travel: ESCAPE TO THE CAPE; SOUTH AFRICA FOR THE WEEKEND? SOUNDS CRAZY, BUT LESLEY FRIEDMAN SAYS IT'S WELL WORTH THE 11 - HOUR FLIGHT.
THE hottest short break destination of the year is Cape Town, that spectacular city at the southern tip of Africa. It's really not that crazy to head off for a special weekend there, especially in our winter, when the southern hemisphere is enjoying a sizzling summer.
It's a great place for stag and hen nights - even weddings. Cape Town is in the same time zone as Britain, so, unlike a short break in New York or even Eastern Europe, there is no jet lag to worry about.
If you fly overnight, as most airlines do, you sleep most of the 11-hour flight, arriving refreshed and raring to sightsee. Similarly, after an overnight flight back, you can be in the office by 9am on Monday.
But while you are away, there is really no time for rest - there's just so much to see and do.
The best way to start your weekend is a trip up the breathtaking Table Mountain. The easiest ascent is by 360-degree rotating cablecar, a five minute trip which costs less than pounds 10 return, with special family and group packages even less.
If you have the time and energy, there are 300 different routes up the mountain, roughly a two hour walk or climb. On top, there is a restaurant and gift shop - mail your postcards here to get a unique Table Mountain frank.
There are also many mountain-top walks and paths, and the opportunity for amazing photographs at every turn.
More than half - 65% - of visitors fail to get the chance to go up the mountain because it is often shut by high winds or the "table cloth", the cloud that rolls over the top, restricting vision. So seize your chance when you can.
A worthwhile way to spend your first afternoon is with a ferry trip to Robben Island, about eight miles off Cape Town. This is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for years for his opposition to apartheid, and tours around the former jail and cells are conducted by ex-prisoners.
Our guide was Mlilwana Sparks, who spent from 1983 to 1990 in one of the tiny, concrete cells.
He now lives on the island, which has been declared a world heritage site and is "the safest place in the world", he says. The trip brings home just how far South Africa has progressed since those grim days.
Most visitors to Africa want to see the animals, and Cape Town does not disappoint. Boulders, a sheltered cove between the naval base of Simons Town and Cape Point, is home to about 3,000 African penguins, and you can get to within a few yards of them. They are monogamous and often have a cuddle - which very sweet.
A few miles up the road in Hout Bay, you can board a boat for a trip to Duiker Island, basking ground for thousands of male seals, all hanging out until they reach the breeding age of between eight and 12 years. It is illegal to go on to the island, but the seals are used to the boats, and swim up and put on a little performance in the hope of attracting a fish dinner.
Continue your visit by coach or car to Cape Point for whale watching between June and November, or see ostrich and some of the 250 species of bird that inhabit the Cape all year round. With luck, you will also come across herds of zebra, eland and other antelope.
False Bay is the home of the Great White shark, and where Discovery Channel TV programmes about them are made. While on the way, expect to meet baboons with little road sense - and no respect for your vehicle.
Another way to get your bearings is with a helicopter tour. Have your camera ready for breathtaking scenery and views of the bikini beaches of Clifton, the winelands and all the hotspots you have seen from the ground.
A trip to the winelands is another must-do. The Cape produces fabulous wines - and seems to keep the best for home consumption, rather than exporting them. Arrive in style on the back of a Harley Davidson - the HD Club Cape Town will supply bikes and riders, and half their very reasonable fee goes to a charity helping children with muscular dystrophy.
The best wine tasting is offered by the Spier estate in Stellenbosch, where guide Nikki Smit was so knowledgeable and informative that a teetotal member of our party even bought a bottle with 18% alcohol!
Snier also onerates a cheetah outreach programme, and visitors can get close to the hand-reared animals.
A must for gardeners is a trip to Kirstenbosch, a botanical garden just a short drive from the centre of Cape Town that boasts the most incredible protea species, bird of paradise and thousands of other native plants. Once again this year, Kirstenbosch won gold at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Cape Town has thousands of clubs, pubs, wonderful restaurants and a thriving nightlife. The Waterfront area boasts about AOO shons 7O restaurants and eateries from five-star to very reasonable takeaway fish and chips, two craft markets and many outdoor concerts and performances.
South Africa offers tremendous value for money, and five-star accommodation can be cheaper than a Travelodge. So if you are booking a short break, aim high and enjoy luxury and pampering, African style.
But do save your credit card for the airport and the marvellous buys in jewellery and diamonds which can be secured with a little bargaining.
TRAVEL INFORMATION ...
Lesley Friedman was a guest of Thomson Tailor-Made Africa, which offers three nights' B&B at the five-star Cape Grace Hotel on Cape Town Waterfront from pounds 1,099 per person, including SAA scheduled flights ex-Heathrow and transfers. From Manchester, same package starts at pounds 1,185
Three nights' B&B at Cape Grace flying Lufthansa via Frankfurt starts at pounds 999 from Heathrow, and from pounds 1,025 ex-Manchester.. Bill Clinton took over the whole hotel for his visit, and Leo DiCaprio stayed there this year
The five-star The Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, which serves some of the best food in Cape Town, starts at pounds 92 pp B&B (mountain facing room, two sharing). Historic five-star Lanzerac Hotel and Spa, Stellenbosch costs pounds 69 pp B&B (classic room, two sharing). You need a car - or a Harley Davidson - to get around
Reservations: Thomson Tailor-Made Africa (0870 160 7313 or visit www.thomsonworldwide.co.uk) also pre-books tours, including Table Mountain (about pounds 9.50) return by cablecar' Robben Island ferry (about pounds 12)' or Harley Davidson Club bike hire (pounds 43 per day)
Cape Grace Hotel with Table Mountain as a backdrop (main picture)' the Victoria & Albert Waterfront (above)' Spiers Cheetah Rehabilitation Centre (top)