CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- I'm normally not a morning person.
But by 5 a.m. on my first full day in Cape Town, the sun has risen high enough to peel back the curtain of night and reveal the majesty of Table Mountain. My hotel balcony provides a front-and-center seat for this morning tableau.
Sleep no longer interests me.
I sip hot tea, nibble the chocolate truffle left during turndown service the night before, slide open the doors and take in the view.
Behind me, television continues 24/7 commercial-free programming -- tributes, interviews and news about Nelson Mandela. The "Father of the Nation" died two days ago. All of South Africa is grieving, remembering, celebrating a hero who helped to end apartheid 20 years ago and a father figure -- "Tata Madiba" -- who showed South Africans how to forgive.
I remember something I'd read in a guidebook: When Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, he'd look across the bay to Table Mountain and see a beacon of future freedom. Indeed, Cape Town's iconic formation -- a flat-topped mountain that rises 3,563 feet above sea level and looks as though its peak has been sliced off -- has presided over more than 3 ½ centuries of history in this, the Mother City of South Africa.
Winds of change
On summer afternoons, strong breezes nudge the clouds to a hover atop the mountain, creating an effect that locals call a "white tablecloth." When the wind pushes the clouds over its face, it looks as though they are tumbling down a waterfall.
Winds of change, in fact, have been hard at work carving the landscape here in recent years. People around the world are noticing. Bolstered by a strong exchange rate (currently about 10 South African rand to $1), overseas tourists -- and Americans, in particular -- are flocking to the Western Cape region to experience the beauty and charm of its land, people and culture.
And the city will hold the title of World Design Capital for the year. It will play host to many events that showcase the theme "Live Design. Transform Life," an effort to "position Cape Town as a leading global city -- a hub of creativity, knowledge, innovation and excellence," tourism officials say.
On my early-December visit, during the very public national period of mourning for Mandela, the evidence couldn't have been more tangible: This is a place that stays firmly grounded in its history yet bursts at the seams with excitement for its future.
Almost nowhere is this more easily experienced than on a culinary tour of the city and its outlying wine region. Cape Town has become a new frontier for chefs around the world, such as Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, who opened the first and only South African outpost of his eponymous restaurant Nobu there in 2009. The city is home to eight of the top 10 South African restaurants listed in the 2012 Eat Out Awards, and the country's only two restaurants to make it into the 2012 San Pellegrino World's Best Awards. At every turn, it's also possible to savor the traditional dishes, speckled and spiced with global influences, that helped shaped the region.
Markets and 'fab food'
And in the Cape Winelands, centuries-old winemakers are using new technology to produce world-class wines.
On a sunny Saturday morning, locals pack in, elbow to elbow, to the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill, a bustling "village" of restaurants, cafes and shops in the Woodstock neighborhood, which is undergoing a renaissance.
Local vendors sell organic dried fruit, dozens of types of mushrooms, freshly baked macaroons, flatbread pizzas, pork belly pies, ice cream and hundreds of other products and foods. Some give out samples; all allow patrons to enjoy their purchases on long tables in the middle of the market.
I arrive with a small group on an excursion with two Cape Town food and travel experts, Dawn Jorgensen and Ishay Govender-Ypma; they run The Food and The Fabulous Food Tours, customizable food experiences that delve into the heart of the city's culinary scene.
Before 11 a.m., I've tasted craft beers from Darling Brew, noshed on velvety mozzarella di bufala from Buffalo Ridge, sipped a tall rooibos iced tea, chewed on tuna Biltong (a South African jerky) and sampled a favorite local pastry called a Flying Dutchman, which closely resembles a New Orleans beignet.
This is just one example, our guides tell us, of an emerging "market culture" in Cape Town and a new commitment to support local farmers and food purveyors.
With the summer sun searing, our "fab food" tour takes us a step further back in time, to the Bo-Kaap, or Cape Malay Quarter of town. With its brightly colored semi-detached homes, Bo Kaap has become a backdrop for high-fashion magazine shoots (The Huffington Post listed it among the most colorful places in the world).
Once the home of freed slaves, the predominantly Muslim area -- site of the oldest mosque in the country -- has had an indelible influence on South African cuisine. A resident of the area guides us up and down the hilly cobblestone streets and leads us into a spice shop, where we can smell and taste the aromas and flavors -- coriander, turmeric, garlic -- that make this cooking, brought here in the 17th and 18th centuries by slaves from the Dutch East Indies, so distinct. We feast alfresco on a lunch of traditional Cape Malay foods such as lamb curry and samosas, prepared by women who have made it their mission to preserve the beloved food of their ancestry by conducting these tours and compiling recipes into a forthcoming cookbook.
Wine and beer tasting
No "local food tour" would be complete, of course, without a dip into the local beverage scene. Craft brews are big news.
In the early evening, still with our expert food guides, we find ourselves at the Beerhouse, a new watering hole on vibrant Long Street that actually does have 99 bottles of beer on the menu. We "rock around the clock," sampling 12 brews.
After a dinner of traditional sausage called boerewors at the Gourmet Boerie cafe, our group bar-hops down Long Street among crowds of mostly young Capetonians who are making the most of a mild summer Saturday night.
Craft beer may be a new trend here, but throughout South Africa, there is a long and rich history of producing first-rate wines -- and lots of them.
President Barack Obama toasted his 2008 election win with a South African Graham Beck Brut NV, reportedly his favorite sparkling wine. (Central Market stores carry a limited selection of Graham Beck bottles locally.)
Less than an hour's drive out of Cape Town, rows and rows of vineyards climb the mountainsides. Traditional white Cape Dutch-style homes dot the landscape, and bright pink bougainvillea grows next to the road in this picturesque countryside.
With its mild Mediterranean climate and limited rainfall, the Western Cape region has been home to a wine industry dating to the 1600s. Today, wines from the region are scoring ratings higher than French Burgundies in worldwide competitions.
Nederburg, founded in 1791, is one of the region's best known wineries, recognized around the world not just for its award-winning wines but for its place in South African wine history. The Nederburg Auction was established in 1975 to showcase the country's finest wines. The annual event has become one of the five most important auctions in the world; it's a glamorous, invitation-only social occasion.
After a tasting of more than a dozen wines -- my favorite is another white, a blend of eight grapes called Ingenuity -- we relax on the lush grounds of Nederburg's stately Manor House.
Exotic Cape Town is an in-demand location for film shoots and a glamorous vacation destination for celebrities (Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift were in town recently shooting the forthcoming "The Giver"; Britain's Prince Harry was spotted shopping there just before Christmas).
Luxury hotel bookings in 2013 were up by almost 17 percent over the previous year's as of August, according to South African Airways' Sawubona magazine.
Summertime in Cape Town means warm, mostly dry days to take a cable car up to Table Mountain, lounge on the beach at Camps Bay, take a ferry ride for a tour of Robben Island or enjoy an evening picnic at an outdoor concert in the lush Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
On my last night, as the sun sinks lower and the sky grows pinker, I spot it: the white tablecloth. Rolling in and spreading out over Table Mountain.
It makes my last sunset in this exotic and storied city as memorable as the first sunrise.