It may be summer in South Africa at this time of the year, but the lack of snow makes no dent in the holiday spirit
For the longest time, I believed the best kind of Christmas was just one: a fresh fall of snow, stuffed stockings, and hot chocolate. But Cape Town had me thinking differently. Located on South Africa’s southwest coast, Cape Town sits on a peninsula beneath the imposing Table Mountain. It may be summer in South Africa at this time of the year, but the lack of snow makes no dent in the holiday spirit.
The weather, typically warm and sunny, is ideal for picnics and long days out. Families are out and about, soaking up the sunshine as they enjoy activities like paragliding, hiking, abseiling, mountain biking, snorkelling, sand boarding, and kite surfing. It’s likely that cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge would have become the embodiment of Christmas spirit much earlier had he witnessed the positive energy and good vibes here.
The best way to get into the holiday spirit is by tapping the science of awe. Research has shown that experiencing awe in nature has a powerful effect on emotional well-being and the best place to be awed is Table Mountain. Flanked by Devil’s Peak to the east and Lion’s Head to the west, the mountain is one of Cape Town’s most popular tourist attractions. “The billowing clouds that settle over the mountain when the southeaster blows are said to be result of a smoking contest between the devil and a retired sea captain,” says Vinisha Patel, whose grandparents moved to Cape Town decades ago.
The 57-sq km area, comprising Table Mountain and the Back Table, is home to more than 1,470 floral species. When it’s time to get up the mountain, the cableway, which has carried as many as 24 million visitors since it first opened in 1929, is the easy way. It takes barely five minutes to get up to the “table top”, with the cars rotating 360 degrees and offering splendid views. Hikers say walking up the mountain offers a much more enriching experience. The most popular route is Platteklip Gorge, up the centre of the mountain. “It’s steep but the ascent isn’t tricky and can take between one and three hours. India Venster is a far more challenging route,” Patel says. Even those who take the cable car can get a few walks: the Klipspringer Walk, the Dassie Walk, and the Agama Walk.
About 25 km away, the feeling of awe is heightened at the pristine Cape Point Nature Reserve. The sheer cliffs, towering more than 200 metres above the sea, and the crashing waves of the ocean are awe-inspiring, shifting attention away from the self and making one feel like a small cog in a giant wheel.
The sun rises early in December, by 5 am, and sets late, by 9 pm, making it possible to explore the city for longer. The twinkling lights that illuminate Adderley Street make for a celebratory atmosphere, and the Christmas revelry starts with an official turning-on of the lights party on the first Sunday of December. The event includes laser displays, fireworks, and acts by top entertainers. Don’t miss the stalls lining the street and offering a variety of food and Christmas gifts. Take a walking tour through the city centre, spend time at the V&A Waterfront, and go wine tasting in the Cape Winelands.
At Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, enjoy carols by candlelight. Held over four nights in the middle of December, the carols are a 30-year-long tradition. I enjoy watching the families lugging large baskets and picnicking on the lovely lawns as musicians take the stage. Families with young children should line up at Santa’s Village at the V&A Waterfront so that children can tell Santa if they’ve been nice or naughty, and place their Christmas requests.
In an age of excess, what’s a festival without a little shopping? Cape Town has many excellent Christmas markets, including Cape Gift Market, which has been running at Sea Point City Hall for over 10 years; Stellenbosch Kersmark, which features crafts and baked goods from over 180 artists and crafters; Fab Ideas Christmas Market, a six-day family-friendly indoor market in Kommetjie; Lourensford Christmas Market, where you can look for the perfect gift while sipping some wine; and Pinelands Craft and Gift Fair, where more than 200 crafters showcase handcrafted cards and decorations, treats, woodwork, jewellery, plants, clothing and even vintage furniture.
And then it’s time to celebrate the true meaning of the holidays and the inclusive community spirit that binds us all at St George’s Cathedral. Also known as the People’s Cathedral, the Gothic-style church, complete with stunning bell towers and rose windows, is the perfect place to find inner peace. Cape Town may be quite a distance from Santa’s workshop in the North Pole, but trading in the snow for white sandy beaches can mean a magical Christmas.
Teja Lele writes on travel and lifestyle.