The most mountainous and arguably the most beautiful of South Africa’s provinces, the Western Cape is also the most popular area of the country for foreign tourists. Curiously, it’s also the least African province. Visitors spend weeks here without exhausting its attractions, but frequently leave slightly disappointed, never having quite experienced an African beat. Of South Africa’s nine provinces, only the Western Cape and the Northern Cape don’t have an African majority; one person in five here is African, and the largest community, making up 55 percent of the population, are coloureds – people of mixed race descended from white settlers, indigenous Khoisan people and slaves from the East.
Although the Western Cape appears to conform more closely to the developed world than any other part of the country, the impression is strictly superficial. Beneath the prosperous feel of the Winelands and the Garden Route lies a reality of poverty in squatter camps on the outskirts of well-to-do towns, and on some farms where nineteenth-century labour practices prevail, despite the end of apartheid. Nevertheless, you can’t fail to be moved by the sensuous beauty of the province’s mountains, valleys and beaches. The Winelands, less than an hour from Cape Town, are all about eating, drinking and visual feasting on gabled homesteads among vineyards backed by slatey crags.
The best-known feature of the Western Cape is the Garden Route, a drive along the N2 that extends between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Public transport along the Garden Route is better than anywhere in the country, partly because the route is a single stretch of freeway, and tour operators along the way have turned it into the country’s most concentrated strip for packaged adventure sports and outdoor activities.
To the east of the Winelands, the Breede River Valley is a region usually bypassed along the N1 en route to Johannesburg, but featuring among its functional fruit-farming towns are some hideaways favoured by Capetonians as weekend retreats. Though the region was neglected by visitors in the past, some creative marketing has now literally put it on the map as Route 62, most of which consists of the intriguing eponymous back road tracing its way through the interior, linking Little Karoo towns between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
The Overberg – roughly the area between Arniston and Mossel Bay along the coast, and inland to Swellendam – is another region that remains hidden behind the mountains. West of here, the Whale Coast is the best area in the country for shore-based whale-watching, and a couple of pleasant coastal towns lie off the main routes. North of Cape Town, the less popular, remote and windswept West Coast is usually explored during the wild-flower months of August and September, when visitors converge on its centrepiece, the West Coast National Park. Its other major draw, 200km north of Cape Town on the N7, is the Cederberg, a rocky wilderness with hikes and hidden rock-art sites – the work of indigenous San people, who were virtually extinguished in the nineteenth century.