It’s only Monday morning and I am already exhausted. This time last week I was unpacking from an epic four days at Grootbos, frantically washing my laundry, responding to emails and catching up on work because I only had a few hours before I was off on my next adventure; to #MeetSouthAfrica with South African Tourism.
When you live in Cape Town (like I do), it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole wide country of beauty out there. There are immense mountain ranges and fire skies and thundering white water rapids and rambling fields of gold. There is so much to see in this country of ours and I was reminded last week of just how beautiful South Africa really is. In fact, I was reminded that one of the challenges facing travellers visiting South Africa for the first time, or even locals planning a road trip, is the overwhelming variety.
There are only so many leave days on the calendar and trying to decide whether you want to pack your itinerary with urban city discovery, adventurous activities, world famous winelands or of course, epic safaris can be daunting. Even as someone who has lived here my whole life, I still haven’t seen even half of what there is on offer in SA.
Last week’s trip however, did make a dent. I flew from Cape Town to Bloemfontein to join up with my fellow travellers, drove to Clarens for a night, Drakensberg for a night, off to Durban for a flight back to Cape Town, Franschhoek for two nights and Stellenbosch for the last night. That’s a grand total of 3 389 km’s over 7 days.
I’ve been to Bloemfontein a fair amount of times and my favourite thing about it is the people. A few years ago I was in the city for work and met a girl whose big smile has been part of my life ever since. She took me to the infamous Mystic Boer for a pizza and a few beers and climbed right into my heart there and then (hello Mel!)
I really only had a couple of hours in the city and was surprised by the quality of food at the quirky Seven on Kellner, where we had dinner. There were no less than SIX different risottos on the menu, which had me at hello. After dinner the more spirited guys went to Mystic only to arrive home after 2am – on a Monday! I was way too tired. We spent the night at the Protea Hotel which had this crazy tapestry in the foyer. It was the best thing about the hotel.
It was my first time in this little town in the Eastern Freestate and I can tell it won’t be my last. Driving into Clarens we passed endless splashes of the pink and white Cosmos that signalled the April school holidays in my childhood.
There’s loads to love about Clarens, especially the food. They also have a particularly nice Protea Hotel. I would have loved to stay in one of the quirky guest houses or B&B’s, but the hotel is easiest when you’re in a big group, like we were. We had lunch at the Artis’s Cafe and dinner at Clementines and they were both great. It was rainy and the sky was grey, which I interpreted as the perfect excuse for carbs and oxtail.
And also beer, which is brewed locally and served at the Clarens Brewery in town. Don’t leave without trying the cherry cider. Clementines has a great wine list, friendly owner and a LOCAL CAT, not to mention a fire place. You need to book well in advance over weekends.
The white water rafting was so much fun. It was my first time negotiating rapids and despite the cold I loved it! The trip includes six rapids and it’s well worth braving the water, which was freezing cold. Check out the Clarens Xtreme website for more things to do in the area.
Tip: Clarens can get crazy busy over weekends, so book your restaurants in advance. Also be sure to ask the local street art curator, Sven Christian at Ism Skism about the street art scene in the local township, Kgubetswana.
Leaving Clarens we wound our way through the magnificent Golden Gate Highlands National Park. This was another first for me and man, was it beautiful. The mammoth Maluti Mountains loom overhead as the road snakes ahead, around bends and over passes.
There is just so much beauty that I couldn’t take my eyes off the surroundings. The name comes from the golden shine that is created when the sun washes over the sandstone and the result is something really special.
We arrived at the Drakensberg Sun after dark and I splashed around in the bath before heading down for dinner. It was the most luxurious hotel we stayed in throughout the trip, but the real highlight was my morning walk down to the lake on the premises. Natal is just so incredibly green and the air up there in the mountains is so fresh – cold and clammy and it smells of the rich earth. I could definitely spend more time out there.
I am fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time in Franschhoek, since I do some work for them with Destinate. What I love about the winelands is that every visit is a different experience. There are five star hotels and eight course degustation menus, but there are also biodiversity walks and a pretty good local pub. This time we stayed in the Protea Hotel.
We visited my friend and epic winemaker Rob Armstrong at Haut Espoir, where we had a look at his farm and learned about how he is implementing biodiversity practises in order to protect the environment and be as self sufficient as possible. Rob and his family spent years removing alien trees, like blue gums and pines, which need up to 1000 litres of water a day, planting indigenous fynbos instead, which needs hardly any water and acts as a good fire break. That’s the same kind of love he puts into his wines.
We ate at a little hidden gem called Cafe des Arts, which is a favourite with locals and slightly off the main road, so safe from the tourist masses in season. I was very pleasantly surprised by the food and service. After dinner we went for a few drinks at the local – the Elephant and Barrel. The thing about small town bars is that the clientele is incredibly diverse. It’s the ideal place for a wild night and we did our best to take over the dance floor. With the help of tequila and the epic small-town-bar mix tape, I think we did a good job.
Before leaving the next morning, we stopped at Terbodore Coffee Roasters for a roastery tour and a much needed iced coffee. Every town needs a reliable roastery where you can find proper coffee, and Terbodore will not let the coffee lover down. We also managed to fit in one last tasting, with Kevin Swart from Black Elephant Vintners.
I know Kevin and his wines well, and I was so happy to see that everyone on the trip loved him and his wines as much as I do. His tastings are laid-back and he’s very easy to talk to – it’s a great way to spend a morning. Tip: There are so many great places to eat in Franschhoek, so ask around for locals’ recommendations and don’t be tempted to stick to the main road.
Most of the best tasting experiences require you to make an appointment, so call ahead and book with Rob at Haut Espoir, Kevin at Black Elephant Vintners or Nick at Franschhoek Pass Winery (best sunset viewing spot in the valley!) Contacts: Rob Armstrong, Haut Espoir: +27 (0)21 876 4000. Kevin Swart, Black Elephant Vintners: +27 (0)83 655 6611. Nick Davies, Franschhoek Pass Winery: +27 (0)82 559 8063
I’ve also been lucky enough to have spent a lot of time in Stellenbosch, which happens to be one of my favourite places in the world. I could so easily move to this gorgeous, vibrant town.
Again, we stayed in the Protea Hotel, but this one was pretty luxurious! It had a heated pool and a sauna and jacuzzi, and my room was massive!
We joined up with Bikes n Wines for a cycle through the vineyards, and I was surprised by how exhausting it was! We started in the heat of one of the hottest days this summer and I had a small sense of humour failure half way up the steepest incline.
Thankfully, it was all downhill and wine from there and I ended up really enjoying the experience. There is an abundance of great food in Stellenbosch, to pair with their great wines. We had lunch at Coopmanhuijs in the heart of the town – generous platters of meats, cheeses and breads, served with a generous supply of local wines. A great place to enjoy an afternoon in the sun.
For dinner, we ate at one of my favourite winelands restaurants; Terroir at Kleine Zalze. I have never been disappointed with a meal there and this time was no different. I had their signature prawn risotto followed by a perfect steak served with black truffle sauce (!) and then the most decadent chocolate dessert. All expertly paired with Kleine Zalze wines and fantastic service. You can’t leave Stellenbosch without dining here – just make sure to book in advance.
The trip was short and sweet and an excellent reminder of the epic beauty that lies around every corner, over every pass, along every coast and under every mountain of this country.