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IImagine having a late lunch 100 years ago down at the Cape Town waterfront at a popular local called the Harbour Café. Snoek fishermen drift past in their rowboats, curious seals twitch their whiskers at the delicious aroma of good old fish 'n chips, the staple menu item being served at the Harbour Café – and the ale is cold and frothy. There is no shortage of wheeling, squawking seagulls closely monitoring every morsel that passes your lips.
The harbour is a frenzy of activity - seamen and stevedores rushing about, passengers from a great ocean liner have disembarked, vendors are everywhere. It is 1912, only 2 years after Union was declared in South Africa – and only 2 years before the outbreak of World War I.
Even though the Suez Canal is open, commercial air traffic has not yet been introduced. Cape Town’s Table Bay is still the world’s gateway to southern Africa.
Table Bay was always a tough port to operate in. In the cold months between June and September, the north-wester would rise and batter visiting ships, often with fatal results. If your vessel was moored in Table Bay in winter, you could forget about insurance.
In 1860 however, Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria, officiated at the launch of the building of the breakwater – the first stage in construction of a harbour for Cape Town. Only 10 years later, the Alfred Basin was complete. The Victoria Basin was opened 35 years after that.
By the 1960s the people of Cape Town had been cut off from their own harbour. The Foreshore Freeway with its raised highways and traffic roundabouts helped to separate the port from the city. The area around the harbour was fenced in and yet people still loved going to the Harbour Café for a beer and a plate of fish 'n chips.
By the mid-1980s there was a strong movement in civic circles to reconnect the Mother City to the harbour precinct. The plan was to combine a world-class working harbour with a place that offered great accommodation, tourism and commercial opportunities.
Other leading world waterfronts in places like San Francisco, Sydney and Hong Kong had already proved what designers could do with ‘water spaces’ and urban settings.
Today, the V&A Waterfront is a South African success story. Now only has the ‘V&A’ become the country's prime tourist attraction, it is also a favoured spot for Capetonians and still carries on the important business of being a world-class port.
In fact, the presence of a dry dock, flotilla of hard-working tugboats and active fishing industry combines beautifully with the restaurants, shops, living spaces and museums in the area.
And if you want a cold beer and some high class fish 'n chips, visit a place called MAReSOL. It used to be called the Harbour Café...
Travel tips & planning info
Who to contact
V&A Waterfront Info Kiosk, Victoria Wharf
Tel: +27 (0)21 408 7600
How to get here
The V&A Waterfront is probably one of the most visible landmarks in Cape Town and is well signposted. From the city centre, drive down Adderley Street into Heerengracht, turning left on Coen Steytler and into Dock Road.
Best time to visit
The V&A Waterfront is a year-round destination.
Things to do
Jump in a helicopter for a scenic flip over Cape Town. Pop in at the excellent Two Oceans Aquarium. Go on a harbour cruise. Chug out for the day to Robben Island on a heritage tour. Check out the Waterfront Craft Market. Visit a brewery, the featured museums and take the water taxi to somewhere. Or just putter around on a boat-based harbour tour. The V&A Waterfront will keep the whole family busy for at least a day.
Check in at the Waterfront Info Kiosk for details and times on the popular V&A Waterfront Historical Walking Tour. A guide will take you on a trip in time back to the early days of Cape Town's Harbour and will show you all the well-preserved historical sites around the waterfront.
As South Africa’s top party spot, the V&A Waterfront has a full annual programme of events, including festivals, launches and specials.
What to pack
Informal, comfortable, seasonal outfits – and cameras with lots of memory cards and batteries. You might want to dress up a bit for some of the smarter restaurants.
Where to stay
Why not stay at one of the 10 superb hotels on site at the V&A Waterfront? See the V&A’s website below for details.
What to eat
You’re in one of the world’s most beautiful seaports, where more than 60% of the activity is all about fishing. Your dining choice has to be seafood from one of the many notable restaurants in the area.