Driving down South Africa’s Cape Peninsula – a 75km stretch from Table Mountain to the Cape of Good Hope – suddenly, the city feels far away.
A Woodstock revival in Cape Town
The peninsula’s alluring mix of space, scenery, sea views and proximity to Cape Town, which is never more than an hour’s drive away, has long attracted a free-spirited mix of artists, hippies, surfers and ex-pats — earning the peninsula the nickname “the lentil curtain” for its alternative tendencies. But recently, the lentil curtain stereotype of an organic vegetable patch, dreadlocked beard and cow in the backyard, has recently been joined by a younger crowd of creative professionals, who work freelance to escape the city. The products of these myriad creative and alternative lifestyles can easily be seen on a day trip by car from Cape Town.
Hout Bay The fishing village of Hout Bay, fringing a yawning blue bay beneath the lopsided peak of the Sentinel, is the gateway to the peninsula. Technically a suburb of Cape Town, the independently-minded spot — reached by following the Atlantic coastline through a rocky landscape of cliffs, boulders and promontories — declared itself a republic back in 1987; you can even pick up a Hout Bay passport (not recognised outside the lentil curtain). These days, this unofficial republic status is mostly a reflection of the village’s close-knit community, but when the republic was established during the apartheid era, it was a gesture of defiance towards President PW Botha’s repressive government. Residents consistently selected liberal opposition parties to represent them and visitors were asked to show a Hout Bay passport or visa, which they could acquire in exchange for a donation to charity. The suburb still has its own flag, anthem and self-appointed consul.
Three art galleries at the entrance to town, including the contemporary Hout Bay Gallery, announce the peninsula’s creative bent with displays of sculptures, cityscapes and abstract canvases. Alongside the jumble of masts in the small harbour, the Mariner’s Wharf complex is the most common tourist stop, offering seal-spotting cruises to Duiker Island, a nearby Cape fur seal and bird colony. Beyond, the township’s pink and yellow facades climb the hill, and the atmospheric Bay Harbour Market (open Fridays to Sundays) fills an old fish factory with local craftwork and cuisine. On Sundays it is joined by the craft market on Hout Bay Common.
For a bite to eat, forego the village’s half a dozen fish and chip shops and head behind the shopping mall — named Mainstream, perhaps in deference to the alternative local mindset — for tapas and views at the beachfront restaurant Dunes.
Chapman’s Peak From here Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the world’s most stunning coastal roads, leads 5km along the peninsula’s western side. Viewpoints dot the road as it climbs towards the 600m-high peak, looking down at the boats chugging along the vertiginous coastline and the rocky cliffs that tumble towards the surf. Looking back across the blue expanse of Hout Bay, a chain of emerald mountains with houses clinging to their lower slopes ends at the distinctively shaped Sentinel peak. Less than 30 minutes’ drive from busy, central Cape Town, the only sounds here are the steady swish of the surf, intermittent bird cheeps and chattering backpackers on peninsula tours.
The route soon turns downhill, careering around corners with sheer drops, past landslide nets, and through a tunnel cut into the cliff to the graceful sweep of Noordhoek Beach, where you can go horse riding. The line of white sand arcs between the blue of Chapman’s Bay and Noordhoek Lagoon, with a lighthouse at the far end and a green undulating hinterland. In Noordhoek village is one of Africa’s most sustainable buildings, the hemp house, built entirely from the cannabis-derived fibre. The two-bedroom mountainside home looks like a typical contemporary seaside retreat, but the materials used in its construction include hemp insulation, hemp plaster and “hempcrete”, and the carpets, furniture, lamp shades and canvases decorating the walls are all made of hemp. The house cannot be seen from the road, but email the owner Tony Budden (also the proprietor of Cape Town’s Hemporium store) for a tour, available weekdays before 10 am and after 5 pm.
Recover from Chapman’s Peak with a tasting at the peninsula’s only wine estate, Cape Point Vineyards, 2.5km away. Its 20 acres of vines ripen slowly in the cool Atlantic breezes, producing excellent sauvignon blancs. Nearby, the Cape Dutch-style Noordhoek Farm Village is a popular peninsula pit stop. The white-gabled buildings contain four eateries, a country pub, an eco-hotel and craft shops.
Masiphumelele township Continuing 6km south to Masiphumelele township, African chaos erupts in the form of speeding minibus taxis and people wandering along the roadside. Down a red dirt road is pottery studio Zizamele Ceramics, which melds creativity with social empowerment in its colourful artworks; designer Toni Burton’s team of eight previously-unemployed Xhosa women are learning skills from pottery to computer literacy. The distinctive pieces include pottery bowls and vases ringed with figurines of Xhosa women with babies on their backs, which illustrate the Xhosa concept of bambanani (friendship and strength in unity).
A few kilometres further on, at the entrance to the village of Kommetjie, is the historical farmstead Imhoff Farm, today an agritourism hub. Families can meet farm animals, watch goats being milked, ride camels and purchase products such as organic lavender honey in the farm shop. On the same property is the Waldorf School where children receive a broad, humanistic education, following the holistic Waldorf Steiner philosophy, in wooden cottages among the pine trees.
Around Scarborough Some 7km down the Atlantic coast from Kommetjie are the “conservation villages” of Misty Cliffs and Scarborough, where residents live in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way. In the wild, ultra-alternative area sometimes called the “crystal curtain”, art stalls and sculpture gardens dot the roadside between boulder-strewn hills and signs warn against lighting fires and feeding the baboons. At the 310-hectare Baskloof Fynbos Private Nature Reserve, 3km south of Scarborough, you can see how the site, which is not connected to external electricity supplies, meets its energy needs through wind, hydro and solar power.
About 1.5km further south is another eco-hub, the green-fingered Good Hope Gardens. As well as organically grown plants including fynbos (indigenous vegetation) and subtropical trees, the enchanting complex features the magical Dream Sanctuary gardens and has a resident psychic, medium and astrologer. This is also where the imaginative Dream Weavers build everything from jungle gyms to furniture using invasive alien species like gum trees, which now have to be cut down by South African law.
Cape Point The entrance to Cape Point is a few kilometres further south. The 7,750-hectare nature reserve’s empty beaches, fynbos and walking trails lead to Africa’s southwestern tip, where a lighthouse surveys the open Atlantic Ocean. European explorers called the headland the Cape of Storms for its treacherous weather; and after Vasco da Gama rounded it in 1497 — opening up a new trade route to India and the Far East — renamed it the Cape of Good Hope. Stretching away to the east is False Bay, one of South Africa’s largest bays at 33km-wide, named by mariners who confused it with Table Bay on the other side of the peninsula.
Simon’s Town Returning 20km north along the peninsula’s eastern side, Simon’s Town was a British Royal Navy base for 143 years until 1957, and remains the South African Navy’s headquarters. At the harbour, stalls sell sculptures of Nelson Mandela and African wildlife wrought in beads, stone and wood, and tourist boats depart in search of whales and seals.
Kalk Bay Eight kilometres on, near the top of the peninsula, is the fishing village of Kalk Bay. This is a good place to see the creative results of the lentil curtain lifestyle. Among the cobbled alleys and weather-beaten, turn-of-the-century buildings is a seafront “culture mile”, with galleries, craft showrooms, junk shops, antique stores and boutiques. Look out for Artvark, which specialises in curvy, patterned cutlery and metalwork such as wall sculptures, candlesticks and chairs.
Kalk Bay’s artistic flair extends to the restaurants and bars catering to day-tripping Capetonians. Cape to Cuba is an atmospheric spot for a mojito. Its bohemian jumble of pot plants, chandeliers, antiques and Che insignia overlooks expansive False Bay and passing trains travelling between Simon’s Town and Cape Town. For something more substantial before heading back to the city, hit the harbour side Live Bait for a Greek-style seafood meal, or neighbouring Polana for tapas, live jazz and views of seals, cormorants and whales.
Muizenberg At the top of the peninsula, 3km northeast of Kalk Bay, Muizenberg is home to a bohemian mix of surfers and artists. Head to Palmer Road, near the train station, for spots including the Skermunkil jewellery studio which produces folksy enamel pieces including brooches and pendants. On Fridays from 4 pm to 10 pm the Blue Bird Garage Food and Goods Market takes place in a 1940s warehouse, with live music and stalls selling local products such as rooibos soap and handmade chocolates. The upcoming suburb is arty to its core – even the famous Victorian bathing chalets on the beach are painted in a bright palette of primary colours.
Practicalities Driving is the easiest way to explore the peninsula, but companies including Baz Bus run day trips. Hout Bay is on the CitySightseeing Cape Town bus route and hourly trains connect central Cape Town with Simon’s Town via Muizenberg and Kalk Bay.