Stellenbosch: The What to Do

It was a complete fluke that we ended up in Stellenbosch, one of South Africa’s many wine regions, on my birthday, but very fortuitous! It should have taken around 40 minutes to reach from Cape Town but we got stuck in traffic and arrived at the hotel after lunch. We were bowled over by how welcoming and tranquil the River Manor was and they very helpfully suggested to us the first vineyard we visited as we wanted somewhere to have a lovely birthday lunch.

We arrived at Guardian Peak in the nick of time just before they finished taking lunch orders at half past three, after driving through beautiful wine country in glorious weather and it was worth the trouble we had finding the turn off. An all glass restaurant looked out over the mountains around Stellenbosh and some of the most incredible views I have ever seen, all in full autumnal flush of golds and reds and orange and green. I really had to pinch myself that I was spending my birthday in such incredible surroundings. The Guardian Peak restaurant served bistro style food and after stuffing ourselves we settled down in the bar/lounge for a wine tasting. As we were driving Pete made use of the spittoons provided and we did the full tasting of a white, a rose and 6 reds – definitely too many for my palette as I barely drink any red but it was a fun way to spend a birthday and costs next to nothing at around £3 each!

Stellenbosch was a highlight of the trip for us as it had a very young vibe, being a university town. That evening we were able to walk to dinner (the hotel was only about 2 minutes walk from the main drag, Church Street) and the only problem was choosing somewhere for dinner. We fancied something casual and settled upon a Lebanese grill Manoushe, (on Andringa Street, off Church Street) overseen by the big personality that was the Lebanese owner and chef. The portions were HUGE and we could easily have shared the kebab and flat bread dishes but it was great to eat something different.

For our second day, after breakfast in the sun we took advice from the hotel staff who were endlessly helpful in recommending wineries. After a walk around Stellenbosch admiring the public art installations and Cape Dutch architecture we ended up choosing our own wineries, but the best recommendation we received was to visit the weekly food market (Slowmarket) that ran at the Oude Libertas winery on the edge of town each Saturday. I’d highly recommend a visit there to anyone visiting and I’d even go so far as to suggest timing your visit so you can go. The market operates year round and is full of local organic and gourmet food growers and chefs selling their produce fresh, or artisan street food made in front of your eyes. Wineries are part of this and you can buy wine and wander around drinking it too, listening to music and browsing the craft stalls. We ate an italian flat bread creation, Pete drank homemade lemonade and I sipped MCC (see below) in the sun absorbing the atmostphere.

After lunch we set off to visit a couple of wineries. There is a ‘wine bus’ called the Vinehopper which we initially planned to get but it only visits certain vineyards and after our experience of all the reds the previous day I wanted to go somewhere where I would enjoy the tasting. We chose Viliera (famous for Method Cap Classique or MCC, which is sparkling wine produced in exactly the same way as Champagne, but which can’t be called ‘Champagne’ because it’s made outside of the Champagne region in France,) and Waterford, where they do a wine and chocolate paired tasting.

All the vineyards are beautiful but slightly different and at Viliera we didnt have to pay anything for the tasting of 6 different MCC’s: an organic, a light (9% alcohol), a rose, 2 traditional blends and their flagship vintage which we sampled in the shaded courtyard and chatted with the owner. You can actually look out for Viliera in M&S if you want to try it! After a self guided tour of the cellars where the wine is made (where we learned all about how MCC is different to other sparkling wines,) we headed for Waterford.

The Wine and chocolate pairing is clearly a big draw to Waterford but the estate itself is incredibly beautiful and well worth a visit – it costs R40 (about £3) for 2 reds and a dessert wine paired with a spicy, salty and floral flavoured chocolate. Even though I don’t like red I loved the flavours that they produced when combined and the beautiful courtyard we sampled them in, around a fountain inside the Winery itself.

That evening we ate at Apres (corner of Church and Mill Street) where we had a fabulous steak. This place was also very casual and was full of people watching local team rugby on the big screens which added to the feeling that we were experiencing local Stellenbosch.

Here are a couple of pointers for visiting the wineries in Stellenbosch in case you’re planning a trip:

  • There are LOADS of vineyards (although not all make wine from grapes they have grown, instead buying them in,) so take advice on where you want to go thinking about the type of wine they focus on, the direction they face (some are sunnier in the morning or afternoon so worth timing your visit) or perhaps going to one where they allow you to take a picnic or have a restaurant on site (not many do) to enjoy with your wine.
  • The tastings are very cheap (£2-4) or free. There’s no pressure to buy and you’re not rushed. We did buy 2 bottles at Guardian Peak, a bottle of bubbly in Viliera and 2 of the dessert wine and chocolate at Waterford, (some as gifts) but they’re often very cheap too.
  • Although I’ve focused on wine in the sun(!) they all have fireplaces and lounge area’s that I imagine would make for a lovely tasting environment in colder months.
  • Not all the wineries have restaurants but most offer a cheeseboard or similar snack if you want to eat with your wine and all offer a spittoon so you can drive and taste them. You are also encouraged to ‘pour’ ie – pour away the wine once you have tasted it, as they provide quite big glasses each time!
  • The wineries are spread out but not far from Stellenbosch centre – Viliera was the furthest we travelled at around 15-20 minutes outside of Stellenbosch. It had been suggested to us to hire a bike and cycle to some of them but looking back, although it would have been an option as there are plenty closer to town, it also would have been quite limiting not to mention tiring!

We just loved Stellenbosch and I would definitely go back if we were visiting Cape Town or even transiting through again, as it’s so close. It’s hard to find anything wrong with wine and beautiful scenery!

The next day we headed off to Swellendam for a one night stop before we went to Plettenberg Bay so I’ll be back with the next instalment tomorrow!


South Africa: The Where to Go

Now I’m back from South Africa I want to share all the details of the holiday with you all. I really want everyone who might not be sure about it as a holiday option (just like I had my reservations) to know how incredible it was. I also hope with your additional comments and recommendations this series of posts will become a great resource for those of you planning future trips. We’ll start with today’s post and then next week is going to be ‘Africa week’ 🙂

I’m going to start this series with a preface. Firstly, this was not a budget holiday… Pete and I had always wanted to do SA and as a result decided to blow the budget. We figured that safari (although probably not the rest of our itinerary) was a pre-children experience, or at least a no-go until they are much older, so our choices are perfect for a push-the boat out holiday or honeymoon, but I have included some alternatives we spotted too and hope readers will chip in with their finds and recommendations.

I’m going to start, as is tradition, with our route and hotels, in case you’re planning a similar trip. Here goes!

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The need to know:
As an aside, we flew with Emirates, Manchester – Dubai – Cape Town, a 20 hour trip but actually very painless. We arrived at Manchester airport at lunch time, ate a normal lunch there and then got the Airbus A380 to Dubai lading at about 10pm our time. We had dinner at Carluccio’s in Dubai airport and then boarded about 1am our time to fly to Cape Town, promptly going to sleep and waking about 8.30am the next day (our time,) and landing 3 hours later due to the time zone being only an hour different.

Secondly, many of these places are booked through Mr & Mrs Smith. We use them because they give excellent customer service, often have offers on, you get freebies in every place you stay (Smith Extras) and collect points, which for us usually equates to a night or two away in the UK yearly. Contrary to popular belief they aren’t more expensive than other agents and will often match a competitor price too.

1. Atlantic House, Camps Bay, Cape Town (3 nights)
We were told Camps Bay had a foodie, younger vibe than Cape Town centre and didn’t want to stay at the touristy V&A Waterfront. In the end there was a storm while we were there which meant the beach was a no-go for the first couple of days of our stay but I still preferred it to inner-city Cape Town. Don’t be fooled though, security is as high and you still can’t walk to restaurants at night. The hotel itself has only a few rooms – more of a luxury house, and we were there with only a couple of other rooms occupied so it felt like having a luxe home to ourselves. There’s an honesty bar, a view of the bay and huge tubs and beds… what more do you need?

Alternative: We also looked at this place in central Cape Town, on Long Street. If you like quirky, this place had it by the bucket load (we stopped by for cocktails) and Airstream caravans on the roof if you fancy it – The Grand Daddy Hotel, Cape Town

2. River Manor, Stellenbosch (2 nights)
Booked through Trailfinders, I was looking forward to this place the least but the photos online didn’t do it justice at all and the staff were fabulous. It had true colonial style, but what made it was the safety of Stellenbosch – if you’re visiting be sure to book somewhere in town and then you will experience the rarity of being able to walk to dinner even in the dark, and back.

3. Schoone Oordt, Swellendam (1 night)
We toyed with making two costal stops at Wilderness and Knysna but Pete’s cousin and his wife had done the same route for a honeymoon and enjoyed Plettenberg Bay, so we opted to go there. On route we thought we would cut inland, for no other reason than that it looked pretty and the M&MS review was great. Our expectations were exceeded. Swellendam is a historic, sleepy town and we basically parked ourselves by the pool for an afternoon. We got an upgrade and loved the hotel – rooms are not in the historic house, but purpose built suites in the grounds so are very private.

4. The Grand Cafe and Rooms, Plettenburg Bay (3 nights)
This was our planned beach time to just unwind from the hectic schedule we had planned before, and recharge prior to early starts on safari. We chose Plettenberg Bay instead of Wilderness and Knysna but in truth there’s not much between the three areas. Plett is a little busier and closer to a lot of the thing to do locally though and from driving through each, I think Plett centre is closer to the coast. A quirky north African inspired hotel, artfully styled with a cool bar/restaurant and bay view, we had the most incredible room (5) with a seating area where we watched a DVD one night, a bath in front of the shuttered window and the beds were so high you needed a step to get into it at night – fantastical and fabulous is the best description. This was the closest we came to a ‘big hotel’ as they have branches in Camps Bay and Cape Town, but cocktails were still only R45 (£3.20) and I’d definitely consider it a boutique bolt hole.

5. Tsala Treetop Lodge, Knysna (1 night)
Who doesn’t want to stay in a tree house? This was a good example of us getting more out of being with M&MS – although bookable elsewhere, we got a better rate, points and free bubbly, so worth using them as the agent. This was 10km inland so although we really wanted to experience it, we also wanted to be by the beach and opted for a single night of tree-top luxe after our beach break. It was a total budget buster but really incredible and I’m so glad we went – I wish we had stayed a second night and the restaurant’s food was also top notch. (Note: We paid almost half the rack rate because we booked closer to the time of staying too so it’s worth hanging on.)

6. Eagles Crag, Shamwari, Eastern Cape. (3 nights)
I’ll expand a bit more on our safari choices in my post on Safari holidays soon, but for now, this choice was also booked through Trailfinders, although not one of their listed properties. It’s worth noting we booked a special offer where we made a negligible donation (about £15 each I think) to the park for conservation projects and accessed a cheaper deal. I found this on their website then got Trailfinders to book it for us. I wanted a full on ‘plunge pool amongst the jungle/savannah’ experience and couldn’t be bothered with malaria tablets for just three nights so we chose the Eastern Cape with it’s malaria-free safari parks instead of Kruger.

We then headed back home via a SA Airways flight from Port Elizabeth, picking up the Emirates route in Jo-Burg, via Dubai then Manchester.

So what do you think readers? Any additions you would have made here or hotels you can recommend?


PS. It’s worth noting that Hermanus (about 1-1.5h east of Cape Town,) is one of the best land-based spots for whale watching but we didn’t make the trip as the best time is between June/July and November, hence our inland route above.

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