You’d need a hard heart not to fall for Cape Town. From the vibrant V&A Waterfront to that tantalising Table Mountain backdrop, the Garden Route gateway needs no introduction. So well known is the city, so beloved of British visitors that this Western Cape jewel usually sells itself. But these aren’t usual times.
Cape Town’s recent, much publicised water shortage saw a dip in the number of UK visitors, spooked by the spectre of a “Day Zero” scenario in which local taps run dry, leaving local tourism bodies scrambling to assure the UK trade that “Cape Town is open for business”.
And so it proves. Plugs may remain missing from hotel baths – and myriad signs still urge visitors and locals to be “water smart” – but water issues have zero impact during my trip.
This leaves me free to focus on more positive developments such as the V&A’s funky new Silo District, centred on the Zeitz MOCAA gallery and Silo Hotel, or drinking in the sweeping city and coastline views from atop Table Mountain after an early morning rotating cable-car ride.
My first taste of Western Cape’s world-class wine culture comes courtesy of Durbanville Hills, a 20-minute drive from Cape Town.
Its excellent wines and gastronomy bode well for the trip ahead, and its offer of guided “wine safaris” on Table Mountain – clearly visible from its terrace – is another nice touch.
The following day, I venture along the N2 into the Cape Winelands proper, where Swartland and Robertson Wine Valley are among the rising stars alongside the household names of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.
The N2 serves up a delightfully scenic drive, punctuated by sweeping coastline lookouts, while “farmstall” stops such as Peregrine help stave off the munchies with their excellent local fare.
Then Stellenbosch truly delivers, first with some excellent chenin blancs served up alfresco at DeMorgenzon and then over an informative three-hour “wine drive” around Waterford Estate (£50), complete with a light lunch and wonderful wine pairing amid the vines, which are busy turning a resplendent autumnal gold. At places such as Middelvlei Wines, you can even blend and label your own wine. Not that the town is a one-trick pony.
“The most popular misconception is that Stellenbosch is all about wine,” says Stellenbosch360’s marketing and development manager Ann Heyns, before reeling off the town’s many other distractions.
Aside from its weekend foodie markets and culinary, wine and arts festivals, there’s the Historical Walk; hiking and biking trails; and its summertime amphitheatre – just for starters.
Heyns also emphasises Stellenbosch’s wellness products, including Chi-Chi’s and Mangwanani’s Orange Spa. “And if you get married here, you’ll fall in love all over again,” she adds.
A personal highlight comes courtesy of my Dine With Locals experience in Stellenbosch’s Kayamandi township. Our genial host serves up a procession of local dishes to the assembled crew of locals and visitors amid singing, storytelling and dancing – an experience I would highly recommend.
Moving on to the Cape Whale Coast, I complete my hunt for the local “Big Five” – not the big game safari variety but the Western Cape’s classic grape varieties such as chenin blanc and pinotage.
Hermanus Wine Hoppers’ looping hop-on, hop-off wine safari service proves a handy way of visiting a selection of the vineyards along the compact Hermanus Wine Route (£15, transport only).
I take in three wineries, from modern-looking Whalehaven, where I enjoy an exquisite chocolate and wine pairing, to the more traditional Bouchard Finlayson for some excellent pinot noir and chardonnay.
Completing the holy trinity is Creation Wines – an excellent lunch spot – which serves up a wine pairing with 13 deliciously different wines – and certainly no requirement for a taster’s spittoon.
Another draw of the Cape Whale Coast is the “Marine Big Five”: the seals, dolphins, penguins, whales and sharks that call this area home. From July to November, “nursery” spots such as Walker Bay – between Hermanus and Gansbaai – teem with whales.
Whale-watching trips by boat or air are easily arranged, but they’re also clearly visible from land from spots such as the clifftops at De Kelders, near Gansbaai, whose abundant great whites make it a global go-to for shark cage dives, and its famous fynbos flora (literally “fine bush” characterised by colourful flowers) is a highlight of hiking the Fynbos Trail.
Another natural wonder near Gansbaai is the endangered African penguin colony of Dyer Island. I learn about the plight of these creatures at Gansbaai’s African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary.
Cycling is an increasingly popular way to explore the Western Cape, with Lycra-clad road warriors pounding out sections of the Cross Cape Route and offerings such as Cape Epic luring off-roaders.
I get my fix while navigating Gansbaai’s impressive sand dunes on a ride out with Fat Bike Tours.
South Africa is blessed with excellent hotels, gastronomy and hospitality and all three come together at Grootbos Private Game Reserve. Despite being minutes from Gansbaai, its sumptuous five-star lodge, set amid a swathe of fynbos which I tour on a guided nature safari, feels refreshingly remote.
Adding to the seclusion is the lodge’s positioning aside an ancient, gnarled forest of milkwood trees through which a fairytale path leads to my rooms, which prove almost big enough to get lost in.
The lodge’s sleek design marries well with the surroundings and, like the main lobby, restaurant and bar area, my glass-fronted rooms make the most of the expansive views with fynbos tumbling down to the waves and arcing beach below. Stepping into this scene come daybreak for a shower on the terrace is a real treat.
Elsewhere, The Cullinan proves a solid Cape Town base while the Spier Hotel offers an excellent, comfortable option in Stellenbosch with great food, rural cosiness and a second exquisite chocolate and wine pairing. I also enjoy its extensive grounds on a morning pedal around its six-mile trail.
Many Western Cape visitors stay in scenic Hermanus, with its charming Old Town, harbour and market square, although I opt for the nearby countryside. Blue Gum Country Estate delivers a charming rural property in a tranquil setting, backed by great hospitality and amicable hosts.
Similar options in the area worth considering include White Water Farm and Stanford Valley. Alternatively, the local town of Stanford itself – smaller, sleepier and quainter than Hermanus – makes an interesting base for a night or two.
Wherever your clients choose to stay, the main takeaway is that Cape Town’s water crisis has thankfully been averted and the Western Cape is decidedly open for holidaymakers. To quote former President Nelson Mandela: “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears,” and with this year seeing the country unite in celebration of the centenary of the Karl takes a Fat Bike Tours excursion in Gansbaai great man’s birth, your first choice must surely be South Africa.
Book it: Premier Holidays’ 10-night Cape Town & Western Cape, departing on September 24, 2018, starts at £2,299pp, including flights with South African Airways from Heathrow to Cape Town; car hire; four nights at Winchester Mansions, Cape Town; and two nights each at the Spier in Stellenbosch, Blue Gum Country Estate in Stanford and Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. trade.premierholidays.co.uk