1,753km (1,087 miles) NE of Cape Town; 588km (365 miles) SE of Johannesburg

The Union Jack was first planted in Durban's fertile soil in 1824, a year after George Farewell fortuitously happened upon its harbor. It was only after the fledgling settlement was formally annexed in 1844, however, that the dense coastal vegetation was gradually consumed by buildings with broad verandas and civilized with English traditions such as morning papers, afternoon tea, and weekend horse racing.

Sugar was this region's "white gold," yielding fortunes for the so-called sugar barons. The most famous was Sir Marshall Campbell; today his home, housing the Campbell Collection, is one of Durban's star attractions, and one can still travel along the tacky beachfront in the two-wheeled "rickshaws" he introduced to the city in 1893. The world's voracious appetite for sugar was responsible for the strong Indian strain in Durban's architecture, cuisine, and customs -- during the 19th century, thousands of indentured laborers were shipped in from India to work the sugar plantations, and today Durban is said to house the largest Indian population outside of India.

South Africa's third-largest city, Durban attracts the lion's share of South Africa's domestic tourists and offers a completely unique atmosphere. On the surface is the creeping sense of decay typical of tropical places, in which the constant presence of humidity brings about a kind of torpor. Yet beneath the surface, the city pulsates with promise -- and not only among real estate agents exhilarated by the property boom that has followed urban beachfront rejuvenation projects such as the R21.5-million ($3.2-million) Wilson's Wharf, the R750-million ($112-million) uShaka Marine World theme park, and the R1.5-billion ($224-million) Suncoast Casino. There's a general sense of pride in Durban's ability to consistently birth some of the country's greatest creative talents, producing traditional pottery and beadwork as well as cutting-edge fashion and interior design. Durban cooks, and it's certainly worth scheduling a night here. If you're interested in the region's arts and crafts, make it a priority to visit the Durban Art Museum, the KwaZulu-Natal Society of the Arts (NSA) Gallery, and the BAT Centre. But to experience the essence of South Africa's most multicultural city, take a guided walking tour of the Indian District, where Indian dealers trade in everything from spices and sari fabrics to fresh fish and meat, while Zulu street hawkers ply passersby with anything from haircuts to muti -- baboon skulls, bits of bark, bone, and dried herbs -- used to heal wounds, improve spirits, ward off evil, or cast spells. Or just take a stroll along Battery Beach, where the Shembe may be conducting a baptism while surfers look for the perfect wave, or a group of Hindus may be lighting clay votive lamps while a Zulu sangoma tosses in an offering to the ancestors. It is a bizarre and wonderful city, a truly African city, undergoing its own little renaissance. And with the new international airport at La Mercy taking shape, Durban may eventually give Eurocentric Cape Town a run for its money.