Cape Town’s ‘lentil curtain’
Noordhoek Beach on the Cape Peninsula arcs between the blue of Chapman’s Bay and Noordhoek Lagoon. (James Bainbridge)
Driving down South Africa’s Cape Peninsula – a 75km stretch from Table Mountain to the Cape of Good Hope -- is the equivalent of crossing San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, California: suddenly, the city feels far away and your pace slows to match the beatific landscape, with its rolling mountains, empty beaches, glistening bays and tiny seaside villages.
The peninsula’s alluring mix of space, scenery, sea views and proximity to Cape Town, which is never more than an hour’s drive away, has long attracted a free-spirited mix of artists, hippies, surfers and ex-pats -- earning the peninsula the nickname “the lentil curtain” for its alternative tendencies. But recently, the lentil curtain stereotype of an organic vegetable patch, dreadlocked beard and cow in the backyard, has recently been joined by a younger crowd of creative professionals, who work freelance to escape the city. The products of these myriad creative and alternative lifestyles can easily be seen on a day trip by car from Cape Town.
The fishing village of Hout Bay, fringing a yawning blue bay beneath the lopsided peak of the Sentinel, is the gateway to the peninsula. Technically a suburb of Cape Town, the independently-minded spot -- reached by following the Atlantic coastline through a rocky landscape of cliffs, boulders and promontories -- declared itself a republic back in 1987; you can even pick up a Hout Bay passport (not recognised outside the lentil curtain). These days, this unofficial republic status is mostly a reflection of the village’s close-knit community, but when the republic was established during the apartheid era, it was a gesture of defiance towards President PW Botha’s repressive government. Residents consistently selected liberal opposition parties to represent them and visitors were asked to show a Hout Bay passport or visa, which they could acquire in exchange for a donation to charity. The suburb still has its own flag, anthem and self-appointed consul.
Three art galleries at the entrance to town, including the contemporary Hout Bay Gallery, announce the peninsula’s creative bent with displays of sculptures, cityscapes and abstract canvases. Alongside the jumble of masts in the small harbour, the Mariner’s Wharf complex is the most common tourist stop, offering seal-spotting cruises to Duiker Island, a nearby Cape fur seal and bird colony. Beyond, the township’s pink and yellow facades climb the hill, and the atmospheric Bay Harbour Market (open Fridays to Sundays) fills an old fish factory with local craftwork and cuisine. On Sundays it is joined by the craft market on Hout Bay Common.
For a bite to eat, forego the village’s half a dozen fish and chip shops and head behind the shopping mall -- named Mainstream, perhaps in deference to the alternative local mindset -- for tapas and views at the beachfront restaurant Dunes.
From here Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the world’s most stunning coastal roads, leads 5km along the peninsula’s western side. Viewpoints dot the road as it climbs towards the 600m-high peak, looking down at the boats chugging along the vertiginous coastline and the rocky cliffs that tumble towards the surf. Looking back across the blue expanse of Hout Bay, a chain of emerald mountains with houses clinging to their lower slopes ends at the distinctively shaped Sentinel peak. Less than 30 minutes’ drive from busy, central Cape Town, the only sounds here are the steady swish of the surf, intermittent bird cheeps and chattering backpackers on peninsula tours.
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