Stellenbosch in Spring!

The country’s best wine and food celebrated against a backdrop of blossoms, tender leaves, and singing birds

The sun is peeking out, the once skeletal fruit orchards are bursting into white and pink blossoms, the birds are singing their little love-struck hearts out, and the gnarled grapevines are sprouting tender green leaves. Spring has sprung and there’s no better vantage point for the bountiful show than a Stellenbosch wine estate…or two! So we packed up the car and headed to Le Pommier Wine Estate for an overnight spoil followed by a wine pairing and Sunday lunch at Skilpadvlei Wine Estate.

Le Pommier Wine Estate

Ah, Le Pommier… apple of my eye. Located on Helshoogte Road in Stellenbosch, adjacent to Zorgvliet Wines (to which the estate used to belong), Le Pommier is a wine estate that’s also home to a luxury country lodge and a rustic country-style restaurant. It used to be an apple orchard, hence the name, which means “apple” in French, but while its acreage is now dedicated to growing quality grapes, you’ll still find apple trees scattered throughout the estate.

Le Pommier Country Lodge

Le Pommier Country Lodge

Le Pommier is decidedly “country” in feel and agenda, delivering a more laid-back, authentic Cape experience coloured with staggeringly gorgeous views, thick embracing nature, easy drinking wine, and honest, delicious food. Our accommodation for the night was a suite within the luxury country lodge, which features six suites, seven rooms, and two self-catering units. The décor here is simple: clean white wood furnishings with red highlights courtesy of scatter cushions, couches, and curtains. There’s a king-sized bed, freestanding Victorian bath, bedside fireplace, and large flat screen TV. The suite overlooks a generous wooden deck and a dam heavily fringed with reeds and tangled nature; craggy blue mountains beyond that.

What more could you need?

Le Pommier Country Lodge
Le Pommier Country Lodge

Wine tasting

Wine, of course! And so we walked the short five-minute walk (ten if you like to stop and look at birds) to the wine tasting room adjacent to the restaurant. Here, with awe-inspiring views of the imposing Simonsberg and the quilted farmlands and vineyards between, we sipped and smacked our way through Le Pommier’s range of wines in the dappled shade of the spring sun, under the guidance of charismatic wine ambassador, Zin. I wonder if that’s short for Zinfandel? My favourite wine of those we tasted was the Le Pommier Red Blend 2018 (R105), a rich blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot with a powerful nose of dark berries, a full, firm structure, velvety tannins, and a generous, lingering aftertaste.

Wine tasting at Le Pommier: R40 for four wines

Le Pommier Wine Estate

Le Pommier Restaurant

Dinner was taken at Le Pommier Restaurant, which spills out onto a two-tiered shaded al fresco dining area. Ambitiously, we sat outside to enjoy the sunset but with winter still clinging to the Cape, we headed inside where it was cosier and a fire had been lit. For sustenance, we enjoyed a hearty country meal of creamy, thick chicken and noodle soup and roasted tomato and basil soup, followed by a shared portion of spaghetti and meatballs. The lovely servers looked quite disappointed when we didn’t order dessert but I would have had to be carried out of that restaurant in a stretcher if I’d had another bite.

In the morning, after a long languorous night in soft sheets, we completed our luxurious overnight at Le Pommier Wine Estate with a “build-your-own” breakfast of scrambled eggs, tomato smoor, chicken livers, and farm-baked bread. Ah, my mouth waters as I fondly remember the meal!

With such a spoil under our belts (literally), we could quite happily have headed home to rest up and recover but it’s spring in Stellenbosch and it would have been a travesty to waste the good weather. So we hopped on over Skilpadvlei Wine Estate for more wine and food.

Le Pommier Wine Estate: +27 (0) 21 885 1269 | www.lepommier.co.za | Helshoogte Rd, Banhoek, Stellenbosch

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate on Stellenbosch’s Polkadraai Road is a special slice of heaven. First of all, driving in, I spotted a great-crested grebe paddling in the estate’s dam, which, being a birdwatcher, instantly made me happy. You don’t see them too often and they are beautiful birds with an exceptionally beautiful courtship dance.

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate Great Crested Grebe
Great Crested Grebe spotted at Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

Secondly, Skilpadvlei’s tasting room is gorgeous, rustic, and cosy with the heat of an enormous fire lapping gently at your back. Here, we sat down to a very goedkoop soup and wine pairing for only R100. This indulgent taste experience pairs (1) the Skilpadvlei Grenache 2017 with a creamed butternut and coconut soup, roasted nuts, and crispy bacon; (2) the Skilpadvlei Shiraz 2018 with a roasted tomato and chicken soup with deep fried mozzarella balls and paprika; and (3) the Skilpadvlei ML Joubert (the estate’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blend) with a seafood chowder, crispy prawn, and coriander…

All with freshly baked bread.

Skilpadvlei is open for wine tasting Monday to Saturday, 08:00 to 16:00 and Sunday 09:00 to 15:00:

Lunch at Skilpadvlei

And because we apparently hadn’t had enough food the entire weekend, we skipped across to Skilpadvlei’s restaurant right after our tasting for a truly hedonistic lunch of steak, chips, and onion rings; and fried calamari, Greek salad, and pan-fried vegetables. Oink. Aside from the fact that Skilpadvlei serves up really excellent, honest South African cuisine, they’re gearing up with a suite of “Ruggas Specials” for the coming Rugby World Cup and, very truthfully, I can’t imagine a better place to watch a game, enjoy a meal with friends, and sink a couple of glasses of their beautiful wines or Stellenbrau beer.

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

Yes indeed: spring is in the air and while Stellenbosch’s wine estates are making it exceptionally hard to get the body summer-ready, there simply is no better place to celebrate the arrival of the warmer weather than on a deck overlooking the winelands, or in a festive restaurant with delicious food and wine before you!

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate: +27 (0) 21 881 3237 | www.skilpadvlei.co.za |

Skilpadvlei Farm, M12 Polkadraai Road, Stellenbosch

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

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/2019/08/29/enjoy-stellenbosch-in-spring/

Bites & Sites: a whirlwind walking tour of the beating heart of Stellenbosch

In 1679, in a land far, far away from Cape Town (by foot), a plump man with a thin moustache and a head of flowing auburn hair that would have been the envy of any self-respecting Duchess decided to call it a day and stepped down off his steed – or ox wagon, it had been a three-day horse ride from Cape Town and the derriere could only take so much. Settling on the banks of a river, the Dutch Commander appraised his surroundings and conceived of the idea of expanding the Cape colony to include a second settlement here because, well, why not? Three and a half centuries ago, the human ego was hob-tied to conquering and owning things (oh, wait, it still is).

And so, on the banks of the Eerste Rivier (the first river), sprawled out under a bosch (bush) for shelter, the Dutch Commander and first Governor of the Cape, Simon Van Der Stel, had the epiphany that conceived one of the Cape’s most ardently loved destinations. He declared the new settlement “Stellenbosch” – a nod toward his own ego and the humble bush that sheltered him on that first night he camped out under the stars.

Or so the legend goes.

These are the delectable historic titbits one learns on a walking tour with Stellenbosch-based tour company, Bites & Sites Food Tours.

Bites & Sites Food Tours

Fast forward to Saturday 24th August 2019…

A group of two Americans from Miami, one from New Jersey, a family of three Belgians, and we two humble South Africans convened at 10:00 at 47 Church Street, Stellenbosch: the home of Bites & Sites Food Tours and Stellenbosch Wine Routes. Here, we met our Bites & Sites tour guide, the crimson apron-clad and crimson-headed Louise Smit, and hit the streets on foot to experience the town’s most alluring, internationally renowned attractions of history, architecture, food, and wine, glorious wine!

Bites & Sites Food Tours depart daily, Monday to Sunday at 10:00 and again at 13:00.

The tours centre on the five oldest streets in Stellenbosch: Dorp, Andringa, Plein, Kerk, and Rhyneveld Street, stopping quite regularly for anecdotes and architecture, and to appraise features of the town’ original build, such as the deep grachts or gutters that line the streets. Additionally – and this is where the offering is so greatly elevated above any other walking tour I’ve experienced – the tour makes frequent stops at various restaurants, cafés, a butcher, and a wine bar for distinctly South African refreshments, thereby giving visitors a holistic and unforgettable impression of the history, heritage, and culture of Stellenbosch and the Cape.

A hop and a skip back in time

Our first stop was the Stellenbosch Museum where Lousie laid out the basic foundations for the town’s history, introducing us to the indigenous Khoisan people, the early Dutch settlers, and the first Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel. For those of you who get narcolepsy at the mere mention of the word “history”, fear not. The Bites & Sites tour guides keep it light and entertaining without hovering for too long in any one place but at the same time, ready to delve deeper should you have any questions.

The Stellenbosch Museum property is home to four houses built during different time periods, the oldest of which, Schreuderhuis (1709), we toured. From the robust yellowwood furniture, meat hooks made from fire-hardened Protea tree roots, and kitchen ceiling adorned with bushels of drying herbs to the taxidermied cat enjoying a permanent nap on the bed, stepping into Schreuderhuis, which once belonged to the court messenger, is like stepping back in time. The house has also eerily survived the numerous fires that have swept through the town over the centuries.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Anecdote: since doctors were so appallingly ignorant in those days, the corpses of dead people would be buried with a string tied to their wrist, connected to a bell above ground. Then, should they wake from their misdiagnosed death (perhaps they were in a coma, fever, or deep sleep), their movement would ring the bell and attract the attention of some poor passer-byer who would probably spend the remainder of his or her life in sore need of therapy. Hence, the origin of the expression “saved by the bell.”

Our third and fourth stops were the impressive Dutch Reformed Church on Kerk Straat (1863) and the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Theology, housed within a handsome, historic building and with lovingly kept gardens shaded by a monstrous 52 metre tall, 200-year-old Norfolk pine tree.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Desserts first

With a leisurely hour’s strolling around under our belt, we stopped in at Dora’s Restaurant at 2A Ryneveld Street for refreshments of tea and South African sweet treats. As locals, we found it endearing and strangely pride-inducing to watch foreigners dip a big toe into our culture and, for the first time, taste and enjoy the cuisine we were raised on. Dora’s served up three indigenous teas (rooibos, honeybush, and buchu) and three absolutely delicious sweet treats: milk tart, koe sisters (not to be confused with koeksisters), and malva pudding drizzled with amarula cream. These were accompanied by enthusiastically told tales of how the various spices and recipes that characterise South African cuisine were introduced to the Cape and the country.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour
Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Biltong, droëwors, and wine

Have you really been to South Africa if you’ve omitted biltong and droëwors from your bucket list? (Vegetarians and vegans, you’ll be excused from this one.) And so, after another hour of meandering the historic streets of Stellenbosch and listening to fascinating, romantic, and sometimes ghostly tales of the town, we stopped in at the Eikeboom Butchery, the oldest surviving traditional butchery in Stellenbosch. Here, we picked up snacks for our wine tasting, which was hosted at the Brampton Wine Studio, where we sampled the dry, fruit-driven, and easy-drinking Brampton Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, and Pinotage.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Personally, I would have preferred it if we got to taste wines that better showcased the high calibre the Stellenbosch winelands are capable of. With Americans and Europeans in our tour group, we were competing against Californian and French wines! Nevertheless, the wines were drained and the biltong enjoyed by all.

Optical illusions and spiritual phenomena

With wine coursing through our veins, we resumed our tour of Stellenbosch’s historic streets, stopping in at various arts and crafts shops to indulge in a little retail therapy. We took in the Stellenbosch City Hall and its stunning artwork of late President Nelson Mandela. With the sun bouncing off the screen of my cell phone, taking pictures was more a “mik-en-druk”  (point and push) exercise. So I was quite taken aback when going through my photos later to see two beams of sunlight eerily coursing their way down on either side of Nelson Mandela’s artwork. An optical illusion or a spiritual phenomenon? I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Lunch at Oude Werf

For lunch, we stopped in at the Oude Werf, a luxury hotel in the heart of Stellenbosch whose history dates back almost to the town’s very beginnings (1686). The menu, of course, was a collection of classic Cape dishes: bobotie wraps, chicken pie, roasted sweet potato, snoek cakes, and yellow (turmeric) rice. This was served (I was happy to see) with two gorgeous wines from the Stellenbosch winelands: the Waterford Pecan Stream Chenin Blanc 2018 and the Kleine Zalze Pinotage 2018.

Whilst there, our guide Louise took us down a short flight of stairs to show us a slice of the hotel’s exposed, preserved foundations, which, since the Oude Werf used to be a Church, was where the wealthy (and only the wealthy, since they could afford the honour) were buried. It gives a whole new meaning to the expression “stinking rich” doesn’t it?

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

A wonderful, whirlwind experience

Three to four hours of strolling, admiring architecture, and listening to evocative tales of South Africa’s second oldest town, with a bit of wine, biltong, retail therapy, and a traditional South African lunch thrown in…this is what Sites & Bites tours are all about. It’s a whirlwind, multi-sensory immersion in Cape and South African culture that will send you home – whether you’re a local or a foreigner – with colourful memories, beguiling anecdotes, and perhaps even a few new international friends!

For bookings and enquiries, please email info@bitesandsites.co.za, call +27 (0) 76 032 8234, or visit www.bitesandsites.co.za

47 Church (Kerk) Street, Stellenbosch

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/2019/08/29/bites-sites-a-whirlwind-walking-tour-of-the-beating-heart-of-stellenbosch/

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/

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/

From Russia with Love

Avant-Garde at Hazendal Wine Estate delivers a harmonious fusion of South African and Russian cuisine

Before Avant-Garde, the only things I knew about Russia was that it’s the progenitor of vodka, the world’s best caviar, and a rather depressing novelist called Dostoevsky. And so, upon arriving at the sprawling Hazendal heritage farm and wine estate on Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Road, our expectations were a blank canvas with plenty of elbow room for impression.

Hazendal-Restaurant-1

Mark Voloshin, the owner of Hazendal, is Russian, which explains the colourful percolation of Russian culture and cuisine into the estate’s offering, from its authentic traditional tea ceremonies to its soon-to-open vodka distillery. That’s right: move aside craft gin. Beneath these charming Russian accents, however, Hazendal is most assuredly South African in heritage with its collection of Cape Dutch homesteads dating back to the late 1700s, right around the time that Catherine the Great was behind the wheel of the Russian empire. And it’s in Hazendal’s beautifully restored and elegantly dressed historic wine cellar that you’ll find the estate’s wine tasting lounge and flagship restaurant, Avant-Garde.

Hazendal-Restaurant-1

Getting to grips with Russian cuisine

Executive Chef Michélle Theron had little experience with Russian cuisine before her appointment at Hazendal Wine Estate. It was under the gentle guidance and encouragement of owner Mark and his family, and the tutelage of an experienced Russian chef that she dived deep and mastered a diverse cuisine that bears the influence of multiple ethnicities and social classes, from Northern Europe to East Asia and from the austerity of the impoverished peasant class to the exorbitant excess of the tsarist regimes.

Executive Chef Michélle Theron
Executive Chef Michélle Theron

Avant-Garde’s menu presents a subsequent fusion of South African and Russian flavours and ingredients, a musical composition that would have impressed even Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Presented with such a smorgasbord of delicious sounding dishes and perhaps a few words we had to run past Google Translate, we sent our waitron back to the kitchen with a single request: “surprise us.” Chef Michélle responded with a magnificent volley of fusion dishes that both entertained and educated our palates.

Hazendal Restaurant

Multi-course dining and wine pairing

We eased into our meal with an amuse-bouche of savoury pastry crowned with fennel-laced cream cheese and a generous dollop of black caviar, which we washed down with a golden flute of the Hazendal Scarlet Sails MCC 2014. Next, was a delectable constellation of starters paired with wines from Hazendal and surrounding farms along Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Road. Lightly smoked snoek and potato pampushki, Russia’s answer to croquettes, were served with Cape Malay curried sweet potato, apricots, and parsley purée and paired with the Hartenberg Riesling 2016; octopus terrine with a bright and lively salad of green melon, dehydrated tomato, salsa verde, chorizo, radish, and saltbush sprigs (pairing: Hazendal Sémillon/Sauvignon Blanc 2017); and asparagus, fennel, poached pear and pickled cucumber salad with Valley blue cheese from Riebeeck Kasteel (pairing: the Christoffel Hazenwinkel Cape blend 2017, a vibrant and fruit-forward, yet velvety Cape blend of Pinotage, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon.)

Hazendal Restaurant
Lightly smoked fish and potato pampushki, curried sweet potato and apricot, with a parsley sauce

This inundation of delicious and surprising dishes was followed by a Ramen style bowl of mushroom broth packed with bean sprouts, spring onion, tender slices of pork with crispy skin, a perfectly cooked egg, and springbok pelmeni (Russian-style dumplings). Then, we tried the winter-perfect slow-braised lamb on a bed of kasha (a savoury barley porridge) with hazelnuts and mushrooms, which, we were told, is traditional ‘peasant’ food in Russia; and roasted Kei apple-glazed duck breast with an apple and onion tart. I adored the upturned onion halves filled with Chef Michélle’s rich, savoury reduction. These main dishes were paired with the Goede Hoop Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 and Hazendal Chenin Blanc 2017 respectively.

Hazendal Restaurant

Dessert was no less impressive and just as artistically rendered as every dish before. We had the apple sharlotka, a classic Russian apple sponge cake topped with a flavourful apple and thyme ice cream in a milk chocolate encasing; and Anna pavlova with cream cheese custard, green tea sablé cookies, matcha coated milk rocks, strawberries, and cream. And while, by this stage, we were grossly over-filled, we managed to conclude the experience with that classic vodka cocktail: the Moscow Mule. How could we boast about our meal at Avant-Garde without a nip of vodka?

Hazendal Restaurant

Picture perfect setting

My early ignorant impressions of Russian cuisine – potatoes served with potato and a side of potatoes – has been completely obliterated by Chef Michélle and Avant-Garde’s sumptuous menu. Enjoyed in an elegant, classically attractive setting complete with hand-painted mural ceiling and a view of the wine cellar’s impressive stainless-steel tanks, Avant-Garde truly is a picture-perfect venue for long, leisurely lunches framed by Hazendal’s beautifully-crafted wines.

Hazendal Restaurant

Avant-Garde at Hazendal is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11:30 to 15:30. For bookings and enquiries, please email bookings@hazendal.co.za or call +27 (0) 21 205 5620 (bookings essential)

www.hazendal.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/2019/06/19/avant-garde-at-hazendal-wine-estate-delivers-a-harmonious-fusion-of-south-african-and-russian-cuisine/

Life Off Road – The Cape and Country’s 4×4 Adventure Tours

Beating a path into the heart of the Western Cape wilderness, in an eco-conscious way, of course, reveals treasures you could scarcely hope to see from any well-travelled road. There are pristine tracks of indigenous flora, thriving birdlife, vantage points of a breath-taking scale, and new paths that few takkies have trodden before. All it takes to become an intrepid explorer are four wheels with torque and a little horsepower. Let’s see the Cape by 4×4!

The muscle for the hustle

Offroad 4x4 tours South Africa

A 4×4 has a two-axle drivetrain capable of providing torque to all four of its wheels simultaneously. In other words, it’s the kind of vehicle owned by people who need power and people who enjoy power. This, coupled with an engine with more muscle than a Howitzer, enables drivers to tackle any terrain imaginable, save perhaps for boiling fields of lava but that goes without saying. This affords people rare and privileged perspectives on our country – no wonder 4×4 touring is such a popular tourist activity and local pastime!

4×4 Guided and self-drive tours

You don’t need to own, buy, or even know how to drive a 4×4 to partake in a little ‘bundu bashing’. There is an abundance of 4×4 adventure companies in and around Cape Town that offer guided and self-drive tours. Some even provide training. Dirty Boots Off-Road Adventures (+27 21 713 1491, Dirtyboots.co.za) runs single and multi-day trips in the Cape and throughout the country.

Xtreme-Trex Adventours & Transport (+27 21 713 1491, Xtreme-trex.com) does the same and maintains a fleet of modified Hummer H3s, Land Rover Defender TD5s, and Range Rover HSEs.

Further afield, Cederberg 4×4 (+27 21 910 1363 Cederberg4x4.co.za) arranges camping trips and overland tours to beautiful, remote locations and even neighbouring countries throughout pretty much all of southern Africa.

4×4 Trails near Cape Town

Landrover 4x4 trails South Africa

For those with the necessary tools of the trade and the skills to operate them, you’ll find no shortage of bushwhacking, dune bouncing, and donga diving opportunities nearby. The steep dune systems in Atlantis, 45 km from Cape Town (difficulty level 2-5), offer a thrilling romp for 4x4s. You’ll need a permit, though, which you can obtain at the City Council in Wale Street (Capetown.gov.za). Some other coastal trails include Blombosch 4×4 Nature Trail in Yzerfontein (level 1-2) and Buffelsfontein, which is spread out over Yzerfontein, Darling, and Langebaan (level 3-4).

For more mountainous challenges with gorgeous views of vineyards and farmlands, try:

  • The Wiesenhof Trail in Stellenbosch
  • Two Oceans View Route in Somerset West (level 3-4)
  • Takbok 4×4 Trail in Paarl (level 2-3)
  • Babylonstoren Trail in Malmesbury (level 4)
  • Sir Lowry’s Pass Route (bookings through CapeNature.co.za)
  • Sneeukoppie 4×4 in Rawsonville (level 2-3)
  • Tierkloof 4×4, also Rawsonville (level 3-4)

Wind in your hair, torque at your fingertips

offroad adventures south africa

A 4×4 adventure allows you to visit the remote, hard-to-reach places where life in all its myriad iterations flourishes. More than that: it offers the adrenaline rush of zooming about the bush, beach, mountains, and valleys in a car with serious muscle. And it’s in the name of discovery and maybe just a little danger that we veer off the beaten path to experience the Cape’s and country’s secreted away gems.

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/2019/06/20/life-off-road-the-cape-and-countrys-4×4-adventure-tours/

Holden Manz Wine Estate Delivers a Food and Wine Experience that is Pure and Unpretentious Luxury

We pulled up to Holden Manz Wine Estate in Franschhoek on a day that was the epitome of winter; although in her fine dress of vineyards and voluptuous mountain borders, this idyllic winelands town always manages to look beautifully dramatic on even the drizzliest of days. Situated in the southernmost corner of the Franschhoek Valley, sandwiched between the Franschhoek River and Stony Brook, the 22-hectare estate of Holden Manz boasts a unique terroir that is the progenitor of a range of truly exquisite red wines, including a ‘top 6 in the world’ Cabernet Franc and ‘top 10’ Merlot.

On the two occasions we have sampled Holden Manz wines before – the Franschhoek Summer Wine and Franschhoek Winter Wine festivals at which we had the Chenin Blanc and the Proprietor’s Blend, respectively – we were compelled by their depth of fruit, aromatic complexity, and pure elegance. And so it was with much anticipation that we swooned into the estate’s rustic tasting room to explore the full range before sitting down to a three-course lunch at Holden Manz’ restaurant, the Franschhoek Kitchen.

Holden Manz wine tasting

Holden Manz red wine Franschhoek

Our wine tasting was hosted by the dashing and charismatic Ruben, Holden Manz’ wine ambassador, who walked us through the estate’s very fine repertoire of award-winning wines, beginning with the lush and creamy Provence-style rosé, the gorgeous Chenin Blanc, and, the final white wine, the barrel-fermented Chardonnay 2018. Then, we embarked upon Holden Manz’ rich, elegant, and smooth reds, the grapes of which are grown in the topmost 16 hectares of the estate. To be quite honest, I would be hard-pressed to decide upon a favourite but under duress I suppose I would opt for the Holden Manz Syrah…and the Cabernet Sauvignon…and while we’re at it, the Reserve Merlot. Oh and their Visionaire, Cabernet Franc,and Big G Bordeaux-styleblend.

Do you see where I’m going with this? My absolute compliments to Holden Manz’ experienced and artful winemaker, Thierry Haberer.

Lunch at Franschhoek Kitchen

Holden Manz Franschhoek Kitchen
Franschhoek trout ceviche with yuzu mayo and horseradish crème

A rather gluttonous volume of wine later, we headed upstairs from the tasting room and cellars for a much-needed lunch at Franschhoek Kitchen, which has been rated one of the leading restaurants in a valley already lauded for its culinary calibre. In this classically beautiful, yet rustic setting with stunning views over rain bejewelled vineyards, we tucked into a feast crafted from fresh ingredients strictly sourced from the Franschhoek Valley.

For starters, we shared the gorgeous and velvety vichyssoise soup, served warm and paired with the Holden Manz Chenin Blanc, and the Franschhoek trout ceviche with yuzu mayo, horseradish crème, and a glass of the deliciously indulgent Reserve Chardonnay.

Holden Manz Franschhoek Kitchen sea bass
Sea bass with laksa (Malaysian curry) sauce and toasted coconut chips

For mains, we shared (again, because variety is the spice of life) the pork belly with pomme purée, peach gel, shitake mushrooms, vine tomato, and shitake jus with a glass of Holden Manz Reserve Merlot, and the sea bass, which came swimming in a rich, creamy laksa (Malaysian curry) sauce with toasted coconut chips. The wine pairing for this dish was the exquisite Holden Manz Syrah Reserve. For a sweet ending, we chose the triple chocolate mousse, apple tart, and a nip of Holden Manz Good Sport Cape Vintage 2014, by which stage we had slumped into a miasma of hedonistic pleasure.

Holden Manz Franschhoek Kitchen dessert
Triple chocolate mousse

Five-star accommodation

A visit to Holden Manz Wine Estate need not conclude with a meal. With the Holden Manz Country House being a stone’s throw from the tasting room and restaurant, guests – satiated with good food and wine – can collapse into the lap of luxury. This five-star guesthouse offers five spacious and lavishly appointed suites, all with breathtaking views of the upper Franschhoek Valley and the mountains beyond, as well as a pool, afternoon tea with homemade delicacies, sandwiches, cakes, and preserves, and generous breakfasts, featuring fruits from the estate’s orchards and eggs from their vineyard chickens.

Holden Manz Country Manor Franschhoek

Top culinary and wine experience

Holden Manz Estate owners Gerard Holden and Migo Manz, together with winemaker Thierry Haberer and every member of their staff, have created a wine and food experience that is every ounce as luxurious as it is unpretentious. There are few airs and graces here to dress up the offering because – no surprises here – absolutely none are necessary. Our first few encounters with the brand at Franschhoek’s seasonal wine festivals already had us impressed but our visit to Holden Manz took our impressions to stratospheric heights. Wine estate, fine dining country restaurant, wedding venue, wine tasting cellar, and luxurious five-star accommodations, Holden Manz has it all!

www.HoldenManz.com, +27 (0) 21 876 2738