Relatively low car rental fees in South Africa encouraged us to travel farther afield. There is so much to do in the area around Cape Town, driving along a spectacular coast or heading inland into the western cape’s vast winelands, with about 300 vineyards, that starts near Stellenbosch, just 31 miles away via the N2.We planned a long weekend to celebrate Bastille Day in Franschhoek, a wine making community founded by French Huguenots in the 17th century. French roots aside, the village is full of Cape Dutch architecture and set in a valley surrounded by the Drakenstein and Groot Drakenstein mountain ranges. The lower slopes provide the vineyards in the valley with unique terroirs. Afterwards we ventured down to Hermanus on the coast to look for whales.But first we had to get there. Just before our exit off the N2, the silhouettes of several tall sailing ships broke the horizon as if they were crossing an inland sea. Imagining a pirate swinging from a yardarm, we did a quick double take and followed a side road down to the entrance of Cape Town Film Studios, where a guard waved us away when we stopped to take pictures. They’ve hosted many international productions that include Doctor Who, Tomb Raider, Outlander and Mad Max Fury Road.Across the street from the movie studio, our wine tasting started at Vergenoegd Löw The Wine Estate. The vineyard is known for its biodiversity, sustainability and conservation efforts. It uses a flock of 1200 Indian Runner Ducks to cruise the undergrowth of the grape vines and devour snails and other pests that can destroy the harvest. Three times a day, wranglers gather the flock and parade it through the beautiful estate for the amusement of visitors. Of course, there are wine tastings and food available to encourage you to linger and enjoy the setting. It was our first of several visits; the place was just delightful.
Our travel mantra is usually “walk a little, then café, walk a little more, then café.” This changes to “drive a little, café, pitstop” when it’s a road trip. And staying true to our philosophy, we stopped at the Root 44 Market just before Stellenbosch, for a quick look. This is one of the weekend markets with live music, food and craft vendors that have become so popular in the region. We had the most sinful donuts from Desire Donuts. These truly would have become addictive if they were closer to home.
Driving through Stellenbosch we came across a large bronze sculpture of a giant octopus outside the studio/gallery of Stephen Rautenbach. It’s a nice gallery space filled with pieces that capture the spirit of the South African animals he’s sculpted.
Around the corner we enjoyed some homemade Turkish delight and Turkish coffee before continuing our drive to our B&B for two nights, Val d’Or Estate in Franschhoek. A long dirt driveway led to a pretty, naturally landscaped property with a large pond and swimming pool overlooked by the guesthouse. Our room was spacious and comfortable, bigger than several studio apartments we have rented. We spent a little time walking around the pond, watching the weaver birds dart in and out of their hanging nests, before the sunset.
The next morning, we passed an enormous amount of red, white and blue bunting festooning every building on either side of the street as we headed to the festival grounds at the Huguenot Monument on the far end of the village. We followed the queue of beret wearing Francophiles draped in colors of the flag, past a vintage car show and a very competitive barrel rolling contest, to the Food & Wine Marquee, where our tickets included a live concert by South African rocker Karen Zoid, two very nice wine glasses, tasting coupons and R20 vouchers to use towards the purchase of food or bottles of wine.
Thirty vineyards poured generous samples of their white, red, and rose wines along with champagne. The crowd sang along when Karen Zoid took the stage and performed a collection of her South African hits and La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, for a nostalgic audience. She also paid tribute to rocker Johnny Clegg, who passed away earlier in July. He was the first Afrikaner singer during the apartheid era to form a band with a black man, Sipho Mchunu, called Juluka. They were hugely successful and beloved by many. It was a lot of fun sampling the wines and purchasing bottles of our favorites to enjoy in Cape Town later.
We had planned to follow R45 east through the rugged terrain of Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve to Bot River and continue on the R43 south into Hermanus, but a winter rock slide had indefinitely blocked the road and forced us to backtrack through Stellenbosch.Luck was with us when we pulled into the Sir Lowry’s Pass View Point, in time to see several paragliders launch from the steep slope of the overlook. The view toward the town of Strand, on False Bay, with its long sandy crescent of beach, was incredible. Further on fruit orchards lined both sides of the road for as far as we could see. The valley’s unique climate, cooler and wetter than the surrounding region, is perfect for the local orchards to blossom. Today the Elgin region produces 65% of South Africa’s export crop of deciduous fruits.We were working our way to the Elgin Railway Market, another beloved Saturday/Sunday venue for Cape families, in the “Valley of Apples.” Appropriately it’s housed in a renovated railway warehouse where the region’s famous fruits were stored before being loaded onto trains and sent to Cape Town or Port Elizabeth for export. It’s a huge, two story space, with wine, food and craft vendors, a performance stage and rock-climbing wall. Located directly across the street from the ocean, the Windsor Hotel would be our base for the next two nights. It’s a modest old hotel, built originally as a sanatorium in 1896, then converted to a hotel in 1931. It still retains much of its original character with fireplaces in the wood paneled common areas, arched doorways and wide staircases. The breakfast room was outstanding with large picture windows facing the sea.Walker Bay’s thunderous waves crashing against the rocky coastline were spectacular with their large sprays as we walked along the Hermanus’ Cliffside Path to Gearing’s Point, a scenic overlook, hoping to spot whales. Our Cape Town friends had mentioned that it’s often possible to sight Southern Right Whales from the shore here during their June to November calving season, after which they head back to the waters of Antarctica. It’s a well-defined trail, with cement, dirt and boardwalk sections, that starts at the village’s New Harbor and hugs the coast for 7.5 miles, ending at the Klein River Estuary. Five miles of the path are wheelchair accessible. In some places it passes under trees twisted to grow almost parallel to the ground, by the fierce South Atlantic winds that blow in from Antarctica.
In the off-season not everything is open and we had to search awhile before finding Oskars Bakery, two blocks in from the ocean on High Street, for coffee. But with one glance at the pastry case we were hooked. We both agree it had to be one of the best bakeries in the western cape. The seascapes from the cliffside path were beautiful, but we hadn’t spotted any whales and the village’s whale crier wasn’t sounding his kelp horn. Yep, what started as a publicity stunt has become tradition and Hermanus has had an official, and the world’s only, whale crier since 1992. In 2016 the movie The Whale Caller was adapted from South African author Zake Mda’s 2005 novel, of the same name, which has the whale crier as the central character.
Hoping for better luck, we booked a whale watching excursion operating out of the village’s new harbor. There are a number of tour operators that run excursions out of this port, but we liked the look of the Unathi, a 50ft catamaran, that Hermanus Whale Watchers uses. With skipper Emile at the helm, the first mate tossed the mooring lines to the dock and we departed onto a gently rolling sea. Phillip, a registered naturalist with a delightful wry sense of humor shared his love of the sea with us. “There’s a good chance we’ll see Southern Rights today. We spot them by their distinctive V-shaped blow and the callosities (clusters of barnacle like growths) on their heads. We may also see Africa Penguins, Fur Seals, Dolphins, migrating Humpback Whales and resident Bryde’s Whales.” Psyched now, all eyes scanned the horizon for any telltale signs of these gigantic, yet elusive creatures.
Blows were spotted, yet the whales had dived to a greater depth before we got closer. We eventually encountered a small pod just off-shore at Die Plaat beach, a ten mile stretch of wild, rocky and sandy beach, backed by tall dunes. The captain skillfully maneuvered us as close to the beach as possible as we followed the pod of Southern Rights, that sometimes surfaced close enough to hear the puff of their blows. We were thrilled, but a little disappointed also, that there wasn’t any tail slapping or breaching. Back ashore we had a wonderful lunch of fried calamari and fresh oysters at a little place on the wharf, the Quayside Cabin.Heading back to Cape Town late the next day, we followed the scenic R44 coastal road through the seaside villages of Kleinmond, Betty’s Bay, Pringle Bay and Rooi-Els as the golden hour was approaching. Each turn of the road offered a dramatic view of the coast and we stopped many times for photos. We merged back onto the R2 at Gordons Bay just after sunset for the ride the rest of the way back to the city.
So many regions of the Western Cape are stunningly beautiful!
Till next time, Craig & Donna