Why the Cape Gives Us Good Hope at Last; out of a Hellish History, the New Tourist Heaven

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SOUTH Africa is the most poignant holiday destination on earth.

Here, for so long, staggering natural beauty coexisted with human wickedness and folly.

The hell of apartheid was imposed on a nation with the flora, fauna and climate of paradise.

But for that racist madness and the divisions of its aftermath, South Africa would be among the top half dozen tourist spots in the world. As it is, tourism still has only a nervous foothold, made precarious by tales of high crime rates and the persistent sense that it could still descend into chaos like its neighbours to the north.

The upside of that, of course, is that this is a country with beaches that are still deserted and people who are touchingly grateful to see you. They want your business and they want you to come back. Every conversation with a taxi driver, guide or waiter turns into a moving eulogy of the beauty of this land and the heroic sincerity of its attempt to escape from the past.

For example, we asked one of our driver/guides why the centre of Cape Town seemed so quiet. Instead of answering he veered away from his route and took us into District Six.

Until 1966 this wedge of land, its point almost in the centre of the city, was a vibrant area of 60,000 people of every one of the bewildering variety of races that inhabit the Cape Peninsula. Then the apartheid regime decided it should be an all-white area.

The people were driven out and all the buildings, except the churches, bulldozed. A few military buildings were put up, but, other than that, all that remains are the churches and the empty land now gone to grass. Our guide drew in the air the house where his grandmother lived. All three of us were weeping.

This act knocked the cosmopolitan heart out of Cape Town and it is only just now recovering.

It is, as everybody knows, the most fabulously located city in the world.

Embraced by the curve of Table Mountain - with its perpetual 'table cloth' of fluffy white cloud - it sweeps down to Table Bay and the harbour. Thanks to the parkland at the foot of the mountain, kudu and zebra graze yards from the commuter traffic.

Down at the harbour are the sure signs that Cape Town is joining the modern tourist-conscious world. The Waterfront is San Francisco or Covent Garden-by-the-Sea - shops, restaurants, a superb aquarium and street theatre.

You've seen it all before but it's friendlier than most such places and it's amazingly cheap. At the local Hard Rock Cafe a big lunch for two costs about [pounds sterling]9.

But if low prices are one reason to come to South Africa, familiarity certainly isn't. So leave the Waterfront and head to Bo-Kaap, one of the most strangely beautiful urban landscapes I have ever seen.

In the late 17th Century this became the home of the Muslim slaves brought from the Far East, known, not always accurately, as Malays, and it is still a predominantly Muslim area dotted with mosques among the flat-roofed bungalows with vaguely Georgian windows and doors. They are painted in bright pastels that glow in the brilliant Cape sunshine.

For the full impact of the Bo-Kaap have lunch at the Noon Gun, a restaurant serving 'Cape Malay' food as the local sweetish curries are called. But no booze - it is an Islamic restaurant.

More conventional - but spectacular - sights can be seen in the suburbs that run down the Atlantic coast from Sea Point to Camps Bay. The beaches are flawless but icy - Antarctic waters are one of the few marks against Cape Town as a tourist spot.

THE scenery is stunning. This is the other side of Table Mountain where it breaks down into soaring peaks and vertiginous cliffs. At Camps Bay there are good restaurants, notably the Californian-style Blues, and a strikingly laid-back hotel called The Bay.

Camps Bay is a good place to sit and watch the startling variety of South African life. …