This is the time of year when I normally board a flight to Cape Town and eke out winter with a little swimming, a lot of sunshine and a great many visits to vineyards. But that just isn’t possible this year, so like the rest of the UK, and much of the world, I am stuck at home imagining what could have been.
So just in case you are daydreaming and planning the trips you might do when the pandemic crisis comes to an end, this is how I would plan a visit to South Africa, taking in wine, sunshine and scenery.
For a start, if you are contemplating winter sunshine, South Africa is so easy. You get on a plane in the evening, eat dinner and then settle down to watch a movie. Sleep a little and by the time you wake up the plane has tipped its port-side wing as it sweeps over False Bay. To be honest, you don’t even need to eat breakfast on board.
Why spoil your first day in Africa with a soggy croissant wrapped in cellophane? It is early morning, it is easy to get out of the airport (arrange transport in advance) and you can be having breakfast in the shadow of Table Mountain within a couple of hours.
I have a few favourite places to stay, depending on what I plan to do. I like to stay a few days in the city, just to relax and enjoy the waterfront restaurants and bars. Then I usually head off to Stellenbosch as a base for exploring vineyards. Stay at Oude Werf to be within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants, or try one of the many excellent bed and breakfast houses such as River Manor. Spier is also good with restaurants on site and a nice pool.
You need a copy of the Platter guide to take you through your stay and you will find a big pile of these in the airport bookshop. Even better, get one from the famous online shop before you go. It has all the information you need about the locations of each winery, opening hours, whether they have a restaurant and phone numbers so you can book a table. It also tells you about the wines from each property.
My favourite visits in the Stellenbosch area include Tokara for the fabulous scenery and excellent restaurant; DeMorgenzon for its wonderful wines and pretty gardens, and it is just a short walk from DeMorgenzon to Jordan Estate and its top-notch restaurant.
Delaire Graff is a glorious visit, not only for the fabulous views, but also to see how a good vineyard can be turned into a top-notch wine estate. Book lunch but don’t even think about staying there unless you have very deep pockets. Other terrific estates include Waterford, Glenelly and Rustenberg. Morgenhof does fabulous picnics and Villiera has a small game reserve which may seem rather tame compared with Kruger but the guys who take you round have so much knowledge I enjoyed my visit enormously.
After a few days move on to Franschhoek and try to stay at Babylonstoren which is a historic farm estate with exceptional gardens and the food is definitely farm to fork. Make sure you visit Boschendal for the wines, the manor house and the courtyard deli where you can enjoy a tasty breakfast or lunch. Other places to visit include Leeu Passant where you can taste the outstanding Mullineux wines; La Motte for wine, art and the lunch; and La Petite Ferme which has been renovated and is now gorgeous.
From Franschhoek, head to Robertson which is a low-rainfall valley surrounded by mountains with the Breede River running through. Daytime temperatures can be high, but they plummet at night, allowing the vines to rest and retain vital acidity in the grapes.
Visit Graham Beck for superb sparkling wines, Springfield Estate for vibrant Sauvignon Blancs and De Wetshof for Chardonnays. After three wine visits you might want to stay over in the region, and the small historic towns of McGregor and Montagu have plenty of lovely bed and breakfast places.
Drive on just an hour to the Sanbona game reserve for one of the best wildlife encounters you can have without having to take precautions against malaria. This is 130,000 acres of land that used to be farms, now merged into a reserve with a lodge and tented camps.
The Big Five are all there and the great advantage over some other reserves is the space. Your vehicle is probably the only one you will see all day. The thrill of seeing a white rhino, a cheetah and her cubs, or a herd of elephants appear silently out of nowhere is breathtaking.
From Sanbona, you are well placed to head to the coast to explore the Garden Route. If you are there between June and December you might see migrating whales, but by January they have all gone.
When you get to Hermanus, stay a few days in one of the many small hotels overlooking the sea and take time to explore the Walker Bay wineries. This is becoming the go-to place for Pinot Noir, so head to Newton Johnson for pure expressive Pinots, but also try the fragrant Albariño. Go to Creation at the top of the valley for one of the best food and wine pairing lunches in the world, and call in at Bouchard Finlayson for excellent Pinots but don’t miss Peter Finlayson’s Sangiovese-based blend Hannibal.
From Walker Bay, head back to Cape Town, calling in on the excellent Paul Cluver Estate as you go. Once you are down Sir Lowry’s Pass, take a right and head to Vergelegen which I regard as one of the top visits of the Cape. The wines are terrific, but so is lunch at Camphors.
Whenever you decide to go South Africa, if you need help with your itinerary or introductions, just let me know.