All this duality is what makes South Africa an amazingly interesting destination, fresh and palpitating with an energy bent on reinvention. Despite its fits and starts, shedding the isolation and sanctions of its racist apartheid past to become an integrated world contender in less than 15 years is unprecedented. Begin to peel back the onion layers of official history and social reality with a visit to the District Six Museum (commemorating a once-vibrant, mixed, jazz-influenced area that was redistricted as "white only" and razed in the late '60s) and Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison). Better yet, get locals talking about their own experiences of living through a "bloodless" democratic revolution. Their likely strong opinions on the current, sometimes tenuous state of the country can't help but fascinate.
Neither can their joie de vivre. From the mixed hipster bohemian bars of Long Street to the cobblestones of De Waterkant and Green Point, the de facto gay areas thanks to the Pink Block and its collection of bars and clubs, a queer energy pervades the city. And with gay life boldly out of its apartheid closet and basking in the constitutionally protected light of day (most likely in a Speedo on Miamiesque Clifton's "third" beach or au naturel in nearby Sandy Bay), official festivals pepper the spring and summer schedule. The 7,000-strong Mother City Queer Project Festival (December 20) brings the party charitable costume-ball style, while Cape Town Pride (February 20?March 1, 2009;) brings it all together later in the season. Given the strides South Africa has made, consider the celebration year-round.
A fixture on the gay scene thanks to his long-standing Saturday night gig at the Friendly Society in Cape Town's De Waterkant village, Odidi Mfenyana (a.k.a. Odidiva, the 'fro-hawked no-lip-synching drag diva) is a practical expert in the truth versus facade of South African gay life as a whole: "We are protected by law, unlike in other countries, so tolerance is a given, acceptance the challenge." But according to Mfenyana, those challenges recede daily. Citing favorite daytime places such as the Sea Point district pool complex and promenade, and booze factories Julep cocktail bar and M Bar in the Metropole Hotel (gay-owned but mixed crowd) on Long Street, the city's bustling commercial center, he brushes aside the stereotype that Cape Town is still just a white man's or straight man's game.
"Cape Town people love the mix of gay/straight/bi and especially different races and nationalities," he says. "It's something quite unique from the big First World cities I've been to, where one has to remain in the gay village -- even the straight clubs enjoy a little fairy dust!"
Visas are not required for up to 90-day visits; however, you must have at least two blank visa pages for every entry into the country or risk being denied entry.
Delta (800-221-1212; Delta.com) offers an 18-hour direct flight to Cape Town from New York City or Atlanta up to three days a week. Connecting flights via Johannesburg available on South African Airlines (800-722-9675; FlySAA.com). Both include refueling stops in Dakar, Senegal.
As South Africa is one of the most developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Cape Town is manageable to book on your own, but for class and style -- and a hassle-free safari side trip -- use a tour operator. Gay-owned Gay2Afrika (866-462-2374) offers a number of bargain-driven package deals. For totally customizable, individualized itineraries, Premier Tours' (800-545-1910; PremierTours.com) ardent professionalism, attention to detail, and commitment to luxury make it possible to visit a traditional game reserve, sample from world-class vineyards, and dance your way through the freshest gay nightlife on the African continent, all in one visit.
Part One | Part Two
When in...Cape Town
View from South Africa