Saturday, January 21, 2017

Franschhoek - Western Cape - South Africa

We booked our 21 day itinerary with a small but great value company called Kruz Africa after a personal recommendation from a South African friend of ours.  Whilst we booked the flights in good time (South African Airlines) from Hong Kong, we had admittedly left it a touch late to book accommodation and activities for the season we would be travelling in, that is mid-January to Feb.   We shopped around and had some great offers but ultimately, we felt Kruz offered the best package for the places we were staying.

Having booked insurance with World Nomads which offered the level of cover we were looking for with great rates, we flew into Johannesberg O.R. Tambo international airport, and then took an immediate transfer to Cape Town.  Before we transferred, Meldon from Kruz met us at O.R. Tambo and presented us with some champagne for our honeymoon which was an awesome touch.  We had a little time for a coffee and a chat and it was great to meet him having had a few conversations over the phone.

Internal flights were booked with a well known flight, hotel and car hire service in South Africa called Kulula, with whom we had also prebooked our hire car. Internal flights and hire car rental was very cheap, although we had to pay the equivalent of around 700GBP deposit on the car upon arrival.  To rent the car with super waiver cover and tire and windshield cover cost around 250GBP.  Internal flights from Johannesburg to Cape town and returning from Port Elisabeth to Johannesburg was around 120GBP per head with British Airways. 

Driving to Franschhoek 
We picked up the car in Cape Town and I was a little anxious about driving having read about the dangerous drivers and poor road conditions, however I was more or less pleasantly surprised by the driving here (compared to China it seems relatively safe).  One thing that was a bit unnerving are the roadside sellers you encounter at junctions who will come up to the car.  We rented a Kia, just a basic city car which represented the best value, and whilst it’s a 4-door (5-door?) we didn’t have enough room to enclose our suitcases in the boot, so the back seats were down with the cases for all who got close to see.  This makes it obvious we are tourists and trying to brush away sketchy-looking hawkers on either side whilst judging oncoming traffic at busy intersections can be uncomfortable to say the least.

Our first stop was a 3-night stay in the area of Franschhoek in South Africa’s Western Cape.  The area is famous for it’s wines and Dutch architecture.  It’s about 80 kilometers from Cape town so took just over an hour to get there from the airport.  It was originally settled in 1688 by French Huguenot refugees.  Originally named Olifantshoek (elephants corner) because before lands were drained for vineyards and other cultivation, elephants would cross into the valley to calve.  Unfortunately they are long gone, but as a result of the boom in wine growing it’s now a mature, upmarket destination with the feeling of a resortesque-playground for wine-loving retirees and those who enjoy the quiet life.

Dutch Reformed Church, Franschhoek
We stayed at the outskirts of town in a welcoming and rural vineyard called Stony Brook.  The hosts greeted us upon arrival and we felt at home right from the outset.  We were quite tired and smelly after our travel, so we freshened up before deciding to checkout the town.  There are some options where you could probably get by without the car here, but Stony Brook isn’t one of them.  However, it feels great to be off the beaten track and having your privacy in self-catering cottages.  The area feels secure and the staff, including the workers, are friendly and will give you a smile and a wave if they happen to pass by. 

View from our cottage at Stony Brook
On recommendation of Joy, one of the owners, we picked up a bottle of dry white wine named ‘The J’ to enjoy later that evening, then made the short 10 minute drive into town to find somewhere to eat.  On Joy’s recommendation we dined at CafĂ© Des Arts, just off the main in a nice courtyard area next to Stellenbosch Library.  The food was very reasonably priced, and had a cool and friendly atmosphere.  The member of staff was very engaged and politely recommended the pork belly and lamb’s liver.  Having never tried lamb’s liver we tried it and weren’t dissapointed.  The pork belly was also slow cooked to perfection, the sauce was perhaps a little too sweet but altogether a very nice low-fuss meal.

Amazing staff at Cafe des Arts
We did a shop for the following day’s breakfast, picking up everything we needed for a full English from Woolworth's supermarket (living in China going around here was wonderful, a lot like Marks and Spencer back at home with prices to match).  The bed in the cottage was very comfortable and we slept extremely well!

Inside the cottage at Stony Brook
The following day was our first full day in South Africa, after a slow breakfast we headed to one of the most reputable vineyards in the region, La Motte, to have a quick look around and enjoy the 2-3 hour hike on offer around the grounds.   La Motte is impressive to say the least.  There were vacationers lazing around the sizeable and pristine kept gardens and patio areas sipping on wine, chatting and romancing with their significant others.  The staff were very polite and friendly, and unpretentious considering that this is definitely a destination for those who enjoy the finer things in life or want to impress. 

The pristine entrance to La Motte Vineyard
We mentioned that we wanted to do the hike at reception, to which we were told to head up to the restaurant to book and pay.  It was inexpensive at around 50ZAR per head (about 3GP at time of writing… Brexit) and included an essential bottle of water (we also brought some with us).  After a quick cursory check on our footwear, we were led to the start of the trail.  We were quite excited about the potential to see a wide range of birds, reptiles and even mammals like baboons, however setting off at 2pm is far from an idea time to see these things!

The hiking trail at La Motte
The trail initially takes you through the La Motte vineyards then up through a path resulting in some amazing views of Franschhoek.  It’s not easy in the sun, and there are some steep parts where you do have to be conscious of your footing but all in all anyone who hikes fairly frequently won’t have any issues.  We didn’t come across anything spectacular on the animal side of things, however we did see a few lizards and enjoyed some great views.

Lizard spotted on La Motte hiking trail
Following this we picked up some La Motte Wine and did another shop to take back to the cottage, this time in the more budget-friendly ‘Pick and Pack’ supermarket which had a lot more cosmopolitan feel, with locals of all races adding modestly priced items into their shopping carts.  We were specifically shopping for items for our first Braai (South African term for BBQ), and couldn’t believe how inexpensive the meet was here.  For example, our two T-Bone steaks came to a little over 40ZAR, which is under 2.50GBP even with Brexit! In addition we bought some sausage, burgers, salad and seasoning to enjoy later.  That evening we fired up the BBQ and enjoyed both bottles of wine from La Motte and went to bed giddy with very full tummies.

Our first Braai attempt!
On our final full day in Franschhoek we were planning on embarking on the Wine Tram, however, we hadn’t yet done the complimentary wine tasking (when you book accommodation) here at Stony Brook.  Morning wine-tasting was a first for us, as we sampled our way through the list with expert guidance from Joy along with some very interesting and frank insight into the running of the vineyard and the ups and downs that go along with it.  It was so interesting to hear the stories alongside the information about the wine and we had a great chat whilst finding out more about the region and wine business as a whole.  Even though there’s a relaxed approach to drink-driving, I was conscious of being in a good state of mind so used the spittoon for the first time in my life!

Wine tasting at Stony Brook Vineyards
We made the decision to opt out of the famous Wine-Tram, for better or worse, and instead make the trip to another vineyard ourselves, this time to one called La Bri, in particular to try their wine and ‘biltong’ (South African dried, cured meat) pairings.  The staff were very knowledgeable and friendly and the experience cost just 60ZAR (3.50GBP).  Whilst I didn’t  feel as though biltong is naturally a great item to pair with wine (can’t beat cheese or chocolate), it was novel and we tried ostrich biltong for the first time.  The wine was also great and we took a couple of the bottles of Syrah (more or less a Shiraz) to enjoy with us later on our trip.

Kate enjoying Biltong Pairings at La Bri Vineyard

A closer look at the biltong pairings at La Bri Vineyard
After a failed attempt to eat at the amazing-looking Le Bon Vivant restaurant (their kitchen closed at 2pm and we arrived too late), we had a late lunch in the street-side ‘Dutch East’ restaurant with some oysters, and two decent portions of French and curry style mussels washed down with a little bit of Sauvignon Blanc.  I didn’t miss the backpacking days right now!

Mussels at The Dutch East restaurant
A very honourable mention must go to towards the excellent coffee we had at The HOEK espresso bar.  It was without a doubt one of the best coffees I’ve ever had.  Good coffee is getting more pretentious, but this was a fine example of an understated establishment which really knows what they’re doing.  They also sell some snacks and the ‘small batch’ ice cream is highly recommended.

The Hoek Espresso Bar from the outside

Flat white with an ice cream at The Hoek Espresso Bar
Having had some really nice R&R we decided to enjoy some of the cheese and wine we had gathered on our travels back at the cottage and enjoy an evening of tranquility before heading back towards the hustle and bustle of Cape Town where we would be doing some great activities such as a Peninsular helicopter tour, Table Mountain and Robben Island Tour and Cape Malay ‘Cooking Safari’ in the renowned Bo-Kaap district. 

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