Thur 24 Nov: Swellendam-Hermanus
De Hoop Nature reserve is a wonderfully protected part of the coast that is home to many specifies of birds and game. To get there you need to drive down about 30 miles of dirt track but this only adds to the excitement. We passed very few other cars as we drove through rolling farmland, seeing the occasional distant whitewashed building. It felt more like we were in the US mid-west or Tuscan countryside rather than in southern Africa! This was one my favourite drives of the trip for the changing scenery and the wild, rustic sensation.
Soon we drove past a large field and we noticed that there were hundreds of ostriches there. We were disappointed we did not have time to go to an ostrich farm the day before when we were in Oudtshoorn so we made the most of this opportunity. We parked beside the road and as we got out many ostriches started wandering over to us. It was slightly surreal, a bit like a benign version of some zombie film, but we soon realised that they probably thought it was feeding time. They all came close to the fence without any fear and around 30 just stood there silently, their heads flicking around. It has to rank as one of the most odd but memorable experiences we had on the trip and it must have looked strange as well – the 2 of us versus a few hundred ostriches!
We moved on and entered De Hoop. We decided to head straight down to the sea, hoping to see whales as this is one of the best places to see them in season. Unfortunately it was not to be although we did enjoy walking amongst the sand dunes and empty beaches. There was certainly more of a feeling of wildness about this and once again we agreed on how fortunate the locals were for having such a wide choice of beautiful beaches. We even found a sand cave hollowed out of the side of the rocky outcrops and had the best picnic lunch I can remember in a long time. The combination of eating handsliced salami, brie and fresh bread together with the stunning view of windswept dunes and feeling of solitude will stay with me for a long time.
Afterwards we headed back to the visitor centre where there is a man made lake and where most of the game is located. Although sparse looking there were certainly zebra and bontebok amongst others that seemed to be wandering freely around. The stars though were the baboons who were feeding from a tree outside the visitor centre. There seemed to be a few families of them here and we saw a few babies clinging onto their mothers’ stomachs, when they weren’t mischievously climbing onto the wooden posts and leaping off playfully. There was a real sense of community amongst them and it was fun to watch them enjoying themselves so happily. We spent 45 mins just observing them at close quarters, which made up for the visitor centre being closed.
We followed the coastal road towards Hermanus and passed by more mountain scenery and beaches, although each view seemed to offer something new and we never got tired of seeing it. Having been on a driving holiday in Scotland before, this certainly surpasses that for variety and impressiveness. We arrived at the picturesque town of Hermanus and checked into the Windsor Hotel. I chose this for the sea views as we were still hoping to catch the whales. The view didn’t disappoint and the sound of waves crashing against the rocks beneath the hotel was very soothing. The hotel was a bit tired looking and certainly the most standard accommodation of all the places we stayed at, but it was fine for a night (plus they gave us yet another bottle of champagne!)
We had a walk around town but it is really quite small so we managed to do a couple of loops to check out the restaurants. We then noticed that many people were staring out into the sea not just for the view but because there was a whale not 100m from the seafront! It was surfacing every now, seemingly just to look around and see what was happening. Then amazingly it breached the surface and did a little flip, bringing a lot of “aahhhhs!!” from the watching crowds. It was a pity I did not have my camera (one of the few times during our trip) but at least I can say that I had a good viewing of one. We saw a couple more the next morning but they were some way out to sea, although this time I did manage to get a long shot of the tail of one as it dived down – fantastic!
It was also in Hermanus that we were introduced to the ubitiqitous Dassie – a large rodent-like creature that is apparently closely related to the elephant, although it bears no resemblance whatsoever! It reminded me very much of the Australian quokka that I saw when I went to Perth, a cute looking, plant eating, rabbit sized creature. These seem to be found on rocky outcrops anywhere near the sea and we saw many large and small ones amongst the rocks as we looked for whales. They seem happy to feed on plants but we saw tourists giving out food as well, which probably explained their willingness to come close for photos. However once tempted they appeared to get very persistent and would even jump onto benches looking for more. As always it was the youngsters who were cutest and watching them playing with each other whiled away a good half hour.
The other notable experience we had in Hermanus was when we went for dinner. Not wanting anything heavy, we ended up at Sea Basket, a chain of seafood restaurants, since we couldn’t find anything more suitable. I was not expecting much but surprisingly the calamari, sole and whitebait (the largest ones I have ever seen!) were all excellent, another example of how difficult it is to go wrong in SA dining when the ingredients are so fresh.
Friday 25 Nov: Hermanus-Franschhoek
We continued following the cost line out of Hermanus and slowly made our way to Gordon’s Bay. The guide book recommended this drive and I have to agree it was one of the most scenic ones we did. The road hugs the sea for miles, providing expansive views across False Bay to the Cape Peninsula on the other side. Added to this was the excitement that we were nearing Cape Town, but that was to come a bit later. First we were due to spend 2 nights in Franschhoek, one of the 3 main centres in the Winelands (the others being Stellenbosch and Paarl).
We approached from the Franschhoek pass, which took us up through the mountains behind the town itself. The scenery had noticeably changed from the coastal areas we had been in, into a verdant and lush environment. It was quite clear why there are so many vineyards located in this region. As we rounded the final mountain and caught our first glimpse of Franschhoek, we got one of those sensations people must get when they first catch sight of Macchu Picchu or The Himalayas. The setting could not be more picturesque, nestled as it is in a valley, surrounded by vineyards creeping up the mountainsides. We had a great view of this vista as we were way above it and I’m sure we could see as far as Paarl from where we were.
Driving into the town itself it felt like a hidden idyll that had remained untouched for centuries. The only giveaways were the coffee bars and restaurants on the main road. However once you turn off this every street seems to consist of early 20th century type houses, each different from the rest and all with some sort of unique feature. Quite a few houses seemed unoccupied, probably since they were holiday homes that would be filled up in a month’s time for the holidays.
We had booked 2 nights at Klein Oliphants Hoek, another find from the Fodor’s forum. This is a converted schoolhouse and had the most charm of the places we stayed at. The reception hall felt cosy despite having a double height ceiling whilst the breakfast/dining room at the back had a great view of the mountains. The fact that you have to go through the kitchen to get there, filling our nostrils with home cooking aromas, made it all the more delightful. We had an attic room but to call it that does not do it justice. There were many small touches which showed it was carefully thought through, from the bathroom toiletries to the decanter of wine on the dresser. Incidentally my wife loved this wine and it became a routine of hers to have a thimbleful in the morning and evening! We forgot to ask what it was called though so if anyone knows the name of the wine, please let me know! We were surprised to find a DVD player as well, useful since we had brought our own and a portable player.
We were a bit disappointed to find that there had been a power cut that morning and the whole town was without electricity! However this sort of added to the rustic charm of the town. It meant we had to miss out on lunch at Topsi’s as the kitchen was closed for this reason, however we were able to get a sandwich and relax in one of the cafes, content to people watch. There were plenty of gift shops on the main street also to keep us occupied, including one with a 3 foot giraffe toy that my wife wanted to buy for our goddaughter! Much as I liked it as well, we still had a lot of travelling to do so we had to give it a miss.
Fortunately the power came back on in the mid-afternoon so that meant our reservations at Le Quartier Francais were not wasted. I had booked this on hearing all the reviews about the cuisine here and was not disappointed. We had the tasting menu and spent the next 2 hours sampling tasty, artistic creations. There were so many different plates I can’t remember what we ate but we left suitably satiated. I have to say though that it was comparable to London prices, and whilst the food was good it was not way different from anything we could have eaten back home. So whilst it was a good experience, it probably lacked the something special to make it truly memorable (but maybe we are just spoilt for eating out living in London!).
The next day we visited Stellenbosch, a much larger and busier town than Franschhoek. This has a large student population and we drove past many university buildings on our way into the centre. Maybe it was because this was the first large town we had visited since we arrived in SA but I didn’t enjoy being here all that much. Certainly the oak lined streets make it an ideal getaway for Cape Townians (?) for the weekend and we enjoyed the visit to the Village Museum to see the original houses of the founding settlers. However having got so used to being in a personal, compact environment over the last 10 days, we found it quite a shock to suddenly return to the “metropolis”, even though Stellenbosch isn’t that big. So we had a quick stroll around town before making our way back.
We stopped off at Boschendal to get a taste for the vineyards and even though we knew it was quite a touristy place we enjoyed a filling lunch here amongst the tree-shaded courtyard. This must be one of the best places to have an outdoor lunch and were it not for our dinner reservations we would have tried the legendary buffet lunch here. As it was we settled for a club sandwich and soaked up the mountain scenery. Afterwards we tried to get on a vineyard tour, only to be told that those were only done in the morning. Fortunately we are not big wine drinkers but it would have been interesting to see the process and walk amongst the acres of maturing grapes. At least that gives us an excuse to return here again!
We were to be disappointed once more when we returned to Franschhoek as we wanted to do a chocolate tour at the Huguenot Chocolate Factory. However when we got there we found out the chocolatier was not in, so instead we had to settle for buying some from the shop. These were heavenly though and we could have eaten a dozen of the champagne truffles each!
Dinner that night was at Le Bon Vivant, primarily because of all the good reviews on the Fodor’s forum (special thanks really to all for the useful information I gathered, it really was the most used site when I was planning this trip). It is a very nicely decorated restaurant with blooming lavender trees outside and an opulent feeling inside. We were fortunate enough to have a table with a view of the kitchen so we could watch the chefs at work in their immaculate environment. The food was more homely and traditional than Le Quartier Francais but no less delicious. The prawn starter my wife had that came with a sort of gazpacho soup was particularly a success. Best of all it was fantastically cheap, less than half of the previous night, a surprise for us given the expensive “feel” about the restaurant. I would add my voice to those who have already recommended it as a must-do in Franschhoek.
We could have stayed another week in Franschhoek such was the impressive setting and numerous excellent restaurants in town. However we had to move on towards Cape Town for the next stage of our trip.
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Thur 24 Nov: Swellendam-Hermanus