Captivating Cape Town

I’m normally not a morning person.

But by 5 a.m. on my first full day in Cape Town, the sun has risen high enough to peel back the curtain of night and reveal the majesty of Table Mountain. My hotel balcony provides a front-and-center seat for this morning tableau.

Sleep no longer interests me.

I sip hot tea, nibble the chocolate truffle left during turndown service the night before, slide open the doors and take in the view.

Behind me, television continues 24/7 commercial-free programming — tributes, interviews and news about Nelson Mandela. The “Father of the Nation” died two days before. All of South Africa is grieving, remembering, celebrating a hero who helped to end apartheid 20 years ago and a father figure — “Tata Madiba“ — who showed South Africans how to forgive.

I remember something I’d read in a guidebook: When Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, he’d look across the bay to Table Mountain and see a beacon of future freedom. Indeed, Cape Town’s iconic formation — a flat-topped mountain that rises 3,563 feet above sea level and looks as though its peak has been sliced off — has presided over more than three and a half centuries of history in this, the Mother City of South Africa.

On summer afternoons, strong breezes nudge the clouds to hover atop the mountain, creating an effect that locals call a “white tablecloth.” When the wind pushes the clouds over its face, it looks as though they are tumbling down a waterfall.

Winds of change, in fact, have been hard at work carving the landscape here in recent years. People around the world are noticing. Bolstered by a strong exchange rate (currently about 10 South African rand to $1), overseas tourists — and Americans, in particular — are flocking to the Western Cape to experience the beauty and charm of its land, people and culture.

The New York Times last month named Cape Town the No. 1 place to go in 2014 (on a list of 52 destinations around the world).

Lonely Planet named the city No. 3 of 10 destinations on its Best in Travel 2014 list.

And the city will hold the title of World Design Capital for the year. It will play host to many events that showcase the theme “Live Design. Transform Life,” an effort to “position Cape Town as a leading global city — a hub of creativity, knowledge, innovation and excellence,” tourism officials say.

On my early-December visit, during the very public national period of mourning for Mandela, the evidence couldn’t have been more tangible: This is a place that stays firmly grounded in its history yet bursts at the seams with excitement for its future.

Almost nowhere is this more easily experienced than on a culinary tour of the city and its outlying wine region. Cape Town has become a new frontier for chefs around the world, such as Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, who opened the first and only South African outpost of his eponymous restaurant Nobu there in 2009. The city is home to eight of the top 10 South African restaurants listed in the 2012 Eat Out Awards, and the country’s only two restaurants to make it into the 2012 San Pellegrino World’s Best Awards. At every turn, it’s also possible to savor the traditional dishes, speckled and spiced with global influences, that helped shaped the region.

And in the Cape Winelands, centuries-old winemakers are using new technology to produce world-class wines.

Touring the local scene

On a sunny Saturday morning, locals pack in, elbow to elbow, to the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill, a bustling “village” of restaurants, cafes and shops in the Woodstock neighborhood, which is undergoing a renaissance much like that of Fort Worth’s near south side.

Local vendors sell organic dried fruit, dozens of types of mushrooms, freshly baked macaroons, flatbread pizzas, pork belly pies, ice cream and hundreds of other products and foods. Some give out samples; all allow patrons to enjoy their purchases on long tables in the middle of the market.

I arrive with a small group on an excursion with two Cape Town food and travel experts, Dawn Jorgensen and Ishay Govender-Ypma; they run The Food and The Fabulous Food Tours, customizable experiences that delve into the heart of the city’s culinary scene.

Before 11 a.m., I’ve tasted craft beers from Darling Brew, noshed on velvety mozzarella di bufala from Buffalo Ridge, sipped a tall rooibos iced tea, chewed on tuna Biltong (a South African jerky) and sampled a favorite local pastry called a Flying Dutchman, which closely resembles a New Orleans beignet.

This is just one example, our guides tell us, of an emerging “market culture” in Cape Town and a new commitment to support local farmers and food purveyors.

The Old Biscuit Mill was once, indeed, a biscuit (cookie) factory, and it is evidence of the “what’s old is new” trend that is feeding the city’s culinary pursuits. It’s where British superstar chef Luke Dale-Roberts opened his fine-dining restaurant The Test Kitchen to rave reviews in 2010. In 2012, he followed up with the critically praised The Pot Luck Club, on the sixth floor in the silo of the Biscuit Mill.

They are among the hardest reservations to get in town.

The Mill is home to a charming gourmet boutique deli called Saucisse that specializes in hard-to-find meats and cheeses of the area, and to a coffee shop called Espresso Lab Microroasters, which serves up single-origin coffee creations for which people line up out the door on Saturday morning.

With the summer sun searing, our “fab food” tour takes us a step further back in time, to the Bo-Kaap, or Cape Malay Quarter of town. With its brightly colored semi-detached homes, Bo Kaap has become a backdrop for high-fashion magazine shoots (The Huffington Post listed it among the most colorful places in the world).

Once the home of freed slaves, the predominantly Muslim area — site of the oldest mosque in the country — has had an indelible influence on South African cuisine. A resident of the area guides us up and down the hilly cobblestone streets and leads us into a spice shop, where we can smell and taste the aromas and flavors — coriander, turmeric, garlic — that make this cooking, brought here in the 17th and 18th centuries by slaves from the Dutch East Indies, so distinct. We feast alfresco on a lunch of traditional Cape Malay foods such as lamb curry and samosas, prepared by women who have made it their mission to preserve the beloved food of their ancestry by conducting these tours and compiling recipes into a forthcoming cookbook.

No “local food tour” would be complete, of course, without a dip into the local beverage scene. As in North Texas, craft brews are big news.

In the early evening, still with our expert food guides, we find ourselves at the Beerhouse, a new watering hole on vibrant Long Street that actually does have 99 bottles of beer on the menu. We “rock around the clock,” sampling 12 brews.

After a dinner of traditional sausage called boerewors at the the Gourmet Boerie cafe, our group bar-hops down Long Street among crowds of mostly young Capetonians who are making the most of a mild summer Saturday night.

Exploring wine country

Craft beer may be a new trend here, but throughout South Africa, there is a long and rich history of producing first-rate wines — and lots of them.

President Barack Obama toasted his 2008 election win with a South African Graham Beck Brut NV, reportedly his favorite sparkling wine. (Central Market stores carry a limited selection of Graham Beck bottles locally.)

Less than an hour’s drive out of Cape Town, rows and rows of vineyards climb the mountainsides. Traditional white Cape Dutch-style homes dot the landscape, and bright pink bougainvillea grows next to the road in this picturesque countryside.

With its mild Mediterranean climate and limited rainfall, the Western Cape region has been home to a wine industry dating to the 1600s. Today, wines from the region are scoring ratings higher than French Burgundies in worldwide competitions.

Entire vacations can be spent in the wine country; it would be a shame for teetotalers not to spend at least part of one day taking in this beautiful scenery, too. Many of the wineries offer daily tours and tastings. Visitors can easily drive in and out of the city or make a home base of one of the region’s charming towns — Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Paarl — which abound with boutique hotels, shops and eateries.

Accompanied this time by Luvo Ntezo, award-winning head sommelier at One&Only Cape Town resort, my group’s day in the winelands begins with breakfast at Le Quartier Francais, an exclusive but cozy hotel in Franschhoek. A buffet as colorful as the Provençal-style hotel itself includes treats like sticky buns, passion fruit cocktails and a homemade Nutella-style spread. The hotel is home to another of the region’s top-rated restaurants, The Tasting Room, headed by imaginative chef Margot Janse and decorated by her brother — an opera set designer — with endearing touches like wallpaper made of candy foil wrapping from Paris.

The first of two wine tastings of the day comes in Stellenbosch at Tokara, a sprawling operation that produces a variety of site-specific wines, made entirely of its own grapes, in three distinct vineyard areas. The still-young winery, started in 1994 by a wealthy banker who purchased it for private use, produces 900 tons of wine a year — double its initial production goal, the wine maker tells us.

Tokara uses cutting-edge technology to analyze the vineyards and viticulture. It’s the first one in the area to use a process that “captures both visible and infrared light emitted from vineyards to create a colour index describing variances between cultivated sections,” its website explains. As a result, the wines — red and white, sweet and dry — are made to the highest standards.

My favorite in a tasting of eight wines (and a brandy, which Tokara also makes) is the 2012 Director’s Reserve white, a blend of 74 percent sauvignon blanc and 26 percent semillon grapes. I could drink this with every meal. (And, yes, that includes breakfast.)

Tokara also is home to a thriving olive oil business. While the olive oil industry in South Africa isn’t nearly as old as the wine industry, it’s a rapidly growing one. According to the local food magazine Good Taste, “the industry has created 5,000 permanent jobs and 20,000 seasonal positions at a time when no other fruit is harvested.”

A restaurant serving locally sourced cuisine, a deli shop selling gourmet goodies like truffles and coffees, and an outdoor playground area with sweeping views of the mountains beckon visitors to linger from day to evening.

On the drive to the town of Paarl, to the second winery of the day, Nederburg, a mid-afternoon rain invites a rainbow to reach down from the sky and across the mountains. It’s a sublime scene.

Nederburg, founded in 1791, is one of the region’s best known wineries, recognized around the world not just for its award-winning wines but for its place in South African wine history. The Nederburg Auction was established in 1975 to showcase the country’s finest wines. The annual event has become one of the five most important auctions in the world; it’s a glamorous, invitation-only social occasion. (While most of us will never get invited, we can enjoy Nederburg wines locally. They’re sold at Central Market stores.)

After a tasting of more than a dozen wines — my favorite is another white, a blend of eight grapes called Ingenuity — we relax on the lush grounds of Nederburg’s stately Manor House. The gabled, thatch-roof Cape Dutch home was built in 1800 by the winery’s founder. Today, it’s a national monument, restaurant and visual icon of the region’s wine industry.

We sit on outdoor benches, relax on swings in the big trees and sink our feet into the lush lawn as we sip our last glasses of wine before heading back to the city.

Exclusive destination

Exotic Cape Town is an in-demand location for film shoots and a glamorous vacation destination for celebrities ( Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift were in town recently shooting the forthcoming The Giver; Britain’s Prince Harry was spotted shopping there just before Christmas).

Luxury hotel bookings in 2013 were up by almost 17 percent over the previous year’s as of August, according to South African Airways’ Sawubona magazine.

The 5-year-old One&Only Cape Town resort, home base for my visit, has hosted a roster of VIPs from every corner of the globe. Actor Denzel Washington, U2 frontman Bono, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Mandela himself have all stayed here.

Its seven-story Marina Rise, steps from the stylish Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, offers 91 spacious rooms and suites, all of which have either “my” magnificent view of Table Mountain or of the pretty harbor side; 40 more rooms and suites get their own private island. With plush in-room amenities like a pillow menu, oversize bath and shower, and multimedia entertainment system, it’s tempting to settle in and nurse jet lag awhile. But, oh, what a mistake that would be.

Outside, the hotel boasts the largest infinity pool in South Africa, and the passion fruit mojitos from Isola restaurant on the hotel’s private island make the perfect poolside sip.

Too sunny outside? Inside, at the resort’s spa, named 2013 Best Hotel Spa in Africa and the Middle East by Travel + Leisure magazine, hotel guests can enjoy the underground thermal suite — hot tub, sauna, steam room and ice bar — complimentary with their stay. (Don’t miss the minty ice water on the way in or out!)

Less than 24 hours after my journey there from New York, nothing feels better than a 50-minute massage. “You had some ‘crunchies’ in your back,” I’m told as I’m led by my massage therapist to the dark and serene relaxation room.

I return to the spa the day before departure for a luxurious Bastien Gonzalez pedicure-manicure duo, which is not yet available in the United States. Developed by Gonzalez, a podiatrist in France, the treatment involves polishing the nails to such a shine that to cover them with color would be to spoil their beauty. (Two weeks later, I still hadn’t polished my fingers or toes.) The best part of the treatment? A rhythmic massage of hands and feet performed by two specialists who work in tandem.

And then there’s the food.

One&Only is home to chef Matsuhisu’s Nobu, where classic Japanese cuisine incorporates South African seafood. A seven-course family-style dinner there is an event.

Local celebrity chef Reuben Riffel debuted his first Cape Town restaurant, Reuben’s, at the hotel in 2010. Here, I eat local oysters and drink champagne with breakfast, and at dinner, sample smoked springbok — an antelope-gazelle with meat that is lean but flavorful.

Adjacent to Reuben’s is sommelier Ntezo’s domain: The stunning, trilevel glass and steel Wine Loft houses more than 5,000 bottles. Ntezo knows each one well; at just 31 years old, he is a skilled sommelier whose talents and palate are highly sought after. South African Airways has called upon him more than once to help pick the in-flight wine menu.

And I happen to love his personal motto: “A day without a drink is a day not lived.”

Those who want the most impeccable private wine and food experience can sit down to Reuben’s Tasting Table just outside the wine cellar.

Summertime in Cape Town means warm, mostly dry days to take a cable car up to Table Mountain, lounge on the beach at Camps Bay, take a ferry ride for a tour of Robben Island or enjoy an evening picnic at an outdoor concert in the lush Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

On my last night in town, I indulge myself in some childlike fun — a ride on the Ferris wheel on the V&A Waterfront at sunset. A 12-minute, four-cycle ride affords views that rival those of the birds flying beside me. I can see to Robben Island in one direction, get up close to the city’s gleaming soccer stadium in another.

And then, as the sun sinks lower and the sky grows pinker, I spot it: the white tablecloth. Rolling in and spreading out over Table Mountain.

It makes my last sunset in this exotic and storied city as memorable as the first sunrise.