All Aboard! MSC announces its INCREDIBLE plans for the new cruise season and the next 8 years

In Cape Town, MSC is one of the most widely recognised company acronyms. The name is emblazoned across the gargantuan hulls of the cargo ships that frequent our harbour and, of course, the name has become lovingly associated with luxury, all-expenses-covered sojourns into the Indian Ocean and beyond. Cruises and cargo: that’s MSC. But, since 2017, the marine brand has been hard at work plotting its upward trajectory, the ambitions of which would have Superman quaking in his crimson boots.

Ross Volk
Ross Volk, Managing Director of MSC Cruises South Africa

But “It’s better to set your sights high and fall short, than to set them low and always succeed.” This is the unofficial mantra at MSC, said Ross Volk, Managing Director of MSC Cruises South Africa during a media brief that took place Monday 19th August at the Old Harbour Conference Centre, Westin Cape Town. Seated around a conference table the size of a rugby field, 30 pairs of eyes grew larger and larger as he and Angelo Capurro, Global Executive Director at MSC Cruises, laid out the company’s plans for expansion, renaissance, and revolution in the coming decade – plans that have been on the drawing board since they kicked off their “second phase” in 2017.

But before I spill the goods, let’s take a brief look back at the history of this vastly accomplished cargo and cruise company.

Then and now

Unlike most other cruise lines, MSC is a family owned company with a family spirit. Its 50-year history began in 1970 with its conception as a cargo shipping enterprise in Brussels, Belgium, under the stewardship of businessman Gianluigi Aponte. Then, in 2003, MSC added commercial passenger ships to its offering and over the course of the next 10 years, enjoyed a monstrous growth of 800%. Today, MSC Cruises is the number one cruise line in South Africa, Europe, South America, and the Gulf, with 70,000 employees transporting millions of passengers to 211 global destinations on five continents annually.

“Phase Two” AKA Operation Reach for the Sky

Or should I say horizon?

The new phase of MSC’s expansion, which is as much about getting bigger as it is about getting better, is multi-faceted and has been laid out over a 10-year timeline, from 2017 to 2027.

“South Africa is an important market for MSC Cruises and reflects our broader growing investment in cruising globally,” says Capurro. “We have committed to launching 13 next-generation ships between 2017 and 2027, which will bring our fleet total to 25 and see our passenger capacity more than triple. Our total investment in these ships amounts to approximately R200 billion.”

This year alone, the company has added two new ships to the family: the MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa. But this is small news compared to the grand scheme of their designs; designs that bode exceptionally well for South Africa in terms of our choice of holiday destinations, our tourism, our economy, and our future.

MSC Grandiosa
MSC Grandiosa

I. Four ship classes

The company has identified four ship classes that are based largely on delivering the best possible experience to passengers based upon their desires and, to a lesser extent, budget. For example, ships in the Meraviglia Class are primarily for cruises in off-peak seasons, when the weather might not be so conducive to outdoor lounging. And so the ship is designed with more indoor space and a focus on indoor entertainment and activities. The Seaside Class, on the other hand, is tailored to travel itineraries in sunny, peak season travel with maximum outdoor space and sophisticated outdoor amenities, entertainment, and activities, giving passengers that ultimate “seaside” experience. Next in the portfolio is the World-class fleet, which delivers longer trips to far-flung cruise destinations. And finally, the Ultra Luxury Class: for people with more green than the Amazon rainforest.

II. Expansion and Improvement

Hand-in-hand with the development of these ship classes comes the addition of new cruise vessels to MSC’s already handsome portfolio of ships. As previously stated, the company introduced the MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa this year and have committed to adding one to two ships per year to swell their ranks to upwards of 27 ships by 2027 (that’s triple their current guest capacity). As for their original fleet, which has been in service since 2003, they have received a loving “make-over” and major upgrade through MSC’s Renaissance Program, so that they can offer passengers a modern, luxury travel experience.

Ever in pursuit of improvement and refinement, MSC is also evolving its fleet to offer greater comfort and a more seamless experience that begins on the shore already. Refreshingly, they are doing this by tapping in to their most valuable resource: customer feedback (don’t we wish more big brands would do that?) And so, the design of new ship prototypes has been largely dictated by customer feedback on the existing ships and the experience they deliver.

III. Partnering with the best-in-class

If you want to build a beautiful, sophisticated space and curate an unforgettable experience for your passengers, you need to work with a grand variety of partners who are considered the best in their class. And since a cruise ship is essentially a self-sustaining microcosm, MSC has established partnerships with people and brands that are considered to be at the pinnacle of their field, from top chefs, wine estates, and tech companies to entertainers, musicians, and even toys for kids. If you want to offer the best, you’ve got to work with the best!

IV. New infrastructure

More than mere ships, cruises, and cargo, MSC is set to revolutionise the cruising industry in South Africa by investing in infrastructure to enhance and extend the cruise experience and offering. This investment has been particularly noteworthy in the development of the Durban port terminal over the past few years: a R200+ million construction of a new world-class Durban Cruise Terminal as part of the KwaZulu Cruise Terminal Consortium (KTC).

“This multi-user terminal will make Durban an even more desirable destination for cruise ships from all over the world,” explains Volk. “It will substantially boost tourism numbers, create thousands of jobs, and lead to supplier development. All the partners in the initiative will shortly sign off the final design of the terminal and ground-breaking is scheduled to begin in November this year. We want the Durban Cruise Terminal to be an iconic destination. We hope the new port will be operational by January 2021.”

V. FREE training program for South Africans

“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy, 1961

MSC has made a commitment to the betterment of South Africa by introducing their Shosholoza Ocean Academy, which offers a FREE three-month training program (either in hospitality or some kind of trade) to 5,000 students. Upon successful graduation, these students can seek employment with MSC and work as many seasons as they wish.

In other words: it is a wide open doorway to a career at sea, whether it’s as a server in a fine dining restaurant aboard an MSC cruise, or as an electrician on an MSC cargo ship. Did I mention the Shosholoza Ocean Academy is free? It is, and with no obligation to even work for MSC upon graduation. This is just one facet of the company’s commitment to investing in the future of South Africa.

VI. More travel itineraries for South Africans

Finally, MSC has announced the addition of several new cruises and itineraries to South Africa:

  • MSC Opera will sail from homeport Cape Town from December 2020 to March 2021;
  • MSC Musica will sail from homeport Durban from November 2020 to April 2021;
  • Next season will offer over 60 cruises from one of two home ports (Cape Town and Durban);
  • And guests will have eight different itineraries to choose from: the most in Company history!

“Our decision to increase the number of ships for the South African cruise season in 2020/2021 is due to the significant growth in demand we have seen in our guest numbers over the past few years,” explains MD Ross Volk. “Our most recent season saw a 25% increase in guests compared to the same period in 2017/2018. MSC Cruises has been bringing bigger and better ships to this country and enriching our itineraries as more South Africans are realising that a cruise is an affordable, convenient, and exciting holiday option.”

MSC Opera, which can accommodate 2,500 guests and was completely refurbished in 2014, will offer 22 cruises next season alongside MSC Musica. MSC Musica can cater for approximately 3,200 guests and will offer 40 cruises. The ships will alternate routes, providing South African cruisers with a wider choice of options to suit their holiday needs. This means that both Cape Town and Durban ports of embarkation will get to experience the leading cruise line’s elegant and diverse product offering and enjoy more cruise destinations and packages than ever before.

One highlight of the 2020/2021 cruise itinerary is MSC Cruises’ 14-day New Year cruise around Southern Africa, incorporating destinations such as Portuguese Island; Nosy Be, Madagascar; followed by Port Victoria, Seychelles; and then Port Louis in Mauritius. MSC Orchestra will also make her maiden voyage to South Africa in November, offering three, four, and five-night sailings around the South African coastline until April 2020, visiting Pomene Bay in Mozambique – a marine safari experience complete with its own beach club – Portuguese Island, and Maputo.volk

Investing in the country’s future

“If there is one thing that can save South Africa’s economy, it’s tourism,” said Volk during his presentation of MSC’s incredible new plans, and with the company providing more cruise ships, more destinations, and more infrastructure for travel here in South Africa, not to mention a free training program that could give 5,000 students a career, they are guiding the country quite powerfully towards a better future.

What adventure awaits?

www.msccruises.co.za

This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/08/23/all-aboard-msc-announces-its-incredible-plans-for-the-new-cruise-season-and-the-next-8-years/

Advertisements

Eden on the Lagoon – Knysna and the Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa

Two years ago, the worst wildfire disaster in South African history befell the Garden Route, so named for its lush and ecologically diverse vegetation, lagoons, and lakes. A combination of drought, powerful winds, and abundant fuel in the form of hardwood forests and indigenous scrub lead to the stoking of a “mega-fire” that killed seven people, consumed more than a thousand homes, and razed hectare upon hectare of verdant coastal landscape to the ground.

Two years on, driving into the picturesque emerald town of Knysna, sitting pretty on its glittering throne of turquoise lagoon, it’s difficult to fathom the tragedy that occurred here. The vegetation has rallied, the people have rebuilt, and, as ever, this neck of the woods remains an utterly gorgeous holiday paradise for visitors from all over the country and world. And for two indulgent days, we would be calling it our home.

Nice, ne?

Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa

www.turbinehotel.co.za, +27 (0)44 302 5746

Our home away from home for our stay was the Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, a fabulously quirky five-star hotel located on Knysna’s Thesen Island, a multi-award winning marina development in the scenic Knysna estuary. The hotel – one of Knysna’s most unusual – used to be a wood-fired turbine that powered the town, as well as neighbouring Sedgefield and Plettenberg Bay. Today, of course, its massive industrial machinery has been retired, artfully strewn about the hotel, and given a colourful coat of paint. What is an indelible part of the establishment’s history is now also, through décor, an indelible part of its present and future.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

A little too early for check-in, we dropped our bags off in the lobby, scuttled off to a miniature quay a stone’s throw away, and boarded a motorised pontoon barge for Featherbed Nature Reserve with a stop en route to admire the Knysna Headlands or “Heads” as they have become affectionately termed. The steep sandstone cliff faces, which serve as the gateway to the Knysna Lagoon, protect the estuary from the unbridled fury of the thundering Indian Ocean beyond, transforming it into a watery wonderland for boating and kayaking. It’s also created a favourable environment for the endangered Knysna seahorse to thrive in, as well as a plethora of beautiful birdlife, from African spoonbills, grey herons, and black oystercatchers to pied kingfishers, little egrets, and that most iconic of our country’s birds: the African fish eagle.

Featherbed Nature Reserve

www.knysnafeatherbed.com, +27 (0)44 382-1693

Featherbed Nature Reserve has long served as one of Knysna’s top attractions, offering visitors nature trails, hiking, birdwatching, unparalleled views of the area, and a decent lunch. Tragically, the nature reserve succumbed to the 2017 fire, losing a staggering 98% of its vegetation. But, in a heroic real-life demonstration of the phoenix rising from the ashes, the team at Featherbed Nature Reserve used the opportunity to weed out all of the alien vegetation and replant only indigenous trees and plants. Today, the reserve is carpeted with new growth of indigenous fynbos and coastal forest, and the towering trees they thought would never recover, came back from the dead.

The new, wholly reimagined offering (opened since December 2018) is elevated several storeys above its predecessor. The new restaurant, which boasts a bar, wedding venue, and conference facilities, is a gorgeous affair; riddled with botanical and nautical-inspired décor and masterfully crafted indigenous wood tables by a local artist.

The reserve also offers affordable tour packages, such as the Eco Tour, which includes a return ferry trip on the Knysna Lagoon; a 4 x 4 drive up the headland onto the reserve, stopping at spectacular viewpoints and to hear the specialist guide talk about the history, fauna, and flora; an optional guided 2,2 km walk through coastal forest and fynbos into ancient sea caves; and concludes with an outdoor buffet lunch of such epic proportions, you’d do well to starve yourself beforehand. All of this for only R700 per person, and they also have South African resident rates for winter, which never hurt anyone’s wallet.

A visit to Featherbed Nature Reserve is a pilgrimage that all visitors to Knysna should make, or so I thought as we putted back to Thesen Island on the still waters of the lagoon.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

Settling in and spa treatment

Back at Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, we finally checked in to our rooms, many of which had balconies overlooking the spectacularly beautiful surrounding canals and waterborne suburbia. Each of the establishment’s 26 rooms has a unique name and theme (mine was the botanical room) and, of course, the hotel’s history is honoured with industrial elements like painted pipework and wall-mounted panels containing gauges and buttons. Yes, you are welcome to fiddle with them.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

After settling in, which included a hot chocolate, a quick nap in soft white sheets, and a restorative shower, I luxuriated under the sure, strong hands of my lovely masseuse at the Turbine Spa – is there any better way to dissolve the tensions of travel than with a spa treatment? A laid-back supper at the hotel’s Gastro Pub (with cocktails) doesn’t hurt, either.

Turbine Hotel Knysna
Turbine Hotel Knysna

Breakfast and bicycle ride

Breakfast is served in the hotel’s Island Café, which also serves a decent lunch and dinner. And after accosting the continental breakfast buffet, we grabbed a bicycle from the Turbine Hotel’s very own adventure centre, the Turbine Water Club – offers lagoon cruises, ferries to Featherbed Nature Reserve, kayaking, bicycle hire, and more – and struck out on two wheels to explore the estuary all the way up to the headlands. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to a more deserved lunch and glass of rosé!

Dinner that night was taken at the Island Café – an exceptional, fall-off-the-bone lamb shank with vegetables and potato purée, which I washed down with a glass of Hartenberg Estate’s Alchemy Rhone Style Red 2017. One thing I greatly enjoyed about the Turbine Hotel is the fact that, in spite of its boutique status and compact lunch and dinner menus, it maintains a generous wine list, featuring beautiful picks from wine routes all over the Cape.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

Ancient Knysna Forest Walk

On our final morning, after another plunder of the hotel’s breakfast buffet table, we struck out for the Knysna Forest, the largest in South Africa, and went on a 9 km hike in the deep, cool shade of 900-year-old yellowwood trees. The tap-tap-tapping of woodpeckers, the liquid melody of orioles, and the harsh barking of Knysna loeries were the soundtrack to our adventure; that and the burbling of the streams that cut their way through the ancient thick tangle of vegetation and towering trees. One could scarcely imagine a more tranquil and deeply restorative place on Earth, and if you ever find yourself on the Garden Route, I urge you to visit the Knysna Forests and relinquish yourself to its verdant embrace.

Luxury base with a personality

Birdwatching, outdoor adventure, charming shops, a thrumming restaurant scene, and raw nature… Knysna is a unique and heart-achingly beautiful town that leaves a lasting impression. The Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, a luxury accommodation with a personality (and with convenient connections to all of this action) is a highly recommended place from which to soak it all up.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

www.turbinehotel.co.za

This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/08/20/eden-on-the-lagoon-knysna-and-the-turbine-boutique-hotel-spa/

Testin’ the Westin: Dinner and Overnight Stay at an Iconic Luxury Cape Town Hotel

The Westin Cape Town is in the middle of a grand revamp but you really wouldn’t know that because, in our svelte suite fifteen floors in the sky, it’s as peaceful as a spa (without the annoying pipe music). The multi-million-rand makeover – *cough R150 million cough* – is set to be completed by October 2019 just in time for the summer deluge of tourists; although the Westin Cape Town remains perennially popular owing to its appeal to business travellers, both foreign and South African.

Our task is to put the revamped and reimagined rooms to the test by luxuriating in one for the next 24 hours – I know, it’s a tough job but someone’s got to make sure the next guest is getting their money’s worth.

Spoiler alert: they most definitely are.

The grand entrance

The Westin Cape Town is a five-star luxury hotel located right next door to the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) and a five-minute drive from the V&A Waterfront. This sleek and stylish hotel is a mainstay of the Cape Town city skyline, as well as the international luxury hospitality industry. Wherever you travel to in the world, you can expect a high standard of comfort, luxury, and hospitality from the Westin.

Westin Cape Town Stay
Getting a bit of work in before the great unwind.

Walking into our suite, our eyes were first and foremost drawn to the floor-to-ceiling windows that dominated the far side of the room, affording us sweeping west-facing views of the city from Signal Hill and the V&A Waterfront to the bustling Cape Town harbour, Robben Island, and the shimmering Atlantic Ocean beyond. Beneath our feet, we had a (gut-wrenching) bird’s eye view of a congested N1 highway feeding traffic into and out of the city. However, rather than evoking feelings of anxiety, as one might expect, we felt just a little smug to be ensconced in luxury accommodation while those little ants down there in their toy cars were stuck in traffic.

Suite features and amenities

Our room was the epitome of comfort and convenience, packing practically everything any visitor with any agenda could want and need. There was a large king-sized bed with poofy covers clad in clean, white linen; an office table with lamp, telephone, and multi-plug electrical outlet (where I currently sit and write this); a sophisticated coffee and tea making station with kettle and Caffitaly machine; bar fridge stocked with sodas, water, and beer; closets with complimentary fluffy bathrobes, slippers, ironing board, and safe; and a very beautiful, very executive-feel bathroom with shower, bath, and twin vanities.

Westin Cape Town Stay
Admiring the view from the bedroom.

Westin Cape Town Stay
The obligatory cheesy bathroom shot.

Unlimited Wi-Fi and access to the Westin Club Lounge, which is open all day for refreshments, round out the offer. Oh, and we also enjoy complimentary access to the Heavenly spa lounge, pool, and sauna (you only have to pay for treatments). Right off the bat there are two things I’m looking forward to: (1) seeing the view of Cape Town at night from our suite and (2) falling asleep beneath a mountain of duvet after dinner.

In the meantime, with the sun making its slow descent into the west (as witnessed from our room), we hopscotched to the Westin Club for Canapé Hour.

Westin Club Canapé Hour

Every day, from 17:30 to 19:30, the Westin Club (on the nineteenth floor) offers guests a rather sexy lounge environment in which to chill, crack open a beverage, and enjoy a complimentary selection of cold mezze and hot tapas. It’s a place to unwind after a long day of touristing, travelling, or being important; it’s a place to enjoy a cold glass of wine or hot cup of tea, and to whet the appetite in time for dinner.

Westin Cape Town Stay

The Westin Club is also open for:

  • Continental and hot buffet breakfasts between 06:30 and 11:00.
  • All day “grab and go” snacks and beverages from 12:00 to 22:00.
  • A quick recharge meal chosen from the Westin’s organic and freshly produced daily rotation snack menu, 12:00 to 14:30.
  • Afternoon tea featuring homemade gourmet biscuits and a carefully curated tea selection, from 15:00 to 17:00.

In other words, if you’re hungry, thirsty, or in need of a fabulously atmospheric venue for a business meeting, a date, or to get charged up for an evening of fine dining or a night on the town, the Westin Club is the place to kick off. And kick the evening off we did: with a glass of house white wine (Huguenot Chenin Blanc or ‘Steen’ 2018), a little basket of nuts, popcorn, and dried fruits, and front row seats to a spectacular sunset.

Cape Town sunset wine

Dinner at Thirty7 Showkitchen

With the sun tucked behind the western horizon, we caught the elevator to the ground floor for dinner at the Westin’s main restaurant, Thirty7 Showkitchen. This enormous, opulent space is quite something to behold, although a major fundraising event going on downstairs robbed the restaurant of the majority of any patrons it might have had, leaving us to the lion’s share of the staff’s attention.

Westin Cape Town Stay

For starters, we had ocean trout with trout tartar, and slow-cooked pork with pineapple chutney and a smoked apple aioli so gorgeous, it is my most ardent recommendation that they consider selling it by the bottle. For mains we enjoyed the 12-hour confit Karoo lamb neck, with roast carrot puree and gremolata, and black mussel risotto with smoked onion soubise and slices of regional cheese, both soft and crispy. Unable to extend our stomachs any further, we concluded our meal with an Irish coffee.

The chefs at the helm of Thirty7 Showkitchen are Stephen Mandes and Rohan Mudenda whose philosophy aligns well with today’s demand for free-range, ethically produced meats, sustainable, green-listed seafood, and organic, never frozen vegetables “as full of flavour and nutrients as the day it was harvested”. They also maintain a live-fire kitchen, cooking on charcoal fire, which is beautifully showcased by the food’s flavour and presentation.

Thirty7 Showkitchen is open Monday to Sunday, 06:30 – 10:30 | 12:00 – 22:30. For bookings and enquiries, please email rochelle.voigt@westinhotels.com or call +27 (0) 21 412 9999.

Breakfast of champions

Waking up in the Westin’s immeasurably comfortable king-sized bed, I fantasised briefly about owning Mary Poppins’ handbag – you know, the one that can fit just about anything in it, for example, this king-sized bed. Of course, the Westin staff would soon notice the fact that a bed’s gone missing and since I would hate to be blacklisted by the Westin – never mind the impossibility of such a magical handbag – my fantasies soon shifted to breakfast.

Both Thirty7 Showkitchen and the Westin Club host breakfast each morning but since the former promised a more extensive and abundant hot and cold breakfast buffet, we took the elevator down, rather than up. The scene that greeted us could only be described as “food heaven”. Whatever breakfast food is popular in your country of origin, you’ll find it here. From cereal, oats, flapjacks, and fruit to fried eggs, bacon, salmon, sushi, and charcuterie; cheeses, croissants, and curry for crying out loud, to pretzels, stir-fried noodles, and smoothies.

Think of a breakfasty food: you’ll find it in the Westin’s breakfast buffet, served with just about every add-on, side dish, and condiment known to humankind. I particularly enjoyed their Superfood™ juices (I had the strawberry, date, and rosewater smoothie), which are the ultimate atonement for all the wine you may have drank the night before.

Let’s talk about water

One cannot sing the praises of the Westin Cape Town without mentioning its state-of-the-art reverse osmosis system that saves 40 million litres of municipal water a year. This hotel and many other buildings located on Cape Town’s foreshore stand on land that has been reclaimed from the ocean. Consequently, seawater flows through the underlying soil with the voluminous abundance of a river, which requires buildings in the area to actively pump millions of litres of water out of their foundations every day to keep from flooding.

The Westin Cape Town decided instead to pump this water, which has already been partially filtered by the rock through which it has travelled, through a reverse osmosis plant to remove the remaining salt and impurities. The result of this R4 million investment is 400,000 litres of fresh water every day, 180,000 litres of which is used on site (the rest is piped to its sister establishments, the Tsogo Sun Waterfront and Tsogo Sun Cullinan). The Westin’s reverse osmosis plant is a solution to the water shortages that once threatened Cape Town’s viability as a tourist and business destination and will hopefully contribute to our ability to survive drought conditions in the future.

The Westin Hotel

Reluctant goodbyes

With over a decade of luxury hoteliering under its belt, the Westin Cape Town has been given a multi-million-rand décor and design transformation to update and refresh its offering. It now boasts an interior to rival its sleek and sophisticated exterior, both in aesthetic and function, and with all the modern accoutrements and conveniences even the savviest business or tourist traveller could want and need. We enjoyed 24 hours of beautiful views, beyond comfortable beds, indulgent dining, and peace and tranquillity right here in the heart of the Mother City. And so it was with great reluctance that we bid our accommodations (and bed) a fond farewell.

The next time I travel, I know where I’m staying.

Cape Town sunset

The Westin Cape Town is home to the award-winning Heavenly Spa and the Thirty7 Showkitchen. For bookings and enquiries, please call +27 21 412 9999

www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/cptwi-the-westin-cape-town/

This blog was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine, the biggest lifestyle and leisure publication in the Western Cape of South Africa: www.southernvines.co.za/2019/06/04/testin-the-westin-dinner-and-overnight-stay-at-an-iconic-luxury-cape-town-hotel/

One-of-a-kind Wine Tasting Experience at Esona Boutique Winery

Esona wine Robertson South Africa

When one speaks of the internationally-renown Cape Winelands, the leafy, winemaking towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek tend to dominate the limelight. Yet, two-hours outside of the city lies a pristine valley, where winemaking tradition, history, culture, and talent is as strong as it is in its celebrity counterparts: the Robertson Wine Valley. Here, a constellation of wineries contributes tirelessly to the wine culture of our country and a shining star among them all is Esona Boutique Winery.

“The very one”: single vineyard, limited release wines

Esona, which means “the very one” in Xhosa, lies sandwiched between the towns of Robertson and Bonnievale in the heart of the Robertson Wine Valley, with the Langeberg to the north and the Riviersonderend Mountains to the south. From the second floor of its pretty winery, one gets a sense of orientation and views of vineyards that extend all the way down to the Breede River, the valley’s central artery that supplies all the farms with life-giving water.

Robertson Wine Valley South Africa

Floating like a stalwart ship in an ocean of green vineyards, Esona’s winery and underground cellar is a compact building that caters to every expectation: stylish interior with charming historic elements, delicious food platters, a lovely selection of wines, friendly staff, absolutely gorgeous views, and a unique underground cellar tasting experience. In order to get there, one is required to walk through a short section of vineyards, which is testament to the boutique status of the estate because if they had hoards of visitors, the plants would likely suffer.

Girl power at Esona Boutique Winery

The assistant winemaker at Esona Boutique Winery is Charmaine, who, in addition to obliterating the male winemaker gender stereotype, worked her way up from farm labourer to her current position. If anyone has an intimate understanding of the grapes and the vineyards, it’ll be the person who once tended to them with their very own hands.

In this way, the family behind Esona are dedicated to empowering their staff and the people in their community, not only by hiring them, but by training, mentoring, and allowing them to realise their full potential irrespective of where they started out in life. Wine tasting assistants are able to become managers, and farm labourers are able to become wine makers. These individuals have the talent and the team at Esona gave them the necessary education, skills, and techniques.

Esona Wine, Robertson South Africa
Photograph credit: http://www.esona.co.za

A candlelit, Riedel glass wine-tasting in the “Kuip”

Upon arriving at Esona Boutique Winery and after a welcome glass of their fresh “Frankly My Dear” Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir, our party of four descended into the quiet, dimly-lit, and intimate space of the “kuip”, the underground cellar. Decades ago, in the era prior to the adoption of sophisticated climate control technology, winemakers would build great cement cisterns underground where temperatures were cool and protected from the daily fluctuations. Within these great subterranean cisterns, the juice from the grapes would be allowed to ferment in peace, producing quality, delicious wine. The old cellar at Esona has since been reconstructed to accommodate guests such as us and for one of the Cape’s most unique wine tasting experiences.

Esona underground cellar wine tasting
Photograph credit: http://www.esona.co.za

And so we sat down to an absolute must-do of an activity for any visitor to the Robertson Wine Valley: a “vertical” wine tasting (and food and music pairing) from Riedel glassware. On the table were two vintages of three different wines from Esona’s collection – a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Shiraz. The idea is to taste the difference between the two vintages of the same wines and how an extra year or two plays out beautifully in the character and depth of the wine. The tastings were also done using famous glassware known as Riedel glasses, which have been specifically crafted to draw out the subtlest of flavours and most nuanced of aromas in specific cultivars.

Esona wine Robertson

The Chardonnay glass, for example, was elegant, long-stemmed, and had a round, almost fish bowl-shaped (not sized, unfortunately) vestibule. This shape is said to complement the voluptuous character of Esona’s Chardonnay and to allow its rich buttery, caramel notes to sing. The effects of the shape of the glassware on the flavours and aromas of the wine were highlighted by sniffing and sipping the same wine out of low-end restaurant wine glasses. For someone with an education rooted in the sciences, I was at first sceptical, but the difference was not just perceptible but significantly so!

Riedel glassware is the creative collaboration of talented and experienced glassblowers and winemakers, the product of which is the perfect vestibule from which to enjoy your Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc.

Riedle Glassware wine tasting
Photo credit: http://www.riedel.com

Wine, food, and music pairing

In addition to the vertical tasting and the use of Riedel glasses, there was a third and a fourth element: a pairing with Lindt chocolate and fruit preserves and music to match the wine. Our round of Sauvignon Blanc was enjoyed with light, classical music, while the Shiraz had country music as its soundtrack.

Every element of our visit to Esona Boutique Winery – the tasting, glassware, sweet accompaniments, music, views, food, walk through the vineyards, and of course Esona’s limited release single vineyard wines – was lovely and came together to create a (highly recommendable) symphonic experience.

Esona Robertson Wine Valley South Africa

Contact Esona Boutique Winery:
Phone: 076 343 5833
Website: www.esona.co.za

This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2018/01/15/one-kind-wine-tasting-experience-esona-boutique-winery/

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 5

Hout Bay Cape Town South Africa
Located on the Cape peninsula, Hout Bay was named by the first settlers for the thick forests of valuable wood found there – “hout” means wood in Afrikaans. This breathtaking valley is where I grew up.

Although my family had a beautiful home in Hout Bay (my father is an architect), we weren’t what you’d consider a wealthy family. Our travel philosophies were a testament to this: we’d rarely fly anywhere, we’d almost always stay in our caravan, and lunch was taken on the road and more often than not consisted of soggy jam sandwiches, floury apples, and sweet coffee. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for these early thrifty travels, though, because they defined my perception of luxury.

To me, as a kid, luxury was a hunk of biltong to chew on for hours during our long, tiresome road trips around the country. It was getting to sit down and eat at a restaurant, even though my concept of haute cuisineat the time was a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich. But the very pinnacle of luxury, the Mount Olympus of all treats, was getting to stay in a hotelroomwhere my parents’ snores could be shut out by a door, rather than bundled into our tiny cots in our tiny caravan.

Living large

old hotel room
Maybe a slightly embellished representation of the kind of old hotels we’d stay in…

On the odd occasion we did overnight in hotels, they were ancient budget establishments, usually named something like “The Standard Hotel” or “The [insert one horse town’s name] Inn.” These were places with creaky wooden floorboards, ancient paintings of forgotten people, furniture that would belch out decade-old, musty air when you sat in them, and cracked porcelain bathroom basins.

In other words, they were in desperate need of an accidental electrical fire so that they could be burned to the ground, completely redesigned, rebuilt, and refurnished.

To me, however, they were luxurious and the excitement of sleeping in a hotel superseded any kind of miserable reality that might entail. In other words, I was taught to be happy with what I needed rather than what I wanted.

My parents were and are not misers. My father is one of the most generous human beings I know and will never, ever turn down the opportunity to buy you a chocolate bar whether you want one or not (or a cheeky shot of tequila on a trip to Hollywood, Los Angeles).

Tequila! Hollywood, Los Angeles

But to my parents, traveling is about spending 14 hours a day on the road, in the bush, or tramping through foreign cities. It’s about feelingthe climate – the humidity and the heat – rather than banishing it from your experience, and eating where the locals eat for a fraction of the cost of some fancy restaurant. To budget travel is to live like the majority of locals live and it’s to leave that city or country with a lasting impression of its supreme beauty, charm, culture, and cuisine…but also its struggles.

There’s a lot to be said for staying in a luxury hotel – to be sure, I’d likely choose that over slumming it – but it does provide somewhat of a sterile travel experience. And what could be better than playing pool, drinking tepid beer, and getting to know fellow budget travellers in the rec room of a hostel?

Disaster

On a caravan trip up the Garden Route – so called because of the region’s lush, verdant forests – along the east coast of South Africa, disaster befell us. Cresting a particularly hilly hill a few tens of kilometres from the epitome of one-horse towns, Heidelberg, our caravan caught a tail wind and began to fishtail violently from side-to-side. It felt as though my mother, who happened to be driving, was yanking the wheel from left to right, which she was but out of sheer desperation to counteract the forces of the fishtailing caravan on our little red Toyota corolla.

Totally out of control, the car lurched sickeningly from one side of the highway to the other before the caravan swept right around in a massive arc, ending up at right angles to the car and forcing us into a deep ditch on the far side of the road. I remember my mother’s hysterical concern over her precious cargo on the back seat juxtaposed by my dad’s eerie calm, who immediately set to work rationalising what had just happened to us.

To my mother: “We must have caught a tail wind. You should have hit the accelerator instead of the brakes – that would have pulled the caravan back into a straight line behind the car.”

I don’t recall my mom’s precise words but they were probably something along the lines of “gaan kak”, the Afrikaans equivalent of “get fucked!”

Sitting there on the back seat, emotionally rattled but physically unharmed, the strangest thing happened. Our high drama on the highway began attracting an audience but not of people – we were in the middle of nowhere after all. From far and wide and seemingly out of the crackling white horizons, tall, comical-looking birds materialized and began loping over to the fence to ogle unashamedly at our appalling situation. Ostriches! Before long, we had drawn a crowd of the world’s largest birds.

Ostrich birds South Africa

Silver Linings

Our caravan, which was bent at a torturous angle to the car, was quite simply and totally fucked. There was no way we were going to make it to our holiday destination. To make matters even more uncomfortable than having just been in a potentially fatal car accident – not to mention blatantly stared at by a gaggle of stupid-looking birds – we found ourselves stranded under the blistering countenance of the African sun. Oh, and being sometime in the 1990’s, none of us had a cell phone to call for help.

I don’t recall precisely how we got out of that mess but I believe that another car arrived soon after our accident and kindly offered to drive my father to Heidelberg, where he could hire the services of a tow truck. Thereafter, we found ourselves in this tiny Karoo town with nothing other to do than languish, for three days and three nights, in a hotel room. My parents were in hell – the trauma, the expense, the boredom.

I was in heaven.

Rags to riches

I unpacked my entire suitcase into the closet as a way of claiming my new space, had a greasy cheeseburger and undercooked fries in the nearly deserted hotel restaurant for dinner, and drifted off to sleep trying in vain to read the Old Testament bible (the ones that were always nested in the bedside drawers of hotels).

To this day, staying in hotels excites me, although my perception of luxury has changed somewhat. I’ve had the privilege of landing a job that sends me to wonderful places in and around Cape Town to stay in luxurious hotels and guesthouses, all of which are four stars and higher. One such assignment sent me to a five-star luxury resort in the Welgevonden Nature Reserve in the Limpopo Province (northeast South Africa). Another to a five-star guesthouse in Paarl, one of South Africa’s oldest towns, where I drowned in expensive sheets and delicious local Méthode Cap Classique (our equivalent of Champagne).

Wander Woman Thea Beckman
Yours truly opening a bottle of MCC, a South African sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir grapes in precisely the fashion as Champagne.

In spite of this unbridled, exquisite assault upon my senses, I remember how excited I was as a kid to be able to stay in a hotel for three nights, even if it was a terrible car accident that landed us there in the first place. I have, however, given up on trying to read the Old Testament since then, or any bible for that matter.

Unless I’m in need of a sleeping aid, that is.

 

Find me on Facebook: Hey you! There is SO much more going on in the life and times of Wander Woman Thea so find me on Facebook, give my page a like, and see all the wine-fuelled shenanigans and adventures I get up to! If you like my page and drop me a message, I’ll return the favour!

Travel Tip Tuesday – Check the Weather

Tornado on holiday

It’s such a simple, logical thing to do and yet it’s a mistake made by novice and, oftentimes, experienced travellers: failing to research the weather of your destination city. Everywhere you go, ALWAYS check the weather (sing it, Crowded House!) This is something you should do before you book your flights because nothing puts a (literal) damper on a holiday quite like a monsoon, or days that are so swelteringly hot that you might actually die if you get locked out your air bnb.

Ask the oracle AKA Google: “what’s the best time of year to travel to [insert fabulous destination city]?” or “what’s the climate like?”

Make sure you specify the “city” or region because countries are large and the climate/weather can vary dramatically from north to south and east to west. The June weather in Michigan, for example, may require a sweater; the June weather in Kansas may require a tornado shelter.

Climate in America funny

Understanding the climate of your destination will help you make smart choices – like not visiting Puerto Rico in hurricane season or Dubai in mid-summer. And you’ll have a much more comfortable stay for it! It also means that you can pack far more appropriately, like not taking thermal underwear on a visit to Vancouver in July. As it turns out, not ALL of Canada is a frozen wasteland all year around.

Do your research and enjoy a safe, comfortable, and happy adventure!

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 4

Orange River Rafting

When I was 19, I spent the Easter holidays in a soggy canoe barrelling down the Orange River, the longest river in South Africa and the mighty waterway that constitutes its northern border with Namibia. You’ll notice this if you look at Namibia’s eastern and southern borders. The former is a clean cleave right through the left ventricle of the subcontinent, while the latter, which follows the meandering course of the river, is wonkier than your life choices after your fifth tequila. For the trip, we hired the services of a river rafting company that supplied everything we needed – canoes, guides, equipment, food, and watertight storage – while we were tasked with bringing our own beverages and sleeping gear.

On day one, we landed at base camp after a long, dusty drive up from Cape Town and, on the banks of the Orange River, got acquainted with our guides and our fellow intrepid explorers. These were a rambunctious lot of my parents’ vintage (with kids my age) and thank goodness for that because there’s nothing worse than travelling with boring people. After a welcome braai (South African colloquialism for “barbeque”), several beers, and final preparations, we retired to our cabins for a night of civilized sleep: our last for the next seven days.

Daytime on the Orange River

Orange River rafting South Africa

As the sun came up, the heat descended. The north-western border of South Africa is several hundred kilometres closer to the equator and with the cold Benguela current, which flows adjacent to the west coast, imparting little moisture to the atmosphere, the air here is dry and the landscapes parched and dusty. Of course, the Orange River gives life to the trees, bushes, and reeds whose seeds won the lottery by falling near enough to its water to germinate and so there is some greenery. This is strongly juxtaposed by the warm oranges and reds of the iron-rich soils, which is where we and many like us assumed the river gets its name from. In fact, it was named in the 1770’s by a Captain in the Dutch East Indian Company after Prince William V of Orange.

The days spent on the river were long and afforded us a sneak peak at the lives of people who spend the majority of their waking hours engaging their hands and bodies, a digression for most of us middle-to-upper class families whose jobs or studies have us desk-bound. I found myself relishing the simplicity of the day’s work: the rhythmic, repetitive motion of rowing, the trees and rocky red landscape drifting idly by, and the hypnotic ripples caused by our canoes cutting through the muddy green waters of the not-so Orange River. The hours trickled by as new landscapes evolved and melted past us punctuated by the odd series of rapids we’d have to negotiate. I also kept mental note of the birds we saw – goliath herons, African fish eagles, hamerkops – which I would write down on my list when we stopped to camp for the night.

Orange River rafting South Africa

With all the arid beauty of this region and its rich birdlife, there was always something to keep the eyes engaged but untethered from the insular concerns of my fairly sheltered life, my thoughts were allowed to wander precariously to the future and to my dreams of travel. I was only in the second year of a Bachelors Science Degree and so my soul belonged to academia, a demanding and occasionally traumatizing mistress who would, every now and then, award you with enough validation to get you through the next six months of intellectual toil. I had a fair slog ahead of me before I’d be able to hit the road but the point is that the dream, or rather need, to see the world was there, gnawing steadily at my inner fibres.

This was daytime on the river – row, row, row your boat; think, think, think about shit – and for every toll it took on the body, it gave back in mental rejuvenation. Never mind the intense heat of the near-equatorial sun, the physical demands of rowing for eight hours a day, and the blisters caused by the oars rubbing wetly against the soft flesh adjacent to the thumb. You do your best introspection when there is nothing to distract the mind and there are few people to talk to. It’s the people who struggle with solitude and who constantly need to be surrounded by chatter that tend to have shaky relationships with their inner selves. And if they can’t be alone with themselves, what makes you think it’s safe for you to be?

Don’t date those people.

Nighttime on the river

Orange River rafting South Africa

African sunsets are something to behold. There is some magical quality to the air here that creates the most spectacular sunsets, the intensity of which I’ve simply never witnessed anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s not so much the visual spectacle as it is the multi-sensory performance of the sun setting below the African horizon: the accompanying smell of the burning Earth and its parched shrubs; the chorus of the weaver birds, sparrows, and starlings settling down for the evening; the way the light falls over the landscape like a golden veil. Then, very suddenly, the night descends and, by God, it was my favourite time of day on the Orange River.

With no light pollution and few obstructions in a 360-degree sweep around us, the night sky yawned above us, a fathomless black vault set ablaze by trillions upon trillions of twinkling stars. The starlight was so intense and the night so still, it was almost as though one could hear the universe gently breathing in and breathing out. I looked at the gentle silvery light on my arm and marvelled at the fact that the photons pummelling my skin at that very moment were likely older than the Earth. Total nerd that I am, I had brought along a star chart of the Southern Hemisphere (I was taking a university course in astronomy at the time) and delighted the other families’ children with the names and mythology of the stars, planets, and constellations. Nighttime on the Orange River was my favourite, even though the mosquitoes were relentless in their bloodsuckery.

Earning your experience

Orange River South Africa

We slept in tents, cooked over the fire, and went to the toilet in the bush with sweeping views of Namibia one night and South Africa the next, depending on which bank we camped on. We paddled hard during the day, swam in the river to cool off, and, on the third day or so, hiked up a hill to an abandoned fluorspar mine, where shards of the snot-coloured mineral lay scattered everywhere. These, we threw onto the campfires at night to unleash their enchanting properties of thermoluminescence, which is nerd speak for something that lights up when it’s heated.

The Orange River was a magical experience from which I returned with bulging deltoids, sun-bleached hair, and skin so tanned that I barely recognised myself in the mirror. Basically, I looked like a dried-out bag lady but with an enormous white smile. Every meal, every night’s rest, and every breathtaking view I had experienced during those seven arduous, euphoric days on the river had been earned. From the ephemeral streak of meteorites in the night sky to the spectacular pink sunrises, the bubbling stews on the campfire and the vegetal smell of the river… we had earned it all and the experience was all the more thrilling for it. I returned to city life and the rigors of university refreshed, invigorated, and refocused.

Oh, and I earned a distinction in astronomy.