Restful Winelands and beautiful, bustling coastlines embrace iconic attractions like Table Mountain, Robben Island and the Cape of Good Hope, consistently drawing the crowds to the Mother City. But beyond this obvious beauty and within easy reach, the open road leads to everything your travelling heart may desire. Walking trails, mountains, desert and Karoo skies, and endless small country towns that burst with character and charm.
Must see small towns
Matjiesfontein in the Karoo – North of Cape Town just off the N1 highway that joins the Cape and Johannesburg you’ll find Matjiesfontein, a quaint hamlet rather than a town that consists of a hotel, railway station, collection of museums and more than a touch of magic. Its history takes us to a time when railways lines were reaching inland and pioneers held the vision of a road from Cape to Cairo. They were chasing a dream. As was the young Scottish immigrant James Logan, who in 1884 bought a piece of land referred to as ‘Matjiesfontein’. Over the years Matjies catapulted from its rural serenity to a top tourist resort of the time. Today fondly referred to as The Grand Duchess of the Karoo, the Lord Milner Hotel still receives visitors in style, standing testament to a bygone era. Things to do include a visit to the Transport Museum with its private collection of vintage cars and a tour of the area in the London Bus, which takes no more than ten minutes. Spend time in the Mary Rawdon Museum and enjoy walks in the surrounding veldt, where some 10000 British troops were camped during the Anglo-Boer war. At night walk outside and breath in the beauty of the starlit Karoo skies.
Paternoster on the West Coast – Among the oldest fishing villages in the country and situated about 150km north of Cape Town, Paternoster is a true example of West Coast living. An authentic fishing village, the origin of the name, which means Our Father in Latin, is said to refer to prayers by the Catholic Portuguese seamen who became shipwrecked here. Others believe it may be from the beads that the Khoi tribe wore, which were called Paternosters, either work. Today Paternoster is a popular tourist destination best known for its white-washed fishermen’s cottages and brightly painted fishing boats selling their daily catch straight off the shoreline. Things to do include long walks on the pristine white beach, browsing for treasures at Die Winkel op Paternoster and a visit to the Cape Columbine lighthouse, which was built in 1936 and is still manned to this day. Also, explore the West Coast National Park and don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy a meal at the Noisy Oyster.
Swellendam off the N2 – Once overlooked by motorists on the N2 highway between Cape Town and the Garden Route just sped past, Swellendam is now a destination in itself. The third oldest town in South Africa, Swellendam was declared a district and appointed a Magistrate in 1743. From here a village grew where artisans and traders settled. Today it offers travellers a welcome break to their journey, with a variety of accommodation options to choose from, as well as an assortment of restaurants, activities and attractions. Things to do include a visit to the Drostdy Museum, time in the neighbouring Bontebok National Park formed with the specific purpose of saving the species. Walk Swellengrebel Street to the art galleries and coffee shops and for the children, spend time at the Sulina Faerie Sanctuary and definitely book a massage at the Rain Africa Spa.
McGregor Country Living – A picturesque country village surrounded by the Langeberg Mountains with Robert-son, Ashton and Montagu as its near neighbouring towns, McGregor is said to be the best-preserved 19th-century South African village with its white-washed reed roof cottages, Victorian and Georgian homes. Every Saturday there’s a morning market in the Square next to the Church, which is a good place to mingle with the local community. The roads are mostly used for walking with very few tarred, and the pace of life is idyllically slow. The Temenos Gardens have been drawing people to McGregor since opening, with their soul nurturing gardens and spiritual mediation programs and their established Art Route includes visits to 10 galleries. Get to the Old Post Office turned pub for a whisky-tasting, book a visit to the Tanagra Distillery and for Method Cap Classique, don’t miss Lord’s Winery.
Greyton, Overberg – Greyton originated in 1854 when a farm in the region was divided into plots and the village was named after the Governor of the Cape at the time, Sir George Grey. Today, its leafy lanes, historic cottages and natural surrounds attract visitors from near and far. The town has managed to preserve its authenticity while still offering facilities and attractions you’d expect of a popular holiday destination. Things to do include the Saturday morning market, where you’ll find a wide selection of farm-fresh produce. The funds raised at the market go towards environmental conservation efforts, such as the upkeep of the Greyton Nature Reserve. There’s great hiking to be enjoyed in the area, some good shopping, three wine farms, the Von Geusau chocolates, which are a must for tasting and the historic village walk.
Taste the Magic
Nine out of the Top 10 Restaurants in the 2016 Eat Out Awards are in the greater Cape Town region and a visit to the city must include eating. The Pot Luck Club, Test Kitchen and Shortmarket Club, all under the watchful eye of top Chef Luke Dale–Roberts, should top any foodie’s list. In Swellendam don’t miss a chance to enjoy authentic Italian cuisine attentively served at the gorgeous and intimate La Sosta Restaurant, with Chef Cristiana in the kitchen and her charming partner Gianni Minori in front of the house.
On the Garden Route, a hidden gem is Fire Fly Eating House in an original 1906 Knysna tin mining house on the lagoon, where Sanchia and her mom Dell Hadlow take you on a spice journey and introduce you to an array of new tastes and aromas that will leave your tastes buds giddy and your tummy asking for more. On Thesen Island in Knysna find Ile de Pain, heaven for the pastry lover and where globally inspired dishes by chef Liezie Mulder and baker and master chocolatier Markus Farbinger, are a good indulgence at any time of day. In winter don’t miss the decadent hot chocolate.
Walk the Talk
The Cape West Coast Biosphere Trails is one of the newest trail products on offer in the Western Cape and growing in popularity given its close proximity to Cape Town. Providing the choice between Eve’s Trail, the Five Bay Trail and The Wheels of Time, it’s the Darling Stagger that is drawing the crowds. Named after the nearby village of Darling, the Stagger follows a 2.5-day route once walked by a short-necked giraffe, the San tribe who once occupied this land and the early settlers and farmers we know today. The route explores some of this history along the way and includes a taste of contemporary culture, olives and wine with long stretches walked on the beach. Look out for tortoises along the way and the spring flowers, which are a great attraction
In a similar way, the Whale Trail traverses one of the Western Cape’s most unique and diverse nature reserves and stretches over 55km from Potberg to Koppie Alleen. The trail offers the opportunity to explore the natural diversity of the De Hoop Nature Reserve, where the fragrance of fynbos on the Potberg Mountains and unique limestone plains intermingle with the salty sea air of this marine protected area. Along the way, walkers discover an abundance of indigenous plants and rich birdlife. De Hoop is also world-renowned as one of the best whale-watching spots and between June and December, this coastline is transformed into one of the world’s most valuable nursery areas for southern right whales.
Looking for a totally unique experience?
The Weltevrede Estate outside Bonnievale has been in the Jonker family for four generations. Book a tasting in their underground cellar and walk through a maze of rooms lit by flickering candlelight to an area where their Philip Jonker MCC and delicious wines are served to anecdotal tales of years gone by. Delve deeper into Cape Town with a tour of the historic underground tunnels found beneath the bustling Mother City. Built between 1652 and 1895 with the express purpose of diverting tons of mountain water the ocean, they were arched over and forgotten about in around 1895. They now form part of a popular historical tour, which makes for one of Cape Town’s more unique experiences. Looking for a market experience to immerse yourself into? The Oranjezicht City Farm Market is held every Saturday at the V&A Waterfront. With an express focus of supporting independent local farmers and artisanal food producers, this is the perfect place to do your weekly shopping, and stock up on veg, fruit, bread, organic dairy, free-range eggs, honey and more. As well as spend the morning chatting to some of the locals who frequent it.
Up Close and Personal
Join Meerkat Adventures just outside the Klein Karoo town of Oudtshoorn where you can experience a meerkat encounter with a wild but habituated colony of these adorable and charismatic suricates in their natural habitat. Leaving from De Zeekoe Guest Farm before dawn, you sit encamped in a semi-circle a fair distance away and wait for them to emerge from their burrow to warm themselves in the morning sun. You’ll be able to stay with them a while, keeping your distance as you observe them going about their daily lives, scrabbling for insects and stealing your hearts.
Do Good, Feel Good
Should you wish to support a feel good effort, consider a visit to one of these authentic and real animal rescue sanctuaries. In the Plettenberg Bay area, Monkeyland and Birds of Eden, and in Cape Town take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Two Oceans Aquarium and learn more about the invaluable work being done by the SANCCOB seabird rescue facility. Offering care to fur friends of a different kind, both the Eseljiesrus Donkey Sanctuary in McGregor and the Karoo Donkey Sanctuary outside the picturesque village of Prince Albert, work tirelessly to provide permanent homes and loving care to destitute, retired and rescued donkeys. Don’t be surprised if you leave having adopted a new member into your family.’
This article ‘Western Cape. Where Mountains meet the Sea’ first appeared in OnRoute Magazine in their Uncovering South Africa issue. OnRoute brings you insight into South Africa’s nine provinces, with me contributing Gauteng, Western Cape and Eastern Cape. Enjoy, and be inspired to explore more of our beautiful country.
Read more of my Published work here.