Penguins at Boulders Beach, Simon's Town.
Penguins at Boulders Beach, Simon's Town. iStock

Land of contrasts: South Africa will draw you in

Cape Town is a misleading place, I decide as I study a map. Its suburbs have genteel names such as Kensington, Rosebank and Gardens, but as my eyes stray southwards, clashing contours are sprinkled with serious names like Skeleton Rock and Devil's Peak. Over the next days of exploration, I discover how appropriate these names are. Cape Town is a lovely, elegant city squashed up against crashing surf and mist-shrouded mountains. Loveliness in wild landscapes is a South African specialty.

I find a lot to like about Cape Town, which has a cultural blend as dramatic as its setting. The city feels part African, part European with an unexpected dose of Asia, especially on its Malay-influenced cuisine. I enjoy the city's formidable architectural heritage, including the country's oldest building - a 1697 Dutch castle - and fine whitewashed British-era government grandeur. Parks are studded with statues, Malay quarter Bo-Kaap erupts in colourful houses and Greenmarket Square is packed with weekend stalls selling African woodcarvings and bronze lions.

Victoria and Albert Waterfront is a favourite for its restaurants, pubs, shops and aquarium. As the sun sets, I sit on the waterfront watching frolicking seals, Table Mountain a brooding monolith behind. Next day, a 15-minute cable-car ride takes me to the summit. Views are wonderful over city and ocean, but I'm gobsmacked at the ruggedness of Cape Peninsula stretching southwards.

Cape Peninsula's beachside suburbs such as Clifton and Hout Bay hunker between misty Table Mountain and buffeting ocean. I explore the next day, finding Simon's Town a highlight for its Victorian buildings and unexpected African penguins trundling across nearby Boulders Beach to sand-dune burrows. Here on the city's doorstep, I get a glimpse of things to come in South Africa, not only in passing wildlife - roadside baboons, ostriches, even mountain zebras - but in marvellous scenery, which gets wilder as the road winds along the coast to Cape Point. Chapman's Peak Drive, carved out of the cliffs, is surely one of the world's most stunning coastal roads.

I quickly discover that breathtaking landscapes are everywhere in South Africa. Only 80km east of Cape Town, the country's winelands is another fabulous combination of lovely towns and eye-popping scenery. Neatly pegged vineyards sit against a backdrop of jagged blue mountains. Celebrated cellar doors and Dutch-era manors shaded by giant camphor trees and flanked by hydrangea- filled gardens are scattered around elegant colonial towns Stellenbosch (best for red wines) and Franschhoek (whites).

Franschhoek means French corner, named for the French Huguenot refugees who arrived in the early 18th century and brought vines and their food culture, with the town famous for its top-notch restaurant scene.

Of course, as with most visitors, the most anticipated South African experience is a safari at a private game reserve. I visit several, and find each provides comforts such as luxury lodges, top nosh and gin and tonics, while still displaying nature at its wildest.

Early morning and again just before sundown, we set off in open-top Land Rovers, a tracker perching on the car's bonnet to look out for pawmarks or creatures in the grass. We're all thrilled with the sight of the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and cape buffalo - but I soon realise other animals are just as exciting. Elephants amble and oryx with curved horns gallop. Stately giraffes, long-legged as supermodels, blink lush eyelashes. Warthogs snuffle and black hornbills with white wings and bizarre red faces watch us from the roadside.

The radio hisses: a lion has been spotted nearby. We stop within arm's reach and nobody moves, thrilled and half terrified at such a close encounter. The lion stares back with golden eyes in my ultimate South African moment.

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