The sun shines just about all the time here, and the air is gin-clear, swept clean by the “Cape Doctor” winds that blow in from the southeast. Across the bay, Table Mountain towers over the city of Cape Town. The brightness of the sparkling sea, the vast robin’s-egg sky, and the breathtaking panoramas are in jarring contrast to the island’s main attraction. Off and on for nearly 300 years, Robben Island, 7km (4 1 ⁄ 3 miles) from Cape Town, South Africa, served ably as a maximum-security prison, a miserable cage for thousands of prisoners. Most notoriously, it is where Nelson Mandela, the country’s antiapartheid leader—and future president of a united South Africa—spent 18 years of his life in captivity.
Robben Island has been a place of exile for criminals, undesirables, and political prisoners ever since the Dutch arrived here in the late 17th century. It is a landscape ideally situated for impregnable confinement: The wind-whipped waves and rockstrewn reefs of Table Bay have snagged many a seafaring vessel—some 68 ships have run aground on Robben alone. The waters have a terrible beauty: In 1820, Makhanda, a Xhosa prophet imprisoned by British colonials on the island, escaped from the prison after a jailbreak only to drown in the turbulent seas.
The end of South African apartheid in 1994 effectively ended Robben Island’s tenure as a political prison, but it wasn’t until 1996 that the last prisoner was set free. In 1997, the government turned the facility into a museum, and in 1999 the island was designated a World Heritage Site as a symbol of “the triumph of the human spirit of freedom and of democracy over oppression.”
Since then Robben Island has become one of the county’s most popular attractions. Getting here couldn’t be easier: You’ll need to set aside a good half-day for the standard 3 1 ⁄ 2 -hour tour (see below for ferry details), which includes the boat ride there and back, a bus ride around the island, and tours of the facilities led by former prisoners. The prison itself has a grim banality, but the 2 × 2.4m (6 1 ⁄ 2 × 8-ft.) cement cell where the prison’s most famous occupant lived is a moving reminder of Mandela’s long, arduous “walk to freedom.”
Today the bright, sunny surrounds are a striking contrast to the prison facility. On Robben Island, the natural world is alive and thriving: Look for African penguins parading on the beach; springbok and eland gamboling in flower-filled meadows; and tortoises clambering over rocks. An 1864 lighthouse is still active, flashing a welcoming beam of light every 7 seconds to offshore mariners.