Cape Winelands: a sipping safari
Jagged peaks, rolling hills, grand manor houses and sunny skies – the Cape Winelands is a remarkable region to visit, and that’s before you’ve set foot in one of the world class wineries or restaurants. You’ll need a vehicle (and ideally a driver) to explore the vineyards, scattered as they are between the Winelands towns, starting some 30km east of Cape Town.
Don’t forget to put aside a little time to explore the towns themselves – most have quaint historical quarters and more than a couple of culinary gems. Best of all, wine tasting is an affordable activity in South Africa, even for travellers on a tight budget.
The grand dame of Cape Winelands towns, Stellenbosch has well over 100 wineries in its undulating environs. Selecting just a few can be tricky, but try the following: Villiera for its bubbly and morning wildlife drives; Warwick for its lavish picnics on the lawns; and Spier, admittedly commercial yet still highly recommended for its Segway tours, bird of prey shows, farm tours, craft market, spa and of course, wine tasting. There are plenty of family-friendly options, but for something truly relaxing, head to Hazendal, where staff take kids on a two-hour science, nature and technology experience in the futuristic Wonderdal while parents can chill in the deli or sip in the wine lounge. For fantastic food, try the gorgeous Jordan estate west of the town or the winery’s sister restaurant, Jardine, in the town centre. The town itself is well worth a wander – don’t miss the wonderful museum split across four period homes, the small but pretty botanical garden, and the many good restaurants on and around Church St.
There’s something undeniably endearing about Franschhoek. The long approach road is lined with elegant wine estates, while the town itself is brimming with excellent restaurants, all an easy stroll from one another. Don’t miss Foliage, where ingredients foraged from the valley take centre stage. The town’s setting at the foot of the mountains is delightful, and if you have time, the Franschhoek Pass is a worthy drive before you hang up the car keys and hit the wineries. The best way to get around is on the Franschhoek Wine Tram, which shuttles sippers between a dozen or so wine estates. Some of the best include regal Grand Provence, La Motte with its top notch wines and restaurant, and the ever-popular Boschendal, best on sunny days when you can sip under giant trees. Franschhoek also boasts a renegade beer route: try Hey Joe Brewing Companyfor Belgian ales, The Franschhoek Beer Co. for a family-friendly pit stop or Soul Barrel Brewing Co. for some unique barrel-aged beers.
Sometimes considered the ugly sister of the Winelands, it’s true that Paarl town centre doesn’t have as much going for it as Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, not least because it is so spread out. That said, a visit to KWV, just off the main road, is a must for one of its wine pairings – choose from chocolate, cake, cheesecake or biltong (a dried, spicey meat snack). The town’s nature reserve is also highly worth a visit. Sitting on a hill above the town, the reserve has some pleasant day hikes and biking routes, offering a welcome opportunity to work off the tastings and lavish lunches the Winelands are known for. You’ll certainly need to work up an appetite before you head to Spice Route, one of the region’s most popular attractions. Here artisanal producers make charcuterie, ice cream, chocolate, wine and beer, offering tutored tastings of every product on the menu. A little off the tour bus track is Avondale, a biodynamic farm with fascinating vineyard tours and an excellent restaurant.
Tucked away in the Witzenberg mountains about 90 minutes from Cape Town, Tulbagh is known for two things: champagne-style wines and a street chock-a-block with historical monuments. A walk down Church St in the early morning is a fine way to start a trip to Tulbagh. It’s a veritable open-air museum, with each monument having its own explanatory plaque. Once the midday heat starts to roll in – and this town gets seriously hot in summer – retreat to one of the wineries a short drive from the centre. Rijk’s has a no-frills taproom with some excellent red wines, while Montpelier offers cheese platters and tastings under the trees outside the old manor house. As you near the mountains, drop in for some bubbles at Twee Jonge Gezellen and try your hand at the sabrage – opening a bottle of MCC (Methode Cap Classique – the local term for champagne-style wines) with a sword. Right at the foot of the mountains is Oakhurst Olives, for a tasting of a different type.
The Robertson wine valley lies a two-hour drive from Cape Town, so while it’s doable as a day trip, it’s even better as a weekend getaway. The town itself is worth only a cursory glance, but the surrounds are laden with refreshingly unpretentious wineries, many of them sitting on the banks of the Breede River. One of the best ways to experience the river is on an hour-long cruise launching from Viljoensdrift. Get there early for a free tasting and buy a bottle and a picnic to take on the ride. For laidback sipping, elegant Springfield has no restaurant, activities or kids’ area – just some excellent wines to be enjoyed in tranquillity on the riverbank. The region also abounds in family-friendly wineries – try Excelsiorwith its kid-centric lunch option or Van Loveren for a juice and candy tasting. If you’re sticking around for longer than a day, tack on a quick aside to picturesque McGregor, a tiny town with a few gastronomic treats.