A Remarkably Relaxing Travel to Cape Town and the Winelands

By Al Manlangit

Arrive airport – 09.30hrs. Pick up Avis car – 10.00hrs. Drive to Stellenbosch – 1030hrs. Photograph scenic route. That was the itinerary I wrote before we enplaned in Johannesburg for the two-hour flight to Cape Town. And that’s exactly what we did right on the dot. The only thing I didn’t expect was that the scenery along the 50km route from the airport to the Winelands was more magnificent than I could have imagined.

The wine route in Stellenbosch

The wine-producing region in South Africa extends through four popular towns: Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, West Somerset and Paarl. All are within a short driving distance from each other through various routes that have breathtaking views of mountain ranges, evergreen valleys filled with fruit orchards and pastoral plains with nothing but grass, sheep and blue sky.

Houses in Stellenbosch
On the lawn in StellenboschCape Dutch architecture

Charming Stellenbosch with its oak-lined streets was one of the first Dutch settlements in the 15th century. Much of that influence remains today in the style of the buildings and old houses dominated by Cape Dutch architecture as well as a sprinkling of Georgian and Victorian. After checking in our stuff in a homey hotel with a terrace overlooking a picturesque view of the Hottentots Holland mountain range, we walked around the town admiring the quaint shops and viewed the exhibits in the museums before settling for a delicious shrimp and lamb braai (barbecue) lunch with red wine in an outdoor restaurant beneath the shade of an old oak tree. Satiated, we drove to Vergelegen (Far Location) wine estate 15 kms away.

Mansion in Vergelegen Estate

The estate is one of the finest in the Cape owing to its beautiful manor house and gorgeous English garden with an herbaceous border enclosing a splendid collection of roses. As if this wasn’t enough, at the back of the main house laid a well-manicured lawn with huge Chinese camphor trees planted in 1700 by the original owner who was also the governor. No wonder the place is Mandela’s favorite and the Clintons went for a visit. It was in the terrace of these bucolic surroundings that we sipped the estate’s wines and nibbled their exquisite quiches. The guide brought us up to the hill where their state-of-the-art cellar was buried underground – there, thousands of French oak barrels held the liquid that would be classified under the names of sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay. From the top of the hill we watched the sunset, and saw row upon row of vineyards as far as the eye could see – wine, it seems, thrive in an environment that is as close to paradise on earth.

Aging wine in French oak barrels

When the French Huguenots were persecuted by the Catholic Church, one of the places where they took refuge was in this small corner of South Africa called Franschhoek (French Corner). They brought with them not only their Protestant faith but their wine culture as well. The town, surrounded by the imposing Drakensburg Mountains, has all the allure of a French countryside from the street names to the local cuisine. We stayed overnight in a huge villa where we were the only guests and our over-sized room had beautiful paintings, a charming mosquito net over a humongous king-sized bed and a bathroom that had exquisite mosaic tiles and a cast-iron bathtub – all for a princely sum of only US$100. Then we had our best meal at a French Bistro where the smoked rainbow trout, Portuguese-style calamari marinated in red wine and wood-roasted chops were to die for – I still smack my lips whenever I remember that fancy dinner washed down with chilled sparkling wine!

Entrance to wine cellar beneath the hill

Visiting Cabriere Estate was fun for its excellent bubbly but also for a demonstration of uncorking the wine bottle by the winemaker who cleanly sliced the neck with a saber! A short stop at the stark granite colonnaded Huguenot Monument completed our visit before we headed for Paarl. This town got its name from the shiny granite domes of the nearby mountains which made them look like glistening pearls. It was in this place where Nelson Mandela was released from prison. We briefly passed by Taal Monument – three tall concrete columns which celebrates the controversial Afrikaans language before driving down to Hermanus by the coast.

Vergelegen's surroundings

This place proclaims itself to be the world’s best land-based whale-watching site and there is a designated “whale-crier” who blows his horn to alert people to the arrival of the whales. Though it was out of season, we espied a couple of these gentle behemoths breaching and lob tailing (tails smacking the water) from afar, as we ate our seafood lunch in a patio overlooking the sea. During the calving season in September and October, you can see hundreds of these Southern Right whales down by the seashore putting on quite a show. They migrate from Antarctica to mate and give birth in the warm waters off the Cape.

Penguins in Boulder Beach

We took the route tracing the contours of the coast for 100-plus kms to Simon’s Town on the peninsula south of Cape Town passing by mist-shrouded mountains that disappeared into the sea and isolated landscapes where we were the only travelers on the road. Arriving late in the day, we couldn’t find suitable accommodation in this pretty town on False Bay lined with Victorian buildings and bougainvillea-bedecked houses so we continued a bit further to Boulder Beach where we checked into a hotel in the middle of a penguin colony. These creatures were a sight to behold as they waddled into boulders after a day’s feeding at sea. But we could hardly sleep at night as their loud braying kept us wide awake.

Penguins in Boulder Beach

We left early the next morning at the crack of dawn just as the penguins were up and about. In spite of being a nuisance during the night, I couldn’t help but be amused by their antics as they made a beeline to the sea for their first day’s meal as they turned into graceful swimmers in the water.

Parade in Castle of Good Hope

The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve is the farthest point south of the peninsula. This isolated and well-preserved 7,000-hectare park has as many plant species as the whole British Isles and abounds with wildlife like antelopes, zebras and pesky baboons that sometimes blocked the road. We slowly drove the 14-kms from the entrance enjoying the scenery until we reached the main parking lot where there were restaurants and a souvenir shop. A funicular brought us up to the old lighthouse which had the highest vantage point to take in outstanding views of where the two great bodies of water met – the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Though this wasn’t technically the last geographical point of the African landmass (that is in Cape Agulhas a bit further south), it was pretty close. Looking into the far horizon, it was easy to imagine the Antarctic continental shelf across the endless blue waters.

The lighthouse in Cape Point

Heading up north on the final leg of our journey, we passed through scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive, were we stopped at a number of view points. I could see why numerous car commercials were filmed in this location – the view was spectacular with the sinuous road hugging the steep mountainside whose rocky cliffs disappeared into the foaming sea hundreds of meters below.

Fruit orchard beneath the mountain range

Table Mountain is the symbol of Cape Town which rises over a thousand meters from the coastal plain; it dominates the whole city like an omnipresent giant. The name is derived from its flat top that stretches several kilometers and clouds gather above, which looks as if a huge white tablecloth has been spread to cover it. Much of the area is a nature reserve with numerous hiking trails passing mostly through a wild landscape. We climbed the easy route – thru the rotating cable car which gave a breathtaking 360-degree view.

Cape Town viewed from Table Mountain

At our view deck points, one can really appreciate the beautiful spread of the city below surrounded by a gleaming sea as well as formations of rocky massifs stretching south as far as the eye can see with interesting names like Lion’s Head, Devil’s Point and Twelve Apostles. Downtown is pretty compact, but we were able to explore most of the interesting sights just by walking. Starting from the Castle of Good Hope which is a Dutch fortification, we visited the lively Greenmarket Square with a busy flea market and turned into the charming shopping areas on Long Street and St. George’s Mall. Passing by City Hall’s neo-classical façade we ended up in a large park called the Company Gardens where a wide walkway framed by old oak trees and myrtle hedges led to the gleaming white colonnaded Houses of Parliament. We also paid a visit to the Slave Lodge which was built in 1679 to house the Dutch East India Company’s slaves and has been converted into a Cultural History Museum that focused on the slave history as well as the city’s present multicultural make-up. Another interesting museum was the South African national Gallery where many artworks reflected the country’s turbulent and painful history.

Victoria and Albert waterfront

The biggest attraction in the city is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, which is a huge redeveloped area that integrates the passenger and freight harbor with a shopping complex that houses 400 stores, 70 restaurants, several movie houses and an Imax theater, as well as the Maritime Museum and the Two Oceans Aquarium with its staggering display of marine life. Here, we enjoyed another braai with a bottle of pinot noir to end a remarkably relaxing week that had been surprisingly more pleasant than what we expected.

Travel to Cape Town and the Winelands