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Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is certainly no secret. Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world, it’s high on the “hit list” of most tourists visiting South Africa. The grandeur of its setting against the slopes of Table Mountain is hard to beat, and one can easily spend a day just wandering about and discovering the garden with occasional stops to re-fuel at the tearoom or at Moyo restaurant. If you’re really lucky, and you visit in breeding season for the Cape Eagle Owl, you might even spot one of the breeding pairs and their young nestled in the trees or taking a tentative stroll near the main gate or above the cycad garden.

But if you are pushed for time or prefer a more directed visit, you might like to head straight for some of these top Kirstenbosch spots.

The Wild Almonds

This might seem like an unremarkable place to start the list considering all the other attractions the garden has to offer, but whenever I think about my favourite places to visit in Kirstenbosch, this clump of trees always comes to mind first. If you have children, dragging them around the expansive, hilly garden can be quite a challenge. These wonderful sprawling trees next to a stream and a large grassy stretch perfect for playing on (or sitting on while you watch your offspring gambol about) is a very welcome way to take a break from the walking. The trees themselves are beautiful and many of them have nice thick trunks almost parallel to the ground, perfect for children of all ages to climb.

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If you’re not a big tree climber but you like the idea of wandering about at the top of the tree canopy, head for the Boomslang.

The Boomslang Canopy Trail – Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway

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Boomslang means tree snake, and the curved steel and timber design of this low-impact, low maintenance walkway (more formally called the Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway) was inspired by a snake skeleton. Constructed in 2013-2014 and opened to the public in 2014, the Boomslang snakes its way unintrusively through the top of the trees as its name suggests, providing explorers with extraordinary panoramic views over the tree canopy and the garden. There is wheelchair access to the Boomslang, but if you’re planning on visiting in a wheelchair it’s a good idea to consult the website in advance to find out the best access routes.

When you want to take a break from walking, go and sit next to the Otter Pond (even if you can’t jump in, just the sight and sound of the water is refreshing) or head upstream to my other all-time-favourite spot in Kirstenbosch, Colonel Bird’s Bath.

Colonel Bird’s Bath.

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Although you’ll find it listed on the map as Colonel Bird’s Bath, locals still often refer to the waterhole at the heart of the Dell as Lady Anne Barnard’s Bath, after the wife of the Colonial Secretary who lived in the Cape from 1797 to 1802. I always loved the idea of her galloping up there on horseback for a morning dip, but sadly this legend is untrue as the bath was only built after she left the Cape.

The real history of the bath was that it was built in about 1811 by Colonel Christopher Bird, then the Deputy Colonial Secretary, who built the pool (in the shape of a bird, as a play on his name) to collect spring water so that it could stand and clarify before being piped into the house.

But history aside, the pool is really beautiful and an absolute must to visit. You’re not allowed to swim in it (though many have) but it’s enough just to perch and take in the beautiful surroundings: the magnificent Tree Ferns are my favourite. While you’re there, don’t forget to drink a handful of the pure, pH neutral water that flows up from an underground spring all year round at an average of 72 litres per minute – it’s delicious!

Just above the Bath is the extraordinary cycad collection, which should definitely not be missed. These palm-like plants are known as “living fossils” because they have hardly changed since the Jurassic Era 150-200 million years ago. Cycads are rare and endangered and Kirstenbosch propagates them to avoid collectors taking them from the wild. You can buy cycad plants at the annual Garden Fair and Plant Sale held every March, and at the Kirstenbosch Garden Centre, but remember that you will need a permit if you want to take them out of the country. Lurking in the undergrowth around the cycads are several bronze dinosaur sculptures. A search for all six of dinosaurs might distract any children you’re visiting with while you catch your breath.

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If you want to give your other senses some attention after all these sights, head towards the Fragrance Garden and the Braille Trail in the direction of the tea room and garden centre near Gate 2.

The Fragrance Garden and the Braille Trail.

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You’ll encounter all sorts of smells in the Fragrance Garden, some delicious (I’m a sucker for Pelargonia) and some definitely not so much (like the one that smells like cat wee to me). It’s shaped in a small loop, handy for corralling children through, and provides a brief and pleasant olfactory focus. Close by is the Braille Trail. Whereas sightseeing is normally, as its name suggests, focused on vision, the Braille Trail is great for those who’d like to give their other senses some extra input. Originally designed for patrons who are visually impaired, the trail provides an opportunity for anyone to close their eyes and use the rough ropes on their left-hand side to guide them sightlessly through almost half a kilometer of garden trail. When your hand reaches one of the large wooden “beads” in the rope you are alerted to a sign post, in English and in braille on the reverse side, which tells you something about where you are standing. You might even choose not to open your eyes to read these – walking the whole Braille Trail with your eyes shut can be quite a transporting experience, and it only takes about 10 to 15 minutes.

Take a hike

Kirstenbosch is a great place to start or end a hike. A great one to try if you have about an hour and are feeling energetic is the Yellowwood Trail. It’s quite a demanding ascent to start off with, and definitely not one to choose if you feel like a gentle stroll. After you’ve hiked up the slope you reach Skeleton Gorge. At this point, we turned left and followed the contour path back down to the gardens, taking in some wonderful views along the way. Alternatively, if you feel like something more strenuous and have about five hours to spare, you could follow Skeleton Gorge to the top of Table Mountain instead. Be warned, despite its location in the middle of the city, Table Mountain is a realmountain, not a theme park and hiking Skeleton Gorge is not something to be undertaken lightly or with young kids – unless yours are unusually fit and willing. Ideally, go with someone who knows the route if you are not familiar with it, but whether or not you take a guide, take a map, a hat, some sunblock, something warm to wear just in case, and make sure you take enough water and are wearing sturdy walking shoes.

I haven’t even touched on the many other attractions that the garden has to offer: the live concerts, the sculpture garden and outdoor art exhibitions, the great gift shop, the Protea garden, the conservatory, the garden shop (for plant take-aways!) and the Useful Plant garden, to name just a few. A picnic at Kirstenbosch is also a great way to spend some time, and the fact that one is allowed to bring one’s own picnic fare (including for the open-air concerts, and including alcohol) rather than being forced into buying it on site as many other places require you to do, is a great bonus. If you do want to buy a picnic there instead, you can order from the tea room.

If you’re not picnicking and you need some refreshment, you can get a great tea, breakfast or light meal at tea room (near Gate 2) or go to the Moyo restaurant, which specialises in Pan African food, for something more substantial.

Whether you’re young or old, fit or unfit, a garden-lover or someone who prefers the arts, or if you’re visually-impaired or visiting in a wheelchair, you’re likely to find something to enjoy in these magnificent gardens.

Heritage Square - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes

In the thick of summer, when Cape Town is heaving with visitors and locals let loose from their work cages, you might feel the urge to find somewhere quiet to hide. Here are a few wonderful Cape Town courtyards to try when you need to step out of the fray.

196 Victoria

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If you’re looking for a peaceful retreat in beautiful surroundings, the approach to 196 Victoria might not immediately seem promising: persevere, and you’ll be delighted you did. In the middle of the bustling, restless, noisy urban Woodstock Main (Victoria) Road, you’ll see the gracious old façade. But once you step inside, you’ll find yourself in an oasis of calm that seems to be miles (perhaps centuries?) away from the street you’ve just stepped off.

I first went there to see an exhibition by a local artist – wonderful work, exhibited in a light, clear space – and it felt like I’d stumbled, Narnia style, into a different world.

196 Victoria Courtyard - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes196 Victoria was conceived as a hub where creatives and holistic health practitioners (and those who feed and water them) could work in a beautiful, conducive environment. The focus of the centre is on supporting physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. The building houses several artists’ studios (to the right as you walk in), a yoga studio, therapy rooms and workshop rooms as well as an extraordinary old world café room, an exhibition space, and, tucked away at the back, a courtyard café. The eatery has just changed hands, and the new Veg Kitchen and Coffee Shop opens in January. I’ll definitely be paying them a visit.

Café Ganesh

If you’re looking to put yourself into the thick of it rather than to escape, head to Café Ganesh in the heart of Observatory. Café Ganesh started by accident. Literally. Anthony Baker was knocked off his motorbike in the early 90s and was eventually paid out for his medical expenses in 1995. He took a 7-month trip to India (hence the name Ganesh), and decided to start a local eatery when he came home in late 1996.

An “Obs” institution since its inception, Café Ganesh serves up hearty food (think bobotie, umnqusho, pap ‘n veg) and even heartier conversation, Mzansi style, from before noon until the wee hours. The look is urban shabby chic, and the feeling is everyone’s welcome. Most of the action happens at the long tables in the main courtyard area (through the main Trill Street entrance) but Ganesh expanded some years ago to include an extra room, featuring work by well-known SA artists – don’t forget to check out the floors.

If you’re wanting something more tranquil and less “happening”, try the fabulous fare at the High Tea cake shop in Wynberg.

High Tea

High Tea - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes In Cape Town

Kerneels and Irma Brümmer started High Tea in Wynberg as a tea and cake shop in 2004, but it has since expanded. High Tea now serves up breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea in a really beautiful, peaceful English-styled garden. The baking is still done by Irma and her staff in a home-based kitchen. You can hire out the venue for functions or order custom-made cakes for birthdays, weddings or other special occasions.

High Tea - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes In Cape Town

If it’s a seaside courtyard retreat you’re after, make your way to the South Peninsula, where you’ll find the Courtyard Café in Kalk Bay or try the Winchester Mansions in Sea Point.

The Courtyard Café

Courtyard Cafe Kalk Bay - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes Cape Town

The Courtyard Café is set in a sheltered courtyard in Kalk Bay between the Artvark Gallery (through which you enter the café) and the Kalk Bay Theatre (which featured in the Secret Cape Town “Intimate Theatres” blog). The café has inside and outside areas, some of which overlook the bustling activity of Kalk Bay and the False Bay ocean beyond. The Courtyard Café prides itself on their healthy, high quality ethically sourced food, serving many inventive salads as well as vegetarian and vegan options.

Courtyard Cafe Kalk Bay - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes Cape Town

Winchester Mansions

Winchester Mansions in Sea Point is home to one of my all-time favourite courtyard hide-aways. I’ve been treated to a fabulous breakfast buffet there and it’s a perfect place for afternoon tea, but Harvey’s (as the restaurant here is called) also serves dinner in this uber-romantic courtyard setting.

They offer Summer Serenade evenings during season on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 8, high tea on Saturday afternoons from 2 to 5 (R360 for 2) and their legendary jazz brunches on Sundays from 11 to 2 (R345 and you can help yourself to anything from the breakfast or lunch buffets) – just make sure you book in advance. If you’re after a spectacular sunset drink, the bar (with a stoep) at the front of the hotel looking out onto the promenade and the sea beyond is a winner.

Heritage Square

Heritage Square - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes

Heritage Square houses an impressive range of places to eat or drink. There are several good restaurants (one specialising in chicken dishes, the other in beef), an upstairs drinkery, an innovative ice cream shop serving inventively boozy ice cream flavours such as whisky and orange peel alongside more traditional (and child-friendly) varieties, a cellar offering wine tasting, a coffee shop, and the Heritage Hotel which is adorned with a grape vine that has been growing there since the 1770s and still produces grapes. Whether you’re going there for a quick drink, a coffee, an ice cream or a full meal, it’s a wonderful venue – day or night.

Villa 47

Villa 47 - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes

Villa 47 - Top 10 Cape Town Courtyard Cafes

Not far from Heritage Square in Bree Street, the Villa 47 courtyard has just been revamped into a fresh, modern terrazza with funky but comfortable-looking furniture, presided over by a great mosaic created by a young local artist. They specialise in Italian spritzers, snacks and meals and have several beers on tap. It seems like a perfect place to go for post-work drinks and stay for a good Italian dinner.

Honest and The Gin Bar

Honest Chocolate Cafe And Gin Bar - Top 10 Courtyard Cafes In Cape TownStill in the CBD, Honest Chocolate is a small, artisanal bean-to-bar chocolatier. The people at Honest are dedicated to ensuring ethical business practices and sourcing (local, organic and fair). The chocolate is handcrafted in Woodstock, and they set themselves apart from the rest by keeping their chocolate dark and minimally sugared.

Their café shop is on Wale Street, with a few tables of indoors and a really pretty courtyard at the back (which is part of the original building) where you can sit and enjoy a breather and something dark, decadent and chocolatey at a table near the water feature.

If you’re a gin lover (which I confess I’m not) venture further and you will find the secret Gin Bar, which shares the courtyard with the Chocolate Café and offers a wide selection of local and international gins. You can try your hand (or taste buds) at identifying the huge variety of botanical flavours used, and experiment with different mixers and garnishes.

Jonkershuis

If you feel like going somewhere rural without leaving the city, the courtyard at Jonkershuis restaurant is a good bet. Situated in the heart of Groot Constantia, the oldest wine-producing estate in South Africa, the Jonkershuis is a relaxed restaurant with a leaning towards traditional Cape Malay dishes. There are various spaces within the venue, including a lovely courtyard area, but it’s definitely worth booking in advance. It’s a great place to take kids: there’s a children’s menu (as well as a vegetarian one) and plenty of space under the shade of the oak trees to run off any extra energy after lunch.

Sunset Sea point Swimming Pool Cape Town Emma Van Der Vliet

Sunset Sea point Swimming Pool Cape Town Emma Van Der Vliet

 

I love swimming – I always have. When I was a child, we used to take the train from Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape all the way to Joburg to visit my grandmother. There I would run the gauntlet into her garden past the homicidal sausage dog, Curly Wee (yes, actually) but it was worth it, because if I could make it past him alive I would get to… The Pool. Flanked by vibracrete swans, adorned by lilos and reeking of chlorine, it was a suburban oasis. I loved that pool. I swam in it until my lips were blue and my fingers looked like mauve prunes. Most afternoons, my long-suffering, non-swimming mother had to drive me out of the water with dire threats as the daily thunderstorm brewed and lightning was imminent.

I still love swimming, though these days I’m a bit more discerning about where and how I do it. I’m not as quick to throw off my clothes and leap into any available body of water wearing nothing but two small stripes of lycra, and I prefer somewhere that I’ll be left in peace. Luckily, there are some magnificent places to swim in Cape Town, some more secret than others, which suit my needs perfectly. There are plenty of sea swims (and that’s a story for another day) but for now I want to stick to pools: here are some of the best Cape Town swimming pools open to the public.

I have to start with my all-time favourite, the Sea Point pool. Can there be a better poolside view than there is from this large, salt water swimming-hole, which seems to continue out endlessly into the Atlantic Ocean alongside it? There are four pools, including an Olympic sized main pool, a paddling pool for kids and a diving pool with a fearsomely high diving board which is open to the public during high season when there are lifeguards on duty.

For all this you’ll pay the modest sum of R25.30 a day for adults, R13.20 for children or nothing at all if you are a senior citizen or have a disability. Not surprisingly, the Sea Point swimming pool is one of the best-used facilities in Cape Town, frequented by a pleasingly diverse range of people. During weekdays it tends to be quieter, with older visitors swimming or sunning themselves convivially on the lawns, and on weekends it is teeming with children from all over greater Cape Town. High season runs from the 1stof October to the end of February, when the opening hours are extended to allow a full twelve hour day from 7 to 7. And because it is filled with (treated) sea water it is open despite the drought.

Sunset Sea point Swimming Pool Cape Town Emma Van Der Vliet Diving Board

 

The pool is set near the far end of the Sea Point Promenade, another wonderfully well-used bit of public open space and one of the few places in Cape Town where one can walk alone for a good solid hour or two, with spectacular views, in relative safety. People-watching makes for excellent sport here, but if you’re keen on more physical activity you can hire a bike, run, skateboard, play soccer or putt-putt, or even land your paraglider on the grass. Once again, the promenade is a worth a story all on its own. On Sunday evenings, on the outlook next to the pool, people gather informally for a spot of Latin dancing while the sun sets over the sea, or to watch others dance while enjoying some food from the street stalls.

But back to swimming… If it’s too chilly to brave the elements – or if a heated pool seems like a more relaxing prospect – the Long Street Baths is another of Cape Town’s open secrets.

Established well over a century ago in 1908, the Long Street baths is worth a visit just for the feeling of stepping into a different era. Yes, it could perhaps do with a spruce-up, but the genteel tattiness is part of its charm. As you come in through the original imported iron turnstile and into the light, old-fashioned lobby, it’s a little like walking onto a set from The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Hotel Budapest. A staircase leads up off the lobby to a spectator’s balcony where you can look down onto the pool and the murals of local scenes that flank it.

Long Street Baths Cape Town Swimming Pool Murals Emma Van Der Vliet Web

 

Even more like a film set are the changing booths next to the steam room to the left of the lobby, in which there are small slatted wooden beds on which one can apparently “take a break from the heat”. At least that’s what I was told. Unfortunately the steam rooms are still closed due to the drought.

You access the pool itself through the change rooms, which are at the back of the ground floor lobby as you walk in. These are basic, and apparently not always scrupulously clean but perfectly adequate. And the pool is magnificent – several lanes wide, 25 meters long and an inviting bright blue. The room is vast, with plenty of natural light and raked seating for spectators or resting swimmers. The facility belongs to the City of Cape Town and the entrance fees are the same as at Sea Point.

Both the Sea Point pool and the Long Street Baths have been around for a long time and are well-known and well-loved. It took a dip into Justin Fox and Alison Westwood’s wonderful book Secret Cape Town to lead me to a much more secret swim in the Mother City.

Although it’s open to the general public between 10am and 3pm daily, very few people seem to know about the heated indoor pool at the Wynberg military base. Swimlab swim school have their home-base here, but when it’s not being used by them, this well-maintained, 25-meter long pool is the perfect place to go to train or just to swim a few laps.

The Wynberg Aquatic Centre is inside the military camp on the corner of Scoble and Buren Roads. The camp is a very strange place, a secret suburb-within-a-suburb, where you feel like you’ve been transported back in time: it’s all a bit “Toto, we’re not in Wynberg anymore”. Pre-fab buildings give it an outback feel, and everything seems oddly still and quiet.

The pool is not easy to find. There are no signposts at the entrance, so you have to be in the know or ask the guards at the boom – and even they had to consult amongst themselves. They told me to take a left at the entrance, take the right fork in the road and pass the tennis courts. I missed it the first time: again, there was no signage and the gate was unattended and looked like it was locked. I went around the block, came back to the same spot and parked. When I tried the gate I found I could open it. I eventually found the lone attendant and had a wonderful, peaceful solo swim with the perfectly-heated pool all to myself for the princely sum of R10: highly recommended! It is a lonely place though, and you might prefer to take some company rather than going by yourself. That said, it’s a pool for training in, not for a picnic or a poolside chat, so find someone who’s as keen on an adventurous secret swim as you are.

Emma van der Vliet is the author of Past Imperfect and Thirty Second World, both published by Penguin SA.