A Whirlwind Tour of South Africa

Two weeks covering the country from bohemian St. Albert, to the wine region to cosmopolitan Cape Town

One of the enduring mysteries of travel is why Americans think only rich people can go to Africa. I blame Hemingway. He's the one who blighted an entire continent with the whiff of elitism, as a place to trek for days into the bush and if a man doesn't come back with the head of a lion, he's a sissy.

It's all hogwash. Africa is many things, but elitist it's not. Some of my least expensive and most memorable vacation experiences have happened here, and I've even spotted wild lions and elephants from the comfort of a $20 rental car from Avis. It's sad to think that many Americans think they they can't afford a trip to this most impressive of places, and downright depressing to see how some travel agents do nothing to change that.

For those who fly into Cape Town, which has to be the most European of African cities and the ideal place for an American to get a foothold here, a do-it-yourself vacation can be assembled for much less than you think. Cape Town, which recently made the BBC's list of the top five places everyone should visit before dying (few sights but the Grand Canyon placed higher), is enormously popular with Dutch and German tourists. Like us, Europeans have been enjoying some sensational exchange rates.

Two years ago, the rand was trading at about 5 to the dollar. Now, it's almost 7. When Cokes cost R2.30 and bottles of South Africa's famously elegant wines cost R25, it doesn't take a math whiz to see how far a vacation dollar now goes here. It may seem odd, but this depressed economy has led to even more expensive hotels. When tourists come to South Africa, they talk themselves into all sorts of overexpenditures. A fancy dinner may cost 70 rand a plate, but when that translates to a about $10, it's easy to live so lavishly and buy with such abandon that a person can still overshoot a modest budget.

In fact, a certain luxury travel magazine rated the Cape Grace Hotel, on the water, as the best hotel in the world. The same hotel will serve you a tot of fine brandy for $1,000 -- a despicable extravagance considering millions of human beings live in abject privation here.

Avoid those splashy expenses (why try so hard to pretend you're rich, anyway?) and you'll pay far less for incredible, homespun meals -- about $4 a meal is now normal. And at night, even the flashiest clubs charge $1.50 for a gin and tonic. The big development in Cape Town is that the weak rand, combined with the popularity of the whole Western Cape province, has created a boom at major chain hotels, which can charge more and more to tourists who think they're getting a good buy when they pay $90 a night. Meanwhile, it's the guesthouses, of which there are hundreds in the area, that still offer the best value: usually under $25 for a clean, arty bedroom in a safe place, with a full-course homemade breakfast. As more tourists book at big hotels, the guesthouses have begun to suffer, and the prices are better than ever.

Me, because I take advantage of Cape Town's wickedly ebullient night life and retire at odd hours, I stay at a hotel when I'm in town. For five years, since its opening, I've chosen Victoria Junction (021/418 1234 , protea.co.za), a member of the important Protea chain of African hotels, named for the region's world-famous starbust flowers. It's directly across the street from the old tenderloin region De Waterkant, on the slopes of Signal Hill, now the seat of Cape Town's party and youth cultures.

The Victoria Junction is known in town for its incredible fifth-floor rooms, which are in fact two-story lofts, with two bathrooms, a kitchen, and 15-foot-tall windows overlooking the city's lifeblood, Table Bay, or the city's icon, Table Mountain. Self-contained apartments with views like these would cost $800 or more a night in the U.S.; in Cape Town, they're under $100.

About a year and a half ago, South African Airways upgraded its jets to give Economy Class the dignity of individual seatback TV sets -- something that most national airlines haven't bothered to do -- and its direct routes (to South Africa from New York or Atlanta, without stopping in Europe first) make it pretty much the only airline worth flying here from the U.S. (unless you're really dying to take the long way through Europe on British Airways or Virgin). Iberia Airlines (iberia.com) has been posting fare specials which can drop the rate for travel between the US and South Africa to under $500 (plus tax), so be sure to search there as well for a ticket.

Of the places that bring Americans cheaply to South Africa, my pick is a company called 2Afrika (2afrika.com), which usually is able to secure the best rates. During shoulder season (coming again in the spring), it sells air-hotel trips here for excellent rates. If you stay more than a week, which 2Afrika lets you do, you'll get even more from your vacation dollar, since airfare can be costly. I suggest using up the prepaid hotel nights and then driving out of town on your own to discover a new area. (In a few days, I will head into the Karoo desert to the artist's hamlet of Prince Albert, at the other end of the Western Cape Province. Check back at this Web site for my report on that place.)

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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