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The Ten-Point Escape Plan: Cape Town

Hip new restaurants. Gentrification everywhere. Even its own Fashion Week. The South African seaside city is newly appealing.

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Cape Town has been touted as a darling of the travel industry—part cosmopolitan metropolis, part outdoorsy paradise—ever since apartheid was abolished a decade ago. But it wasn’t until recently that the sunny South African bay city—it’s been called the sub-Saharan San Francisco—displayed the ultimate sign of modern style-capital relevance: its first Fashion Week. Add to that inventive new restaurants imposing exciting twists on traditional Cape Malay cuisine, the growing international interest in South African wines, and the ongoing gentrification of historic neighborhoods like Bo-Kaap and De Waterkant (and just about everywhere else), and you’ve got a new ticket to punch on your Hip International Cities life list.

1 Schedule your trip around South African Airways’ four-times-a-week nonstop JFK-to-Johannesburg route, and book a window seat on the left side of the plane for the best views of the sunrise over the Atlas Mountains; Cape Town is a two-hour hop away ($1,460 round-trip).

2 Stay at the Cape Grace Hotel (27-21-410-7100; from $615) on the lively Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, in the shadow of the iconic Table Mountain. The elegant 122-room hotel coddles guests with large, lavishly appointed rooms and free chauffeurs—invaluable in a city where there’s no reliable public transit or hailable taxis.

3 Take the cable-car ride to the top of Table Mountain. Touristy? Yes (and the lines can be long). But the view—the city tucked between Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak; palm-studded beaches, and the Atlantic beyond—is worth it.

4 Tour the Stellenbosch and Franschhoek valley wineries. South African Chardonnays are especially well regarded: The fruity 2002 Neil Ellis Stellenbosch ($18) and the polished 2000 Rupert & Rothschild Baroness Nadine ($26) are excellent vintages.

5 For a sense of the country’s troubled past, visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned; the guides are former prisoners themselves, their stories troubling and poignant. At the South African National Gallery, modern European paintings mix with often-controversial exhibits by South African artists.

6 Diamonds aren’t the only souvenirs to cart back from Cape Town. Patchwork zebra-skin rugs are big sellers right now, as are ostrich-leg-skin accessories. Try the new upscale home-design boutiques—Jarvis House, Makalani—in De Waterkant.

7 Book a table at trendy Manolo (modern takes on local fare like ostrich and crayfish) or the equally hot, Nobu-like Tank. For some-thing more traditional, pick up Cape Malay takeaway (samosas, daltjies) at the corner delis in Bo-Kaap, the historic Islamic quarter.

8 Cape Town’s sexy, city-side beach scene has been called the African Riviera. Lay your towel at Clifton Bay, with its four rocky beaches: Nos. 1 and 2 are the preferred stretches for the chic bikinied set, 3 is favored by gays and lesbians, and 4 draws families and other non-fabulous types.

9 Have a “sundowner” (an after-work cocktail) at the sleek new Planet Champagne Bar. After dinner, locals groove to American hip-hop at hot spots Opium and Purgatory. Or take in a set at the Comedy Warehouse. Cape Town stand-up is actually hip—mixed audiences and apartheid humor—like seeing Richard Pryor in the sixties.

10 Take a side trip to the Cape of Good Hope, at South Africa’s southern tip, to see its rugged, deserted beaches and exotic wildlife—ostrich, zebra, baboons. As you drive the winding, 40-minute route along the Atlantic, there’s a palpable sense that you’re nearing the bottom of the Earth. It’s the kind of dreamy, faraway feeling you’ll remember long after you’re home.


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