Whenever I ask friends bound for South Africa how they'll be spending their time, invariably the response is the same: several days or a week exploring Cape Town and the Garden Route, followed by a safari. Will you go to the Winelands, I ask?Oh, they reply, we'll probably do it as a day trip from Cape Town.
A mistake. The Winelands region, which begins minutes outside Cape Town, is one of the country's best-kept secrets, an area that delivers both jaw-dropping natural beauty and plenty of sophisticated pleasures.
Its landscape is like something out of a fairy tale: craggy mountain ranges fringed in clouds rise dramatically from green, green valleys; gargantuan 300-year-old camphor trees and gardens dense with hydrangeas and roses envelop elegant farmhouses, all gleaming white stucco and swooping gables and thatched roofs; sloping hillsides and wide fields that stretch to the edge of the mountains are planted with row upon row of vines, citrus trees, lavender. The Lord of the Rings may have been filmed in New Zealand, but Tolkien was born in South Africa, and it is this land that many believe inspired his vision of Middle-earth.
There has certainly never been a better time to visit. Local vintners have been making tremendous progress, and you won't ever get the chance to drink their best wines at home; what's more, the tasting experience here is one of the most accessible and least commercial in the world. Although the rand is stronger than it has been in years, prices remain absurdly low (a very good bottle of wine runs about $10—at a restaurant). And there are now many fine places to stay, hotels so charming that they're practically worth the trip in and of themselves.
I recently spent two weeks test-driving properties in the region's key locations—Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington, Constantia—to uncover the best. Because distances between towns and wineries aren't great, you can base yourself at a single hotel, but take my advice and try one in at least two different areas—by moving around a bit you'll have an opportunity to better experience communities with different personalities and sample wines from a number of terroirs. (See "Tasting the Winelands" for a handful of must-see producers.)
Remember how much you've loved Tuscany and Provence?Well, South Africa's Winelands is that good—or better, since here you'll never have to battle crowds. Do yourself a favor: Go.
A French enclave and wine-producing area since the late 17th century, the Franschhoek valley is one of South Africa's most beautiful spots, and the town that bears the same name is the country's East Hampton, a picture-postcard village with a single main street and a major weekend scene. Popular as a getaway for monied South Africans and for Europeans, especially the Germans and English (the area's astronomical real estate prices are quoted in pounds and euros, as well as rand), the town is one of the few in the Winelands with a small but good selection of restaurants and shops (especially antiques). And because nearby Stellenbosch has the area's biggest concentration of excellent wineries but no great places to stay, if you're going to choose one place in the Winelands as your base, Franschhoek should be it.
LA RÉSIDENCE The biggest hotel news to hit Franschhoek in years came last September, when La Résidence opened its doors as the town's newest guesthouse. A former fruit-packing shed on a neglected plot of farmland, the property was purchased in 1999 by Phil and Liz Biden, the owners of the über-fantasy safari camp Royal Malewane near Kruger National Park. The shed was restored and expanded into a villa for the Bidens; the land was sold in parcels, and the whole place emerged as an elaborate gated community called Domaine des Anges. After a year, the Bidens began to rent their villa in its entirety as La Résidence, for several thousand dollars a day. Then, last fall, they quietly made it known that they would let individual rooms; overnight, La Résidence became the most luxurious and stylish hotel in the Winelands.
Much of La Résidence's appeal is that it continues to feel like, well, a private residence, and being set within Franschhoek's most exclusive residential development only reinforces the effect. The property's amiable managers, Johan de Villiers and Len Straw, also contribute greatly to its success, by serving as your own personal butlers, concierges, travel agents, even therapists. Sitting by the pool and feeling peckish?Len has an artfully arranged tray of nibbles at the ready. Want a nightcap after your dinner out?Johan is there to welcome you and offer a brandy. Need your shirt pressed?They'll send it out posthaste. (Best of all, you won't pay a penny extra for any of this—everything is included.) It can take some getting used to, this Master of the House business, but after a day, I couldn't get enough.
La Résidence is an object lesson in theatrical interior decorating. In the public areas, Liz Biden has played with scale—a rolled-arm sofa that seats 10, gilded candlesticks as tall as a man—and done a great deal of mixing and matching: a 19th-century French farmhouse table sits on an old Persian rug a few feet from a Louis XIV settee upholstered in silk damask. It looks a bit like the house of your slightly mad, globe-trotting English aunt, and it's a good deal of fun.
In the five guest rooms, arranged around a courtyard pool, furnishings are equally eclectic, running to ebonized Victorian divans re-covered in ticking fabric, painted Balinese cabinets, and colonial cherrywood four-poster beds. No. 1 is the only upper-floor room and, with its own library and terrace, by far the largest and most private; it's well worth the extra tariff. Among the ground-floor options, No. 2 is the second-largest and has the best views. All come with oversized double-hung windows, unhoned travertine floors, the region's most extravagant bathrooms, and no TV's or air-conditioning—a country touch that pleases many guests, but sends some packing.
La Résidence technically serves only breakfast, but if you ask they'll cook dinner for you as well. Johan and Len clear everybody out for the evening, light masses of candles, put on some delightfully serene music, set an exquisite, color-themed table, and leave you to enjoy a parade of delightful things to eat. Pure romance.
27-15/793-0150 (reservations) or 27-21/876-4100 (property); www.laresidence.co.za; doubles from $526.