Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Arriving in Capetown, South Africa – One of the Most Beautiful Cities on Earth

(Sept 20 -22, 2012) – I’ve had many people over the years tell me how beautiful Capetown, South Africa is, but it wasn’t until the airplane was approaching the city that I could see the dramatic landscape. Steep mountains that reminded me of Yosemite surrounded the town and swept down to the ocean that was sparkling blue and caressed by white sandy beaches that could have come from Hawaii. As it was September, their springtime, everything was green, and you could see grass and trees on lower hillsides where no buildings are allowed to mar the beauty of the scenery. And in the distance the long and flat top of Table Mountain was evident, with a few clouds hovering above parts of it.

It was 11:15 am on Saturday Sept. 22, and I had left San Francisco two days earlier on a 7:45pm flight to London which connected to Johannesburg and then finally to Capetown. A total of 24 hours of flying time and 6 hours of layover – a very long flight. Fortunately I was able to spend half of it in first class, but the London to Joberg portion (11 hours) was in coach. However, since it was a night flight, I took an Ambien after dinner and slept most of it.

Both the Johannesburg (Joberg) and Capetown airports are very modern and new with great shops and places to eat. The Star Alliance lounge in both airports is actually nicer than the one in London. I was met by a representative from WOSA – Wines of South Africa – who held a sign with my name. We were quickly transported from the airport to downtown Capetown – about a 25-minute drive if the traffic is flowing.

It was as we exited the airport that I had my first glimpse of a township. At first I didn’t know what I was seeing, and was appalled at a level of poverty I have only see along border towns in Mexico. Thousands of people were living in tiny shacks made of corrugated metal, cardboard, or whatever they could find to build shelter. Clothing hung from lines between the shacks, children played in the dirt allies, and people cooked over fires in old oil drums. I found out later that the city does give them electricity and that some of the shacks have TV’s and microwaves, but I could not see these from the freeway.

When I asked why so many people lived this way, I was told that most were refugees from Zimbabwe and other war torn countries. The official unemployment rate in South Africa is 20%, but the unofficial one is 30%.

The contrast between the poverty of the townships and the beauty of the land, as well as the large corporations, tourist sites, and beautiful wine estates was to haunt me all week. When I mentioned my shock over the situation to a fellow traveler, she said, “You shouldn’t judge with American eyes.” This is true, I shouldn’t judge, but it did not stop the way I felt. It seemed wrong to me that so many people should live like this when so many others were living so well. However, I do realize that this is a nation that is recovering from Apartheid and is kind enough to accept refugees. If they didn’t what would be the fate of these people?

The Magnificent Sun Cullinan Sun Hotel in Downtown Capetown

There is a sharp contrast between the townships and the magnificent Sun Cullinan Hotel. It is a beautiful building painted pale yellow with tall white pillars flanking the entrance, and named after the famous “Cullianan” diamond. Friendly and professional staff surround the car and help you with your luggage. The lobby is filled with marble, chandeliers, sweet smelling flowers, and a view of the dark blue pool and palm trees in the courtyard. In the corner a pianist plays a grand piano, and if you arrive in the afternoon they hand you a welcome drink.

I ended up staying a total of 5 nights at this hotel – but checking in and out again several times due to the conference schedule. Each time I was impressed with the friendly service of the staff – even someone to greet you each time you ascended and descended in the elevator. My room was small, but very modern and tastefully appointed. I had a king size bed and small view of the harbor from the fourth floor. The breakfast buffet – which is included in the rate – is magnificent, with all types of food, and again flawless and very attentive service.

There is a free shuttle that takes you back and forth to the Waterfront, which is one of Capetown’s top tourist attractions, including an Aquarium. You can also walk from the Cullinan to downtown where there are many shops, restaurants, and historical buildings. I was warned, however, not to walk anywhere along after dark. The convention center is across the street from the Cullinan, so this was a perfect location to stay at for the CapeWine conference.

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