Take to the road in one of South Africa’s most diverse regions and discover fabulous food, fine wines, wild wide-open spaces and big game.
Cape Peninsula: Best for a culinary road trip
Nowhere does the Rainbow Nation display its colours to greater effect than among Cape Town's places to eat - this is a city that feasts on its multiculturalism. For food-loving locals the weekend begins with a breakfast of strong coffee and crêpes fresh from the hot plate at Neighbourgoods Market, held in an old Victorian warehouse in the one-time industrial neighbourhood of Woodstock. More than 100 stallholders gather here every Saturday morning to sell upmarket metropolitan essentials, from champagne to organic bread.
West of here are the kaleidoscopic streets of the Bo-Kaap area. Its acid-bright houses are home to the city's Cape Malay community - descendants of people from India, Malaysia and other South East Asian countries who settled the area as early as the 17th century - and the cuisine is a spicy, aromatic, and sometimes strange, mix of Asian, European and Mediterranean flavours. Nzolo Café, afro-print oilcloths and craftworks lining its walls, offers a taste of traditional South Africa. For locals the most popular order is vetkoek (pronounced fet-cook and literally meaning 'fat cake'): an Afrikaner pastry that's a bit like a savoury doughnut, filled with mince.
Dinner promises an escape from the city, and a different sort of meal. Driving south, Table Mountain recedes in the rear-view mirror and congested streets give way to a cliff-hugging road and endless ocean views. Kalk Bay, one of the first fishing harbours in the area, is home to elegant seafood restaurant Harbour House. Diners sit at tables lining the open windows, listening to the waves crash against the seawall, as they tuck into such dishes as grilled Cape crayfish, impeccably tender and lemony. Across the harbour there's Kalky's, an informal fish and chip shop that's something of a local institution. Commuters recently disgorged by the city train crowd around the sunny tables outside to share fried delicacies - hake, snoek, calamari - straight from the sea. Others head to the dock with their paperwrapped packages, the contents of which will be eaten with greasy fingers beside the boats that brought in the catch.
- Neighbourgoods Market (neighbourgoods market.co.za)
- Nzolo Café 48 Church Street, City Bowl (00 27 21 426 1857)
- Harbour House (harbourhouse.co.za)
- Kalky's Kalk Bay Harbour (00 27 21 788 1726)
- To find out more about Cape Town, visit tourismcapetown.co.za
Where to stay: Grand Daddy Hotel
As well as stylish regular rooms and the Daddy Cool Bar, this centrally located hotel has a rooftop Penthouse Trailer Park. Bed down in one of the vintage Airstreams, themed around subjects as diverse as John and Yoko's 'bed-in' and Goldilocks and the Three Bears (from £132; granddaddy.co.za).
The Boland: Best for wine
Simple white homesteads dot the rolling hills of the Boland, the bucolic patch of countryside east of Cape Town. The area is known for its scenery as much as the dizzying array of grapes cultivated here. Swathes of vines, their leaves cascading over trellises to create rows of unruly hedges, surround the small towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl.
Cape winemaking really took off after an influx of migrant French Huguenots - some experienced in viticulture - in the late 1680s, but it's an even older tradition that inspires Mark Solms. A prominent neuroscientist and psychoanalyst, Mark also owns the Solms-Delta wine estate in the Franschhoek valley. 'I read up on wine-producing civilisations of the ancient world and asked our winemaker to experiment with a particularly interesting ancient Greek technique,' he explains. Desiccation, in which vine stems are crushed with pliers to partially stop the supply of water to the grapes, has since produced some of the estate's finest wines. 'It's lucky he humoured me!' he jokes.
Heritage is important to Mark - he's turned his 270-year-old wine cellar into a museum dedicated to the social history of the region - but playfulness and experimentation are the watchwords at Solms-Delta. Sheltering from the bright sun under the branches of the estate's great oak trees, I try an unusual sparkling red, Cape Jazz Shiraz, as refreshing as the breeze that intermittently rustles a nearby sea of grape leaves. Next is a glass of Langarm. Literally 'long arm', the name has dual meaning, referring to a waltz-like dance once performed by farm labourers and, in Mark's words, 'the fact that the blend is as long as your arm'.
The nearby De Morgenzon estate in Stellenbosch likewise employs an unusual method to get the best out of its grapes - they play music to their vines through strategically placed speakers. According to winemaker Stefan Gerber, the even rhythm of baroque music promotes the crystallisation of water within the grapes, therefore prolonging the growing season. At sunset, as I stroll through the estate's wildflower-strewn vine fields, the plump Shiraz grapes and I are treated to a Bach cello sonata.
- Find out more about Boland towns at stellenbosch tourism.co.za and franschhoek.org.za, and South African wines at wosa.co.za
- Solms-Delta Wine Estate (solms-delta.com)
- De Morgenzon Estate (demorgenzon.co.za)
Only 34 miles south of Stellenbosch, the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve has some of the most complex biodiversity on the planet. There are 1,880-odd plant species, prolific birdlife and wild horses living in the wetlands, along with a series of hiking trails. The Atlantic coastline has some great beaches, and whales offshore (kogelbergbiospherereserve.co.za).
Where to stay: Mont Rochelle
Situated amid row upon row of Franschhoek valley vines, this luxurious manor-house hotel is an ideal base for exploring the region. The restaurant has panoramic views and offers wine-pairing menus, featuring local game and imaginative desserts (from £220, with breakfast; montrochelle.co.za).
Arniston: Best for escaping
The road to Arniston passes through an area known as the Overberg, where sheep and cattle share miles of undulating farmland and an occasional copse of eucalyptus stands stark against the horizon. This vast emptiness makes the approach to Arniston and Kassiesbaai, the oldest active fishing village in South Africa, feel like the metaphorical, as well as literal, end of the road. A small group of thatched buildings houses families that have made their living from the sea for generations. Further on, the road gives way to sand, then dune mountains reminiscent of the Sahara - except these end in a wide, pristine beach.
Arniston got its name from a British ship that was wrecked offshore in 1815. Of the 378 men aboard, all but six drowned. This tragic episode continues to fascinate local amateur historian and hotel-owner Robert Haarburger. He gestures to the dunes where most of the dead were buried. 'Can you imagine how alone those few survivors must have felt, washing up here and seeing these hills that seem to go on forever?'
Among the dunes, Robert has built his own small memorial, and segments of the ship's hull still lie partly buried in the sand, like an excavated dinosaur skeleton.
Arniston's history did not begin with its wreck. Robert takes me west of town to an 18th-century lighthouse, and dunes that stretch all to the way to Cape Algulhas, the southernmost point in Africa. He points to a patch sprinkled with pottery fragments, stones and shells. This is one of many middens, Stone Age cooking spots, that have been found in the area. For Robert, the fact that humans found reason to settle here thousands of years ago is further evidence that he has chosen a good home.
- Find out more about Arniston at hermanus.co.za
Nearly halfway between Franschhoek and Arniston is Hermanus, one of the best places in the world for land-based whale-watching, from June to November. To get even closer, kayaking in the bay is possible, and there are frolicking Cape fur seals if you're visiting out of season (walkerbayadventures.co.za).
Where to stay: Arniston Spa Hotel
The floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies in this elegant hotel's ocean-facing rooms offer tranquil views and the chance to fall asleep to the sound of the sea. Two restaurants with outdoor seating mean you needn't spend a minute without ocean breezes (£175; arnistonhotel.com).
Little Karoo: Best for mountain drives
Standing at the top of the 1,585 metre peak next to the Swartberg Pass in the Western Cape province, Kobus Lategan surveys the land on either side: a patchwork quilt of farm plots, the greenery of Little Karoo and the aridity of Great Karoo. This imposing bear of a man - jack of all trades and a former farmer of pigs, tobacco, sheep and ostriches - is clearly happy to be here, and strikes up a conversation with the only other people admiring the view: two bikers from Johannesburg. 'The drive from Great Karoo to the coast is less than two hours,' he says. 'Where else can you drive from the desert to the tropics in that time?'
Kobus points out a lone black eagle soaring overhead and the elaborate fynbos plants growing at our feet, but is most impressed by the road itself. Switchbacks descend in both directions, the result of five years' hard labour by prisoners wielding pickaxes, shovels and dynamite. Opened in 1888, the route shortened the trip between Oudtshoorn and the town of Prince Albert to the north by 25 miles.
Sitting at a roadside café, Kobus trades warm greetings with passers-by and staff. Community is important in a place prone to extremes - Karoo is a San tribe word meaning 'where there is no water', and only the hardiest plants survive the heat. Ostriches, Kobus explains, also do well. 'Despite their fierce reputation, the birds are actually very fragile, but can adapt to extreme weather conditions,' he says. 'People have to do the same up here.'
The drive down to Great Karoo takes us around curve upon tight curve carved into the valley wall. The rock formations look like slices of a layer cake that's been tipped on its side and the power of the tectonic forces that created this geologically unique land millions of years ago suddenly becomes clear. In places, the canyon is just wide enough for a scattering of pine trees, the river and the roadway, its dark orange walls the colour of a fire's dying embers.
- Research the drive at route62.co.za
- Find out about Prince Albert at patourism.co.za
In the late 1860s, when no self-respecting society lady could go without an ostrich plume in her hat, the feather barons of Oudtshoorn made their fortunes. Many of their gracious homes are maintained in this pretty and prosperous town (oudtshoorn.co.za).
Where to stay: Swartberg Country Manor
With plush, stylish rooms that look out onto an ostrich farm, a fig orchard and a big sweep of mountain, this hotel at the foot of the pass is a tranquil place to bed down. Head to the wooden deck of the excellent in-house restaurant for dinner under the stars (£120; swartbergmanor.co.za).
Tsitsikamma National Park: Best for walking
Churning river currents meet turquoiseblue seas in a frothy mix at the mouth of Storms River, in Tsitsikamma National Park. Stop midway along one of the two suspension bridges crossing the river and the park's diversity presents itself in every direction: millennia-old sandstone and quartz rock formations line the gorge and rocky shoreline, and the fins of massive southern right whales are visible out in the ocean. Walking paths hug the coastal cliffs as they pass through dense thickets of witch-hazel shrub, stinkwood, yellow-wood and milkwood trees, some hundreds of years old.
Park guide Marthinus Sky explains that Tsitsikamma is a Khoe tribe word, which translates as 'many waters', and that the area gets over 1,200mm of rainfall each year. Vegetation grows quickly here, but can be reduced to burning embers in even less time by a lightning strike. 'Nature does the work it needs to do to replenish itself,' says Marthinus. 'But the indigenous forest has its own roof, so wind and oxygen are reduced and we don't see the fires that have devastated the surrounding countryside.' Furry little dassie (rock hyrax) scurry along the forest floor - incongruously, the animal's closest relatives are elephants, though they look more like overgrown guinea pigs. Marthinus points out an arum lily, a striking white bloom known as the 'death flower' because of its use in funeral arrangements.
Storms River was once the transport hub of a booming 18th-century lumber industry. Logs were cut from the forest further inland and floated downriver, where they were loaded onto ships bound for export. Upriver here and at the Sandrift River, which runs parallel 10 miles to the east, the colour of the water is striking - imagine looking into a cup of strong, dark coffee. The shade is the result of tannin released from fynbos roots, the bitter taste of which helps to defend the plant against hungry animals. Defending the ecosystem of Tsitsikamma's 65,000 hectares is easier now that it has state legislature on its side. Just like the fynbos root, the park and all the life within it thrives.
- Find South African National Parks at parks-sa.co.za
- For a guide to Tsitsikamma, see tsitsikamma.info
Near the town and beautiful lagoon of Knysna (pronounced ny-znah) is Concordia, a sprawling township built mostly from locally grown timber. Eco Afrika runs day trips incorporating visits to a sangoma (traditional healer) and a shebeen (unlicensed bar), as well as the Grass Routes neighbourhood - the largest community of Rastafarians in the country (tours £26; eco-afrika-tours.co.za).
Where to stay: Misty Mountain Reserve
Perched atop a bluff over the ocean are a collection of individual cottages with large Jacuzzi baths. This is the perfect second-night stopover for those who wish to walk the Dolphin Trail: a not-toostrenuous coastal hike that can be spread over three days (see website for details; £95; mistymountainreserve.co.za).
Addo Elephant National Park: Best for safari
The jeep comes to a halt and all heads swivel, searching for life in the low bushes, tall grass and distant hills. Nearby dense, bright-green spekboom plants - referred to as 'elephant's food' - begin to rattle, shaking loose some of their succulent leaves. A prehistoric-looking dung beetle, its shiny black shell like armour plating, creeps past the front of the vehicle. Before it can complete its journey, three African elephants burst from the undergrowth, dwarfing the tiny creature and stealing the limelight. Our guide, Jonathan Grootboom, points to their great flapping ears - the shape of the African continent itself.
At Addo, a national park created from farmland situated only 45 miles from the city of Port Elizabeth, these two species represent a conservation success story. There are strict traffic rules to protect the beetles, endemic only to Addo, and elephants once reduced to a mere dozen now number more than 400. So successful has been their rehabilitation that park authorities are now contemplating contraceptive measures. Also roaming free are hyenas and lions, brought here from the Kalahari in 2003 to bring the kudu, ostrich and warthog populations down.
All Addo's creatures have their role to play in the circle of life. Female beetles bury elephant dung underground to eat, simultaneously fertilising the soil and allowing the abundant growth of spekboom plants - the leaves of which are the main source of moisture for elephants.
'The old saying is that elephants have good memories,' says Jonathan, 'but this is really true, and is the reason citrus fruits are forbidden in Addo.' To try to revive a population decimated by landowners protecting their property, the first rangers supplied oranges to encourage the elephants to stay within park boundaries. The elephants fought violently over the easy food source, and a fruit ban has been in place since the late 1970s, but even the smell is enough to excite the appetites of seniors in the herd.
It's late afternoon when the full menagerie comes to life. Male warthogs, distinguishable from females by the extra pair of warts protruding from their cheeks, sit awkwardly on their knees to feed on the grass. Meerkats, popping in and out of burrows, stand on hind legs to detect signs of danger, swivelling their small heads like a periscope. White-striped kudu bulls pause, and slowly turn their imposing curved horns. All of Addo's animals seem joined in a subtle ballet, a performance the park and its visitors hope will never end.
- To discover more, visit addoelephantpark.com
When in flood, the Sundays River is the fastest flowing in South Africa, but at other times is perfect for a guided canoe trip. Tunnels of river grass open onto widened vistas, and kingfishers and spotted eagle owls nest in the riverbanks. Tour operator Christopher Pickens grew up on the river and knows it well (£40 per person; crisscrossadventures.co.za).
Where to stay: Chrislin African Lodge
Within easy driving distance of Addo Park, this family-run lodge has a handful of traditionally designed and very comfortable huts, set out on a wide lawn adjacent to a farm. A dip in the pool and night-time braaie (barbeque) offer a welcome change of pace after a long day of game drives (£70; chrislin.co.za).
Michael Grosberg grew up in the United States and has lived and worked in South Africa. He has written for 16 Lonely Planet guides.
The article 'The perfect trip: South Africa' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.