Nowhere else in the world does a wilderness with such startling biodiversity survive within a dense metropolis; a city housing some 3 1/2 million people effectively surrounds a national park, clinging to a mountainous spine that stretches southward from Table Mountain's Signal Hill massif to the jagged edges of Cape Point at the tip of the Peninsula. Hardly surprising, then, that the city's best attractions are encompassed by Table Mountain National Park (formerly Cape Peninsula National Park): world-famous Table Mountain, also known as Hoerikwaggo (Mountain of the Sea); the dramatic Cape Point, most southwesterly tip of Africa; the unparalleled Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, showcase for the region's ancient and incredibly varied floral kingdom; and Boulders, home to a colony of rare African penguins. Ascending Table Mountain warrants half a day, as does a visit to Kirstenbosch -- though you could include it as part of a (rather rushed) daylong peninsula driving tour, which encompasses Boulders and Cape Point.
Table Mountain -- This huge, time-sculpted slab of shale, sandstone, and granite that rose from the ocean some 250 million years ago is Cape Town's most instantly recognizable feature. A candidate for selection as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature (www.n7w.com), the flat-topped mountain dominates the landscape, climate, and development of the city at its feet, and provides Cape Town with a 6,000-hectare (14,820-acre) wilderness at its center.
The best view of the mountain is from Table Bay (another good reason to take a sunset cruise), from where you can get some idea of the relative size of the mountain -- while the city shrinks to nothing, the "Mountain of the Sea" is visible some 150km (93 miles) from shore. Other views of the mountain are no less beautiful, particularly from the wooded eastern flanks of Constantiaberg, which greet the sun every morning, and the bare buttresses of a series of peaks named the Twelve Apostles, kissed by its last rays. The mountain is thought to be the most climbed peak in the world, with some 350 paths to the summit and more plant varieties (some 1,470 species) than the entire British Isles.
You can ascend the mountain on foot or via cable car and, once there, spend a few hours or an entire day exploring. The narrow table is 3km (1 3/4 miles) long and 1,086m (3,562 ft.) high. Maclear's Beacon is its highest point, and really suitable only for serious hikers. From Maclear's, it's another hour's trek to the upper cable station and restaurant, which are on the mountain's western edge, from where you can view the Twelve Apostles towering over Camps Bay. (Walk eastward and you'll have a view of the southern suburbs.) The back table, with its forests, fynbos (shrublike vegetation), and the reservoirs that supply Cape Town with its water, is a wonderful place to hike, but much of it is off-limits.
By aerial cable car: Cars depart every 15 minutes from the lower station at Tafelberg Road (tel. 021/424-8181; www.tablemountain.net) daily from 8:30am until between 7:30 and 8:30pm, depending on the season -- and always weather permitting. A round-trip ticket costs R145 for adults, R98 for students, and R76 for children, depending on the season (free for children under 4). Operating since 1929 but upgraded in 1997, the Swiss-designed cable car has a floor that rotates 360 degrees, giving everyone a chance to gape at the breathtaking views during the 4-minute journey up. The upgrade has meant that lines are now much shorter -- even during the busiest months from November to April, the longest you'll wait is 15 minutes. Afternoons are generally less crowded.
On foot: The most commonly used route to the top is via Platteklip Gorge -- the gap is visible from the front, or north face, of the mountain. The route starts just east of the lower cable station and will take 2 to 3 strenuous hours. Be sure to bring water. A more scenic route starts at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and climbs up the back via Skeleton Gorge. It's steep, requiring reasonable fitness, but should take approximately 2 hours to the summit; your efforts will be rewarded with fine views of False Bay and the Constantia Valley. Rather than walk another hour to the upper cable station, most return by walking down via Nursery Ravine. Those who take their hiking seriously, though, continue to Maclear's Beacon, and then head for the cableway. Be aware that the mountain's mercurial weather can surprise even seasoned Capetonians -- more people have died on Table Mountain than on Mount Everest. Don't climb alone, stick to the paths, and take water and warm clothes. For guided hikes, you can contact Table Mountain Walks (tel. 021/715-6136), or call Riaan Vorster (tel. 021/438-6073 or 083/683-1876), a qualified and highly experienced mountain guide (and rock-climber) who will take you up the mountain -- on any of more than 20 routes -- armed with an extensive knowledge of its geology, flora, fauna, and history. Rates start at R300 per person for a half-day, and R500 for a full-day hike. The Mountain Rescue number is tel. 10177 or 021/948-9900. Targeted to launch by June 2010, the proposed 97km (60 mile) Table Mountain Hoerikwaggo Trail is a 5-night, 6-day hiking route from Cape Town to Cape Point. At press time, three of the five overnight tented camps were already operational, and hikers can book 3-, 2-, and 1-night hikes covering those sections of the trail that are already complete. The Trail includes comfortable lodgings, catering, and baggage portering at R420 for 2 full days, plus R350 to overnight; a minimum of six hikers are required. You can book through the South African National Parks website (www.sanparks.org; firstname.lastname@example.org), or call tel. 021/465-8515.
A Devil of a Wind -- Legend has it that the "tablecloth," the white cloud that tumbles over Table Mountain, is the work of retired pirate Van Hunks, who liked nothing more than to climb Devil's Peak and smoke his pipe while overlooking Cape Town. One day the devil, not happy that someone was puffing on his patch, challenged him to a smoking contest. Needless to say, the competition continues to rage unabated, particularly in the summer months. The downside of this magnificent spectacle is that hurricane-force winds will simultaneously whip around Devil's Peak and rip into the city at speeds of up to 150kmph (93mph). The Cape Doctor, as the southeaster is often called, is said to clear the city of pollution, germs, and litter; but most just wish Van Hunks would give it up and stop infuriating the devil. For sanity's sake, head for the Atlantic seaboard, where the most protected beach is Clifton. Alternatively, escape to the Winelands, or visit in March and April, when the wind usually dies away completely.
Don't Feed the Monkeys -- Be aware that the peninsula's baboons, which have become habituated to humans, can be dangerous; don't approach them, keep your car windows closed, and never feed them. Recent newspaper articles have been plastered with pictures of these crafty fellows opening car doors vandalizing them.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.