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Trip Report - Wilderness, Oudtshoorn and Cape Town Dec 2005

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We have just returned from a fabulous 2 weeks in South Africa, and as this forum has been such a great source of info, it's time to share some in return.

Background: We are an English couple in our 30s, no kids. Objective of the trip was relaxation and sightseeing, at a leisurely pace. This was our 3rd trip to Cape Town, so we were more concerned with taking things easy than in a packed itinerary. We are foodies, so food and wine is our top priority wherever we go!

Journey and arrival:
We live in China, so it was a long flight via Singapore (nearly 24 hours in total). A word of warning for those considering Singapore Airlines - not all their "direct" flights from Singapore to Cape Town are non-stop. Most have a transit stop in Joburg, which is not always made clear when you buy your ticket (it was to us, but was a shock to many other people around us), and during which you are not allowed to get off the plane - a real pain when you've been on board for 10 hours and are dying for a breath of fresh air...

Arrival at CPT was smooth with relatively short queues at immigration - as it was the 23rd of December, maybe the rush had already been and gone? Rental car pickup (National Alamo) was also painless.

Day 1 - Franschhoek
Drove straight out to Franschhoek for our first night. Chose it for our first overnight stop as we just love this quaint town and we wanted somewhere familiar for the first night. Arrived just in time for a light lunch at Reubens - decent food, but not outstanding. After lunch, popped into Mont Rochelle estate for a leisurely wine tasting - only 5 mins drive from the town centre. Lovely terrace with a view of Franschhoek town and great service (you sit on the terrace and they refill your glasses). In general, we found wine tasting at the small wineries much more enjoyable than at the big famous places like Vergelegen and Groot Constantia. Dinner at French Connection - our favourite restaurant in Franschhoek, and definitely in our all time top 10 anywhere. Simple bistro food, just right for our first night after a long trip - absolutely faultless.

Accommodation: La Fontaine Guest House
Picked this as it was reasonably priced just to crash for our first night, and what a pleasant surprise! Very convenient location right in town (2 mins from the main street). Large clean room with fantastic rain shower, and a lovely friendly host. My only nit-pick was that the breakfast was a cold buffet only (the "summer menu") - there were cold sausages, ham and hard boiled eggs, but I do like a hot cooked breakfast on holiday! Would definitely stay there again.

Days 2-6 - Wilderness, Garden Route
We decided to spend the next 4 days in Wilderness based on Selwyn's suggestion - a big thank you for that! What a fantastic village - with a shallow lagoon on one side and a stunning beach on the other. The drive down from Franschhoek on the N2 was an easy 5 hours with not much traffic, plus a stop for lunch in Swellendam. Not a particularly scenic route (pretty much a straight road with not much to see) until the Kaaimans Pass just outside Wilderness.

Spent most of our time in Wilderness just relaxing by the lagoon. Drove around some of the scenic routes and viewpoints nearby - the Map of Africa is definitely worth a look, as is Dolphin Point (no dolphins, though!). Tried to get a booking on the Choo-Tjoe steam train, but it was fully booked for the whole time we were there. Book before your arrival if you want to ride the train in peak season! Drove into Knysna for a day but were quite disappointed - traffic was horrendous getting into town, and it was hot and crowded. We felt it was not nearly as pleasant as Wilderness, and after an hour in town, we gave up and headed back to our peaceful haven.

Food highlights in Wilderness - had a good meal at Pomodoro, an Italian restaurant in the village with a wood-fired pizza oven. Friendly service, unpretentious good food and lively atmosphere.
The food highlight of our whole holiday was a meal at Serendipity. What a stunning place! Fresh, innovative food, beautifully cooked and presented, with warm and personal service. Expensive for a meal in South Africa (we paid 650 Rand for 2 people, including aperitifs, a bottle of wine and coffee), but an absolute steal compared to a similar meal in the UK.

Accommodation: Moontide Guest House
Chose this out of the Greenwood guidebook because we wanted lagoon frontage. Allegedly the only guest house on the south side of the lagoon with direct lagoon access (not across the road). We walked around the village quite a bit, and I did think that it had one of the best locations on the lagoon side. They have a large pretty deck right by the lagoon where breakfast is served, and where we spent a lot of time chilling out during the day and evening, watching the birds on the lagoon. They also provide a canoe for guests to use on the lagoon, which we had fun with. Nice accommodation, but a few gripes – cleanliness and maintenance was fine at the deck level, which is where most guests are. But in the room we had (the Boathouse – billed as a romantic suite right by the water’s edge with a private terrace – but really a converted garage below the main terrace deck), cleanliness was definitely a lot sloppier. On the private terrace, there were bird droppings on the sun loungers and table that had clearly been there for days/weeks, as they had completely dried out and hardened – not exactly attractive! And right outside is a very run-down boat house, which could really do with a lick of paint to improve the “romantic” view. Overall, it was a nice guest house, but if we were to return, we would definitely not stay in the Boathouse room again.

Day 7 - Oudtshoorn & Swartberg Pass
After reading the recommendations on this forum, we decided to spend 1 night in Oudtshoorn on our way back to Cape Town so that we could drive over the Swartberg Pass. We left Wilderness in the morning and drove to Oudtshoorn, checked in at the guest house and had a coffee, then drove over the Swartberg Pass and had lunch in Prince Albert. Drove back to Oudtshoorn via Meiringspoort and were back by mid-afternoon for a siesta before dinner. We are so glad we did this, as it was the most amazing experience – the scariest road we have ever driven! Do not even think of driving this road with any alcohol whatsoever in your system, as it is definitely dangerous at points (my husband saw several tyre tracks that led over the edge, but wisely kept this observation from me until we were safely over!), but the spectacular views and the whole experience of driving the dirt track pass made it worth the trouble. We really have to thank everyone on this forum who recommended the pass, as the guidebooks don’t do it justice, and we wouldn probably not have made the special trip here if it hadn’t been for the forum recommendations.

Dinner in Oudtshoorn at Jemima’s – despite reading on the forum that the restaurant has changed hands, we decided to go ahead and try it anyway as it still looked attractive. They are still very popular and were turning away people without bookings all night. The food and atmosphere were good, but not outstanding, and I didn’t feel that it was a “special” place. Service was a bit patchy and slow (it took them ages to work out where our reserved table was, and food was slow in coming), but our waiter was always attentive, apologized for the slow service and thanked us for our patience, which made us feel a lot better. Overall, I would rate it as a good meal in an “ordinary” restaurant, rather than a “special” place.

Accommodation: Boulders Guest House
We just wanted a place to crash for one night, so we went for the cheapest decent-looking place we could find on the internet. All I can say is you get what you pay for. It was clean and cheap, which is all we wanted and expected, so we were satisfied.

Day 8 – Route 62
Drove back to Cape Town from Oudtshoorn on Route 62. Didn’t have time to stop much along the way, but looks like it might be worth a more leisurely trip in the future. Stopped at Bo Plaas in Calitzdorp to taste wine and port – good port, but not at all attractive as a tasting experience. No tables to sit at, either indoors or out – you just stand by the counter and taste, then either buy or walk out. Would not do it again as there are many more enjoyable places to taste wine.
Stopped for lunch in Montagu, which was the town we originally planned to stay at instead of Wilderness, until Selwyn pointed out that it would be far too hot. Once again, am so glad we took his great advice! It was a nice enough country town, but boiling hot at lunchtime and not nearly as nice as Wilderness.

Days 9-13 – Cape Town
This was our third trip to Cape Town, so again were taking things easy. Stayed with friends at their holiday house in Hout Bay, so I won’t say too much about the accommodation in case it’s construed as advertising as it's also available for rent! Skipped the “big” attractions like Robben Island, Table Mountain etc as we have done them on previous holidays. Did a few low-key excursions, all of which we enjoyed – Groot Constantia estate (pretty estate, but skip the wine tasting – overrun by tour groups and overpriced wine), Vergelegen (the winery tour is very worthwhile, if only for the fantastic views at the end; the wine is good but quite pricey) and Simon’s Town (I loved the curio and antique shops; we stopped at Boulders Beach and viewed from the walkway but didn’t pay the entrance fee – cute penguins and worth a one-time trip, but not a repeat).

Food highlights:
Picnic in Kirstenbosch with goodies from Melissa’s deli (an absolute must for foodies in Cape Town!) – what can we say about perfection…? This is pretty much our favourite way to spend a day in Cape Town.
OYO restaurant at V&A Waterfront (part of the Alfred Hotel?) – pricier than the other restaurants on this stretch, but correspondingly better service and ambiance. Quieter part of the Waterfront, with a great view of Table Mountain. Good food in a more upscale but unpretentious environment. Would definitely go back.
Chapman’s Peak Hotel in Hout Bay – great enclosed terrace (unfortunately we couldn’t enjoy the view as the blinds were drawn against the wind). Nice atmosphere, good calamari.
Snoekies in Hout Bay – great cheap and cheerful fish and chips and a shop for fresh fish. For most of our dinners in Cape Town, we bought fresh fish from here for the braai at home - speaks for itself that we kept coming back.

The major food “lowlight” in Cape Town was – very surprisingly – Buitenvervachting. We had booked this as a special treat and a thank you to the friends we were staying with. We had been there once before 2 years ago, and enjoyed it very much. But this visit was a total disappointment, from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. When we arrived, we decided to have a drink in the lounge. It was 10 mins before anyone came to take our drinks order. Then after a further 10 mins of waiting, we had to ask for menus, after which our menus sat closed on the table for another 10 mins before we again had to call a waiter over to take our orders. Basically we were completely ignored while we sat in the lounge. After we moved to the table, service did improve in terms of efficiency. But the food was a major disappointment – we had to send back one of the starters (I can’t remember what the dish was, but it had a lentil salad that tasted like it had been drenched in vinegar. Simply too sour to swallow.) The replacement came after the rest of us had finished our starters, leading to yet another wait. Main courses were no better – my fillet of beef which I had ordered medium was completely cooked through (brown and dry inside). I did inform the waiter who offered to take it back, but I (unhappily) declined, saying that it would have put the whole table out of synch yet again. I must admit that I did expect some other gesture instead of a replaced main course (perhaps something off the bill…?), but nothing was forthcoming. In the end, we skipped dessert and coffee in order to get home for the childminder, and finally left the restaurant nearly 4 hours after we arrived– a very long time for a 2 course meal! The service can best be described as “clinical” throughout – everyone seemed to be going through the motions of service and politeness, but with none of the genuine warmth that we have come to love in South Africa. I found it most bizarre that although we were quite obviously (and vocally) unhappy, and getting more so as the night went on, no mention at all was made of it and they carried on with the service as if all was well. When compared to the many other outstanding restaurant experiences we had on this trip (most notably at French Connection and Serendipity, where the service was genuinely welcoming and friendly, and the food was perfect – for a LOT less money!), Buitenvervachting falls far short. I have to say that in terms of service basics – drinks, menus and ordering - it was even inferior to the Ocean Basket chain, where we never had to ask for anything! It was definitely “outside our expectations” – but in the wrong direction! We will definitely not return, and would warn others to dine there at their own risk. There are many many better places to spend your time and money in Cape Town.

However, this one negative experience did not spoil a fantastic holiday. We love South Africa and will continue to come back as often as we possibly can! There are not enough different words for “great” and “fantastic” to describe this stunning country and its people. Finally, big thanks again to Selwyn, whose advice on this forum was incredibly helpful in helping us plan a great holiday.

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