Vote Rainbow Nation!
We invited three travel writers to argue in favour of their favourite country from our shortlist of potential Amberlair locations. In this, the third in the series, Chris Leadbeater (The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, National Geographic Traveller and 2012 British Consumer Travel Writer of the Year) makes the case for the southern hemisphere option.
Not so long ago, you would not have encountered words like ‘chic’ and ‘hip’ in the same sentence as ‘South Africa’. There were more unhappy adjectives to be used in relation to the country at the foot of the world’s most fascinating continent. You know the ones. They shaped news reports every night for most of the Eighties, and a fair chunk of the Nineties.
How times change. It’s amazing what a nation can do when it has a real government. In the 21 years since it adopted proper democracy, South Africa has taken steady steps away from the abyss. The World Cups probably helped too – the rugby one in 1995 (they won); the football one in 2010 (they were rubbish, but everyone cheered and blew vuvuzelas, so it looked good on the TV) – hoisting South Africa onto the global stage as a modern state.
This is not to say that South Africa is suddenly free of all problems. It certainly isn’t. But it is now a place where ‘chic’ does not seem like a stupid irrelevancy. In fact, it fits nicely.
Just look at Cape Town. Seriously. Look at it. It’s beautiful – framed spectacularly by Table Mountain (the most striking urban peak anywhere on the planet. Sit down Rio, and put your Sugarloaf away). Here is a city that oozes sophistication. Wander the lanes of its centre and you find stylish bars where you can happily spend a whole evening. And all your money. The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, with its glut of shops, is the city at play. The Old Biscuit Mill, a former factory complex in Woodstock, has been reinvented as a hive of coffee shops and restaurants, where a funky food market holds court at weekends.
Cape Town is as impressive on its edges. Camps Bay, on its west flank, peers out at the Atlantic in glorious fashion. If I were founding a boutique hotel, I would put it here – although I might also consider the Cape Peninsula, where picturesque seaside towns like Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek gaze onto False Bay. Then again, the countryside which swells out to the east of the city is also a wonder – a realm of vineyards; leafy dots on the map like Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, where some of the world’s finest wines are produced.
Of course, there’s more to South Africa than Cape Town. Johannesburg is a resurgent city of increasingly trendy contours – the university district of Braamfontein, where Wits Art Museum throws out bright slabs of culture; Milpark with its new eateries; street food and food trucks in the centre at the Maboneng Precinct and along Fox Street. Port Elizabeth, meanwhile, could easily be in Australia, due to the warmth of its weather and the quality of the surfing on Hobie Beach. It can even boast a few sharks, to give it that Aussie vibe.
But the best thing about South Africa is that visiting it is a journey. Sure, Italy and Spain are lovely, but they have been established destinations ever since the Romans built one and conquered the other. In 2015, going to Milan or Madrid is like popping out for milk. South Africa, by contrast – well, whether you live in Europe, the USA or Hong Kong, you have to cross the best part of two hemispheres to reach it. And when you land, you usually find the sun shining a little more seductively than it was in wherever it is you’ve left. Adventure, air miles and nice cocktails: South Africa is the complete travel package.
Chris Leadbeater can be found on Twitter @LeadbeaterChris