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.
LA CABRIÈRE COUNTRY HOUSE Franschhoek has dozens of practically interchangeable B&B's: all are fairly modest, with a basic French Country look and a relatively inexpensive price tag. Almost none, however, have an extra dash of style or a setting that really conveys the beauty of the surrounding countryside. La Cabrière has both. The property consists of two unassuming sand-colored stucco buildings plunked down in an unbeatable location that's just on the edge of town (you can walk to everything) yet provides wide, pastoral views across a lavender field, olive grove, and vineyard on the valley floor, and up to the mountains in the distance.
La Cabrière was taken over two years ago by Clare Broadhurst, a former financial analyst from Devon. She inherited a property with lovely gardens and three urbane (if not especially private) rooms with a beige-on-beige palette, polished cement floors, raw silk curtains, and mahogany beds. If you prefer toile-upholstered headboards and footed tubs, Broadhurst has added two new guest rooms in the building that also serves as her house; they're best for those who like things a little quieter and can picture themselves lounging about in Broadhurst's living room, a light-filled space right out of the pages of South African House & Garden.
27-21/876-4780; www.lacabriere.co.za; doubles from $120.
LE QUARTIER FRANÇAIS In many destinations, particularly those with a high-voltage social scene, staying at the right place—not to be confused, as it often is, with the best place—can make all the difference. Booking at the right place gives you immediate access to another world, and the privileged sense of having really arrived. In Franschhoek, Le Quartier Français is that place.
What makes it so, ultimately, is Susan Huxter, the hotel's owner and the unofficial mayor of Franschhoek, a woman who started out here 15 years ago with a small restaurant on the main street and didn't stop until she'd built a local empire, which now includes the hotel, a shop, and two additional restaurants. (More is on the way, too: Huxter recently bought some neighboring houses that will likely become additional guest rooms, and perhaps a spa.) Running all these businesses, plus the town's tourism board, Huxter has come to know everyone and everything. Get in with her, and you're in.
Le Quartier is Huxter's village within the village, four whitewashed buildings with lacy wrought-iron trim and wide porches surrounded by rose gardens, all set around an oval pool that functions as a kind of town square. Here a young couple with a newborn baby (heirs to one-sixteenth of the De Beers diamond fortune) lounge alongside a Swiss pharmaceutical magnate and two elderly sisters delighted to be anywhere but their drafty 15th-century manor in Scotland. And, unlike at a B&B, they're not all busy chatting one another up; they're just discreetly soaking in the sun on their chaises and minding their own business, as good neighbors should.
Perhaps they're also dreaming of dinner in the restaurant, one of the hotel's chief attractions. In her nine years at Le Quartier, chef Margot Janse has racked up awards (most recently, 2003 Chef of the Year by South Africa's Wine magazine); lately, she has refined her cooking, producing ambitious dishes that demonstrate a level of balance and restraint unusual in this region: brandade of local salmon trout in a shallow pool of seafood bisque tarted up with bits of preserved lime; a salad of pristine baby greens topped with a heady truffle hollandaise and a miraculously liquid fried egg yolk. Those in the know have one blowout meal in the proper restaurant and then eat the next night at an outdoor table, ordering off the bar menu; people drive out from Cape Town for the lamb burger.
That Le Quartier, like Huxter herself, is far from buttoned-up is much of the reason it has become such a beloved institution. The 17 guest rooms combine plenty of comforts (wood-burning fireplaces, complimentary snacks, great quantities of artisanal bath amenities) with sun-kissed pastels, painted wooden headboards, and sheer curtains suspended from steel cables. It's a whimsical, Matisse-y look that won't win any design awards but that most guests find a pleasing contrast to their more formal rooms at home. Given the devotion the place inspires, if Huxter ever revamped the rooms, there'd be a revolt.
27-21/876-2151; www.lequartier.co.za; doubles from $375.
LA COURONNE For travelers who care more about awe-inspiring topography than high style or easy access to town and who need a higher level of service than B&B's provide, there is yet another option in Franschhoek: La Couronne.
Set high on a hillside, surrounded by vineyards, and offering unbroken vistas from nearly every inch of the property, La Couronne has long been loved for its location, the most scenic of any hotel's in the area. The past few years, though, have been marked by transition: in 2000, new owners added a nine- room annex to the seven rooms in the original manor house; then, following another change in ownership last year, eight more rooms were added in a second annex, with a gym and spa due this summer. All this does not sound especially promising, but La Couronne has emerged as the Hotel Cipriani of Fransch- hoek—an exclusive enclave with a resort feel that's ideal for those who do not want to be in the center of everything.
Service often suffers at hotels that have experienced changes in direction, but here it has remained pitch-perfect, in that subtly choreographed way that seems to make everything happen exactly as it's supposed to. Go ahead: Try setting down a glass without someone appearing within five seconds to refill it and wipe the condensation from the table. Likewise, annexes are usually architecturally ugly, with rooms that pale in comparison to those in the more historic buildings; at La Couronne, however, they blend in well and take better advantage of the views. (Book one of the new Cabernet rooms for the best terraces overlooking the valley, a Merlot room in the older annex for a stylish Colonial feel.)
La Couronne is for those who like a certain formality and reserve in their hotels, and who appreciate the accompanying comfort and attention to detail. Does it have the most personality of any hotel in Franschhoek?No. But does it have views you'll never forget?Without a doubt.
27-21/876-2770; www.lacouronnehotel.co.za; doubles from $175.
A dozen miles north of Franschhoek, in the shadow of the Klein Drakenstein range and the second-largest granite outcrop in the world (after Australia's Uluru), lie the towns of Paarl and Wellington. While not as attractive or visitor-friendly as Franschhoek and Stellen- bosch, the surrounding landscape is equally dramatic—with knotty green vines cloaking the foothills of mountains that glow gold and mahogany in the sun—as well as a thoroughly relaxing atmosphere. Smart travelers, in fact, skip the towns entirely, base themselves instead at a laid-back hotel deep in the rural countryside, and spend their days wandering around the area's excellent, less-visited vineyards. It's about as pastoral an experience as you can have in the Winelands, and well worth the detour.
DIEMERSFONTEIN COUNTRY HOUSE Most people come to Diemersfontein, a hillside wine estate south of Wellington, to taste its exciting wines (don't miss the 2003 Pinotage with a mind-blowing coffee-chocolate nose). What they often don't know is that the property includes a hotel as rooted in the past as its wines are in the future, a place that gives you an irresistible taste of life among the Winelands' class of patrician farmers at the turn of the last century: plenty of horseback rides through the mountains; gin and tonics at sunset on the porch; and undisturbed peace and quiet.
The hotel's centerpiece is a 100-year-old manor house that, six years ago, was turned into a guesthouse by its third-generation owners. It looks like they just left; their antiques, family oil portraits, and photographs have all remained. The result is a hotel with unusually pedigreed furnishings—from the embossed and gilded leather armchairs and longcase clock in the foyer to the bronze statuary and towering 19th-century armoire in the sitting room—that nevertheless has the homey quality that comes from having been lived in for decades. Thirteen of the 17 guest rooms are housed in new cottages set amid mature gardens, but nothing can beat the four in the main house, all of which have dormers and double-hung windows with hand-glazed panes. Among the best are No. 2, a festival of blue-and-white chinoiserie toile de Jouy, and No. 4, with a brick fireplace and terrace, an old bowfront mahogany chest of drawers, and a fabulous mint green-tiled bathroom straight out of the 1940's.
In January the estate opened a sleek, light-filled restaurant a short walk from the hotel that is already turning out accomplished dishes such as deboned quail wrapped in pancetta and filled with apricot-studded stuffing. Combine a dish like this with one of the estate's wines and suddenly you've stepped back into the 21st century.
27-21/873-2671; www.diemersfontein.co.za; doubles from $140.
ROGGELAND COUNTRY HOUSE Some hotels are so welcoming that you can't help but give yourself up to them despite their flaws. Roggeland, a 17th-century Cape Dutch homestead near Paarl run by two generations of the Minkley family, is that kind of property. You should by no means consider staying here if you demand luxury and cannot imagine sleeping on a lumpy mattress, drying yourself with thin towels, or staring at knotty-pine furniture. But sitting in the shade of an old English plane tree, a delightful fizzy lemon drink in hand, and watching a family of barn swallows swoop in and out of their nests—it's hard not to fall in love.
The hotel is prized for service that is not only warm but exceptionally attentive to your needs. At evening wine tastings on the lawn, several vintages are generously poured while you sit and admire the play of light on the mountains. Later, guests are encouraged to linger over superb four-course dinners—each course paired with an interestingly chosen wine—of well-calibrated dishes using fresh local produce (velvety green bean soup; perfectly rare beef fillet and roasted sweet potatoes; silky panna cotta with a compote of berries). If Roggeland doesn't sound like a place you'd like to spend the night, book well in advance and just come for dinner; it would be a shame to miss it.
27-21/868-2501; www.roggeland.co.za; doubles from $165.
Wine estates in South Africa tend to be either architecturally interesting or in beautiful locations, or both. Most are open regularly to visitors (call a day in advance for tours). Winery employees are extremely knowledgeable, not to mention friendly. And tastings rarely run more than $3 a person (and that might include 12 different wines).
Here are 10 lesser-known producers on the rise. Their vintages represent current trends in South African wine making: a movement away from traditionally favored varietals such as Chenin Blanc and Pinotage; an emphasis on red-wine production; the emergence of small producers focused on terroir, and quality rather than quantity. Recommendations are for wineries in the heart of the region, which have the most to offer travelers in terms of choice, quality, and infrastructure.
AVONDALE A young winery outside Paarl, Avondale has a brand-new, cathedral-like tasting room and some excellent wines, including an unusual sweet Muscat Rouge with a fresh, lovely jasmine nose. 27-21/863-1976; www.avondalewine.co.za.
BUITENVERWACHTING All the historic estates in Constantia are worth visiting, but be sure you don't skip this one, which is as pretty as any and less busy; try its two unique blends, the easy-drinking Buiten Blanc and the Bordeaux-style Christine. 27-21/794-5190; www.buitenverwachting.com.
DORNIER WINES Swiss artist Christopher Dornier's Stellenbosch winery would be notable for its resolutely modern design even if vintner Ian Naudé's current releases (two reds and a white) weren't so exceptional. A must. 27-21/880-0557; www.dornierwines.co.za.
GRANGEHURST WINERY Sample Jeremy Walker's supple 1999 Nikela blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Merlot) and his 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, a classic Bordeaux-style wine with great backbone. 27-21/855-3625; www.grangehurst.co.za.
JP BREDELL WINES Port is the reason to stop here; Anton Bredell's 1999 Late Bottled Vintage is dense and rich, with the older reserve vintages taking things to the next level. 27-21/842-2478; www.bredellwines.co.za.
KEN FORRESTER WINES Wine lovers drop by Forrester mostly to eat at 96 Winery Road, the property's restaurant, the unofficial HQ of industry insiders. Match the pâté of smoked snoek, a local fish, with a bottle of Forrester's Chenin Blanc. 27-21/855-2374 (winery), 27-21/842-2020 (restaurant); www.kenforresterwines.com.
LAIBACH Stunning vintages including the fantastic Pinotage (2001) with surprisingly restrained fruit and a supple 2001 Friedrich Laibach Cabernet-Merlot blend. Pack a picnic and have lunch on the deck overlooking the valley. 27-21/884-4511; www.laibach.co.za.
L'AVENIR WINE ESTATE Notable for its range of wines, L'Avenir also represents a positive vision of the future of wine tourism in South Africa, with its stand-up tasting counter manned by cheerful young people. 27-21/889-5001; www.lavenir.co.za.
LE RICHE WINES On this cult Stellenbosch estate in an unpretentious farm setting, Etienne Le Riche makes beautifully structured Cabernet Sauvignons. The 2000 and 2001 vintages are both winners. 27-21/887-0789.
WATERFORD Six-year-old Waterford is one of the region's most extravagant wineries, a Tuscan-style building with an allée of clementine trees. Winemaker Kevin Arnold (formerly of Rust en Vrede) still has room to grow, but he's well on his way to making Waterford a classic. 27-21/880-0496; www.waterfordwines.com.
Those who want to ease themselves into the Winelands, or would like a more relaxed way to experience Cape Town, should consider staying a night (or two) in Constantia, South Africa's oldest wine-producing area, in the city's hushed, leafy suburbs. It has a handful of excellent vineyards to visit, and two good places to stay.
A 17th-century farm purchased and restored in the early nineties by the doyenne of South African hospitality, Liz McGrath, Cellars' calling card is its nine acres of extra-ordinary gardens: sweeping lawns ringed by bosomy hydrangeas; romantic wood-lands with a rock pool and a centuries-old camphor tree; formal areas of climbing roses and lavender hedges. The atmosphere is on the sedate side, but the 53 guest rooms are bright and comfortable (best are those on the top floor of the Hohenort building), and the service reaches heights of efficiency. DOUBLES FROM $325. 800/735-2478 OR 27-21/794-2137; www.cellars-hohenort.com
More relaxed than Cellars, with 16 guest rooms that offer a disarmingly simple, freshly scrubbed take on French Country, the working wine estate Constantia Uitsig is best known for its restaurants. The property's namesake is housed in an attractive Cape Dutch farmhouse where chef Frank Swainston gives local produce an expert Italian spin. At the slightly more formal La Colombe, Franck Dangereux creates dishes that recall a Michelin two-starred establishment somewhere in the south of France. Both are among the country's best places to eat, and having your bed just steps away after a languorous dinner here is an indulgence you won't regret. DOUBLES FROM $265. 27-21/794-6500; www.uitsig.co.za
WHEN TO GO
There really isn't a bad time of year to visit the Winelands, though the height of South Africa's summer (January and February) is busy and can be a bit too hot for tastings. Spring and fall are milder and less crowded. Winter (July and August) tends to be on the cool side, and opening hours may be limited, but you'll have the place to yourself.
South African Airways provides the most convenient service from the United States; there are daily direct flights to Johannesburg from New York and Atlanta, with frequent connections to Cape Town.
To tour the Winelands properly, you should rent a car; all the major companies have offices in Cape Town. Although roads are excellent and gas is inexpensive, you'll need to get accustomed to driving on the left.
The annually updated John Platter South African Wine Guide is the most complete reference on the country's producers. It's indispensable, with background information on producers, tasting notes for available vintages, opening hours and policies, and detailed maps. Nearly impossible to find in the States, it can be purchased at any airport or bookstore in South Africa ($15), or order it on-line at www.cybercellar.co.za ($53, including shipping to the United States).