Cape Town!

I love Cape Town.  I can’t even express how much I love Cape Town.  Whenever the subject of Cape Town comes up, I feel like those old Muppet Show snippets with Animal running around chanting, “WOMAN!”

Except I’m chanting, “CAPE TOWN!” of course.

So I think I might have been one of the most excited people in the world to see Cape Town in the number one spot on the New York Times list of 52 Places to Go in 2014.  Cape Town is one of the most amazing, kid friendly, inexpensive, and breathtakingly gorgeous places our family has ever been – and it is SUPER easy to get there.

The number one most expensive part of a visit to Cape Town is the airfare.  Let’s face it, if you’re in North America (or even in Europe, although flights from Europe tend to be less expensive), the cheapest deal I could find (using Hotwire, just on a quick search) was almost $2000.  Don’t get panicked yet – I promise you there are always ways to bring prices down!  But just as a starting point, this is about what you are looking at here:

Cape Town tickets at a glance
Cape Town tickets at a glance

I have actually flown this route – the fifteen hour flight out of New York JFK is CRAZY long.  And I’m going to give a little TMI right here, but when you get off the plane at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport, if you have the bad luck to deplane and need to take the bus to the terminal, that bus will smell worse than any baby’s diaper you have ever experienced.  The fifteen hour collective stench of a packed-full Airbus A340 can rock even the hardiest soul.

Another consideration is transit time.  In order to make your flight to Cape Town, you will need to disembark the plane, possibly take the bus to the terminal, go through South African immigration, collect your baggage, recheck your baggage, sprint to the other end of the airport, go through security again, get to your gate, and hope there is enough overhead bin storage.

I fly through JNB on a regular basis, and I always try to get at least 2 1/2 hours for a layover, with three being my optimum.  Just a word to the wise on this one.

As an American passport holder, you have ninety days in South Africa visa-exempt.  This means you just show up at the airport and they will stamp you through AS LONG AS YOU ALSO HAVE THE FOLLOWING:  at least two (I’ve been hassled for having less than four) blank visa pages in your passport, a yellow fever vaccination on an official WHO form (technically not a requirement coming from the US, but I’ve  heard of instances where people were turned back without one), and your passport needs to be good for at least six additional months.  You also might need to show proof of a return ticket.

Once you are through immigration, things get a lot easier.  JNB airport is laid out very simply.  International flights come into one terminal, flights to Cape Town leave from the opposite terminal.  Just walk across the airport.  It’s clean and safe.

If you look confused, a porter will approach you.  You can identify these porters by the uniform they wear.  They SHOULD NOT demand a tip or a charge for helping you, and it is not required to give them one.  However, it is good manners to do so.  If you haven’t yet changed dollars for rand at the Bureau de Change (located in the Terminal A arrivals hall), $2 is fine.  This translates into about twenty rand, although you can check current exchange rates here.

Cape Town’s airport is lovely and easy and CROWDED.  If you have booked a hotel with airport pick up, get to the pick up spot as quickly as you can to get your vacation started.   If you are renting a car, you simply walk out of the terminal, under a bridge, and after a quick left (all of the route clearly signed) you are at the rental car counters.

Things to keep in mind if renting a car in Cape Town:

  1. Get an international driver’s license from AAA before you go to South Africa.  They won’t rent to you without it.
  2. South Africa uses the opposite side of the road from North America.  If you think you can’t manage that, don’t drive.
  3. The roads in Cape Town are lovely, wide, well-maintained, and well signed.  Driving there is a pleasure.
  4. YES, YOU NEED A GPS
  5. YES, YOU NEED THE FULL INSURANCE COVERAGE
  6. No, you don’t pump your own gas.
  7. DO NOT TRY TO DRIVE THROUGH ANY TOWNSHIPS!  Save that for the people who know the area.  It’s just not a good idea.

Now, if you check Expedia, you might notice that there are some quite pricey hotel options going on in the Cape Town area.   Using our traveling family size of five (two adults, three children), here’s a sample of what I came up with.  Remember, don’t panic!  There’s always a cheaper way!

Expedia Prices

All these hotels are situated beautifully.  BUT, there’s a cheaper and more comfortable way.  Because who wouldn’t want to stay somewhere with this view (and those smiles aren’t faked, folks):

Cape Town

By chance we found Aquarius Luxury Suites, which is in Bloubergsstrand.  Three bedrooms, a full kitchen, two full bathrooms, a large balcony, and less than 100 steps from the beach.  At $190 a night (even less if you can find it on special on Expedia), it is a steal.  And there’s something to be said for not cramming an entire family into a tiny room where frequent sibling arguments and fights make The Thirty Years War look like amateur posturing.

Aquarius also has 24 hour guards, a manned front desk that controls access to the guest areas of the hotel, and guarded parking inside a garage.  We have gotten to the point where we never bother looking for another hotel if we are headed to Cape Town.

The view from our Aquarius Suites Window
The view from our Aquarius Suites Window

A few more things before we get to the Cape Town sights – yes, South Africa’s crime rate is well known.  No, it’s not likely to affect you if you pay attention and don’t act silly.  Don’t go to iffy places.  Don’t drive with your purse on the seat, plainly visible next to you.  These signs?

This means keep your valuables hidden.
This means keep your valuables hidden.

LISTEN to them and don’t make yourself a tempting target.  Be sensible and you’ll be just fine.

So, now you’re in Cape Town.  You’re comfortably ensconced in a lovely three bedroom apartment and your kids are watching Afrikaans language cartoons in the spacious living room.  Everyone has showered the stank of 24 hours of continuous travel off their bodies and you’re planning to visit the Ocean Basket restaurant across the street from your apartment for dinner where you’ve already checked the prices and nearly fainted at how much bang you get for your rand.

But what are you planning to do tomorrow?  Next stop, a Cape Town itinerary…