Cape Town


Katie Derham: Cape Town, with kids in tow

Camps Bay16/01/2008

A holiday that involves taking two young children on a 10-hour night flight sounds like a recipe for disaster. But nothing could be further from the truth if your destination is South Africa, says Katie Derham.

"South Africa. You've got to go there. The beaches, the food, the vineyards, the animals."

Our first stop was a no-brainer: we stayed with friends in the ritzy beach suburb of Clifton
I'd heard this sort of thing many times and even volunteered to look at the holiday snaps of smitten friends. But with a five-year-old and a new baby? A 10-hour flight? And on a whim? By which I mean, without spending months planning it.

Well… it would be an adventure. There's something about winter in Britain that makes even the most hare-brained scheme seem attractive if it involves sunlight and cold wine. And this time last year, I was on maternity leave, so didn't have the inconvenience of work to get in the way of a good holiday plan. So, having sprung five-year-old Natasha from school with the promise of lots of times tables and "a project on elephants", we headed to Heathrow.

First great thing about South Africa with children: no jet lag. Night flights - OK, not wonderful when you're sitting at the back but, frankly, new parenthood prepares you well for broken sleep.

And as for the children, Natasha was in heaven at being allowed to watch back-to-back Disney. And the tiddler, little Eleanor, was snug in her flight cot (30,000 feet is a pretty good place to sleep through the night for the first time).

We arrived in Cape Town early in the morning, and the drive from the airport in our monster rental van (hats off to Avis - cheery staff and plenty of child-seats…) was breathtaking for the views, and for the shock of passing townships on the way to a city frequently voted "the place I would most like to live". A timely reminder, perhaps, that we might be embarking on a great holiday but that South Africa isn't quite the rainbow nation of multicultural harmony the tourist board would have us believe.

We had three weeks to play with, and a thousand recommended routes for our voyage of discovery. Thank goodness we met the marvellous Jayneen, an experienced travel agent and guide who not only knew all the unspoilt spots, but also understood the joys of travelling with children.

"Plan it around the animals," she said. "And don't drive for more than three hours a day."

It seemed good advice, so, after adding that we wouldn't mind sampling a bit of local wine, too, we sat down with maps and got plotting.

Broadly, we were to follow the Garden Route, which runs east along the coast from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. Well, technically it starts at George, a town about halfway along, but the trip to George looked green and pleasant, too.

We'd heard a lot about South Africa's top-notch b&bs and were keen to try them. They really are a long way from the chintzy, metal-teapot-in-your-room, share-the-loo places we're used to in the UK.

B&bs South African-style can be mini-boutique hotels, with pools and five-star facilities. All are good value and come with the convivial welcome of a host who cares about your stay.

Jayneen was keen to show us her favourites. But a word of warning. The ones that look stunning probably don't want sticky fingers and dirty shoes on the furniture, and can be pretty strict about children. Or rather, no children. Undaunted though, our trusty travel agent did a thorough trawl, booked us in, and we were off.

First stop, Hermanus. This is the best land-based spot in the world to see whales, and we were there just at the end of whale-watching season.

Imagine a coast not unlike Devon's but with humpbacks breaching in the surf just yards from you. It beats sandcastles. There are some spectacular cliff-top walks (I'd take a sling, not a buggy) and any number of empty beaches with dunes to race up and down.

The little town itself is down to earth. We're talking quality fish and chips here rather than fine dining (though check out the Burgundy restaurant, with the friendliest maître d' and the most expensive crayfish in the southern hemisphere).

The museum is fun, with plenty of whale skulls to entertain the troops, and photos showing just how bleak the life of a whaler must have been not so very long ago.

Onwards to Wilderness National Park, with the most awe-inspring 12-mile beach, a string of extraordinary properties perched on the dunes, a nature reserve and lagoon behind (good for boat trips and bird-watching) and a little town with a great pizzeria and a hippy market to satisfy all your tie-dye needs. We loved it.

We stayed in what I can only call the footballer's wife of the b&b world. It was called Xanadu. It was fabulous. We're talking a lot of swagged curtains. Many gold taps. Considerable statuary. And our first introduction to real Afrikaaners, who had just moved down from the north. They were charming. They had a hot tub. They had several big, white, fluffy dogs which frolicked in the surf. We, and our five-year-old, were in heaven, probably for very different reasons. They were very tolerant of us. And put a lot of towels out whenever the baby was near the silk upholstery.

Knysna and Plettenberg are well-known stops along the Garden Route, and while you can see why, perhaps too many others have got there first. Both towns are in stunning locations, but at first sight are becoming very built-up.

Get away from the centres, though, and you're in the most glorious countryside, with lots of outdoor activities - riding, kayaking and general rambling - to keep a family busy. Mucking about in the pool and cooking barbies - or braais - at our comfortable cabin in Knysna (the Tonquani Lodge) were also winners.

Monkey Land and Elephant World are a short drive along the main coast road from here, and proved extremely popular with Natasha. They were also theme parks of the kind where parents won't resent spending the day. Monkey Land, in particular, is sensitively designed and informative, and you see the most extraordinary wildlife close-up. I can thoroughly recommend them, especially if you're unable to spend a few days on safari.

Nature's Valley, on the road east towards Port Elizabeth, was a diversion we almost didn't take. Thank goodness we did. At last, some genuinely untouched forests and beaches - stunning. We only spent a couple of hours here, but on a different kind of holiday this would be the kind of spot in which you'd love to camp.

Now, I know that plenty has been written about safaris; I'd assumed that it was the kind of experience we'd have to forgo with an infant (visions of lions salivating over the travelcot). But that was before we (oh, all right, Jayneen) discovered River Bend Country Lodge in the Addo Elephant National Park, an hour north of Port Elizabeth.

The two days and nights we spent here might not count as a "proper" safari with the purists - we weren't too far from civilisation, and some of the animals we saw had been brought to the park. But you know what? We didn't care.

This was a place that provided luxury and safe, child-friendly adventure in equal measure. Our rooms were fabulous, with views of the watering hole, where lots of animals obliged us by drinking regularly.

Natasha was greeted even more warmly than we were by our ranger, who asked her if she'd like to go bug-hunting or to make fairy cakes the next morning "to give mum and dad the chance to try out the spa".

Extra babysitters had been laid on for both the girls. A baby seat was provided for the Jeep so that all the family could go out together to see the animals, morning and evening.

It was awe-inspiring. We ate and drank like kings, comfortable in the knowledge that our children were welcome and entertained, and were able to look forward to the game drives, knowing that the pros were used to catering for all ages.

Jayneen had told us to plan our trip round the animals, and she was right - this really was the highlight. I will never forget being in the heart of a herd of 60 elephants (including two little baby twins, Dawn and Dusk - unbelievably sweet) with the females stopping to look with interest at our little ones.

Or walking with giraffes, or counting zebra, or stopping yet again because Natasha had spotted another tortoise in the grass. (How could her favourite animal be a tortoise - elephants and giraffes not exciting enough?)

We left, still stunned by what we'd seen, to drive west back to Cape Town. We thought we'd take the more direct route, crossing the Kleine (Little) Karoo.

After some hundred miles of orange and lemon groves, we found ourselves closer to the Africa of my imagination than anything I'd yet seen. Long, long single-track roads. Endless open, dusty space. Mountain ranges approaching and then receding from view.

After 10 days of comfort and varied entertainments, a glimpse, perhaps, of what it must have been like for the early settlers discovering this land for the first time.

One stop only on the return journey, in the remote high-valley village of Prince Albert. Thanks to an intricate irrigation system, this is a fertile spot, with pretty colonial buildings and an arty vibe.

We stayed at the De Bergkant Lodge, an immaculate, old-world spot with huge bathrooms, heavy Dutch furniture and a great pool. We would gladly have stayed longer, but had to settle for just one evening.

We dined in an occasional restaurant run by a retired government minister who indulges his love of cooking a couple of nights a week. Great food, and what better entertainment than first-hand tales of political intrigue from one of Mandela's inner circle?

The final push back was through the vineyards of the Cape. We looked longingly at some of the highly recommended restaurants we passed, with their promise of exceptional local wines, but figured that there was a limit to the tolerance of even the kindest sommeliers as children charge around their superlative cellars. And, of course, it's an excuse to come back another time.

Article from City of

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