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Julia visits the Fairest Cape

I flew on the overnight British Airways direct flight from London to Cape Town (11.5 hours flying but the only airline doing the non-stop route from the UK) and was delighted to arrive to clear blues skies and sunny, warm weather – not always guaranteed in late April! Glen from Vineyard Ventures (our local representative) was there to meet me and for the next four days we explored the ‘fairest Cape’, before heading into the winelands, where I collected a hire car and continued my trip through Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Hermanus to Grootbos on the south coast.

Cape Town is certainly a cosmopolitan city; a real melting pot of nationalities with African, Asian, British and Dutch styles influencing the architecture, language and cuisine. The V&A Waterfront, Houses of Parliament, City Hall and Long Street provide some beautiful examples of historic buildings. For dining options, I was spoilt for choice, great variety and, I felt, all very reasonably priced. My culinary highlight was the delightful Signal Restaurant, located at Cape Grace Hotel. What a sublime evening! The menu offers contemporary dishes using locally sourced ingredients and wonderful wines to match! Not only was the food incredible (prawns and mussels in a shellfish broth, beef fillet …) the service was outstanding. Knowledgeable, thoughtful staff provided an unforgettable experience.

In terms of local sightseeing I took the ferry to Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was famously incarcerated for 18 years) and joined the late afternoon tour. As the ferry departed from the V&A Waterfront there was a wonderful view of Table Mountain towering over the city behind us. When we arrived at Robben Island, it did feel slightly chaotic with 4 ferries docking at the same time and muffled instructions being broadcast over an ancient tannoy system. However once my group (of about 100 people) found our tour leader, the tour was extremely informative and provided a very good insight into the background, struggles and politics of the inmates who inhabited the prison. After walking around the cells, we boarded a prison bus for a tour of the island – with another excellent, knowledgeable tour guide. I would highly recommend this tour and it is essential to book before you arrive into Cape Town.

The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was for me another highlight. I could see why it is known as the ‘most beautiful garden in Africa’. These vast gardens are immaculately landscaped and house a rich biodiversity. There is a lot to explore so plan to spend at least a half day, preferably longer (there is a tea room for lunch or take along a picnic).

One day we drove the dramatic coastline route along the scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive and then on to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. This drive is spectacular as the rugged, sheer cliffs plummet straight down into the ocean. The road and tunnels are an engineering marvel too, a must see for any visit to Cape Town. Along the drive there are sheltered coves and bays, providing a great place to stretch your legs or stop and have a picnic. Driving further south we arrived at The Cape of Good Hope, a milestone for sailors who were happy to finally be travelling eastwards after sailing for weeks (or months!) down the treacherous west coast of Africa. We continued to the southern tip of the peninsular at Cape Point, an area rich in flora and fauna (despite being the smallest, the fynbos of the western Cape is the richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms). For walkers there is a coastal walk from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Point (approx. 1 hour one way). From Cape Point we drove up the east coast of the peninsular to Boulders Beach, home to a penguin colony. It was great to see them nesting and the fluffy adolescent chicks being attentively cared for by their parents.

The next day we started early in order to beat the crowds, and caught the ‘rotating’ cable car that takes you up a steep vertical ascent (and quickly!) to the top of Table Mountain. What a view! I had another wall to wall blue-sky day, and the views were spectacular – we really could see for miles. There are plenty of vantage points for breath-taking 360-degree views and a number of both self-guided and guided walking trails. With more time I would’ve been tempted by one of the three longer options.

In terms of where to stay in Cape Town, there are four very distinct areas; the V&A Waterfront, Constantia in the valley, the bay area (Camps Bay/ Bantry Bay / Clifton) and the Gardens. I was able to stay in each of these areas and they all had their own distinct feel. The iconic V&A Waterfront has many restaurants, night spots and activities on your doorstep. The bay area has beautiful beaches with a cosmopolitan restaurant/café scene overlooking the Atlantic Ocean – popular with locals and tourists alike. The valley provides a wonderful oasis away from the city amongst vineyards and golf courses, whilst the Gardens area has an eclectic, arty vibe with interesting cafes and shops. Each has a range of accommodation, from beautiful intimate boutique hotels and guesthouses to large luxury hotels.

From Cape Town we then drove an hour or so to Franschhoek, a small town nestled in the heart of the picturesque wineland. This is a wonderful, relaxed place to unwind for a few days and enjoy the excellent wineries and a wide range of local fare being served at the many restaurants. I stayed at Auberge Clermont set amongst vineyards with Haweqwa Mountains looming large in the background. In the morning I awoke to a stunning view of misty clouds cascading down the mountain side into the valley.

After leaving Franschhoek I travelled through lovely countryside dotted with vineyards and farms and plenty of places to stop for wine-tasting or to sample local delicacies in cafes and farm shops. On the approach to Stellenbosch it was evident I was approaching a university town, with hundreds of students and funky cafes lining the streets! There was certainly a buzz here, with plenty of restaurants, shops, art galleries and museums.

From Stellenbosch, I drove south through Somerset West and took the scenic coastal route through Gordon’s Bay, Betty’s Bay and Hermanus to Grootbos.

Grootbos is a private nature reserve in a stunning location overlooking Walker Bay and runs a bit like a safari camp. Their experienced guides host all activities and cover botanical tours, horse-riding, marine safaris, short walks and hikes. For my afternoon activity I participated in their ‘Coastal Safari’, where we explored the beautiful De Kelders beach and had a hands-on learning experience as we examined the seaweed, shells and fossils we found along the walk. Our afternoon ended with a cave tour on the oceans edge where the Stone Age Khoi Bushmen used to live – their ancient way of life still evident.

Another important aspect of a stay at Grootbos is their fine dining experience. With ingredients sourced from their organic farm the menu is quite simply stunning; pork from hand-reared pigs, local beef, freshly caught seafood, handmade breads and fresh pasta.

Grootbos is a different and truly wonderful experience and I would recommend a 2 or 3 night stay here. During the whale season (July to October) it is very handily placed for nearby Gansbaai from where the boats depart for the whale-watching and Great white shark diving trips.

From Grootbos, I retraced my route back to Hermanus (approximately 45 minutes’ drive) and explored this delightful coastal town. I stayed at Ocean Eleven which has a beautiful view across the fynbos into the bay – during the season whales can be spotted easily from the shoreline! Early evening I took the cliff walk into town, where, after a refreshing sea-side stomp, I was ready for another hearty meal ….
Julia stayed at: Winchester Mansions, Sea Five Boutique Hotel, Cape Cadogan, Glen Avon Lodge, Auberge Clermont, Leeu House, River Manor Boutique Hotel and Spa, Grootbos Nature Reserve, and Ocean Eleven Guesthouse

Julia visited: Blackheath Lodge, The Bay Hotel, Camps Bay Retreat, Fulham Lodge, The Twelve Apostles, Ellerman House, The Clarendon Villa Bantry Bay, The Clarendon VillaFresnaye, Victoria and Alfred Hotel, Queen Victoria Hotel & Manor House, Dock House Boutique Hotel, Cape Town One & Only, Waterfront Village, Belmond Mount Nelson, More Quarters, Cape Grace Hotel, Kensington Place, Four Rosmead, The Silo Hotel, Steenberg Hotel, The Vineyard Hotel and Spa, Mont Rochelle, La Fontaine Guesthouse, La Cles des Montagnes, La Residence, Leeu Estate, Maison Chablis, Boschendal, Delaire Graff, Babylonstoren, Oude Werf Hotel, Whalesong Lodge, Harbour House, Harbour Square Hotel, Le Paradis, The Gallery, One Marine Drive, Auberge Burgundy, Mosselberg on Grotto Beach, Lavender Manor and Birkenhead House.