We spent a lovely four days at the tail end of our recent trip through South Africa exploring Capetown and it’s environs. Though our stay began with a misstep, it resolved itself with beautiful scenery and delicious decadence.
We intended to hire a car immediately and drive to our first destination- Gansbaai, the Great White Shark cage-diving capital of the world. We had reserved a 3:00PM sail, theoretically leaving plenty of time to pickup the car from the airport and make the 2 hour drive down the coast. Unfortunately, we received an email that the dive time would be changed to 11:30AM due to sea conditions and (long story short) missed the boat. All of the vendors had similarly cancelled their afternoon trips, and were totally booked for the next week. This left no other option but to retire cage diving with these beautiful beasts back to the bucket list. The moral here: Christmastime is extremely popular for these kinds of activities in South Africa, and other sea-based activities later in the trip were also cancelled because of poor sea conditions. Plan far in advance for these adventures, but also be prepared for last-minute changes forced by Mother Nature.
We then drove on to Franschhoek, where we would be staying for the next two nights. The Marriott Protea was fairly well located, providing easy access to the beautiful and walkable downtown. Luckily, the nearby Village Market had extended hours, crafts, and live music for Christmas, giving us our first taste of local food and wine before resting up for the next day’s adventures.
We returned to the market the next morning for the best coffee I’ve ever had from a truck, then checked in for The Franschhoek Wine Tram. You must chose a route before purchasing your ticket, with each visiting a different series of vineyards. We chose the yellow route, beginning on an actual train and then continuing by trolley. Your ticket allows for five hours of exploration at a maximum of five vineyards within that time, and the route only proceeds in one direction before returning to the village. You can choose to stay longer at a specific winery, but then subtract a visit for every additional time slot you spend there.
This train experience was a deciding factor in choosing Franschhoek over Stellenbosch as our hub, and we found the entire wine tasting experience to be extremely family friendly. Most wineries had some sort of play area for children, and punctuating tastings with train or trolley helped with keeping our son busy. Though the vineyards are relatively close to each other, the train allowed the adults to taste freely while the little ones play.
Picking which to visit depends on your priorities: Varietal of preference or experience you are seeking. We opted for a complex combination of unique food, impressive scenery, and renowned wine quality. This equated to stops at Rickety Bridge, Grande Provence, Maison, Eikehof, and Chamonix (in that order). The approach to Rickety Bridge was impressive, but as the first stop, we were still getting used to the procedure of hopping on and off the train so did not order any food. At Grande Provence, our wine and nougat pairing was nice, but the real stars of this property were the sculptures lacing the garden.
Maison was our favorite of the day. The beautiful charcuterie platter was full of artisanal jams and cheeses, and sampling their offerings while chickens free-roamed the property made everything taste better. I would love to have had time for a proper meal.
Eikehof is a smaller, family-owned farm, and while the wine wasn’t our favorite, their hospitality and personal relationship with wine production were charming. The meat and cheese platter overflowed with biltong and farm-grown fruits, which were all very yummy. Added bonus- the ostrich patrolling the rows of vines while we ate.
By the time we reached Chamonix, we were all pretty tired and mostly wined-out. The farm does offer a unique Wine and Game Drive to their private game farm, which must be pre-booked. Since we had already done other safaris, we did not book this option. Instead, the highlight of this stop was a great playground and a cute little girl we met there. Her family was Bulgarian but living in Botswana, and we chatted the rest of the way back to Franschhoek. The little ones sat together on the tram and hugged as we said goodbye.
Though we had a surprisingly good pizza at Col’cacchio for dinner (and a very weird coffee in a cone), Franschhoek Station Pub offered the winning trifecta of an awesome playground, craft beer, and space for DYI braai! This place is great, and I would happily revisit with lots of meat in the future.
We packed up for an early start the following morning, driving towards Stellenbosch to compare this other renowned area to its counterpart. As it was Christmas Eve, we were unsure of how it would affect our experience. We quickly and happily realized that holiday picnicking at wineries is a very big THING. I had discovered Boschendal during some preliminary research, and a chance stop here proved to be our favorite of them all. The estate recognizes its location within the Cape Floral Kingdom and recognized World Heritage site, where biodiversity is extraordinarily high and sustainability is their priority. In addition, the estate is breathtaking, the food is world class, and oh…. the wine is pretty great too.
Not wanting to leave after a quick tasting of wines and Methode Cap Classique (the South African bubbly), we noticed the hoards of families arriving to kick off their Christmas picnicking, and I (yet again) found myself wishing that picnic hampers were more popular in the US. The luxury prepared picnics they offered looked lovely, but we opted to explore the other side of the estate instead. There, we found animals roasting on spits, a farm store to rival the most elaborate I’ve seen, and breathtaking the farm-to-table Werf Restaurant, which served us one of the best meals I have had in recent history. Even the kid’s play area was thoughtful, with raised water troughs canopied by grapevines dropping grapes for stomping by little feet.
We spent much longer than anticipated playing in the gardens before driving on to Stellenbosch for a final call at Spier Wine Farm. Their art collection is known as one of the largest showing contemporary South African artists, along with a craft market, restaurants featuring their own produce, a bird rehabilitation center featuring eagle encounters, spa…. the list goes on. Clearly, these vineyards could sustain much longer visits than we could afford during this trip. The wine was very good too, but Boschendal was our clear winner in all categories.
It was time to return to Capetown. After checking in at the Hilton Capetown City Center in Bo Kaap, we took a 10 minute Uber ride to the V&A waterfront for Christmas Eve dinner. So did the rest of Capetown. We felt let down by Harbor House restaurant’s poor service and fairly boring food, especially considering fond memories of our lunch hours prior. Regardless, the waterside sunset and a post-dinner wander past African street performers and huge Christmas trees got us back in the holiday spirit.
Our family doesn’t share presents, we share experiences. So Christmas day began with an hour’s drive down the coast to Simon’s Town to check out the penguin colony at Boulder’s Beach. A visit to the National Park will allow you to see hundreds of African penguins frolicking in and out of the water, as well as locals similarly playing seaside further up and down the coast at the public beaches. It was so fun to see how these families spend their Christmas in the sand, with Great Whites not too far away….
Next destination- Table mountain. Instead of taking Ou Kaapse Weg (M64) as we had on the drive down, we returned via Chapman’s Peak Drive (M6) for heart-stopping scenery and adrenaline-inducing turns. Driving a stick on the “wrong side” of the road added to the excitement.
We made a pit stop at the amazing 12 Apostles Hotel, where I had tried (and failed) to obtain brunch reservations at their restaurant, Azure. Instead, Santa visited us at the Leopard Bar while overlooking the coastline- a better result in the longrun.
Finally, we reached Table Mountain with the thousands of others who also wanted to spend Christmas at the top of the world. Pro tip- the cable car to the top has a revolving floor so that everyone has equal opportunity to see the vistas in all directions. The views are spectacular, especially when the sky and sea seem to fuse into one glimmering blue body.
After braving the very cold winds and very long line, we returned to the hotel for a special Christmas Eve dinner. While the food was good, the best moments once again came from our social butterfly of a child forming a little play tribe with one girl from Namibia and another from Capetown at the neighboring tables. These interactions make me grateful for our ability to travel, and inspired by the innocence of children to make the world better.
Our final morning before flying back to New York was again plagued by rough seas. Our plan A, to visit Robbins Island and plan B, to visit Seal Island for a second attempt to see Great Whites (this time flying through the air to hunt for Fur Seals) were both shattered when sea conditions forced cancellations of all water activities. At the little one’s request, we rode the Capetown Wheel at the waterfront before returning to Bo Kaap to explore the colorful architecture, and then onwards for one last adventure on the way to the airport. So plan C? More wine! This time, to Durbanville, where it appeared that finally the locals had tired of partying. Almost.
Our final winery was another happy accident. Though most were closed for Boxing Day, the boutique Klein Roosboom (their website currently appears to be hacked) offered solid wines, really generous farm-made charcuterie, an awesome nature playground, and converted wine cellar tasting rooms. We all had a really great time here, which mentally prepared us for the 24+ hours of travel ahead.
So though much of our time in Capetown was food or drink-focused, there is so much to do within an hour or two of Capetown that we hope to revisit those fish that got away in the not-too distant future. Franschhoek ultimately took the prize over Stellenbosch for its quaint walkability, concentration of vineyards, and, well, the train. Overall, the wine in each location was of very nice quality, and rarely exceeded $10 for a bottle. However, visiting these vineyards was equally about the experience of spending time outside in the beautiful countryside, often with delicious food and interesting history. We’ll see you again soon, Capetown.