Robben Island is one of South Africa's premier tourist destinations -- and rightly so. The ferry ride from the Cape Town waterfront alone is worth doing for the beautiful view of the city and Table Mountain from the sea. But "The Island," as it was known during the days of apartheid, gives the visitor an eerie sense of desolation.
To really understand Nelson Mandela's struggle and the sacrifices he made for the freedom of his people, you need to take a tour of the prison where he was held. Walking through the now silent empty jail cells, you bear witness to the loneliness and suffering he overcame to become a world icon of reconciliation.
Groot Drakenstein Prison (Victor Verster Prison)
Set incongruously in beautiful vineyards near Paarl, the Drakenstein Prison is where Mandela spent the last 14 months of his imprisonment. Here he was treated with greater respect by the authorities and eventually was moved into the warden's rather comfortable suburban house.
Shortly after his release, Mandela built a house at Qunu, his birthplace in the Transkei, based on the layout of his prison lodgings. It has been said that the one thing he missed from his prison experience was the solitude and the chance to reflect, and the house reminds him of that feeling.
Mandela was released from Drakenstein on February 11, 1990, and images were broadcast around the world of him and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela walking hand-in-hand toward the crowds, their fists clenched. Today, outside the main gate, there is a dramatic bronze statue of Mandela that commemorates that event.
You might combine a tour of the surrounding wine country with a visit to the gates of the prison. Stand on the road and stop to imagine the excitement that erupted among the crowd in 1990 as Mandela finally emerged after 27 years.
An absolute must is a visit to Mandela's old house in Vilakazi Street in Orlando West in Soweto. Now a fascinating small museum, the home shows just how black people lived under apartheid. Even relatively well-to-do people like the young Nelson Mandela, who was a lawyer, lived with their families in small four-room brick "matchbox" houses.