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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lion Sands Private Game Reserve 9.6

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We woke up at 3:30 AM to catch our flight to Johannesburg at 5:45 AM.  The host of the hotel packed some simple breakfasts for us in two brown bags. How thoughtful.

It was pitch dark when we left.  The city took on a different vibe at that time of the day when there was no cars on the road.

When we drove to return the rental car, the staff at the gate asked us if we have anything to eat because he was hungry.  It was a bit odd. He obviously was not a homeless and we didn't know what to make of it.   Anyway, we gave him the brown bags of breakfast, and he thanked us.  As we drove away, in the rare mirror, we could see that he rushed to open the bag and started eating.  I felt bad. Was he hungry because he didn't have money to buy food or because he could not leave the gate?

Before driving into the car rental company's parking lot, another guy approached us and told us that we could return the car to him right there.  The guy did not wear the car rental company's uniform or badge.  I told H that I did not feel comfortable to just leave the car with this guy.  H politely explained to the guy, he did not seem to be offended and walked away.  After pulling into the parking lot and returned our car to the representative, we asked him if the other guy was legit.  The representative told us that the first guy worked for the car rental company and we could've indeed returned the car to the first guy we saw.  Oh well, maybe I've lived in New York for too long.

We booked the Safari portion of the trip through Africa Direct because the owner, Tanya Kotze, was highly recommended on the Trip Advisor.  However, I am not sure if it was necessary to go through a travel agent to arrange the Safari, especially if you have already decided which lodge you want to stay. Once you book the lodge, they can arrange the transportation for you.

The flight from Johannesburg to Sabi Sand was through a small charter flight operator, Federal airline. We had no clue how to get to the connection flight once we landed in Johannesburg at 7:35 AM.  Thank god that a driver was already waiting for us outside of the baggage claim.  He drove us to a small airport three minutes outside of the O R Tambo international airport to check in.  The airport had a nice departure lounge with WiFi and food.  However, we learned that our original flight time at 9:30 AM was changed since April and the new flight time was not until 10:35 AM.  We were quite annoyed that neither Tanya from Africa Direct nor  Lion Sands lodge informed us of this change.  We could've slept in and taken a later flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg if we knew that the earlier flight was cancelled.  Instead, we were stuck in this tiny airport lounge for 3 hours.

The airline company claimed that they sent out emails to inform the travel agents and lodges a long time ago but both Tanya and Lion Sands general manager told us that they did not receive any emails.  We did not know who dropped the ball and it was quite disappointing how this was handled.  Finally, we were sitting on the small plane by Noon.

After an hour of a bumpy ride (I really dislike small airplanes), we landed at the airport and were immediately taken by an open 4x4 to our game reserve.

The sun was strong, and we started peeling off layers of clothes.  We drove on a dirt road looking over shades of yellow and gray landscapes.  The ground was dry and covered in hays.  Most trees and bushes were bare.  The greenery was sparse.  We were keenly aware that although this was still part of South Africa, our journey would be completely different from Cape Town.

After 45 minutes,  we arrived at Lion Sands Game Reserve. It was a beautiful lodge.  Our hut was spacious and comfortable with a bushbuck chilling in front of the porch, and a bug greeting us on the nicely made bed.

For those who have never taken any safari vacations, let me break it down for you. After checking into the lodge, we were assigned three lodge staff during our entire stay.  A butler, who served us three meals a day; a ranger, who was the knowledgeable licensed guide for our game drives; and a tracker, usually someone experienced in the local wildlife who track down the animals when we went on game drives.

There is a strict schedule to follow for the safari vacations to maximize our opportunities for wildlife viewing. The morning game drive starts before sunrise at 6AM.  Breakfast begins at 9 AM.  Lunch is served at 1 PM.  The afternoon game drive starts at 3:30 PM.  Dinner is at 7:00 PM.  It almost feels like staying in a luxury summer camp for adults.

We covered our exposed skin with bug spray/lotion, and came out of our hut for lunch.  Our meals were usually served at the open deck overlooking the Sands River.  Our butler, Jeffery, was attentive, calm-natured, and always with a warm smile.  The lodge has really good chefs serving gourmet meals with local ingredients and wild game.  The menu changes daily and we rarely had disappointing dishes.

Perhaps most people already finished their lunch, there were only a few tables of guests.

After lunch, we went back to our hut for a quick nap.  At 3:30 PM, all the guests gathered around in one of the lounges, where snacks, cookies, and beverages were served while our rangers came to collect us. There were about 30 guests at the lodge, and I would guess the average age of the guests here were over 50.

Our ranger, Jonna, who is in his mid 20's came to collect us and two other couples, both Americans, also just arrived today to the vehicle.  Abraham, our tracker who grew up in the Kruger area, was already waiting by the 4x4. 

Although the temperature was still warm, the breeze while driving through the bush made it quite comfortable.  Jonna gave us some background information, pointed out trees, birds, and other animals while we drove through the bush. It was a quiet drive.  We spotted two  giraffes, hippos in the river, some bushbucks, and lions from far far away. But it was our first drive, so we were an easy crowd to please.  At 5 PM,  we stopped on a field for some drinks and snacks.  As we watched the sunset, the temperature dropped drastically.  We loaded up the winter gear and covered in blankets for another hour of night drive before heading back to the lodge around 6 PM.  When night falls,  all guests must be escorted by security when walking in the lodge property for safety reasons.  We visited the bar for some drinks, mingled with other rangers and guests before heading to the candle light lid patio for dinner. 

My head hit the pillow shortly after dinner. It was a long day, and tomorrow's morning call would wake us up at 5:30 AM.  The last thought before I fell asleep was, for the next four days, all we would be doing were animal viewings, eating & drinking, and sleeping. 


PREVIOUS: Cape Town 9.5

Cape Town 9.5

  • City Bowl
  • Cape Quarter shopping center
  • Chapman's Peak Drive
  • Sea Point Promenade
  • Pepenero Seafood Restaurant

We had breakfast at Cape Cadogan's beautiful breakfast room.  There was a breakfast bar and hot food made to order.  We noticed that all the bread in South Africa had a soft and spongy texture. I wonder why?  Personally, I love the texture, but H, who usually prefers firm and dense bread, was not a fan.  

In the early part of the day, we left the car at the hotel and just walked around the city.  We did not have any specific itinerary, but rather to simply take in the city by foot.  We walked along Kloof Street, Long Street, Church street, and visited many shops along the way.  The cast iron balcony buildings on Kloof Street reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans.  We passed a protest near a government building, but with all the music and dance, it looked more like a parade.  

The Greenmarket was a tourist trap like the guidebook said.  The better shopping experience was at the Cape Quarter shopping center with more local brands. We loaded up our souvenir gifts at the Cape Quarter. 

It was a sunny and warm spring day, perfect to be walking around the city.  I love getting to know a city by foot and it was exactly what I was missing on this trip so far.  We walked all the way to the V & A waterfront before taking a taxi back to the hotel.  

Our time in Cape Town was coming to the end.   The only thing left on my itinerary was the drive from Seaport to Haut Bay.  We left the hotel around 4 PM and headed to the coast.  

The Chapman's Peak Drive was absolutely gorgeous.  Unfortunately, the sky was cloudy and gray so we didn't see the sunset.  Nonetheless, the view was spectacular.  We took many stops at various view points.  I had never visited any other cities with such an unique topography like Cape Town.  There are massive mountains, dramatic coastlines, and pristine sandy beaches all within a 10 minutes drive.  I am envious. 

Before dinner, we stopped by Sea Point Promende for  a walk.  There were many high-rise apartment buildings along the seashore.  Many locals were out jogging or taking a stroll.  

Our last dinner in Cape Town was at Pepenero seafood restaurant, suggested by the host of our hotel.  We had another seafood platter for two people, and the meal did not disappoint.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Winelands & Coast 9.4

  • Vergelegen Estate
  • Hermanus
  • Coast Drive Route 44 
  • Cape Cadogan Boutique Hotel
  • Miller's Thumb Seafood Restaurant

Akademe's owner, Katherine, greeted us in the courtyard when we came down for breakfast.  Two black ladies dressed in white aprons were working in the separate kitchen preparing breakfast.  The table was set in the elegant dinning room for the two of us.  The breakfast included various fresh and pickled fruits, yogurt, bread, and made to order eggs, sausages, bacon, etc.  The whole setting felt quite "Gone with the Wind" to me. 

Over the breakfast conversation with the owner, we learned that the Route 45 & Route 43 from Franshhoek to the coast was closed due to the heavy rainfall.  It was supposed to be a beautiful drive taking us through the mountain and lake.  Instead, we had to drive back to Stellenbosch before getting to the coast.  What a bummer. 

After checking out of the hotel around 10:30 AM,  we headed to our last winery visit, Vergelegen Estate. This was the only estate that we visited that charged an entrance fee (R10). However,  it was well worth it.  There were 17 themed gardens in the property and six magnificent Camphor trees over 300 years old standing in front of the old manor house.  

For every charming chic town that we drove through these past two days, there were always townships nearby along the highways.  It was not an uncommon sight to see the black Africans from the townships hitchhiking or running across the highways.  The sharp contrast of the racial/economic divide is still quite apparent everywhere we go. 

During breakfast, I asked Katherine if it was worth going to Hermanus if we did not plan to spend too much time doing any whale watching activities.  She hesitated, but told us to go anyway.  Turned out, her initial hesitation was probably a better indication.  There was not much going on in Hermanus  except some whale watching tour operations catered to big tour groups.  The immediate surroundings did not feel safe to me so we stopped for 5 minutes and quickly drove away. It was absolutely a waste of time visiting Hermanus.  H told me that I was being way too paranoid on this trip. Maybe I was, but I'd rather be paranoid than sorry. 

The drive along the coast back to Cape Town was absolutely incredible. On one side of the road were the majestic mountain, and on the other side of the road was the ocean.  It was one of the most dramatic and scenic routes we had ever drove.  

The Cape Cadogan Boutique hotel was where we would stay for the next two nights before the Safari trip.  It was an elegant old victorian-Geogrian building sitting on a hilly quiet street located in the Gardens overseeing the Table Mountain.  The hotel was tastefully decorated and the staff were all very friendly.  

The surrounding area of the hotel was safe to walk around at night.  We decided to walk over to a nearby seafood restaurant for dinner.  The hilly streets of the Gardens reminded me of San Francisco, but the view of the mountain was uniquely Cape Town.

Growing up in Taipei city, a basin surrounded by the mountains, this trip made me realized how much I missed having the mountains within reach.  It also brought back the fond memories of late night drives to the mountains overlooking the city dazzled in lights.    

Miller's Thumb is a casual seafood restaurant with a simple and straight forward menu.  Kingklip and Pinotage had became my  go-to choice of seafood and wine on this trip.  All were good and fresh.   

After dinner, we took a walk along the bustling Kloof street.  We were driving most of the time on this trip, and it was nice to be finally on our feet walking around the city for a change. 


PREVIOUS: Winelands 9.3  

Winelands 9.3

View Wine Route 9.3 in a larger map

  • Delcare Graffiti Restaurant
  • Blaauwklippen Estate
  • Dormier Estate
  • Warwick Estate
  • Boschemdal Estate
  • Akademie Street Boutique Hotel & Guest house
  • Kalfi's Restaurant

After checking out of the Westine Hotel, we were on our way to the wine route.  I love visiting wine regions.  The scenery is always picturesque, the wineries are beautiful, and wine tasting along the way just enhances the whole experience.  What makes South Africa Wine Region special is the majestic mountain backdrop within close proximity to Cape Town. A short 25 minutes drive from Cape Town, we are in the heart of the wine land.  

Our lunch reservation was at Delaire Graffiti Estate. Delaire Graffit is a modern, luxurious property with vineyard, lodge, spa, and stunning views of the mountains.  It would be the perfect place for a weekend of R & R if I had a few extra thousand dollars to burn.  The good thing is you can also come here for the world class gourmet meal and the magnificent views that costs a lot less.   Our lunch was delicious and the service was excellent. 

After lunch, we stopped by Blaauwklippen Vineyards (a 300 year old rustic estate with a farm in the property), Dornier Wine Estate, Warwick Wine Estate, and Boschendal Manor house & Winery (another old estate with dutch style architecture).  

Since H was driving, we didn't do much wine tasting except Warwick Wine Estate, mainly because we wanted to try their red wines.  The South African wine tasting is an entirely different experience compare to the US wine tasting; in a good way.  It is a much more relaxing, enjoyable, and dignified experience. We sat at the outdoor table looking out to the valley and mountain, and tried a set wine tasting menu with a friction of the cost compared to the US wineries.  The tasting staff was knowledgable, attentive, and friendly.  I didn't remember if I had Pinotage before, but I had enjoyed the Pinotage I tasted on this trip. We sat by the outdoor patio taking in the beautiful scenery, drank good wines, heard interesting stories, and never felt rushed.  This is how wine tastings should be at all times.  

We arrived at Akademie Street Boutique Hotel & Guest House just short of 5 PM.  Akademie is a well maintained property sitting on a quiet street in Franschhoek.  Our second floor suite, Uitsig, was specious and airy, with a pantry packed with free snack & drinks, a bathroom with heated floor & towel rack, and a balcony looking out to the encircling mountains.   The courtyard with beautiful lemon trees, rose bushes, and other plants was idyllic that reminded me of the enchanting secret gardens in the children's books that I read when I was young. Unfortunately the weather was still too cold for us to use the swimming pool, but I could totally picture myself lounging around in this courtyard on a warm lazy summer afternoon. The host in Akademie had sent us plenty of information by email after we booked the room.  They even offered us a cellphone during our stay if we ever needed to call for assistance.  I thought that was a really nice touch.  

The hotel was so charming that we did not want to leave the room.  H took a nap while I took a bath.  At 7:30 PM, we finally walked out of the hotel. It was a quiet night and there was wood burning scent mixed in the fresh cool air everywhere.  Although we were told that it was safe to walk around town, there was barely anyone on the street and I did not feel completely comfortable walking on the street at times.  After the decadent lunch we had earlier today, we were in the mood for something more low key.  Kalfi's Restaurant with it's rustic ambiance and home cooking South African dishes was exactly what we were looking for.  We sat by the fireplace, ordered a bottle of Pinotage and more food than we could finish. The Cape Malay Bobotie (a South African Dish consisting of spiced Minced Meat baed with an egg-based topping) was hearty and full of flavor. The Warthog Schnitzel tasted just like the regular pork schnitzel.

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PREVIOUS: Cape Town 9.2

Monday, October 7, 2013

Cape Town 9.2

  • Table Mountain
  • Boyes Drive
  • Live Bait at Kalk Bay
  • Boulders Penguin Colony
  • Cape of Good Hope

We woke up on a sunny day with no cloud in the sky,  the perfect weather to visit Table Mountain.       We wore the warmest clothes we brought for this trip, packed our gloves, hats, and windbreakers before leaving the hotel.  After a short 15 minutes drive, we parked our car on the side of the Talfelberg road, and walked for another 5 minutes to the Lower Cable Station. There were tour buses, and lines of people waiting to get tickets when we arrived around 9:30 AM.  

Before the trip,  I was contemplating hiking up the table mountain. However, I discovered that I had this borderline irrational fear of cliffs after our Iceland trip.  Last year, I turned back midway hiking in Scottsdale, Arizona because the fear was getting the best of me. After reading my Lonely Planet guidebook that "More people have died on Table Mountain than on Mt. Everest", I went on the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway website and purchased the round trip cableway tickets beforehand. Being paralyzed by fear and stuck in midway hiking up the Table Mountain was not my idea of fun, but for those who are interested in hiking up Table Mountains, please do not let me discourage you. There are many hiking routes that you can choose from. Make sure to read the safety guidelines first.   

Table Mountain is one of the new 7 wonders of nature.  It is so impressive no matter from which angle you look at it.  It was very windy and much colder on top of the Table Mountain. We were lucky with the weather that there were barely any clouds in the sky, and the view of the mountain descending into to the city and eventually submerging into the ocean was breathtakingly beautiful. 

With all the amazing geographic surroundings, Cape Town is truly one of the most beautiful city in the world in terms of its landscape.  

After 2 hours on top of the Table Mountain, we took the cable car down and were on our way to the Southern Peninsula. We took the Boyes Drive and stopped in Kalk Bay for lunch.  Live Bait is a charming seafood restaurant sitting by the harbor looking out into the ocean.  We ordered a seafood platter for two that came with shrimps, calamari, mussels, crayfish (looks like a mini lobster), kingklip (a very common white fish in South Africa).  Everything was so fresh and tasty and the whole meal costed us less than US$40 including tips.  We also stopped by a few antique shops on the Main Road in Kalk Bay before heading out.  

Next stop Boulders is famous for the South African Penguins. To be honest, it felt like a tourist trap to me.  We paid 45 Rand per person to walk through a boardwalk by the white sand beach, took pictures of penguins, and left within 3o minutes. But we also easily spotted the penguins for free. 

From Boulders beach to Cape of Good Hope is another 35 minutes drive.  On the way there, we spotted a group of baboons on the roadside.

Once inside the Cape of Good Hope, it was another 10 minutes drive to get to Cape Point. I had the same feeling driving to Cape Point as when we drove to the sharkfarm in west Iceland.  There was an outworldly energy in both places that made me feel like that I was at the end of the world.  It was quite amazing to be at the point where the Atlantic ocean and Indian ocean meet.  

Cape Point closed by sunset. We headed back to the city, had a simple dinner at the V & A Waterfront food court, and spent the rest of the night at the hotel swimming pool & sauna again. 

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NEXT: Wine Route 9.3

PREVIOUS: Cape Town 9.1

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cape Town 9.1

  • Langa Township
  • Bo-Kaap
  • Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden

We were in deep sleep, lost in a sea of soft blankets and pillows, until we heard a gentle knock on the door.  "No, thank you." H said in his sleepy voice.   "Is it the wake-up call?" I asked with my eyes closed.

We booked the Siviwe Langa Township tour for this morning at 9 AM.  I specifically booked the sunday tour because I wanted to see the church service.  Last night, we requested a wake-up call for 7:30 AM, and I asked H to set up the alarm on his phone before we went to bed.

"No, it was the housekeeper." H told me.  "You sure it's not the wake-up call?" I had a bad feeling. "What time is it?"  I opened my eyes.  The curtain was thick, and the room was dark. H got out of the bed and went to the door to see if anyone was standing outside.   The housekeeper left us alone.  "What time is it?" I asked again, searching for my eyeglasses.

"9:35 AM!" H said.
"Sh*t! F*CK!! F****CK!!! We missed our tour!" I jumped out of the bed, my heart sunk. "Are you sure it's 9:35? I didn't hear the morning call or the alarm!" I said, now fully in panic mood. "Great! that's the one thing I really wanted to see in Cape Town." My head was spinning, thinking of a back-up plan.

Turned out, the hotel did not make the wake-up call, and H failed to set up the alarm on his phone correctly.  I was annoyed and disappointed.

I asked H to call Siviwe to apologize for missing our tour and discuss the alternatives.  I figured, the best case scenario we would either join the tour an hour and half late or take the 12 o'clock tour and missed the church service.

Siviwe was beyond nice and more than accommodating.  We told him that the earliest we could get to the meeting point was 10:30AM.  He told us that it was not a problem and another tour guid, Nathi, would be at the meeting point waiting for us.

I was so happy that our morning was saved.  We quickly got ready and rushed to our meeting point at 10:30.  Nathi was already at the meeting point waiting for us.  He got into our car and took us to the Langa Township visitor center. We parked our car on the street, and spent the next 4 hours with Nathi in Langa Township.

Langa was the oldest Township in Cape Town, built in 1927, after the 1923 Urban Area Acts were introduced in South Africa.  It was designated for the black Africans with majority residents from the Xhosa tribe. For people who are not familiar with the term "Townships" in South Africa, they are residential developments established for non-white race groups (blacks, coloured, and Indidans) living near or working in white-only communities until the Apartheid (racial segregation system) ended in 1994.  

Nathi first took us to a Church before service.  The choir was singing gospel music on stage, families and friends greeted one another, everyone was smiling and singing along.  A young father was carrying his adorable wide-eyes toddler daughter in his arms the whole time as his daughter sucked her thumb looking out to the crowd curiously. The energy of the room was full of love and joy. 

Our tour guide, Nathi, is in his mid-twenties who grew up and still lives in Langa.  H teased him if he was the mayor of the township since he seemed to know everyone passing by. Nathi told us that community was a very important part of township culture.  He was genuinely passionate about his community, and happy to share his knowledge with us. 

We passed by schools and shops, visited some people's houses, spoke to locals, and saw the different socio-economic areas. The children were so open and friendly.  Random kids just ran towards us with the brightest eyes and biggest smiles to give us hugs! (What?? Did their parents tell them not to approach the strangers??)   

We saw a few long lines of people in front of stores, and Nathi explained to us that this is the first of the month. People had gotten paid and were lining up to buy electricity. Nathi further explained that people would buy electricity in units.  They then receive codes to input into their electricity boxes in their houses. 

Nati told us that many people choose to stay in the Township for the community and culture even when they can afford to move out.  During the tour, we saw quite a few Mercedes driving by.  On one end of the spectrum, there were upscale neigherbhood where houses were as nice as any middle-class single houses you can find in the U.S.  On the other end, we also visited hostels where 3 families cramped into a small dorm room with twin bunk beds, shared bathroom, kitchen, and zero privacy.  The alternatives would be shacks built with corrugated iron, where the summer is brutally hot, winter chilling cold, and water dripping through the roof when it rains.  

At one point during our walk, a young boy ran towards us and aimed his fake gun at us shooting. Nathi quickly lectured the young boy and spanked the young boy's behind.  I thought to myself, "Wow, there is no way this could happen in the U.S. to discipline other people's children." Nathi told us that in the Township, everyone has the responsibility to teach children if they misbehave.  

We told Nathi to that we would like to have lunch at one of the local places.  Nathi took us to a hole in the wall that was owned by a woman, as many un-registered small businesses were in Langa. We had stew chicken with beans, beets, mashed potatoes, and pickled vegetables.  The place is not for the faint of hearts. We shared the only table with another customer in this tiny eatery and were handed utensils soaked in water from a plastic container. In the middle of the meal, Nathi handed the lady his soiled cloth napkins, The lady quickly washed it in the sink, twisted it dry, and handed back to Nathi. The meat was quite tough. I would not go as far as describing it being delicious, but it was an authentic home cooked meal.  The dish cost us $2, and we did not get sick. What more could we ask for?

We continued our tour and Nathi shared more stories about the townships and villages after lunch.  At one point, we asked Nathi how long these tours last.  Nathi shredded his shoulder and said nonchalantly that it normally ends in 2 hours, which was already running one hour overtime.  Nathi was not in any rush, and told us that we were on "South African Time". Before we concluded the tour, Nathi took us to the "Happy Feet Youth Project" he was personally involved in.  He gathered some children to dance for us.  Other children congregated and sat next to us to watch the performance.   To be honest, I was not entirely comfortable, fearing that we were exploiting the children although I am sure this was never Nathi's intension at all.   

We quickly stopped by the visitor's center before picking up our car.  One of the vendor selling local arts & souvenirs gave us the hard sell, telling us the beaded animals he was selling were hand made by the orphans. I did not think so, these beaded animals were sold everywhere in South Africa. Although we did not buy anything from this man, H was gilt tripped into "donating" 50 Rand to this man for the needed orphans.  

We finally said good-bye to Nathi a little after 2:30 PM.   Nathi did not charge us any extra even though this turned out to be a 4 hour private tour.  Thank God for the South African Time! I wok up in the morning thinking the day was ruinned, and the time we spent with Nathi in Langa turned out to be one of my favorite moments in Cape Town.  

The way I plan trips has slowly changed over the past few years.  I no longer have the patience nor time to do in depth research on hotels, restaurants, and sights.  I also know that there are things I am simply not interested in, no matter how famous they are, such as fortresses or prisons; and I am willing to pass up these sights even if they are the "must-sees".  As the result of my more "laid-back" approach, our itinerary left plenty of room for flexibility and at times, errors.

The only thing I planned for today was the Langa Township.  After the tour, we had to figure out what to do next.  It definitely gave us a lot more freedom by renting a car in Cape Town and we decided to check out Bo-Kaap, which was about 15 minutes away by car.

Bo-Kaap, formerly known as Cape Malay Quarter, used to be home of slave descendants from south east Asia and other African countries. The whole neighborhood felt a little deserted. I did not feel comfortable to explore the area by foot even though we did see a few tourists walking around.  In the end, we did a quick drive through and stopped for some pictures.

The next stop was Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden.  We arrived at the botanic garden a little after 4 PM. The garden was supposed to open until 7 PM from September on, but the staff at the ticket booth told us that it remains the winter schedule and would close at 6PM.  Well, as Nathi said, we were on "South African Time". 

I am not an expert on botanic gardens. The times that I visited one could be counted with both hands, but Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden is absolutely amazing.  The garden is on the base of the Table Mountain with a stunning setting and housed only the indigenous flora of South Africa.  It is part of the Cape Floral Region, UNESCO World Heritage site.  Many of the plants are not found anywhere else in the world.  Even though I am far from having a green thumb, I wish I could have brought some of those exotic flower seeds back home! H and I loved our time in the garden and two hours were just barely enough. 

We went back to the hotel after the botanic garden closed.  As soon as we walked into our room, there was a bottle of wine, desserts, and a letter from the manager on the table.  The manager apologized for missing our wake-up call this morning.  This was a nice gesture and considering how the day turned out, all was forgotten! 

It was our sixth wedding anniversary on September 1.  Before the trip, I tried to make a dinner reservation at the famous The Test Kitchen.  Unfortunately, like many restaurants in Cape Town, the Test Kitchen was closed on Sunday and Monday.  We took the concierge's suggestion, and took a taxi to the nearby Gold Restaurant. Okay, for all the food snobs readers, you can stop reading right here.  Gold restaurant is touristy.  In fact, I doubt any of the customers were locals.  The restaurant serves a set menu serving Cape Malay cuisine with nightly live African dance/drum performances. 

We went to the restaurant knowing that it was for tourists, and we didn't mind that it was touristy.  The food was delicious, the service was great, the performances were entertaining, and what can I say, we WERE tourists after all.  

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cape Town 8.30 - 8.31

South Africa

When H and I were planning our wedding in 2007, I wanted a Safari honeymoon. H was not ready for Africa, so we ended up going to the French Polynesian Islands instead.  It was the perfect honeymoon and I would not change it for anything, but I never took the safari off my travel list.

Six years later, the time has finally come. We are on board for not only our first safari, but also the first trip to the African continent.  As much as I would like to see myself as adventurous, I must say that Africa seemed intimidating.

Since we know very little about Africa, any safari destination would work for us. I was greedy at first, and wanted to visit Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia all at once. However, after the shocking realization of how expensive the itinerary would be, we quickly settled for South Africa only.  The country is stable, relatively safe, the capital city of Cape Town would serve as the gentle introduction to our first African experience. Kruger region is ideal for a safari at this time of the year.

We booked our trip at the beginning of this year, and counted months and days for my romanticized African expedition to finally come.

8.30 - 8.31

South African Airway(SAA) provides daily direct flights between New York (JFK) and Johannesburg (JNB).  The flight is 15 hours long. There are several flights a day between Johannesburg and  Cape Town (CPT), which is another 2 hours long. It was our first time traveling via SAA, the food was good, there was plenty of water provided and many movies to choose from. It is worth mentioning that quite a few movies had Chinese captions.  Who knew! I assume SAA must have a lot of Chinese customers.  We are used to the long haul flights  from our trips back to Asia.  The flight seemed shorter this time somehow.  Upon landing in Johannesburg, our pilot announced that this was his last flight before retirement.  As a tradition, our plane was sprayed down by two airport fire trucks in honor of the pilot's successful career (As the pilot said, equal numbers of take-offs & landings). The cabin erupted into loud claps and cheers.  It was a really neat experience. 

Johannesburg is a huge airport and we only had less than 90 minutes to go through the customs, claim the luggage, and check-in for our domestic flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
While we were running across the airport trying to board, two guys looked like they were the airport staff guided us to the customs.  The first guy guided us to the customs designated for airline crew.  The second guy then showed us the right customs that was 500 feet away.  He showed H a 100 euro bill and told him to pay tips.  Really? 100 euro for 2 minutes' walk? We didn't think so.  H handed him 2 dollars and he walked away.  However, this seemed to be quite common in JNB.  A lovely couple we met during this trip shared a similar story and paid us$20.  
By the time we got our rental car at Cape town International airport, it was around 2PM on Saturday 8/31.  H was anxious about driving on the right side of the road for the first time so we rented a GPS to help us navigate.  H quickly adopted to driving on the left side. Not having too much traffic on the road most of the time definitely helped.
We arrived in Cape Town at the end of the winter.  The air was cool and crisp.  The temperature during our stay was between 56 – 68 F (15-20C) during the day and cooled down to around 45F (9C) at night. Table Mountain was the dramatic backdrop on the N2 Highway when driving into the city.  As we drove through one of the townships by the highway, there were people running across the highway to the other side of the township! This was definitely something we have not seen before in other countries that we visited!

The drive to our hotel took about 20 minutes.  For the first three nights, we stayed at the Westin Hotel by the convention center near the V & A Waterfront. It’s becoming our preference these days as we are expanding our travel map to countries that may seem intimidating at first.  We would book the international chain hotels first to gain our footing and get comfortable with the surroundings.  I was hoping to check out neighbourgoods market  since it only opened on Saturday. but it was too late by the time we checked into the hotel. After a quick shower, we took our car out and drove to the nearby V & A Waterfront.
V & A Waterfront is like South Street Seaport in New York or Quincy Market in Boston, It’s touristy and commercial.  It is the most visited attraction in Cape Town. We first headed into the shopping mall searching for food.  Willoughby & Co has pretty good reviews.  It is a seafood restaurant and the sushi is strongly recommended.  Unfortunately, we were rather disappointed. The sushi was mediocre at best.   
We spent the afternoon taking a stroll on the waterfront, passing through the upscale shops, and browsing isles of groceries in the supermarket.  There were people from all walks of life and all races.  The shopping mall had quite a few interesting home good stores with names I never heard of in New York.  I kept searching for clues that I was in South Africa and the only thing that gave it away was the accent when people talked. We were back at the hotel by 7 PM, and spent a couple of hours at the hotel's swimming pool, jacuzzi, and sauna on the top floor taking in the view of the city.  After a 17 hours flight and more than 35 hours from when we last slept in a bed, it was time to call it a night. 

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