Cape Town

I set impossibly high standards for our final city in South Africa, and somehow — even during a drought – Cape Town met them effortlessly. I couldn’t help but compare it to my hometown of Honolulu, as both places are known for beaches, hikes, diverse populations, and incredibly welcoming people. However, there are glaring differences. Cape Town has a population three times the size of Honolulu’s, more exciting animals (penguins and baboons!), and more efficient public transportation. Meanwhile, Honolulu has calmer weather, better beaches, and less segregation. Oh, and no drought problem.

Yes, Cape Town is in the middle of an unprecedented water crisis. Day Zero, the day on which its taps will be completely shut off and residents will need to line up for water at collection points, is set for July 15. Cape Town will be the first major city in the world to run out of water. This crisis can be blamed on a few factors: huge population growth in the past two decades, dry summers, poor management, and short-sightedness.

While we were there, we noticed signs everywhere urging us to conserve water. We used hand sanitizer in bathrooms, limited our showers, and drank out of paper cups instead of glass cups at certain dining establishments. In other words, we experienced minuscule effects, but I can’t imagine what it must be like for a struggling family living here. The world should be watching Cape Town. Australia and western states like California, Arizona, and Nevada have also been dealing with historic droughts, and I don’t think they’re far behind. We were intrigued to be visiting Cape Town during such a precarious time.

As soon as we landed, we were in love. Right outside the airport is a huge shuttle bus station, and one of the workers immediately offered to help us purchase tickets. As New Yorkers who have to deal with JFK AirTrams and taxi lobbyists, we were amazed by the convenience of Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus. Departing every 30 minutes, it offers a nonstop route right into downtown. When we got off the bus, we were promptly introduced to famous Cape Doctor. In the summer (October through March), a strong south-easterly wind blows through the city, clearing up the air and moderating the summer heat. Capetonians call this the “Cape Doctor” because early settlers believed it blew away any bad air and illnesses.

The two blocks we had to walk to our Airbnb felt treacherous as we struggled to avoid getting dust into our eyes due to the Cape Doctor, but at last we made it and stepped into one of the swankiest lobbies we’ve ever entered. Our stylish apartment was on the tenth floor, with two walls of windows facing Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. Our host had left us a bottle of sauvignon blanc, a list of restaurant recommendations, and a friendly reminder to conserve water. During our entire time there, we only showered once and flushed the toilet only after pooping.

Living room
View of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head from the apartment

Like in Johannesburg, we hired a private guide to take us around because the sites are fairly spread out. Sarel was our hilarious tour guide who drove fast, had the most entertaining anecdotes to tell, and seemed to know everyone in Cape Town, so we were given VIP treatment everywhere we went.

Our first stop was the flat-topped Table Mountain, the oldest mountain in the world, at 600 million years old. We caught the revolving cable car up to the top. This is brilliant! Each cable car can hold 65 people, and the floor rotates so that each person gets a view throughout the five-minute ride. When we got to the top, I was amazed by how spacious the summit is – a lot more comfortable than Diamond Head in Hawaii! The summit is a two-mile-wide plateau, flattened after centuries of wind and rain erosion. We happened to be there on a clear day, so we could see the entire city below, including Robben Island. On other days, however, condensed moisture from the Cape Doctor lingers near the summit, forming a “table cloth” of cloud covering Table Mountain. Sarel pointed out the unique fauna and flora growing on the summit, many of which can only be found on this mountain.

Riding up the cable car, with a view of Lion’s Head below
View of Cape Town
Some of the plants on Table Mountain

Due to the wind, our next site, Chapman’s Peak Drive, was closing early, so we had a mere half an hour to take the cable car down, find our car, and drive to the beginning of Chapman’s Peak. This was one of my favorite moments in Cape Town – watching Sarel presumptuously speed along the coastline and sweet-talk the guards to let us through even though they’d already shut the drive. We made it! Note to self: Hiring a charming private guide is always worth the money. Chapman’s Peak is the name of the mountain on the western edge of the Cape Peninsula. Chapman’s Peak Drive runs along the mountain’s near-vertical cliffs that drop into the Atlantic Ocean, offering one of the most stunning drives in the world. Once again, I couldn’t help but compare it to Hawaii – my drive from Kahala to Sandy’s, specifically – so I wasn’t quite as enthralled as most tourists probably are, but it was still lovely to see.

For lunch, Sarel took us to a beachfront restaurant that was so picturesque that I was sure the food would be mediocre, but I ended up loving my fresh mussels and glass of South African bouquet blanc. After that, we walked over to Boulders Beach, a beach famous for its colony of endangered jackass penguins that settled there in the ‘80s. These penguins can only be found on the coastlines of South Africa and Namibia, and are called jackass penguins because they sound like donkeys (they really do!). On Boulders Beach, they wander freely in their naturally protected environment, thanks to huge granite boulders. I could have watched them all day, but it was quite windy, and we had more sites to visit.

Lunch view
Boulders Beach

After that, we made our way to the Cape of Good Hope, passing beaches and quirky towns, finally reaching the tip of the African continent, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias sailed here in an attempt by the Portuguese to establish direct trade with the Far East. It’s another extremely windy area, and I struggled just to walk a few feet. It reminded me of the black sand beach we tried to walk on in Iceland last year – just about 50° more pleasant.

Tip of Africa
Very windy!

We also visited an ostrich farm, where Sarel tried to feed one, but the ostrich was probably too dumb to realize what was happening — seriously, their brains are the size of half a teaspoon. Then we stopped by the quirky town of Kalk Bay, where we had rooibos (South African bush tree) ice cream. We did wine tasting at the oldest winery in South Africa, where Sarel got us free glasses of muscat and rosé. Apparently there’s wine production in South Africa because of the French Huguenot refugees who settled in Cape Town in the 17th century. We ended our long tour watching the sunset from Signal Hill. It seems every tourist goes to Signal Hill to watch the sunset, because we were surrounded by Europeans and Americans. Just like in Santorini, we weren’t too impressed by the sun setting on water, so we left our spot on the slope, walked closer to the parking lot, and actually preferred the view from there because it included Lion’s Head in the background.

Our guide, Sarel, is on the right
Groot Constantia, the oldest winery in South Africa
Wine tasting
Sunset from Signal Hill
We came for the hot chocolate

We didn’t spend too much time exploring the city center even though we were staying there, but we did walk to Company’s Garden, which struck me as an odd “must-see” for tourists. Company’s Garden is a former vegetable garden that was built when European explorers roamed the coasts of Africa attempting to find a sea passage from Europe to Asia for spices. The Dutch East India Company chose this site as a permanent station because Dutch colonists feared that the British wanted to annex the Cape. In other words, Company’s Garden reeks of colonialism, and there’s even a statue of Cecil Rhodes here, the imperialist who was obsessed with “civilizing” the African continent.

Company’s Garden

The Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront is one of the most touristy areas in Cape Town, which is why I initially wanted to avoid it, but we ended up having so much fun there that we went twice. It does have a corny ferris wheel and a fancy mall filled with chain stores, but it also has an interesting food hall, an open-air coffee shop, and free performances – one of which made me cry.

Very touristy waterfront

One afternoon, as I was drinking an iced turmeric latte and appreciating my view of Table Mountain, an informal band comprising a few trombones and French horns started playing Cher’s “Believe.” It was our last day in South Africa, and the song just melted my heart. Cape Town’s natural beauty is obvious, but what made me cry was the spirit and resiliency of the people we met across the country. Throughout our trip, locals told us, “Welcome home,” referring to the fact that South Africa is the cradle of humankind; the oldest human fossils are from this country, so technically we all come from here. When locals eventually found out where we were from, they’d tell us, “It’s so nice to see Americans again.” South Africans are well aware of what our president says about their continent, and with so many Americans living in fear these days, South Africans don’t see that many Americans anymore. Being here has been such an honor, and South Africa will always be one of my favorite places in the world.

Last meal in South Africa

Tips for future travelers:

We only had a short time in Cape Town, but we tried to live like Capetonians as much as we could. We stayed at an Airbnb instead of a hotel. For breakfasts, we fell in love with a fantastic neighborhood bakery called Jason Bakery and quickly became regulars, thanks to one of our waiters who had to help us get in touch with Sarel on our first day. When we were too lazy to go out, we used UberEats to order two of our dinners – and this led to more interactions with our doorman, who made us feel like permanent residents. Always try to interact with locals any chance you can, because they are the ones who make the city.

Green pancakes (spinach, chili, onions, arugula, kale, poached egg) at Jason Bakery

Eat at the V&A Food Market. This former power station is now a food hall, with a biltong shop, a place that specializes in samosas, an African vendor that sells pap and Durban curry, as well as the usual things like Neapolitan pizza, craft beer, and Belgian waffles.

Biltong = jerky

Stay near the V&A Waterfront. While I loved our Airbnb and our neighborhood bakery, at night the area got a bit sketchy with homeless people and very little nightlife. The Waterfront is stunning, and there are always things to do.

Buy tickets to the Table Mountain cable car in advance. The weather changes every minute, and you’ll need to check online continuously to see if they’ve shut down the cable car yet. Tickets will let you bypass long lines, and even if the weather is bad that day, the ticket allows you to use it another day.

Hire a private guide. Just like in MoroccoJohannesburg, and Cappadocia, our trip could only be possible with a guide. We had so many sites to see in such a short amount of time, and it was handy to have someone provide commentary. It’s also a great way to get to know a local well. Sarel felt like an uncle by the time we had to say good-bye to him.

Conserve water. In Cape Town, we were so aware of the amount of water we typically use, from flushing the toilet, to washing dishes. It’s heartbreaking — almost unjust — that such a beautiful city has to deal with this.

If you’re visiting other parts of South Africa, save Cape Town for the end. Cape Town is the Positano of South Africa; I really left my heart here, and I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed Johannesburg or even the safari if we had not done them first.



There are certain life experiences that sometimes I just can’t believe I’ve been able to have. Riding a camel across the Sahara Desert is one of them; snowmobiling on a glacier is another. Going on a safari is the latest experience that made me want to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

South Africa has an overwhelming number of options for safaris, but we chose Pilanesberg National Park & Game Reserve because one of Anthony’s coworkers recommended it — and I can’t thank her enough. Pilanesberg is roughly the size of Singapore, which seems large, but it can actually fit into the more famous Kruger National Park 38 times. Unlike other parks, Pilanesberg is malaria-free (no shots necessary!) and is set in an extinct volcanic crater that was formed 1.2 billion years ago. Its relatively small size and varied landscape of ridges, grasslands, wooded valleys, and rock formations dramatically increase guests’ chances of encountering the Big Five: elephants, black rhinos, buffalos, lions, and leopards.

Scenery of Pilanesberg

Like other parks, Pilanesberg offers a wide range of accommodations, from tents to B&Bs to five-star hotels. We decided to stay at one of the more upscale hotels called Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge. I’m not usually a fan of all-inclusive resorts, but for a safari it made a lot of sense, as I wanted to be comfortable in such a new environment, and it’s not like we could have gone off on our own to discover little hole-in-the-wall restaurants like we usually do when we travel.

Someone from Shepherd’s Tree picked us up from our hotel in Johannesburg and drove us three hours to Pilanesberg. After receiving welcome drinks and touring the grounds, we had lunch at the stunning restaurant downstairs – and, oh boy, I had not expected to like the food on a safari this much. Every meal was included, from our breakfast buffet, to our three-course lunches and dinners. It’s a good thing our safari was only three days because I would have definitely gained ten pounds if it were any longer.

Outdoor patio of the restaurant
One of my favorite desserts

After lunch we were taken to our room. The entire hotel contained only a handful of rooms, sprawled across a ridge. Our room was one of the nicest rooms I’ve ever stayed in, with a canopy bed, chaise lounge chair, balcony that looked out into the bush, and French doors opening up to a huge bathroom with a tub and outdoor shower.


Each morning, a ranger picked us up from our room in a golf cart at roughly 5:15 am and drove us to the pool area, where coffee, tea, and pastries were waiting for us and the other guests. By 6:00 am, we were in a 10-seat jeep with some fellow guests, ready for our three-hour drive around the park. The route of each drive was up to our ranger, who worked hard to find us the most interesting animals. Some animals, like impalas and zebras, are so common that we eventually got tired of seeing them, while others are more exciting. Rangers communicate to each other by walkie-talkie, so if someone spots a lion, everyone makes their way over. This whole process is fascinating to see in action.

We were fortunate. We went on four drives during our stay, and each drive entailed a close encounter with a different animal. On our first drive, a herd of elephants surrounded our jeep. On our second drive, a tree above us was full of baboons, who jumped down and ran across the road. Our guide had to remind us that baboons are dangerous and can bite. On our third drive, we came across a sleeping lion, another troop of baboons, and some dung beetles. On our last drive, the grand finale was a rhino (my husband’s favorite animal!) who decided to block our road back to the hotel and just stand there for about ten minutes.

Herd of elephants
Dangerous baboons
This lion woke up for a few seconds then went back to sleep
Rhino blocking our path
Close-up of our rhino thanks to our safari guide and his binoculars

My favorite experience on the safari, however, was when some elephants came right up to our hotel. One afternoon, we were lounging by the pool, and all of a sudden another guest shouted, “Elephant!” We all ran to the balcony, and sure enough, an elephant was unabashedly walking over toward us. There’s a watering hole right next to the hotel, and apparently elephants come by pretty often. The next morning, we were eating breakfast outside, and another elephant came by and drank from the watering hole right behind me. Driving out to see animals out in the wild is fun, but having them voluntarily come to you while you’re swimming or eating toast is why I really wanted to go on a safari.

Watching an elephant from the pool
Another one came!
View from our pool balcony
Eating breakfast while an elephant stops by

After each drive, we ate breakfast or lunch with our safari group, which was a great way to get to know each other and reminisce over the highlights of each drive. We made friends with a lovely Spanish family from Madrid, a Turkish woman from Istanbul, a dentist from Canada, and two women from Johannesburg who were there on business for their textile company.

With our new Turkish friend

Our two safari rangers were fantastic. They were able to spot animals miles away because they knew every inch of the park by heart. One of the highlights of our game drives was when our guide, Peter, stepped out of the vehicle to show us some dung beetles on the side of the road. It was my first time seeing a dung beetle and they were probably the most fascinating creatures in the whole park! We watched them roll rhinoceros poop into huge balls and attempt to fit the balls into tunnels so that they could eventually lay their eggs in them. It was mesmerizing, and now I want a dung beetle.

Peter explains how rhinos spray their urine to mark territory

I can’t recommend going on a safari enough. As someone who thinks French bulldogs are normal, even I could appreciate wild animals in their natural habitats. I’ve never really enjoyed going to zoos, but seeing springbok and giraffes roam around in herds, with acres of freedom, was an unforgettable experience.

Springboks crossing the road

Tips for future travelers:

Three days is the ideal amount of time. Any longer and we may have gotten bored. Safaris are very sedentary; you’re either sitting in a car, lounging on a balcony or by the pool, or eating. It’s not the healthiest vacation to take, so I wouldn’t recommend staying too long.

Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge was perfection. Every detail was taken care of, from providing blankets when we got cold during our game drives, to handing us fresh face towels as soon as we returned, to ensuring strong Wi-Fi throughout the hotel. The entire complex was tastefully designed, taking full advantage of its surroundings. Additionally, we had some of our favorite meals on the entire trip right here.

Our pool
How to dress? Before our trip, I was stressed out about what to wear on the safari. It’s wise to wear earth-colored neutrals (think tans and olive greens), but in the end, as long as you’re not wearing red, which can scare animals, you’re fine. Most of your body will be hidden behind the vehicle anyway. I wore sneakers every day and usually wore jeans or workout pants. Bring a sweater because it gets very chilly, as you’ll either be starting very early in the morning or ending late at night.

What to bring? Our hotel had a pool, so I brought a bathing suit and a book in case we had some down time. I thought I’d get bored on our three days, but we actually had very little down time. The one afternoon that I thought I could get some reading done, a couple of elephants showed up to the hotel, so obviously I had to put my book away. If you’re staying at a hotel like ours, you won’t even need snacks because our hotel was constantly feeding us. Even on our drives, we always took a break toward the end to drink wine or coffee and snack on biltong and cookies.

Snacks on our safari drive


I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Johannesburg is still dealing with the effects of apartheid (the system of institutionalized racial segregation that began in 1948 and lasted until 1991), and many residents live in conditions that no one would be living in if this were a just world. However, we’ve seen worse situations in Mexico and the Philippines — and even parts of the U.S. — so I’m not sure why Johannesburg (“Joburg” or “Jozi” to locals) has such a bad reputation. Out of the five cities on our trip, Johannesburg was the one in which we felt most welcomed. The people we interacted with were proud, full of love for their city but who had a frank relationship with it, as well.

Before our trip to South Africa, I had only heard negative things about Johannesburg — the poverty, the crime, and, of course, apartheid. I had wanted to skip it and fly straight into Cape Town instead, but our safari was closer to Johannesburg, and Anthony was eager to visit (he did study the apartheid, after all!), so we decided to start our trip here. I did not expect this city to touch my heart the way it did.

When we arrived at the airport, our guide, Mthandeni, was already waiting for us, and he started his tour immediately. In fact, by the time we were exiting the airport parking lot, we had already practiced some Xhosa pronunciations and learned how mineral-rich Johannesburg is, with its abundance of diamonds, gold, and platinum. I’m not always a fan of hiring private tour guides, but Mthandeni was exactly what we needed. He gave us an honest insight into the history and current situation of South Africa.

He drove us past townships (what we could call slums), which were created on the outskirts of the city so that nonwhites could work — but not live — there. Blacks originally lived in the center of Johannesburg, but once the city became more developed, a specific apartheid act decreed that only certain races could live in certain areas. Entire black populations were forced out of their homes and into townships. Mthandeni reminded us that just a couple of decades ago, as foreigners, we would not have been allowed to be in his car.

We drove to Soweto, which stands for South Western Townships. This area is famous for the Soweto Uprising, the mass protests during apartheid that erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans (the language of the Dutch colonizers) rather than their native language. Police opened fire on 10,000 students, killing 23 people. The impact of the Soweto Uprising reverberated across the world, leading to economic and cultural sanctions.

The first stop was on our tour was the Apartheid Museum. It was a well-designed museum, with some heartbreaking reminders of apartheid, such as footage from the Soweto Uprising, and a huge Casspir in which armed policemen used to ride through black neighborhoods at night.

The entrance of the museum
More segregation signs
Imagine this roaming your neighborhood at night!
Me, for scale

Soweto is also famous for being home to Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Trevor Noah. After the museum, we stopped by Nelson Mandela’s house, a small four-room “matchbox” house common in Soweto. It still has bullet holes in the walls and scorches from Molotov cocktails.

Outside Mandela’s House, now a museum

While most tourists seem to come to Soweto just for the Apartheid Museum and Mandela House, Mthandeni led us to a nearby restaurant where we had a lunch buffet with a stylish black crowd and tried mieliepap (or “pap”) for the first time. This traditional cornmeal porridge is a working-class staple of South Africans. We were familiar with pap because we’d watched Anthony Bourdain eat it on his No Reservations episode in Johannesburg, but the show had not done it justice. Pap is delicious! We tried three different varieties, topped with a rich tomato and onion sauce.

Eating pap and various meats with our tour guide, Mthandeni

Toward the end of our tour, Mthandeni asked if we wanted to meet a South African family living in Soweto. We were hesitant at first, reluctant to partake in slum tourism, which turns poverty into a form of entertainment. He convinced us, however, when he explained that these families look forward to when he brings tourists because they benefit greatly from the small tip we are expected to leave at the end. We met Princess, a mother who kept an impressively tidy one-room, tin-roofed home, where she slept on a small bed, her children slept on the floor nearby, and a paraffin stove stood in the corner.

Walking through Soweto
Princess in her home
Checking out the parrafin stoves until I hear something outside
Look at these children! The kid in the striped shirt stole my heart

In the end, our tour did take us to the negative things I’d heard about Johannesburg. It would not only be impossible, but also disrespectful, to avoid them. The people of Johannesburg take pride in their resilience. They speak bluntly about their past, which is honestly more than I can say about Americans.

My favorite part of our time in Johannesburg was watching Black Panther at the mall next to our hotel. It’s always an interesting anthropological study to watch movies in another country, especially a movie as significant as Black Panther, in a country as relevant as South Africa. One thing we noticed was that the commercials featured more blacks than I’d ever seen on screen.

Crowd outside Black Panther

While waiting for the theater to be cleaned between showings, a group of teenagers who had watched the previous showing asked us if we could take a photo of them. They stood with their arms crossing their chest and shouted, “Wakanda forever!” Black Panther was inspirational to me, but I can’t imagine how even more meaningful it was to these South Africans. It was heartwarming to hear the excitement of the audience when they recognized their language in the film. Additionally, many of the actors are from South Africa. It’s not that South Africans necessarily need a movie like Black Panther to inform them of how powerful they can be; it’s that now there’s hope that maybe the rest of the world will finally see them as the resilient, culturally- and minerally-rich society – despite the undeniable poverty and lingering segregation.

In South Africa, there’s a term called “ubuntu”. It means humanity toward others, or the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Ubuntu reminded me of one of the vendors who was closing up his shop on the side of the road. He greeted us when we got out of the car and called me “sister” – perhaps the greatest honor I’ve ever received. Ubuntu reminded me of Princess, the mother in Soweto who let us take photos of her home and children for a tip so that she could take care of the very home we entered and the children we met. I cannot think of a better word to describe my experience here.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Hire a tour guide. Even if you don’t usually hire guides, Johannesburg is a place you’ll want one, as sites are somewhat spread out. While we had done lots of South African history research before this trip, having a local offer first-hand knowledge and anecdotes is invaluable. I highly recommend Mthandeni.
  2. We stayed at the Monarch Hotel in Rosebank because everyone told us to stay in a suburb. While I can’t attest to whether or not the requirement to stay in a “safe” suburb is justified, we loved our hotel, which was conveniently located to the airport via train, and walking distance to Rosebank Mall. Our booking came with a lavish breakfast that included both a buffet and a la carte items, and when our driver was running late the next morning, the staff at the front desk went out of their way to help us contact him.
  3. Tip everyone, from your tour guide (R50 per person), to the hotel staff (10%), to the family you visit at the township (R100). R10 = less than $1, so you won’t even notice your tips.
  4. If you haven’t seen Black Panther yet for some reason, watch it now.
  5. Understand that people around the world are more alike than different. South Africa may have dealt with apartheid, but the U.S. is also guilty of institutionalized racism, and if you looked at most neighborhoods in America, you’ll notice how segregated we are, too. If anything, South Africa is just more honest about its racism, and our society would benefit greatly if we practiced a little more ubuntu.