Tuesday, January 27, 2009

South Africa or bust - Part Two

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Nov. 10 – We woke up and again called Swiss Air to find out the status of Skip's suitcase. We were promised it would be to us later that day.

I discovered that free breakfast came with our room on top of everything else. So I went downstairs to investigate while Skip got ready for our day's activities. Breakfast turned out to be an all-you-can-eat affair with an omelet bar along with all sorts of meats, cheeses, cereals and breads, sweet and savory. Skip joined me and we decided to skip out on lunch and eat a big breakfast. And it was excellent. I'm not a breakfast person, but it turned out that I would take advantage of this free meal almost every day, but usually it was just a bowl of cereal or an egg or two.

We had decided the night before to head out to the wine region of Stellenbosch, one of the most well known, and a place where some of our favorite wines come from. Since we didn't know much about the area except for the few wines we had tried here in the States, we decided to drop in at a winery named De Meye. There was a reason for this. Before we left for South Africa, Skip was watching a show on the Fine Living Channel called "Ultimate Houses" or something like that. On this episode was a home built by a well-known South African architect, named Arthur Quinton, for himself there in Cape Town. Skip thought that the house was "THE" perfect house and looked up the architect on the Internet. He fired off an email and was surprised a day later when he received a reply from the architect's assistant, Gene. She told him that if we were ever in Cape Town, she would love to show us around the house. That started an ongoing conversation and Skip let her know that we would indeed be visiting in several months. Of course, wine came up and it turned out that her boyfriend, Phillip, is the wine maker at a Stellenbosch winery called De Meye. So we decided to visit there first, meet the boyfriend and hope he could lead us in the right direction to other notable wineries.

There was an initial burst of excitement on our way to De Meye when we passed an amusement park that had several great looking coasters. Skip and I are both roller coaster freaks and anywhere we go that we see one, we try to ride it. Turned out the park was closed. There wasn't all that much of a demand for amusement parks in South Africa and the park only opened on holidays. So we were out of luck. Too bad, but we did have plenty of other things to do, so we weren't too disappointed.

De Meye was right off the freeway at the edge of Stellenbosch. We pulled up to a beautiful old farmhouse and entered the tasting room. Until this time, we had never heard of De Meye and had never tasted their wines. Inside was a very pretty and very nice young woman and we got talking about South Africa and wines with her immediately. We asked her about Phillip and explained to her how we knew who he was. In no time, Phillip was in the tasting room pouring various excellent wines for us to taste.

This was the start of many torturous wine tastings for us. I say they're torturous because there were so many world-class, amazing wines and they were almost all extremely cheap for us, usually running around the equivalent of $5 to $10. But American customs law would only allow us to bring back two bottles each. And if we tried to ship them, the cost of doing so made them almost impossible to afford. Not to mention that California has archaic liquor laws and the wineries couldn't even ship to us if we wanted to pay the horrible price. We would need a liquor seller's license for them to do so. They could ship to Las Vegas and we could go out there to pick it up, but that's as close as we could get. So in essence, we could taste all these amazing wines, but we couldn't buy them. When we visit Santa Barbara or Napa, we always come back with cases of wine in our trunk. But here in South Africa, we were forced to just try to remember what we drank and hope we could find it here in the states for inflated prices.

But we did buy one bottle from the very nice and very cute Phillip to drink in our room later in the week and he found a map of the Stellenbosch region and marked several wineries that he thought we should check out, both for the wine and for the scenery. And after a tour of the several hundred-year-old farmhouse/winery, we said our goodbyes and thanks and headed off for downtown Stellenbosch.

We had to go to the town because we wanted to make reservations for dinner at a restaurant that was supposed to be a must-eat-at place called The Wijnhaus. The way to town was the first we got to finally see the wine region from the ground. The scenery was absolutely stunning in its beauty:



I've always felt that Southern Utah and Northern Arizona were the most beautiful places on Earth that I had ever been to. But this area of South Africa was rivaling it. Stunning red rock mountains lined and surrounded by the greenest of greens. Waterfalls and vineyards cropped up every few miles. The whole time I was in South Africa, I never got used to looking at it without swooning.

We finally got to the town of Stellenbosch, which was a thriving tourist town and found the restaurant, making a reservation for later that evening. And then it was off to other wineries that Phillip had pointed out. We decided to stay away from the wineries we already knew, a decision that we somewhat regret now as we would have liked to see those places. But we discovered a number of amazing wines we can't find here in the States. We visited Tokara, Camberley, Neil Ellis, drove around the Guardian Peak area for the view, and ended up at Waterford for their wine and chocolate tasting. They had a number of great house-made chocolates, my favorite being the dark chocolate with sea salt. The contrast between the salty and the sweet was a wonderful taste.

But it was during this time that Skip started feeling sick to his stomach and he eventually went to sit in the car, leaving me to finish the tasting by myself. And by the time I finished and got to the car myself, he was feeling really sick. So I was going to cancel our dinner reservations, but he insisted that we go. So off we went and almost as soon as they sat us, Skip was running for the toilet. He came back and said he couldn't eat and so he was going to go lay down in the car. He wouldn't hear of me canceling the dinner and I was forced to eat by myself. It was all unfortunate because I don't remember what I ate and I really didn't enjoy the meal all that much. Someday I'll have to go back to that restaurant and give them a fair chance. The one thing I did enjoy though was dessert. I saw something I had never heard of called Malva pudding and asked the waiter about it. He told me it was okay and was a thing poor people made at home. That convinced me to order it and I absolutely loved it. It's basically a bread pudding with some apricots and (sometimes) raisins in it served with a cream sauce or ice cream. I've since made it at home and it's a wonderful thing.

I finished the meal and went out to the car. Skip was asleep but woke up when I opened the door. I was heading out of town when I was immediately pulled over by the police. Looking around, I saw that they were pulling over all sorts of people along that stretch. It's a wine tasting region and they were looking for drunk drivers. The nice, black policeman asked me "Are you good?" and I answered that I was. He asked to see my driver's license and when he saw I was from California, he asked why I was in the country. We ended up having a short, but very nice conversation about our reasons for visiting and after asking me if I was good again, we were on our way.

Less than an hour later, we were back at the hotel only to find that Skip's suitcase still hadn't arrived. But Skip went straight to bed while I fumed about it before falling asleep about an hour later and that was the end of that day.

Nov. 11 – Skip woke up feeling terrible. He thought he had food poisoning from the weird oysters at La Perla several nights before. I thought maybe he was wrong since I ate the oysters as well, but I wasn't about to argue with him. We decided to cancel all plans for the day. He could recuperate and I could work on getting his suitcase back as he was getting pretty tired of wearing the same thing every day.

I got on the phone to Swiss Air only to be told that the suitcase was in Cape Town and I should have had it the day before. When told that it hadn't arrived, they told me that they would find out what happened and call me back.

Two hours later I still hadn't heard back from them, so I called again. This time they told me that they had handed it over to a courier service and they felt that their responsibility in the matter was over. Now that's customer service for you! I asked for the courier's phone number and mentally noted that I would add Swiss Air to my list of airlines that I will never travel on again. (That list consists of two airlines, the other being United, but that's another story for another time. Actually, its three airlines, but the other was added later in this trip.)

I called the courier service, which was located in Johannesburg and they told me that it had been sent to Cape Town and their man there should have delivered it. Again I was told that I would be called back and again I waited two hours without hearing a word. So I called back and this time I got the number of the man in Cape Town who supposedly had our suitcase. I called him and when he answered, I was given a sob story about how he had to watch his sick daughter and couldn't get away to deliver a piece of luggage. I told him I was sorry about his daughter, but if he didn't get that suitcase to us immediately, he would have much more to worry about than a sick child. And I called the main office again to complain about this turn of events. This led to several hours of back-and-forth phone calls where nothing much seemed to be getting done.

In the meantime, it was late afternoon and Skip was feeling better. We were told that the suitcase was on the way, so we decided to go downstairs to the bar and wait for it to arrive. Down there, we sat for a couple of hours talking to the bartender while he made us "typical" South African cocktails that tasted suspiciously like Mai-tais. He told us that there was a bad strain of stomach flu going around and that Skip had probably caught that. I was lucky as it never affected me, but I seldom get sick.

And at 6:30 that evening a guy walked through the door of the hotel carrying the suitcase in question. I ran up to the guy, grabbed the suitcase and told him it was about time he arrived. The guy told me that he was not the person I had been talking to and arguing with on the phone. That guy had broken down on the freeway and called him to get the suitcase and deliver it to us. What a circus! But I was glad that was over with.

We sat down in the hotel restaurant, Sunset at 313, and had a surprisingly great dinner that consisted of smoked Springbok samosas and a lasagna of spiced crocodile for starters. I went on to grilled filet of ostrich with a hazelnut and ostrich sausage. Skip had the loin of springbok with pear and potato ravioli. He wasn't up for desert, but I enjoyed a ginger and walnut cake with lemon meringue ice cream. And of course there was a great bottle of wine poured.

Back up in the room we watched another couple of hours of Tivoed TV and then hit the sack, anxious to get back to sightseeing in the morning.

Nov. 12 – This was the day that Brynn had booked a tour of Robben Island for us. At this time of year, it is usually booked at least a week in advance, but she managed to get us in earlier. Robben Island is the prison where the apartheid government held their political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. You can find out more about this place here:


We made our way via the hotel's shuttle to the V&A waterfront, where the ferry would take us to the prison. After an hour long, uneventful boat ride, we arrived at the flat and desolate island to begin a several hour tour. We had two different tour guides during the tour. Both had spent time in their lives as prisoners on this island. Here's where we really started finding out about the recent history of this country. The second, and more interesting guide was named Yasien Mohamed. He tours the world as a lecturer, but is frustrated that he has never made it to America, especially to Graceland, which is the one place he hopes to go to in his life. He told us about apartheid and the difference between blacks and coloureds, as well as a third subgroup, Asiatics. We got to tour the prison, where we saw the area Nelson Mandela got to exercise in:


As well as the cell he lived in for years:


We also boarded a bus and got a tour of the island where we saw mines that the prisoners where forced to labor (and die) in and other buildings like churches and the warden's house.

It all could have been very depressing except for the fact that the prisoners had taken over the asylum and hearing their stories from the source proved to be more inspirational that depressing. We ended the tour by almost missing our boat back because we were in deep conversation with Yasien about his life, past, present and future. Skip and I never take trips just to sightsee. We also want to know as much about the place as we can find out and that includes the people and politics. So we're always eager to find someone who wants to talk about life in these places. So far, we hadn't had much luck getting people to talk. Everyone was very friendly, but as soon as we brought up the apartheid years, eyes glassed over and the subject was quickly changed. So we were very happy to find someone who wanted to talk about these things. Unfortunately, our conversation had to be cut short due to time, but we exchanged email addresses with promises of future dialog over the Internet. And we told Yasien that if he ever made it to Los Angeles, we would be glad to give him a guided tour in return.

And it was back to the mainland, where we had booked dinner at Baia Seafood, a restaurant that was reported to have the best seafood on the western African coast. It was at the V&A Waterfront, which is basically a large mall, but it has some of the best shops and restaurants in Cape Town. We both had the mixed seafood grill that consisted of a whole crayfish (basically a lobster without the claws), langoustines, shrimp, squid and several other types of fish and it was all simple and delicious. After dinner, we headed to the downstairs mall and another restaurant called Balthazar that was a steak house and wine bar. We weren't interested in dinner, of course, but the wine bar was reported to be one of the best in Cape Town. We arrived to find a bar that had over 250 different wines by the glass, most of them South African. We were in heaven:


After a few beautiful glasses of wine, it was back to the hotel via the shuttle, another couple of hours of TV and a deep sleep.

Nov. 13 – Today was Skip's 50th birthday and after a fast breakfast in the hotel, we headed out to the shuttle for the trip to Table Mountain.


The problem with Table Mountain is that it is 3000 feet high and it closes down if the wind picks up too much. And that happens a lot. Today was the first day we were there that the Mountain was finally open and we canceled any other plans we had that day for the trip to the top.

Before we left on this vacation, we had decided that we would make this the extreme trip we never take. When I was a teenager, I had repelled down the face of a small cliff in Virginia, and I read that tourists were offered the chance to do just that from the top of Table Mountain. Skip is terrified of heights, but loves the ocean, which I'm terrified of. We read where tourists were also offered the chance to get in a metal cage and go scuba diving in the ocean with great white sharks. So I told Skip that I would do that if he would repel down Table Mountain and it was agreed upon. Both of us would face our fears.

So we got to the base of Table Mountain and got in line to take the cable car to the top.


This turned out to be a pretty amazing journey, at one point going almost straight up along the cliff face. The car itself spun slowly while going up, so no matter where you are in the car, you get a 100% view area. We got to the top and headed out to find the people who would show us how we were going to abseil (or repel) down the mountain's face. After asking around, we were finally introduced to Shane:


He was originally from Texas, but had been living in Cape Town with his South African girlfriend. She had just been accepted at a school in San Diego and by now he probably calls that city home. He was the person who was going to teach us how the descend Table Mountain on a rope. Here's the area where we descended:


It turned out that we would not be going down the complete face of the mountain. We would start at 3000 feet, but we would only be descended 350 feet to a ledge below. Then we would have to walk back up! And after only a few minutes of instructions, we were ready to go. We had to wait for a girl who was going to take the trip down first, but as soon as she got to the edge and looked down, she panicked and started crying uncontrollably. That was that for her. She took off her equipment and ran off, still crying, before Shane could even give her a refund. We were watching all this with a group of people all commenting about how they would never do something as crazy as that. And then Shane called us over and the group grew quite. He fitted us with the equipment we would need, basically a harness and a rope, and also told us that he didn't get many people our age doing this. Skip was feeling a bit unsure, but we made our way to the edge and they hooked us up to the rope. I have no problem with this kind of thing and was over the edge in no time and was waiting for Skip, who was having some kind of problem getting his rope to work correctly. But after ironing out the problems and muttering "Oh my god" a few times, he made me proud by lowering himself over the edge and we were on our way down.

And it was a beautiful thing. The view from up there was amazing. What they didn't tell us was that the view was going to get better. About halfway down, the cliff face just disappeared and we found ourselves just dangling in midair for the rest of the journey. We controlled our rate of descent, although there was also two safety lines controlled by people above and below us just in case. But it was all over too fast and we were on the ledge and being released from our harnesses. Skip was ecstatic and quickly decided it was one of the best things he had ever done and we both agreed that we would have to do it again someday.

We were now faced with a walk up the cliff and that took us an hour along some pretty scary paths. But we finally made it and picked up our stuff from Shane and thanked him. It was time for lunch and we found the cafeteria where we bought some great sandwiches and a great bottle of sparkling wine and fended off the obnoxious local birds while we ate.

Time was getting short and we wanted to spend Some more time in the city before dinner that night, but we decided that we would take the short ½ hour walk around the top of the mountain to take a look around. But somewhere we missed our turnoff and we ended up out in the middle of a beautiful nowhere with no other humans in sight. Panic started to lightly set in, as we had no idea where we had to go, although there was a path to follow. But we finally found our way to the return path, which took us along the edge of the mountaintop. It was getting windy and in some places the path was only a few inches wide, but we navigated all obstacles safely and finally made it back to the tram building about 3 hours later. Here's view from the path we took:


We took the tram down only to find that we had missed our shuttle back and we had to call the hotel to send out another one. So we shopped in a souvenir stand and got into a nice conversation with the owners while we waited. They also mentioned that I should look into a mirror, where I saw that my face and head were horribly sunburnt. My whole head was one giant blister. This surprised me as I seldom burn here in LA and never wear sunscreen. But the people there explained that the African sun was a different beast and besides, the ozone hole was directly above Cape Town at that time. Wonderful! So I spent a day with a blister face and then two more looking like a peeling monster before everything was back to normal.

The shuttle arrived and we hurried back to the hotel, dressed and then left again to head back to the V&A Waterfront and Skip's 50th dinner, which I had booked months before at a restaurant called One Waterfront. This restaurant was considered one of the best in Cape Town and was in the Cape Grace Hotel, which is the hotel American Presidents stay in when they visit the city. The meal was excellent, of course. Skip started with a seafood bisque and I had a seafood salad with a squid ink vinaigrette. We split an order of oysters and then both had a fish called Musclecracker for our main course. It was the best fish I've had since I had Char in Vancouver years ago and I sure wish I could find it here. Then the restaurant treated us to an amazing chocolate insanity dish of every chocolate dessert they had in the place. And we tried a Gorgonzola crème Brule that was the only thing in the meal that just didn't quite work In this case; salty and sweet just didn't go together. And all of it was washed down with several glasses of great South African wine.

After dinner, we went downstairs to the Bascule bar, a bar that specializes in whiskeys and have hundreds of them that can be tried by the glass. We treated ourselves to a couple of excellent ones and then headed back to the hotel. Exhausted, burnt and satisfyingly full.

Nov. 14 – We woke up and grabbed breakfast. There we ran into a Spanish couple we had talked to several times before. Javier and his girlfriend (who's name I can't remember) wanted to take a helicopter ride around the city and wanted to know if we'd be interested since the more people we had in our party meant that the price would go down per person. We agreed, although it wasn't something I really wanted to spend money on, and made plans to meet them at the V&A Waterfront later in the day.

We then got the shuttle to take us to meet Gene, the architect's assistant, so she could show us around his house. But on the way, she called and told us that something came up and she would have to reschedule. So we asked the driver to take us to the V&A Waterfront since we hadn't really looked around there yet and we had to meet the Spaniards later. We found a great wine store and an equally great bookstore and eventually made it to a restaurant called Emily's of Africa for lunch. There we had what I considered one of the finest meals I had in Cape Town. We split an order of rollmops, which were pickled herring wrapped around raw onions and pickles. Delicious! Then Skip enjoyed impala in a chocolate sauce, while I had quail stuffed with minced ostrich. Then we split an order of great bread pudding and washed it all down with more great wine.

We found we still had a few hours before meeting the Spanish couple. They had gone out whale watching. So we decided to walk around the neighborhood directly above the Waterfront. This area is called Green Point and is the gay area of town. We wandered around, looking into shops and bars and ended up back at the Nose Bar for a glass of wine and conversation with our friendly waiter.

But it was time to meet up and we headed back to the Waterfront. Javier and I headed to the helicopter place and negotiated a half-hour long ride around the town and Cape. It was decided that we would ride in the Huey helicopter, which cruised at 2500 feet with no doors. I wasn't really excited about it, but I had agreed, so we were put on a bus to make our way to the heliport. Skip and I were lucky enough to grab the best seats in the helicopter and we were treated to a thrilling and beautiful (and sometimes frightening) ride around the Cape that made me very glad I hadn't pulled out of the deal like I originally wanted to. Here we are with the Huey:


After that, we headed back to the hotel. We had called a friend of our South African friend, Rui, and we had made plans to meet him and his wife for dinner that evening. They were coming to the hotel to pick us up.

At 7, Douglas and his wife, Carmen arrived and introductions were exchanged. Then we all piled into their car for a trip to the Camp's Bay region of Cape Town and dinner at a restaurant named Blues. Camp's Bay is a rich, ocean side neighborhood, reminded me of Laguna Beach here in Orange County. The restaurant was good, not great. We split some Springbok carpaccio and fish cakes, and we both had Yellowtail fish in berre blanc sauce. But conversation was great and we got on very well with Douglas and Carmen. We even had an offer to stay with them next time we come back, an offer we may very well take them up on.

(I'll be expanding on some of these conversations in my comments when I finally end this thing.)

And then it was back to the hotel for more TV and more comfortable sleep.

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