Tuesday, January 27, 2009

South Africa or bust - Part One

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, January 14, 2007)

I've quickly realized that this recap of our vacation is going to be very long and I'm going to have to split it up and talk about it over a number of several posts. I hope you'll bear with me (except Don) and I'll be able to keep this interesting until I finish it in a couple of weeks. I also decided not to put pictures in this, opting instead to put links to a site our pictures are at. Most of this will just be a recap of what we did and I'll save most of my thoughts about the country and its people until the very end.

When I left you earlier this week, I explained just why we decided to take our vacation in South Africa. It was now November 6th and our friend, Nate, had come down from Portland to housesit and take care of our cats. He drove us to the airport and we were getting prepared for the 36-hour journey that would finally get us to Cape Town.

Nov. 6 – A day full of flights. We boarded an American Airlines flight that took us to Chicago. We had a three-hour layover there and then boarded a Swiss Air flight that took us to Zurich. Both flights were uneventful and comfortable, or as comfortable as you can be in a coach seat trying to sleep.

Nov. 7 – We arrived in Zurich where we had a 12-hour layover. I was happy to be in Zurich again. I had been there three times before, once with the Poster Children and twice with Thin White Rope. The bands always played the great Zurich club, Rote Fabrik. The second time the Rope played there, our van broke down in the Alps and we got stuck in Zurich for three days, having to cancel a show in Paris, while I worked with three mechanics; one Italian-Swiss, one German-Swiss, and one French-Swiss, through a horrible language barrier, to get the van moving again so we could pick up our tour back in London. So the band got to know Zurich a bit better than me as I was spending all my time on trains going back and forth to the mechanics' shop. Now I had the chance to finally look around the city, even if it was only for 8 hours of so.

It was November, so we thought it would be very cold there at the base of the Alps, but it turned out they were having a warm spell and it was a nice 70 some degrees. It was a bit frustrating since we were dragging along these big winter coats just for the Zurich trip at the beginning and the London trip afterwards. So we got off the plane with our coats and carryon luggage and took the train into Zurich. That was about a 20-minute journey and once we arrived in the main station, we found a locker and deposited all our stuff there and headed out to see what we could find.

I had already Googled a couple of walking tours of Zurich and had combined them to make one big circle of the downtown area. Skip wanted to see the Marc Chagall windows at the Fraumunster Church, which I had already seen, and I had decided to save those for last on the tour. So we headed off down Bahnhoffstrasse, which is the main shopping street in the city and took in the sights. Zurich is a beautiful city and we spent the next 8 hours looking at sights along the lake. We bought chocolates at Sprungli, which is the oldest chocolate maker in Switzerland. We tried some Swiss wines at the Wings Airline Bar & Lounge, which looks like the inside of an airplane. We walked up and down hills and saw many beautiful buildings like these:


Then we finally ended up at Fraumunster only to find out that it had been closed for months so it could be renovated. Big disappointment there, but we made up for it with a typical Swiss meal at Zeughauskeller, that consisted of big chunks of saucy meat and a good amount of beer and bread. That's exactly what I love about German style food. Then it was back to the Bahnhoff to catch a train to the airport and another 12-hour flight south.

Nov 8 – Another uneventful flight, although it was weird flying south. We spent over 12 hours on the plane and only gained one hour. I'm used to going east or west and losing or gaining a day during the trip. The one good thing about this Swiss Air flight is that they had cameras in the nose and undercarriage of the plane, so that when the sun was up, you could watch the TV screen in your seat and see where you were going without having to have a window seat.

We arrived in Johannesburg, where we had a two-hour layover. We spent that at McGinty's Pub where we drank a South African beer called Castle and ate chicken livers peri-peri, which were great. When we arrived, we did so at the international terminal. But we had to get to the domestic terminal to get our flight to Cape Town. That turned out to be quite a long walk, but my life was saved by a young black man who grabbed my luggage and helped take it the mile or so we needed to go. Of course, I was expected to tip him and was going to do so when I asked his name. He told me his name was "5 Cent" and that tickled me so much that I doubled his tip to $20 and he was very happy.

After the pub, we boarded a British Airways plane for a 2½-hour flight to Cape Town. I'll have more to say about British Airways later, but this flight was not the best. They basically pushed a cart down the isle and threw day old sandwiches at us. I couldn't even eat mine, and I can eat anything. But the best part of the trip was just before we arrived in Cape Town. I was looking over the shoulder of the woman who was sitting in the window seat next to me. The view was stunning. Big, red rock mountains surrounded by bright green valleys were everywhere below us. "That's our wine region", the woman told me. I suddenly knew we had made the right vacation choice.

At 4 PM that day, we finally arrived in Cape Town. We went to grab our luggage, only to find out that Skip's suitcase was not there. After an inquiry, we were told that it had been left in Zurich and we would have it the next day at our hotel. No problem. I've had this happen to me before and they always get it to me. We walked over to Hertz, where I had a rental car waiting for me. It was a nice little Volkswagen Chico that I would find I would love driving around in, and it got amazing gas mileage. I wish I owned one here in LA. The big problem was driving on the left side of the road. I had done so before, but it had been years ago while on tour in England. Not only do you have to drive on the left, but you have to shift gears with your left hand as well. So I was a bit worried, but it took me all of a minute to settle in and I never had a problem the whole time.

We headed off down the freeway towards Cape Town and caught our first real glimpses of the area. We first passed through a Township. The townships are where the poor black people live and I'll have much more to say about them later. Then we could see Table Mountain in front of us. It's almost beyond description. A 3000-foot tall, flattop mountain rising above a city nestled between it and the ocean. Clouds were dripping over the edge in what we were told is the tablecloth effect. We couldn't wait to get to the top of that.

After about an hour of driving we were at our hotel, the Peninsula All-Suite. This is a 5 star hotel located in the Seapoint region of Cape Town, which is at the far southeast. It was quite a ways from downtown, probably an hour and half walk. Fortunately, the hotel provides a free shuttle that takes and picks up guests anywhere within the city for free. It's a beautiful hotel. All rooms face the ocean and all have a balcony. We also had a big bedroom, two bathrooms, a small living room and a kitchen. And all this for around $80 a day!

Just as we walked in, we saw a TV in the lobby and on it a talking head was saying that Donald Rumsfeld had just resigned. We were on a plane during the election (although we had sent in absentee ballots) and we had no idea how the election had turned out. When we saw that news report, we knew something major had happened and we started whooping and hollering and jumping around, much to the amusement of the hotel staff, who had no idea who we were.

We checked in and got all our stuff up to the room and immediately headed out to find our first real meal. I had read about a restaurant just blocks from our hotel that was considered one of the oldest and most famous in Cape Town. This was a place called La Perla and reviews claimed that this was the place that movie stars visited when they came to town. We walked the few blocks it took us to get there and the place was hopping. But after only about a ten-minute wait, they found us a table on the outside porch and we were ready to order and dig in. It was the beginning of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so it was a nice, balmy night out. Skip and I are both very adventurous eaters, so we were anxious to find some of the local foods. I ordered Springbok, which is a local antelope found on just about every menu we looked at. Skip ordered Kabeljou, which is a local fish. He also ordered Namibian Wild Oysters. The oysters came and they were just not very good. They tasted old and tough. Both of the main courses were good, but not great like we were hoping for. It wasn't a good start for our culinary adventures. Fortunately, things got better. We decided that despite the fame of La Perla, it was Cape Town's answer to the Olive Garden. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

So it was back to the hotel where we watched a few hours of TV. Skip had bought a laptop to bring with us and he added a slingbox that was hooked to our TV at home. So we were able to hook up and watch stuff that we had Tivoed from a hotel room thousands of miles away. Isn't technology wonderful?

Nov. 9 – We woke up and I called Swiss Air to find out the status of Skip's lost suitcase. This time I was told that it had actually been left in Chicago and was now in Zurich, so it should be at our hotel the next morning. I was starting to get annoyed, but let it ride.

We decided to try out another local Seapoint restaurant for lunch. So we walked the 30 minutes to get to a place called Harveys @ the Winchester Mansions Hotel. We split an order of fried prawns & calamari and a roast lamb sandwich, as well as a cheese plate for dessert. A beautiful outside setting and a couple of glasses of amazing South African wine and we were as happy as could be. Lamb in South Africa is a variety called Karo Lamb, raised in the desert regions of the north, and I have never tasted lamb as good as that.

We had decided to set aside this first day to get the feel of the city. The first thing I did was go to the concierge of the hotel, a nice woman named Brynn, and gave her a rough outline of what we wanted to do during our trip, including restaurants we wanted to eat at. She promised to get everything booked for us, so we took the shuttle to downtown where we asked the driver to just drop us off in the middle of everything. And that he did, and I promptly panicked. He had dropped us off right in the middle of a marketplace and people were screaming and running around. I grabbed Skip and headed for an alleyway, were I caught my breath and calmed myself down. We decided to get the hell out of that area and consulted our map. I saw that the Castle Of Good Hope (http://www.castleofgoodhope.co.za/) was just down the street and we decided to make our way to that. Once we got inside, we found a beautiful 17th Century castle with great views of the tablecloth effect on Table Mountain:



This was the last time we would see the tablecloth effect. We were told that it was a rare sight at that time of year and we were lucky to see it at all. We still didn't have our video camera up and running, so all we got was some still photos. Too bad because the effect is amazing and I would have liked film of it to remember.

We decided to take the tour of the castle and spent the next hour or so wandering around torture chambers and prison cells and hearing the depressing history of the castle, which you can read about on their website.

I called the hotel to find out that Brynn had booked us into a restaurant called Manolo that evening and we decided to slowly make our way up to Kloof Street where the restaurant was located. We still had 4 hours until dinner so we walked across town and made our way to a wine bar I had read about called The Nose Bar. Their catch phrase was "thanks for picking us". It was great place that we ended up visiting several times during our stay. We had a couple of great glasses of wine and talked to our friendly gay waiter about American television. He was a big fan of "Nip/Tuck" and was excited to hear that Alanis Morissette was a featured actor in the new season.

After several glasses of wine each, we headed off down Long Street. Long Street is sort of the funky, trendy district of Cape Town. It's sort of a cross between the French Quarter of New Orleans and Melrose Ave in Los Angeles. We walked up the street, which was very long, and noted several restaurants we saw that we decided we would try.

Then we finally made it up to Manolo just in time to make our reservation. Manolo was a great restaurant and it turned out to be one of our finest meals in Capetown. We again tried some oysters, only this time they were fresh and amazing and tasted so much of the sea. Skip had the venison duo, which turned out to be buffalo and buck. Venison is the word they use for any wild game and buck turned out to be deer. I had another local fish called a Bluefish. It was wonderful. We had some South African grappa (Meerlust) and split a summer berries tart and that was the end of a wonderful meal. I had arranged for the hotel shuttle to pick us up and it was waiting for us as we left the restaurant.

Back at the hotel we watched a few more hours of Tivoed shows and fell asleep, looking forward to our first trip to the wine regions in the morning.

And I'm out of time for today. Still to come, we'll visit the wine regions. We'll get to Robbin Island, Table Mountain and the Cape Of Good Hope. We'll take a helicopter ride and you'll finally find out what happens with the lost luggage. Look for it all by or before next weekend.

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