Forty-eight hours in Cape Town. So much to do, so little time. But as a tag-on to a safari or the Garden Route, it is worthwhile even if you can spare only a couple of days.

On my visit, I plan to take in the obvious highlights for first-time visitors.

I start with a visit to the jewel in the geological crown of this diverse metropolis, the majestic Table Mountain, a sandstone wonder that looms large wherever you go in the city.

The string of peaks known as the 12 Apostles are a favourite with hikers, but I choose to join the queue for half an hour to take the Cableway cable car on a five-minute ride to the top. A revolving floor in the car ensures all budding photographers have a 360-degree bird's-eye view.

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You could spend a good few hours up here balancing your yin and yang. Young visitors sunbathe on the rocks, others seek out the flora and fauna — I see lizards, but there are also creatures, like guinea pigs, called rock rabbits, or dassies, and nearly 1500 species of fynbos, including proteas, ericas and reeds.

After Table Mountain, I head for the lush vineyards of Constantia, about 20 minutes away, to probe my palate with a wine-tasting session at Bistro Sixteen82 at Steenberg Farm, which produces some of the finest wine in South Africa.

Greeted outside by Miss Piggy, the farm's resident pot-bellied pig, who is sunning herself on the lawn, we are shown into the bar where there is a spectacular contemporary circular chandelier, comprising green and red discs representing the grapes.

"Bubbly" — a Chardonnay that can't be called Champagne because it is not made in the Champagne region of France — is paired with spoon-sized bites of Parma ham, figs and cheese, as the salty characters are said to bring out the best in the sparkling wine. Later, Sauvignon Blanc is matched with acidic flavours like goats cheese and tomato, to make the sauvignon taste sweeter. The red wine, which at Steenberg is predominantly Merlot, is matched with fillet steak and pepper sauce.

To blow the cobwebs away after lunch, I head for Boulders Beach, home to colonies of African penguins nesting on the beach and waddling about on the rocks. You pay ZAR70 (NZ$7.50) to get in, but have good vantage points from the walkway alongside the rocky coastline.

The penguins have been at the bay for only 30 years and legend has it that two broke away from a colony that was heading for the Antarctic, mated (penguins mate for life) and stayed at Boulders Beach.

Further up the coastline of False Bay, I stop off for souvenirs at the quirky, bohemian seaside town of Kalk Bay, with its colourful antique shops and stores selling African trinkets, books, hand-crafted clothing, tableware and other ephemera.

After a full day, I am ready to try some of South Africa's finest fare. Cape Town offers a wealth of sophisticated dining based on local produce. I try springbok and ostrich while I'm here, as well as abundant seafood, from freshly caught tuna and angel fish, to oysters, crayfish and scallops.

We visit The Test Kitchen, highly acclaimed and voted the top restaurant in Africa by Restaurant Magazine/number 22 in the 2016 World's Best Restaurant Awards, sampling a delicious and complex five-course menu with wine pairing.

The next day, I venture to the spot I anticipate will be the highlight of my 48 hours - Robben Island. Catching the ferry from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the fashionable V&A Waterfront, a symbol of Cape Town's resurgence post-apartheid with its trendy restaurants, upmarket shopping malls, colonial-style buildings and working harbour, Robben Island and all it represents could be a million miles away.

It's actually a half-hour boat ride to the island, a Unesco World Heritage site, which had been used as a prison since the 17th century and also served as a leper colony and as a lunatic asylum. But its darkest time was from the early 1960s when it became a maximum security prison, housing the political enemies of the apartheid regime.

We are taken on a bus around this desolate scrubland — it is 13km around the island — stopping at the limestone quarry where the prisoners spent their days breaking rocks in the scorching sun, with no gloves, no sunglasses or masks to keep the choking dust from their throats.

Although the last political prisoners left in 1991 and it closed as a prison in 1996, about 200 people, including former political prisoners, still live on the island.

Former inmates conduct the tours around the prison and our guide Ntando, imprisoned for seven years for being a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and furthering military aims, recalls how he was detained in a police station for six months where he was severely tortured, both mentally and physically, later to be transferred in iron shackles and handcuffs from Johannesburg to Robben Island.

"We were somehow reduced to a non-living thing," he reflects. "You were known by your prison number, not your name."

Only the colony of African penguins seen waddling outside the prison perimeters brings light relief to this stark, cruel environment.

It is a quiet journey back to the waterfront, as visitors reflect on the supreme sacrifices made to secure freedom in South Africa. The whole tour (including ferry and guide) costs ZAR320. Unbelievable.

Back on the mainland, I experience the other extreme, namely fashionable Clifton, one of the wealthiest areas of Cape Town with its millionaires' cliff-side apartments and amazing views of Clifton Bay and the 12 Apostles rising above it.

Here, we stay at Cape View, which calls itself a "luxury guesthouse" but that is a huge understatement. The 10 rooms, bright, white and airy, make you feel like you are in a top designer's dream house, yet it has a wonderful informality about it. The living area leads out on to a wide deck and the most breathtaking view of the glistening ocean and Clifton Bay. You may not be a millionaire, but you feel like one.

It is a perfect place to unwind, watch the sun set and appreciate the best that Cape Town has to offer.

Checking my watch, I've done my 48 hours but, boy, do I wish I had more . . .

IF YOU GO
Getting there: Qatar Airways flies from Auckland to Cape Town, via Doha.

After changes to the visa process came into effect on January 16, New Zealanders need a three-month holiday visa in order to visit South Africa. This can be obtained from application centres in Auckland and Wellington, run by VFS Global. For more details go to vfsflobal.com.southafrica/newzealand.

Further information: See sahc.org.au/consular_new-zealand.htm

- AAP