk – near enough, but not exactly the same experience as laying your towel right next to one of these funny birds. A ranger told us that in winter the penguins spend most of the day hunting for fish, hence there relative scarcity.

Penguins at Boulders Beach

So, should one travel to Cape Town in winter (May-Aug): Twenty years ago I would have said no, it’s only a summer destination. These days the answer has to be, absolutely – sure, the sea will be too cold for swimming, but you could easily spend a week having the most fantastic time.

Of course, the main reason we were there was the soccer, and so, and our next match was Cameroon vs Netherlands. The center of Cape Town turned orange as Dutch supporters flooded in, and we walked the fan walk from the city center to the stadium, one of the most incredible experiences of the cup – tens of thousands of walkers, entertainers, people dressed up…the most incredible pre-match entertainment.

As expected, the Dutch won, and it was now time for us to make our way to Port Elizabeth at the end of the famous Garden Route to catch our next game.

PS. These days I am planning great trips for families to South Africa. If you’d like to see how I can help you click here.

Cape Town - Make Fun, not War!

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