Before visiting Cape Town for the first time I'd imagined city life focused on Table Mountain and central downtown so discovering the sun-baked, breezy Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, and the new, dazzling Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa topped by a six-star hotel in the Silo district – was an unexpected boon.
No need to rush: how to plan a visit
The bustle, activity, museums, shops and ice creams of the waterfront lured me back several times during my Cape Town stay; there was always somewhere else to see, or another ice cream to savour! Staying at the Rockwell Hotel in Greenpoint, just south of the waterfront via the Ebenezer Road entrance, and only a five-minute walk, meant I could go back and forth very easily throughout my stay.
At first glance, the waterfront looks like a huge area to cover on foot but there are dozens of free maps available everywhere plus great signage too, and, crucially, there are two bridges spanning the docks meaning a walk from the Two Oceans Aquarium in the west to the Nelson Mandela Gateway (for boats to Robben Island) in the east is around 10 minutes on foot via the Swing Bridge.
The V&A Waterfront has so much to offer holidaymakers, in fact, that I didn't get around to seeing a couple of attractions on my bucket list: the Diamond Museum, the Springbok Experience Rugby Museum, and an afternoon cruise around the harbour.
Castles, boats and battles: walking tour highlights
There's a lot of glitz, beautiful white sails flapping in the breeze at the marina, and great food to distract visitors on the waterfront so I decided before I started tucking into local dishes, the ice creams, and the shopping to take a walking tour with the guides at the Chavonnes Battery Museum to learn something of the history of this bustling spot. I'm glad I did as my guide, Matthew, explained that the whole complex was the size of 180 rugby pitches!
The Dutch East India Company, forging a maritime path to the Far East in search of exotic goods in the 1600s, pulled in at the Cape to replenish their supplies. This caught the beady eyes of the roving French, and the British, so the Dutch set about further fortification and erected the Chavonnes Battery on the waterfront between 1714-1726 to protect the Castle of Good Hope, the Dutch base at the tip of South Africa since 1679.
In 1795 the Dutch East India company went bankrupt; the Brits took the Cape in a battle, becoming permanently in charge of the Cape Colony by 1806. Lloyds of London insured the majority of ships anchoring at the Cape but protested with an increasing number of bashed up boats on its books and refused to insure any more wintering ships as the Cape offered no harbours for safe anchorage. The Brits, in response, set about building a decent harbour in 1860, Matthew explained, and named it after Queen Victoria and her son Alfred who visited the cape and tipped the first stone of construction into the water in September that year.
Cafe and foodie culture
All the sunlit vintage buildings we walked past – the scarlet Clock Tower, the dove grey Harbour Master's Office, the large grey warehouse, the power station – have outgrown their original uses. The Harbour Master's Office now houses a shop; the warehouse has been reincarnated as the Victoria and Alfred Hotel and Mall; the former power station is now the wildly popular two-storey V&A Food Market; and the elevated Harbour Master's Residence is now the pretty Dock House Boutique Hotel and Spa.
Matthew and I passed dozens of sun seekers sitting at the alfresco cafes along the Alfred Basin, and spied seals sunbathing in the water (which I initially mistook for scuba divers' flippers!) before heading to Nobel Square where statues of South Africa's four Nobel Prize for Peace winners – Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, F.W de Clerk, and Albert Lutuli – have been cast in bronze looking out over a public space which attracts busking musicians throughout the day.
After my insightful morning walking tour, I refuelled at the indoor V&A Food Market. From busy stalls it sells hungry visitors everything from sushi to shakes, oysters and biltong in its covered market area. The Lua Rice Paper rolls stuffed with prawns, pomegranate and tofu caught my eye; I followed them with a cone from Unframed stacked with scoops of burnt white chocolate, and hazelnut and almond praline ice cream.
Next to the foodie hall is the Watershed, a modern mall of dozens of craft stalls, a one-stop shop for gorgeous gifts and designs – ranging from ceramics to clothing to ostrich shell jewellery, wooden ornaments, designer bags, as well as funky Township Guitars made from recycled oil cans!
Feeding the sharks, stingray, and the penguins
I timed my visit to the next door Two Oceans Aquarium so I could catch two feeding sessions between touring the marine exhibits. My first stop was the show-stopping shark feeding display. I felt like I was an underwater filmmaker for the BBC's Blue Planet series.
With floor to ceiling viewing of the I&J Ocean Exhibit – a tank of 1.6million litres of waters – I had incredible, pin-sharp views of eagle rays, green turtles, short-tail stingray, spotted grunter, blue stingray, black musselcracker, and many more marine creatures swimming just metres from my seat. The feeding session is hugely popular with families as kids witness the divers surrounded by hungry critters snapping up snippets of food.
During the feeding frenzy, an aquarium guide related the story of "Bob the turtle" who is recovering from ingesting plastic. This tale was followed with a friendly advisory about not using single-use plastic bags, and not buying helium balloons, as both wind up in the water and choke and trap wildlife.
The endemic African black-footed penguin, once known as the "jackass penguin" as it brays like a donkey, is under threat the gathered crowd at the feeding session learnt. From a high of two million, there are thought to be only 40,000 pairs of this knee-high flightless bird as it faces plastics and pollution poisoning, a decline in its sardine staple due to overfishing, and theft of its eggs.
You can get really close to the penguins, here, because of the layout of the exhibit; some of them crouch on rocks just an arm's length from the barrier. After the ocean tank commotion, I expected the penguins to put on a fight but, in comparison, they were quite polite, waiting for food to be put down their throat with only minimal shoving and pushing for first dibs.
The Predator Exhibit, too, was really exciting – another huge glass tank filled with prowling ragged-tooth sharks which I could have watched for hours. Standing at the base of the tank meant great views of their bellies, and fang-crowded jaws. No need to go cage diving with the sharks, I figured, with views like these.
My other favourite spots were the Nemo Exhibit, where kids stick their heads up into a bubble in the middle of the tank giving the impression they're in among the fishes, the moray eel tank where you can get a good close up view of this slippery creature, and the well-designed octopus tank where the crafty, eight-legged mollusc is well camouflaged but when it emerged from its secret hiding place the views of this extraordinary creature were awesome.
Last September, the Silo District of the Waterfront, south of the Nelson Mandela Gateway, burst into life when a former grain silo, transformed into a concrete and glass cathedral to modern art by the UK designer Thomas Heatherwick, opened as the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opened. I'll explore this building and its art in a later post.
South African history laid bare on the water
With so much to entertain visitors, it's easy to overlook the V&A Waterfront's historic importance, and the fact that it's still a working dock. President Nelson Mandela, other political prisoners of South Africa's apartheid regime (1948-1991), and citizens who went to visit their imprisoned loved ones, left for the prison on Robben Island, 14 kilometres off shore, from the simple Robben Island Jetty 1 now a small museum detailing its history as a prisoner and visitor processing centre; the Robinson Dry Dock is the oldest functioning dry dock in the world – operational since 1882 and the size of 4-5 Olympic swimming pools.
I'd love to go back to the V&A Waterfront, taking in the sights I missed, eating more of the food I didn't get to taste, taking a boat out into the harbour, and soaking up the sun's rays at the many cafes all the while enjoying the gorgeous back drop to all this glamour – the natural lines of Table Top Mountain. As Matthew had boasted:
"The VandA is the most visited attraction in Africa!"
I'll definitely be looking to boost those visitor numbers on my next trip.