The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Get set for the ultimate South African escape
If you want to see the very best of this breathtaking country, our resident expert Pippa de Bruyn can set you on the right path
If 2022 was the year the storm finally blew over, leading us back to some kind of normality, 2023 will be the year we reclaim what we once took for granted. If you have never been to South Africa, this is the year to find out what the fuss is about; if you have, you will probably need no encouragement to return. But the pound has never been stronger against the rand, the hospitality industry has never been more welcoming, and its geographic splendour is as awe-inspiring as ever.
The Western Cape provides many people’s first experience of the country – with good reason. Its gateway is one of the world’s great cities, its relatively traffic-free roads are perfect for a driving holiday and it offers a wonderful contrast of landscapes, from wild coastline to calm, manicured vineyards.
This two-week itinerary, featuring the best places to stay, eat and shop, offers something for both old hands and first-timers. It kicks off in Cape Town – long regarded by Telegraph Travel readers as the best city on Earth; includes time on the relatively unsung Overberg coast, with a sparkling journey to De Hoop Nature Reserve; features a couple of Garden Route favourites – Plettenberg Bay and Wilderness; and finishes with a trip to the Winelands.
Tweaks are simple. If you are pressed for time, simply skip the Overberg. For a complete change of scenery, we return to Cape Town via the semi-desert Karoo region. But an Eastern Cape safari also makes a simple addition (see expert tips, above right).
Travelling through this big-sky country, which is largely uninhabited, induces something of a meditative state, a kind of travel therapy – perfect for these anxiety-inducing times. The experience brings to mind the opening stanza of one of my favourite Afrikaans poems, by Jan Celliers. It roughly translates as:
It’s the blonde
It’s the blue
It’s the veld
It’s the sky
And a bird wheels above in lonely flight
Lofty views and hip bars
Take a metered taxi or Uber from the airport to Dorp, the most gorgeous little hotel located at the very top of Signal Hill, with picture-perfect views of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak. If you have touched down in the morning (most direct flights do), head over to the Table Mountain cableway to ascend the flattopped landmark for a lofty perspective on this city of views.
Head back to Kloof Street to browse its many trendy restaurants and bars. Hip staff place simple, well-priced dishes on brown-paper-clad tables at Blondie (advanced booking unavailable); for a more groomed and elegant experience, and the most delicious sharing plates, you can’t go wrong with Elgr (book a table in the courtyard if the weather allows). Or else check out Ouzeri on nearby Wale Street, where chef Nic Charalambous is wowing locals with his contemporary interpretations of traditional recipes from the Eastern Mediterranean.
Spend the afternoon exploring the V&A Waterfront (for locally made souvenirs, shop in the Watershed market), or simply cocoon at the Dorp and watch the city lights twinkle through the large arched windows.
Art and gardens
The Iziko SA National Gallery reopened at the end of last year with
Breaking Down the Walls – 150 years of Art Collecting, and it is well worth setting aside a few hours to explore this thought-provoking exhibition. Then head over to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens to see what is flowering – against the backdrop of the forested eastern flank of Table Mountain. The setting is sublime.
Then, explore the wider peninsula, preferably with a private guide (a great tour is offered by Clive de Bruyne, priced at ZAR7800/£375 for two). A circular drive takes you south along the False Bay coast to Cape Point, then back north up the Atlantic seaboard, finally snaking along the epic Chapman’s Peak Drive. Clive can tailor the itinerary to suit your interests, but all the must-do sights are included, not least the penguin colony at Boulders beach.
The ideal lunch stop is a seaside table at Harbour House in Kalk Bay; if time allows, stroll the town’s dinky high street, one of the country’s most charming places to shop.
Take the road
Have a hire car delivered to your hotel and head out along the N2 to Gordon’s Bay, then take Clarence Drive, the scenic coastal route that snakes its way to the village Rooi-Els, before cutting back towards Hermanus. Stop for lunch at the Creation winery in the aptly named Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley, home to arguably the Cape’s most consistently fine terroir (Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson are other fine producers). If you would rather eat in Hermanus, Perlemoen (64 Marine Dr; 00 27 8284 13547) has been earning rave reviews in recent years.
From Hermanus, skirt the Klein River Lagoon to the charming village of Stanford, beyond which lies the Coot Club, with an idyllic location overlooking the bird-rich shallows, and your room for the next two nights. Opt for a Coot Club Boathouse, and spend the evening watching the changing light on the Maanschijn Mountains before strolling along a fynbos-fringed path and over lawns for dinner on site at the Spookhuis.
Relax by the water
It’s time for some R&R: wild swimming in the lagoon, kayaking past coots, sunset drinks on Walker Bay beach, and spa treatments at the adjacent Mosaic Lagoon Lodge. Further afield there are plenty of wine-tasting options, shopping on Stanford’s high street, heritage walks, a cooking course (Madres Kitchen), as well as several standout restaurants. Manor House is the region’s most acclaimed country kitchen, located at Stanford Valley Guest Farm – with a delightful collection of cottages, this is a great alternative base if the Coot Club is booked up.
DE HOOP NATURE
Whales and wetlands
It is a leisurely two-hour drive east to the gates of the 34,000-hectare De Hoop Nature Reserve, with a gorgeous stretch of coastline, where hundreds of southern right whales arrive each year from June to November to calve and nurse their young. For an added dose of magnificent wildlife, head for the inland lake and wetlands, which teem with exceptional birdlife.
De Hoop Collection offers a wide range of affordable accommodation options overlooking or near the Ramsar lake (a designation given to wetlands of significant natural importance) but for a front-row seat on an untouched beach, with no human development in sight, book either Morukuru Beach Lodge or Lekkerwater Beach Lodge.
Walk back in time
With mile upon mile of unspoilt sand, alcoves embraced by limestone walls carved and pockmarked by the sea, and natural tidal pools protected by a reef, the focus is usually on the beach. But De Hoop also showcases the beauty and delicacy of fynbos, and is home to various species of antelopes, ostriches and baboons.
Be sure to take a walk at low tide
with a specialist guide to learn more about the diversity of the marine life, and to discover how the first homo sapiens found a safe haven on this glorious stretch of coastline, 100,000 years ago.
THE GARDEN ROUTE
Into the wilderness
Surrounded by the Garden Route National Park, with forests, an estuary, lakes and beaches, the village of Wilderness – just under three hours from De Hoop – is a great base for exploring the Garden Route, a 124-mile stretch named for its lush and diverse vegetation.
Check into one of Moontide Riverside Lodge’s new self-catering garden cottages – shaded by milkwoods, located on the Touw river estuary and just a few minutes’ stroll from the beach (and Salinas, the beachfront restaurant). Dine at Joplins, a timber cabin with a laid-back atmosphere and a chalkboard menu listing an array of steaks, all served with egg and chips – an unpretentious Garden Route gem.
DAY 8 Waterfall walks
There are several walks, but my favourite is the Kingfisher Trail that leads through ancient forest to a beautiful waterfall; an idyllic morning can be spent paddling one of the Moontide canoes along the majority of the route before hiking the last section. Wilderness Picnics offers an excellent basket of local produce – inquire at the hotel reception on arrival or book direct (wildernesspicnic.co.za).
The Touw river – warm and shallow with a sandy bed – is great to swim in. Explore the Kaaimans gorge with Eden Adventures, book a forest walk with knowledgeable and inspiring guide Mark Dixon, or get lost in a book on one of several Moontide decks overlooking the lagoon.
Take the road east
Check out of Moontide and head east on the coast road, traversing the region’s lakes and estuaries, to Knysna. Have lunch at Ile De Pain, a locally famous bakery on Thesen Island, surrounded by chi-chi shops.
Just outside Knysna is pretty Noetzie beach, encircled by rather incongruous modern stone castles – it is a great spot for a swim if you have the time. Continue to Plettenberg Bay, where a couple of nights at Emily Moon River Lodge, overlooking the meandering Bitou, awaits.
Swim with seals
Head into Plett for the exhilarating 90-minute Swim with Seals experience
offered by Offshore Adventures (prebooking essential). Then head to Ristorante Enrico at Keurbooms (a far less developed spot just beyond Plett) for pizza on the beach.
In the afternoon, take the boat into the beautiful Keurbooms Nature Reserve, or drive to the Robberg Nature Reserve for a stunning coastal walk.
Pop into Old Nick Village, in Plett, for some retail therapy before returning to Emily Moon for dinner.
DAY 11 Prince Albert
Swap Plett for Prince Albert, a small but cosmopolitan town that is popular with artists. If you would prefer not to retrace your footsteps and don’t mind driving on dirt, take the longer route via Joubertina, or else double back to George before heading north via several scenic passes.
Check into either Prince Albert Country Stay, on the high street, or Dennehof, on the outskirts of the town.
A great way to explore the Victorian-era streets is with guide Ailsa Tudhope, “the Story Weaver” (pre-booking essential) – or just stroll the shops in search of souvenirs.
End the day on the veranda of the Green Prince Gin Bar (part of the Swartberg Hotel), then stroll over the road for pizzas at African Relish Café, also a cooking school. If you feel like something more hearty, Karoo Kombuis offers a traditional menu heavy on delicious Karoo lamb, chicken pie and sweetened vegetables.
DAY 12 Route 62
Enjoy a leisurely breakfast, then depart via the Swartberg Pass where the hair-raising switchbacks are well worth it for the views. Route 62, through the Klein Karoo, is uniquely mesmerising.
It is a four-hour journey to Montagu with no stops, or pause at Calitzdorp to stock up on fortified wines from Boplaas or De Krans. Check into the restored Jonkmanshof in Montagu, before dinner at 22 Church Street.
DAY 13 Franschhoek
After a leisurely breakfast take the scenic route via Villiersdorp to Franschhoek, just under two hours away, which offers wraparound mountain views and quaint streetscapes.
Check into La Cotte or Leeu House, both in the heart of the town, with its plethora of restaurants, cafés and shops. Don’t miss the Franschhoek Motor Museum and a wine-tasting at adjacent Anthonij Rupert (pre-booking required). Dine at the award-winning La Petite Colombe at Leeu Estate.
DAY 14 Bottoms up
Spend a day by the pool – or dive into some serious wine tasting. The choice is mind-boggling but Delaire on Helshoogte Pass is among my favourite estates for its phenomenal views; neighbouring Oldenburg, tucked into the mountains, is another must.
Babylonstoren can get crowded – but the gardens really are magnificent, its wine museum fun, the farm shop excellent, its wines far from shabby and its restaurants good.
The easiest option is to book a wine tour with a guide like Stephen Flesch, who strikes a great balance between iconic and off-the-beaten-track vineyards, or else jump on board the quirky Wine Tram (pre-booking advised), which links a score of different estates (including Babylonstoren).
DAY 15 Homeward bound
You will need at least 90 minutes to get back to Cape Town international airport – fortunately most departures are in the evening.