Southern comfort

Just for a moment, look away from this page and glance outside. Is it cold, wet and dank? Now close your eyes and imagine you could fly away somewhere warm, where the scenery is breathtaking, the wines are fabulous and prices are recession-friendly.

Now check your holiday allowance, leave a message at the office and pack your bags. By tomorrow morning you could be sitting in sunshine, enjoying a late breakfast with Table Mountain as a scenic backdrop.

There are vineyards around every corner and nearly all of them welcome visitors with tastings and often with a restaurant and even accommodation.

South Africa has become a hot favourite winter destination for discerning Brits. I'm not talking about gangs of football shirt-wearing, beer-swilling tourists. The people who go to South Africa are more like travellers who have decided that a week or two in the sunshine of South Africa is a pleasant way to escape the worst of the winter as well as boosting essential vitamin D levels.

For a start the flight couldn't be more convenient. Evening departure times means that there is time to enjoy dinner, watch a film and settle down to sleep. When you wake up you'll be over Africa, and heading for Cape Town.

Make sure you get a seat on the left side of the aircraft (window seat A) and with a bit of luck the day will be clear as you fly in over the Cape of Good Hope then swoop low over the coastline and False Bay before landing in Cape Town. The great thing about South Africa is that there is no jet lag so you can squeeze a visit into a long weekend if you really have to.

On previous trips to South Africa I have based myself in and around Cape Town or the nearby town of Stellenbosch, but on my most recent visit I headed east along the coast.

A quick, cheap flight from Cape Town to George took me to the wedding of a friend's son and his South African bride.

Duty done – South Africa does lovely weddings – I then headed off to see some other sights of South Africa. George is on the Garden Route, a fabulous stretch of coastline dotted with national parks, botanical gardens and historic towns.

If you like water sports, then Plettenberg Bay is the place to head for but I settled down for a spot of whale watching at Mossel Bay where the whales come in close to the shore.

I then headed inland, to the Karoo, a dry, hot region where rainfall is minimal and sunny days are almost guaranteed.

Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world and there are plenty of them to see as you drive through the countryside and they turn up on restaurant menus fairly regularly although tender young lamb is actually the region's true speciality.

The Cango caves are well worth a visit, even if, like me you don't enjoy scrabbling through rocks, but instead I opted to get up before dawn to be on site when the local wild meerkats emerge to greet the sun. After a trek across open scrubland, accompanied by a guide who seemed to know which particular hillock was the latest meerkat burrow, we waited, cameras poised, for Aleksandr and his friends to appear.

And one by one, the meerkats popped out. First came the sentry who kept watch, looking left and right continually, then gradually the hillock became crowded with almost-comical figures, each one facing the same direction to allow the sun's rays to warm them after a night underground.

Within a few minutes they were off across the open landscape, foraging for food, and we headed back for a much needed breakfast (www.meerkatadventures.co.za).

But this was essentially a wine trip, not a wildlife trek, so my itinerary from this point was guided by my trusty Platter guide, the indispensable book to take with you on a wine trip to South Africa. These are almost impossible to find, even at on-line bookshops, but www.sawinesonline.co.uk has a stock at 14.99.

Close to the Cango caves, Karusa Vineyards are challenging the usual belief that this hot dry area is only good for fortified wines. While apricots were being harvested around the farm, winemaker Jacques Conradie drove me 600 metres up a steep slope to a vineyard where, even in the heat of the day there was a cooling breeze.

In vineyards studded with Aloe Vera plants, he grows Chardonnay, Viognier and a whole raft of southern French varietals organically and makes good quality wines which have yet to reach the UK, although the apricots were destined for Waitrose.

This is also the region to check out South African "ports" as they still call them, although they are not allowed to use that name in the UK. De Krans makes exceptional wines and is open for visitors. Axe Hill is open by appointment and also makes terrific wines.

From here heading west on Route 62, the ground starts to rise and in the Tradauw valley, where temperatures are definitely cooler, Meyer Joubert at Joubert Tradauw makes a stunningly good Syrah from old vines as well as terrific Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Grapes from this estate also find their way into some very up-market labels, adding lusciousness and weight to final blends.

Stay at the Bed and Breakfast on the estate, www.joubert-tradauw.co.za and eat under the trees in the garden.

Heading west again, the next part of the drive took me over the mountains into the Robertson Valley, a warm, wide, flat plain with the Breede River providing essential irrigation water.

There are many places to stay in this region but the historic estate of Fraai Uitzicht 1798 (www.fraaiuitzicht.com) has a terrific restaurant as well as rooms and it makes a good base for visits around the region.

Visit Springfield where Abrie Bruwer makes distinctively zesty Sauvignons (Sainsbury 8.99). Go to Bon Cap for their organic wines and Quando for their Pinot Noir. Harrogate Fine Wine stocks The Ruins range of wines from Bon Cap. Try the Pinotage (7.99) which gathers up chocolate and spice notes among deep plummy fruit.

From Robertson it is a quick drive down to Hermanus and yet more whales as well as wines, or over the pass into Franschhoek and its fabulous wines and restaurants. I will continue my journey to those regions next week.

Go on, take a power-break, January and February are far too good to waste on the northern hemisphere.

YP MAG 22/1/11