The sleepy fishing town of Hout Bay, just south of Cape Town. (ROBYN DIXON, LOS ANGELES TIMES / April 12, 2010)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — At the southernmost point of South Africa where two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, meet, the weight of a vast, ancient continent lies northward.

More than anywhere else in Africa, history and nature seem to collide here on a grand scale.

You feel the awe, gazing into the cell where Nelson Mandela spent most of his prison term on Robben Island off Cape Town.

It's there at dusk in Kruger National Park, a quickening of the pulse confronting a great bull elephant, its ears spread wide as it trumpets a warning.

And you sense it in the silent drama of Durban's orange and blue sunrise and Cape Town's scarlet sunset.

When visitors swarm to soccer's World Cup June 11-July 11, they will share in the continent's coming-of-age party. It will be the first time a sporting mega-event of this scale has been held on African soil, and many Africans hope it will combat the continent's stereotypes.

For some visitors, the biggest surprise in the nine host cities may not be the wildlife or the spectacular scenery but Maponya Mall, the upscale shopping mall in the heart of Soweto, the African township associated with the most violent uprisings against apartheid.

Johannesburg: After apartheid, the business, finance and retail sectors abandoned the city, affectionately known as Jozi, and moved to suburbs such as Sandton. Despite talk about revitalizing the city, little has been done. It's a maze of one-way streets full of cheap cafes and shops selling Chinese clothing. From Johannesburg there are tours to Soweto, including the main historic sites of the struggle against apartheid. The Apartheid Museum offers a fascinating insight into South Africa's troubled past.

Information: tourism, http://www.joburgtourism.com; Apartheid Museum, phone 011-2711-379-4700, http://www.apartheidmuseum.org

Pretoria: Known as Jacaranda City for the purple trees that bloom in September and October, this is the administrative seat of South Africa's three-capital government. Sixteen years after apartheid ended, an acrimonious squabble drags on about whether to rename it Tshwane, after an ancient tribal chief. The current name honors Andries Pretorius, one of the leaders of the Voortrekkers, Afrikaner pioneers who abandoned the British Cape Colony and traveled inland to create their own settlements. Pretoria, like Johannesburg, is a little drab.

About an hour from Johannesburg and Pretoria, the Cradle of Humankind is a World Heritage site with some of the fossil finds of earliest humankind dating back 4 million years. About 90 minutes north of Pretoria, en route to another host city, Polokwane, lies the beautiful Waterberg region in Limpopo province, where many private game ranches are found, including some of the best rhino viewing in South Africa.

Information: tourism, pretoria.co.za; Waterberg Tourism & Parks Resource Centre, 011-2714-736-4328, golimpopo.com/limpopo/waterberg; Cradle of Humankind, maropeng.co.za

Cape Town: The most scenic and cosmopolitan of South Africa's cities, it boasts good restaurants and a stunning southern coast. It is surrounded by some of South Africa's most famous wineries, freckled with quaint towns such as Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl, with their pretty Cape Dutch homesteads.

There is a dramatic coastal drive from Cape Town to Agulhas, the continent's southernmost point, taking in Cape Point and the rugged Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and lighthouse.

In Cape Town, tourists can climb (or drive up) Table Mountain for stunning views, or take a boat trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned before he became president. There's a chance to meet ex-prisoners, who describe the daily grind of prison life.

Information: tourism: 011-2721-405-4500, http://www.tourismcapetown.co.za/ctru/content/en/za/home

Port Elizabeth: This port has seen many architectural gems ruined by years of poor planning decisions. The heart of the town, by evening, could be a European town square. Come back in daylight and it turns out to be an ugly car park. The town lies near the eastern edge of South Africa's Garden Route, famous for its scrubby fynbos vegetation. There are pretty vacation towns along the coast, such as Knysna (holding its oyster festival from July 2 to 11) and Mossel Bay.

North of Port Elizabeth is the Addo Elephant National Park, one of the best national parks for elephant spotting.

Information: tourism, 011-2742-296-2563, infoportelizabeth.com