We’d never done one of those hop-on, hop-off bus tours together, the ones with the London-esque, red double-decker buses. But, without a rental car in Cape Town - a city with outlying districts that don’t lend themselves to public transit - we figured, why not? So, a couple weeks into our time in South Africa, we signed up for a Cape Town bus tour.
The hop-on, hop-off nature would prove both literal and figurative, with a variety of ups and downs during our day of exploring Cape Town’s outlying areas and Constantia wine region.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tours in Cape Town - An [Awesome?] Experience
Table Mountain makes for some incredible views - and great hiking! But, this massive terrain feature also effectively separates Cape Town’s northern and beach neighborhoods from some really cool spots down to the south. With a few-day visit, many tourists skip these southern areas. We’d be in the city for a month and a half, though - more than enough time to get out and explore.
Staying in Greenmarket Square in the heart of the City Bowl, we happened to be around the corner from the local hop-on hop-off ticket office. After walking by a few times, we decided to give it a go. We’d seen these buses in other cities (and Jenna actually did a tour on one in LA years ago), but they always seemed so, well, silly.
In Cape Town, the logistics just make sense. It’s an opportunity to get shuttled all over the outlying districts - basically circling the perimeter of Table Mountain National Park - while enjoying the fresh air on the big red bus’s open top deck. And, it’s actually a pretty convenient system. You buy a pass for the entire day, and the bus has a few different routes, each with associated stops and time tables - essentially the same as any municipal bus.
Looking forward to a full day of exploring, we showed up at the office to catch the first bus of the morning. Pass in hand, we hopped on the big red bus as it pulled up to the curb. Despite being initially skeptical, it seemed like this would be a pretty solid way to take a big loop around Table Mountain.
Touring Kirstenbosch Gardens and An Accidental Hike to Constantia Nek
In our post about walking in Cape Town, we likened the city to a horseshoe, with Table Mountain National Park forming the actual shoe. Continuing the analogy, our bus would take us northeast out of the mouth of that horseshoe, hook hard right, and ride the outside of the mountains all the way back down to the southwest and - eventually - back up the coast and beach towns to the west.
Our first “hop off” stop, tucked against the southeastern slopes of Table Mountain, would be Kirstenbosch Gardens - one of the world’s most stunning botanical gardens.
The bus dropped us off right in front of the Kirstenbosch main entrance. Initially, we planned on spending an hour strolling through the hillside gardens, forests, and winding trails before catching the next bus on the schedule. We quickly realized this just wouldn’t do - spending only an hour here doesn’t do this incredible place justice.
As we gradually ascended up through the gardens, with the eastern edge of Table Mountain towering over us, we took a little bit closer look at the map. After Kirstenbosch, we planned on grabbing brunch at a restaurant in Constantia Nek, the neighborhood at the southern end of the above horseshoe. On the red bus, this would be about a 15-minute trip through some meandering backroads.
Enter Chipp’s questionable logic: well, why not just keep strolling that way? If you follow the base of Table Mountain, you can’t miss Constantia Nek, and it shouldn’t take us too long, right? Right?
It was a beautiful walk - it just also happened to be far longer than anticipated. Strolling all the way up through Kirstenbosch Gardens, we found a hillside trail. With Table Mountain on our right and stunning views of Cape Town’s southern suburbs to our left, we started walking south. And walked. And walked some more. About two and a half hours later (and more than a few “just around the next bend” comments from Chipp), we arrived at Constantia Nek.
To her credit, Jenna was an outstanding sport, putting up with another one of Chipp’s half-baked decisions - even with a hike-induced broken sandal strap (hiking definitely hadn’t been on the original itinerary, so footwear was less than conducive!).
No Booze at Brunch - and a Sign of Things to Come
Thrilled to finally get to the end of our gorgeous-but-long stroll from Kirstenbosch, we couldn’t wait for a couple big, cold drinks. In fact, having some brunch drinks in our future largely provided the emotional fuel for our walk. Welp, we’d be sorely disappointed.
On the recommendation of some good friends, we made reservations at La Parada, a Cape Town institution of a brunch spot. With a sprawling outdoor patio located on the high ground of Constantia Nek, this was supposed to be the place to start a Sunday of wine tasting / drinking in Constantia.
Chipp and Jenna have somewhat different views on “cool” places (Chipp prefers a good, hole-in-the-wall joint - the more your feet stick to the floor, the better - whereas Jenna generally opts for more fashionably cool places). La Parada definitely fell more into the Jenna category of cool, but we were both counting the seconds until big drinks were placed in our hands.
Naturally, we were a little surprised walking up to the restaurant and seeing its huge front porch largely empty. Hmmm, strange. We found out why shortly.
Chipp to host: “Hi, we have a 12:30 brunch reservation, but… it looks like we can sit anywhere, yeah?”
Host: “Yes, you can, but we aren’t serving alcohol - just want to let you know now.”
Chipp, looks at his watch: “Oh, do you start at 1?”
Host: “No, we won’t be serving at all today.”
Chipp: “Come again?”
As the saying goes, when you give an inch, they take a mile. Apparently La Parada and some of the other party-esque establishments in Cape Town had taken some liberties with COVID-related restrictions. When social media posts surfaced of far-from-socially-distanced parties, the government decided to make an example, pulling the liquor license from La Parada and a few other Cape Town spots.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but this targeted restriction would be the initial salvo in a far wider-ranging prohibition.
Drinking Wine in Constantia
Full after a delicious meal - albeit mildly disappointed about the lack of booze - we left brunch to begin an afternoon of hopping from wine farm to wine farm in Constantia (NOTE: in South Africa, what we’d normally just call a winery is referred to as a wine farm).
Located on the southern slopes of Table Mountain, the Constantia region is home to a microclimate extremely conducive to growing grapes. As such, it claims the country’s oldest wine farm - Groot Constantia - along with dozens of other great ones. And, due to its proximity to Cape Town (easy 15-minute drive from the city center), it makes for an extremely convenient trip into wine country. In a loose comparison, it would be like if Napa and Sonoma were only a 10 or 15 minutes from downtown San Francisco.
One of the main reasons we decided on the hop-on hop-off was that it included a designated wine country route. Right in front of La Parada, there’s a stop for this wine route, which played into our day’s planning. So, strolling outside, we posted up at the stop until the next bus came. It came - and drove right by us… Strange. This would be our first indicator that the big red bus would be a good example of theory vs. reality - that is, a good idea in theory, but the reality proved fairly underwhelming.
No problem. We just walked to our first stop, Beau Constantia, a newer, hilltop wine farm with sweeping views of the valley. As expected, the wine was delicious, and the views were stunning. But, paying the bill, Chipp had another one of his many language (or, more precisely, accent) SNAFUs.
Waiter, after giving us the bill: “Would you like to tip?”
Chipp: “Yeah, here’s the bill - I added it to the bottom.” Waiter, confused: “Sorry, would you like to tip.”
Chipp, equally confused: “Yes, I added the tip to the bottom of the bill.”
Waiter, holding the hand-held credit card machine out: “No, your card - would you like to tip it.”
Chipp, finally understanding: “Ah… I see - would I like to tap my credit card? Yes, that works.”
Clearly, “tip” and “tap” are closer with a South African accent than an American one. Combine this with the fact that we weren’t used to the RFID-enabled credit card readers - universal in South Africa - and Chipp (recurring theme) felt like a pretty big dummy. With a sheepish smile, he tapped his card, and we continued on our way.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Chicken
Outside of Beau Constantia, we walked back to the bus stop, assuming that the last driver just hadn’t seen us. Nope. After 10 minutes of waiting, the next red bus blew right by us - again.
Frustrated but still wanting to explore the area, we took Ubers between a couple different wine farms for the next few hours. For the last stop, we checked out Groot Constantia - pretty cool drinking wine at a place that’s been operating since 1685. And, it also happened to have a hop-on hop-off stop directly in front of it, which is why we wrapped up our Constantia time there.
Early evening, we knew the final bus of the day would be coming. Not willing to have a driver blow by us a third time, we went out to the stop about 15 minutes before the scheduled arrival. Right on time, we saw the big red bus turn towards us in the distance and start moving slowly our way. Indignant, stubborn, and having had a little bit of wine, Chipp stood in the middle of the road (of note, this was a quiet side street with a bus inching along - not a main thoroughfare!). The bus driver would have to stop now, or so the logic went.
He stopped alright - three feet from Chipp. Readers can interpret this one of two ways. One, Chipp’s an idiot who risked his life to get on a bus (not really). Two, this bus driver had no plans to stop, and Chipp took a principled stand. Maybe a little of Column A, a little of Column B?
The Dangers of Post-Wine Revolving Sushi
Regardless of the questionable merits of playing chicken with a bus, we finally boarded one. And, despite some serious frustrations with the bus company, it would be an absolutely beautiful ride. Continuing the clockwise circle around Table Mountain’s perimeter, we drove up and through Constantia Nek, descending down into Hout Bay - a beach town due south of Cape Town - before continuing north up the coastal road.
After an incredible ride up this scenic coastal stretch as the sun was setting - made all the better by sitting in open-air seats on top of the bus - we reached Camp’s Bay. Ready for some local seafood, we hopped off there and walked straight to Codfather Seafood (hooray for awesome puns!). We’d heard great reviews, and after a day of drinking, more walking than initially anticipated, and some lingering frustration with the hop-on hop-off bus system, a big meal sounded great.
What we hadn’t read about Codfather was that, in addition to having your standard seafood dishes, they also offered a revolving sushi bar. With wine suppressing any fiscal discipline, we sat at this bar - in awe at tons of sushi streaming by us on a conveyor belt of deliciousness.
Some of these revolving sushi places do the all-you-can-eat model, which disincentivizes higher fish-to-rice ratios for the restaurant’s bottom line. At Codfather, they charged by plate, with each different color plate corresponding to a different price point. For the restaurant, this system incentivizes high quality, more expensive/fish-heavy dishes. For drunk American tourists, it incentivized a gluttonous performance.
When we finally wrapped up, we had stacks of little plates in front of us, a tangible monument to the bill we were about to pay. We’d definitely need to spend a little more time working the upcoming week to help offset this culinary adventure. Worth it!
So yeah, the whole hop-on hop-off thing was questionable - still not quite sure how the bus drivers decided where and when to stop. Despite that, we definitely recommend getting out and exploring some of Cape Town’s outlying neighborhoods - just maybe not by bus!