Easy breaks from Cape Town

When the torrents of tourists on the crowded Cape become too much, find scenic fishing villages, beautiful wine country and dramatic desert less than three hours away.

Cape Town may take second place to Johannesburg as South Africa’s most populous city, but it easily entices more visitors each year than any other African city (more than 1.5 million) with warm beaches, excellent shopping and unique Cape Dutch architecture. When the torrents of tourists becomes too much to compete with however, four easy escapes are all less than three hours away.

By bike
About 50km east of Cape Town, the Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek valleys make up the Cape Winelands, a significant portion of South Africa’s wine industry. The region makes for prime cycling country thanks to paved bike paths and numerous secondary roads free of city traffic, while the mountain surroundings and unique Cape-Dutch homesteads (marked by the prominent central dormer gable of the buildings) provide spectacular scenery. 

Make stops at Stellenbosch’s Neethlingshof Wine Estate, with its 13 different terroirs and grand manor house, and Spier, one of the oldest wine farms in South Africa, dating back to 1692. At each, try South Africa’s signature varietal, the pinotage – a deep red with smoky and earthy tones – along with other wines that grow well in the Mediterranean-like climate, including merlot, malbec and sauvignon blanc. Also make time to sample some of the excellent craft beers produced in the region.

With good wine comes good food, of course, and this region claims the title of South Africa’s culinary capital. Head to the French Protestant-settled town of Franschooek for lunch or dinner, and dine one on of the always-changing entrees at the rustic Café des Arts; homemade charcuterie at Bread and Wine; or Dutch-style crepe pancakes on the patio at Gideon’s.

AWOL Tours and Bikes ‘N’ Wines provide transportation by car or train from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, with cycling in the region. Day trips start at 495 rand per person, including transport, bike rental and wine tastings.

By train
Atlantic Rail is far from a typical train journey. In fact, the day trip can feel like stepping back in time as the steam engine shuttles passengers in coaches dating from 1922. The tracks run south from Cape Town through the rugged Cape Peninsula, with fantastic views of the ocean and small trackside villages.

The two-hour trip ends in Simon’s Town, located on False Bay on the eastern side of the peninsula, letting visitors disembark for a three-hour visit to the quaint bay town. Join a scenic walk to take in some of the area’s history, including the grave of Just Nuisance, the only dog to ever be officially enlisted in the Royal Navy. The great dane, who frequently followed sailors on the train during the 1940s, earned the honour after railway officials threatened to put him down if his fare was not paid. Since naval officers were entitled to travel for free, sailors and locals successfully petitioned the Navy to accept him into their ranks.

The town is also home to a number of museums including the Submarine Museum, where visitors can board a 1970s submarine, and the quirky Warrior Toy Museum (St George’s Street; 021-786-1395) with 4,000 model cars and 500 teddy bears and dolls.

Atlantic Rail departs once a fortnight and only holds 170 passengers, so book early to ensure a spot. Tickets cost 220 rand for adults and 150 rand for children. If reservations are sold out, the Metrorail also offers regular service to Simon’s Town.

By car
The sleepy fishing village of Lambert’s Bay earned its nickname, the “diamond of the West Coast”, from its laidback coastal culture and from the boats that scrape the bottom of the bay daily in search of the precious gems.

The village, located about 250km north of Cape Town, comes alive from August to October when local fields are covered in white daisies, blue flax and orange and yellow stinkkrud. Southern right whales also come to visit Lambert’s Bay during this period, and visitors can charter a tour with Lambert’s Bay Boat Charter to see them up close.

If you are visiting any other time of year, this village is the prime seafood spot on South Africa’s west coast. Try the famous crayfish and a rare, oily perch-like fish known as snoek at the outdoor restaurant Muisbosskerm, named one of the Top 10 Sea Views To Dine For by National Geographic. Make reservations in advance, as the restaurant only opens for dinner once 15 people have booked.   

Budget, Hertz and Avis offer rental cars from the airport. From there, follow the N7 national route north to Lambert’s Bay.  

By air
A two-and-a-half hour flight will land you in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, a dramatic change from Cape Town’s coastal scenery. But even more spectacular is the region’s Okavango Delta, an oasis in middle of the desert that feeds all kinds of life, including 122 unique species of mammals and 444 recorded bird species.

See the wildlife up close with a ride on a traditional mokoro boat, a narrow dug-out canoe made from sausage or jackal berry trees and steered by a guide with a long wooden pole. The boat tours, either quick day trips or longer excursions that involve camping, often include areas where visitors can disembark for game-viewing walks.

Though most visit Botswana for the wildlife, the country also has many traditional villages worth exploring. Take a tour to Sixaxa, a village about 30 minutes  from the main northern town of Maun, to meet the members of the Bayei tribe and learn about their traditional hunting methods, basket-weaving techniques, and music and dance traditions.  

Air Botswana has daily nonstop flights to Maun from Cape Town. The Old Bridge Backpackers offers one- to four-night Mokoro cruises starting at 690 Botswana pula, and Bush Travellers Safaris runs cultural day trips to nearby villages.