South Africa: Not A Football In Sight

15th June 2010

Tour operators have reported a dip in bookings as visitors are put off by the World Cup, which should mean good deals as they try to lure people back after the football fans have departed

Cape favourites include Camps Bay Beach

The winelands of the Cape

Life on the street is as vibrant as ever.

There are many reasons to visit South Africa this year. Football isn't one of them. Come here next month and you'll face crowds and vastly inflated prices – never mind all those hideous football shirts.

No, a much better idea is to visit at any other time of year. There's no jet lag and it's good value, for a start, and after the World Cup you'll reap the benefits of all the investment – shiny new airports, vastly improved roads and heightened security.

So it was that my husband and I decided to visit with our 14-month-old daughter for our first proper family holiday, our first adventure as a threesome. We'd lived in Cape Town a decade ago and this year's spotlight on the country made us doubly keen to revisit the stamping grounds of our youth.

Our old haunts were now a work in progress. Much has been written about South Africa's scramble to get everything built in time, and spruced-up Cape Town International is a good case in point. On the one hand, there's all that sparkling glass and gleaming steel – a good example of how Cape Town likes to show off. "Look at how much we've spent on our airport!" it shrieks. "Just wait until you see what we've done in town!"

But then, as soon as we'd left the new car park we stumbled onto our first unfinished road, swarming with construction workers. The highway into town, however, was freshly paved, whisking us past the townships of the Cape Flats (the shanty towns that once greeted new arrivals had vanished, presumably shunted elsewhere), around Table Mountain and into Cape Town proper.

Here, we wove through roads lined with traffic cones and teams of builders. New hotels and apartments – showy cubes of glass and chrome – had sprung up between the colonial mansions and Victorian bungalows, and from our apartment in the Cape Royale hotel we got our first glimpse of the new stadium, a gleaming white wafer of a structure, like a giant feather that's floated onto a lawn.

We spent our first afternoon admiring just how much they'd spent on the arena (£400 million) during a walk around Green Point, an area that has been transformed from a drab grid of high-rises to a buzzing line of stylish restaurants and hotels, albeit still overlooking the same old noisy roads. Pushing our daughter Roma, who was awed into uncharacteristic silence by the brightness of the African sun, we made our way to the Waterfront for a seafood lunch overlooking the frolicking seals in the harbour.

In the early evening we drove around the peninsula to the half-moon of white sand that makes up Camps Bay, for a cold beer on the promenade. We revived ourselves with a supper of Atlantic prawns and ostrich steaks, startled, as ever, by the good value of the food – a decent meal rarely costs more than £10 a head.

And if anything, holiday prices are likely to drop later this year. Tour operators have reported a dip in bookings as visitors are put off by the World Cup, which should mean good deals as they try to lure people back after the football fans have departed.

I don't know if many of those fans will make it to the tranquil Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, where we drove the next day. They'll be missing out. Here, the rolling lawns, pungent fynbos and towering yellowwood trees made a good playground for Roma, while we lolled on the grass beneath the steel-grey sides of Table Mountain.

But it made us realise that many of those things that really define Cape Town – sipping a sundowner on the bone-white sand of Clifton beach, say, or driving above the crashing waves on Chapman's Peak Drive – do little to entertain children (even if they work wonders for adults).

It was time to move on, and the next morning we made for the jagged mountains and leafy calm of the winelands. No sign here of the World Cup's investment or development, but then this area needs neither. The winelands are an affluent enclave, thanks to their vineyards and gastronomic attractions.

Franschhoek's genteel, Cape Dutch streets were a balm after the hustle of Cape Town. We holed up in our own two-storey house, part of the Akkademie Guesthouse, lounging on the veranda with books and toys in the mornings and splashing around in the tiny pool when the sun got too hot. Roma found it all marvellous, especially the afternoons, when we'd stroll around the streets, stopping for ice cream in the shade of ancient oaks. One glorious day was spent sprawling on the lawns of the Boschendal wine estate, scoffing pâté and cheese and chilled rosé while she crawled happily beneath the pine trees.

Franschhoek's restaurants were not only brilliant but also had a laid-back continental feel, with a child-friendly attitude. We'd arrive early and feast on seared scallops and fabulous steaks, washed down with a bottle of local cabernet sauvignon, while Roma was fussed over by the staff.

If the winelands were a soothing balm, the Garden Route was a reviving lungful of tangy sea air. There was a flight to contend with first, but from George, at the western end of the Garden Route, the coast opened up before us, revealing bay after bay of golden sand, washed by the pounding Indian Ocean. We cruised through the hazy forests of Wilderness, past the twee resort of Knysna (and the first team of road-workers we'd seen in days (the town will be hosting the French football team) and on to Plettenberg Bay, a pretty seaside resort running down to miles of unbroken beach.

The impending World Cup felt a world away from Hog Hollow, a nature reserve on the edge of Tsitsikamma National Park, where we decamped to our own log cabin looking over the forest, buzzing with the chatter of vervet monkeys.

Child-friendly activities abounded, from nearby Monkeyland, where dozens of species roam free, to the bucket-and-spade delights of the beaches. The accommodating staff happily served up child portions on a broad deck overlooking the forest, and in the evenings a babysitter sat with our slumbering daughter while we enjoyed supper.

A short skip along the coast was the Kurland, our final stop before jetting out of Port Elizabeth, an elegant, family hotel surrounded by polo fields and staffed by an army of child-savvy staff. They made us picnics, which we ate on the rough African grass rolling down from the pool. We rode bikes around the grounds, Roma chattering away from her seat on the back. The nanny in the toy-filled crèche took her off our hands for a blissful hour or two every day, and at night, growing accustomed to our rediscovered independence, we hired another babysitter, leaving us to indulge in long meals under the vines of the courtyard.

By the final day, we had it all figured out. Early breakfast, a stroll around the grounds, nap-time, then lunch on our private terrace and a play in the crèche. Was it an adventure? No, not exactly. The nights weren't as late as they'd once been, the activities slightly more everyday. But then this is South Africa, where a normal activity might be catching the red flash of a sunbird on a walk through a primeval forest, or picnicking on crayfish and sauvignon blanc on an Indian Ocean beach.
Here, the commonplace is extraordinary, but then South Africa is an extraordinary country. And yes, I'm sure they'll host an extraordinary World Cup, too. Watch it at home, by all means, and then come and visit. But please: leave those football shirts at home.

Getting there

Rainbow Tours (020 7226 1004; ) can tailor-make tours to Cape Town and beyond.
A 10-day family holiday in South Africa from £4,330, based on two adults and one infant sharing (£5,020 for two adults and one child under 12, or £5,150 for under 16s).

The price includes international and domestic flights with South African Airways (Heathrow to Cape Town, Cape Town to George, George to Johannesburg and back to Heathrow), 10 days’ mid-range hire car, b & b at The Cape Royale in Cape Town, Akademie Street in Franschhoek, and Hog Hollow and the Kurland on the Garden Route (which also includes high tea and use of sauna, gym and quad bikes).