Life moves at a gentler pace in South Africa’s Winelands, creating the perfect tempo for savouring the finer things in life. Among vine-clad hills and valleys framed by mountains, there are world-class wineries you can reach by vintage-style tram and superb restaurants whose tasting menus are a four-hour affair. Wrap yourself in rural tranquillity with a cottage on a long-established wine estate, where the farm-to-fork journey could hardly be shorter, or soak up the historic charm of Franschhoek village, with its array of fine dining (and shopping) opportunities.
BEST HOTELS IN THE WINELANDS
Whether you prefer to be in Franschhoek with shops and restaurants almost on the doorstep or immersed in peaceful countryside, there are some exquisite properties to choose from.
Akademie Street Boutique Hotel
With just nine suites, this award-winning Franschhoek hotel feels like the home from home it aims to be. It’s bursting with charm and character, its heritage architecture complemented by antiques and vintage pieces. Breakfast on the vine-shaded patio, laze by one of the pools or in a wood-powered hot tub, then stroll to the nearby shops, restaurants and bars.
One of the Winelands’ oldest working farms, Babylonstoren is a wonderfully bucolic place to linger. A stay in one of its farmhouse suites or airy cottages dotted around the gardens is about much more than a bed for the night. There’s fabulous farm-to-fork dining along with a range of foodie experiences such as bread baking and wine tasting, plus an excellent spa.
Five minutes by car from Franschhoek, Leeu Estates offers a classic Winelands experience. Centred around a Cape Dutch manor house at the heart of a working vineyard, most of the rooms are in secluded cottages, with options for couples, families and larger groups. Expect to wine and dine in style, and don’t miss the African-inspired natural treatments at the fabulous spa.
Set on a private 30-acre estate in the Franschhoek Valley, La Residence is a thoroughly grown-up bolthole. The 16 opulently designed suites look out over orchards and vineyards – there’s an in-house boutique winery – with the mountains behind, and there are also views to savour from the Loggia where the signature afternoon tea is served daily.
BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN THE WINELANDS
You don’t have to be staying there to enjoy Babylonstoren, a 4,000-acre farm that offers a host of activities. Children will enjoy feeding the donkeys, while gourmets will be more taken by the extensive farm shop opposite, not to mention the three restaurants. When you’re not exploring the sprawling orchard and vegetable garden, there are themed workshops you might like to try. For those with a more creative bent, the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden is home to 60 of the locally acclaimed artist’s works in a carefully landscaped setting. Private visits with an expert guide, or sometimes even Dylan himself, can be arranged.
BEST WINE EXPERIENCES IN THE WINELANDS
Both connoisseurs and the merely curious will find the Winelands offers experiences that go well beyond the standard tour. With private barrel tastings, for instance, you get a sneak peek at the almost-finished product and a unique opportunity to learn about it directly from its maker. Another option is a bespoke (and enjoyably unpretentious) wine adventure with a qualified wine master such as Harry Melck, whose knowledge is matched by his talent for storytelling.
Every winery takes a slightly different approach to wine-making, so there’s always something new to find out. Embraced by mountains at the head of the Franschhoek Valley, Holden Manz Wine Estate provides an insight into the importance of ‘terroir’, the natural environment that helps to produce a particular wine; it has three soil types and a cooler micro-climate thanks to its elevation. At Black Elephant Vintners, it’s more about introducing people to wine in an unpretentious way, and their by-appointment-only music and wine pairing is a perfect demonstration of this. For the technically minded, meanwhile, seeing the unique lift-tower gravity-fed cellar at De Toren Private Cellar will be one of the highlights of a private visit led by the owner, winemaker or viticulturist.
BEST RESTAURANTS IN THE WINELANDS
Enjoy a seven-course lunchtime tasting menu at Stellenbosch’s Remhoogte Wine Estate. Served in a stable-turned-show-kitchen wrapped in nature, the meal showcases various fire-cooking techniques, the area’s superb ingredients and, of course, wines from the estate itself. There's only one table, so booking for this private experience is essential.
Chefs Warehouse at Maison
Chefs Restaurant brings its casual fine-dining concept to a countryside setting at Maison Wine Estate. Graze on an inspired menu of ‘global tapas’ in the Scandi-sleek dining room or outside on the shaded terrace overlooking rolling lawns and rows of vines.
At the 40-seater Gåte, on Quoin Rock Wine Farm, the focus is on hyper-local produce. Discover the accomplished farm-to-table – or what they call ‘micro-terroir’ – cuisine with a seven-course evening tasting menu or a cut-down lunchtime version in a clean-cut, contemporary and child-free setting.
Franschhoek’s first Asian-inspired restaurant has already won awards for the authenticity and deliciousness of its food. Available from noon until late, its carefully curated set and kaiseki menus feature an irresistible selection of broths, bao buns, wontons and udon dishes.
SALT at Waterford
Under the aegis of two chefs whose motto is ‘cook with flavour, keep it simple’, this lunchtime-only venue serves rustic dishes from around the world. The three-course menu changes according to what’s in season and is complemented by wines from the Waterford Estate.
WHAT’S ON IN THE WINELANDS
The yearly rhythm of life in the Cape’s wine-making region is punctuated with annual events that add extra interest. Avid readers will love the informal but lively Franschhoek Literary Festival in May, with its calendar of discussions, debates and talks and an engaging atmosphere. July brings the Franschhoek Bastille Festival, a reminder of the village’s French heritage: there are street stalls selling anything from croissants to moules frites, live music and, naturally, places to sample local wines. These are the main focus of August’s superb Stellenbosch Wine Festival, with more than 120 tastings from the region’s leading makers and delectable morsels from its equally celebrated chefs.
GETTING AROUND THE WINELANDS
Pristine roads, glorious scenery and the short distances involved make the Western Cape’s Winelands a great self-drive destination. If you’d rather not drive, many hotels provide free local transfers, so you don’t need to forgo that glass or two of local wine over dinner; others even offer bicycles. Most characterful of all, though is the hop-on-hop-off Franschhoek Wine Tram, whose photogenic 1920s-style double-decker trams rattle through the valley, connecting 31 wine estates. Choose a line from the ten on offer, then spend the day dropping in at wineries for tastings, delicious food and anything from cellar tours to garden walks depending on the stop.
BEST TIME TO GO TO THE WINELANDS
Mid-September to the end of May – spring to autumn in South Africa – is the most enjoyable time to visit the Winelands. Most of the Western Cape’s rain falls in winter, so June to mid-September tends to be wetter and greyer with highs of around 17 - 20C (62.5 - 68F).