Source: OutThere Travel, autumn 2010
Heading for the hills is always easy from Cape Town – everywhere you look are the towering fold mountains, the lower slopes of which are covered with vines. So a good bet might be to hole up in the Winelands. The popular guesthouses and retreats in Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl are always a sound bet, but there are also several lesser-known wine-growing areas where you can really get away from the crowds.
Only one hour from Cape Town on the N2 and you are in Green Mountain country, in the shadow of the majestic Groenlandberg and Houw Hoek Mountain. This pretty corner of the Overberg, which includes the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, the Core of the Cape Floral Region, is home to a dozen vineyards and a wealth of accommodation, restaurants, craft markets and adventures marketed under the umbrella of the Green Mountain Eco Route, the world’s first biodiversity wine and eco-route.
As you drive up Sir Lowry’s Pass and over into Green Mountain you really feel like you’re escaping and when you turn off the N2 towards the peaks you’re enveloped by wine and fruit trees, a very different world from the concrete jungle of Cape Town. And should you tire of the magnificent mountains and greenery and need a change of scene, Hermanus, Strand and the glorious beaches of Kleinmond, Betty’s Bay, Pringle Bay and Rooi Els are just a short drive away.
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to places to stay. If you’re after a short break, there’s the elegant, family-run Villa Exner Exclusive Boutique Hotel in Grabouw, where superb cuisine, fine wines and personal attention to detail are the name of the game. Romantics can laze on the verandah enjoying the tranquility and enjoy candlelit dinners and background piano music by night, while there are walks, golf and horse riding to satisfy the more active types.
Further off the beaten track is Porcupine Hills Guestfarm, nestled in a private nature reserve on the Van der Stel Pass. Here too the emphasis is on fine living, with each of the beautiful rooms in the farmhouse, the main cottage and the three chalets on the Kloof River equipped with underfloor heating and ceiling fans, top of the range bed linen, big fluffy bath towels and wonderful bathroom amenities. The pride and attention to detail of owners Murray and Fiona Wiener is evident in the little touches which really make you feel special – fresh flowers in the rooms, and fridges stocked with cool drinks, beer and wine.
Murray is an eccentric, highly entertaining host and chef of note, so make sure you book for at least one dinner (he only cooks on demand for his guests and the local gourmands). As you sit at the bar enjoying home-grown olives and freshly baked bar snacks he’ll suddenly insist on an impromptu wine-tasting, then serve up an exquisite, beautifully presented four-course meal. Chez Murray would rival any chic city joint.
Hidden behind the Houw Hoek Inn in the Houw Hoek Valley, the four-star Wildekrans Country House is an absolute gem – I could not drag myself away on the first visit and ended up extending my stay! Wildekrans offers country living at its best, with the historic homestead and the Cape cottages available for B&B or self-catering holidays. Four-poster beds and homemade olives, jams and wines give the place a homely feel, and the gardens are an absolute delight. Pick up a map and head out on a trail through the Wildekrans Sculpture Garden where you’ll stumble on beautiful art works by some of South Africa’s internationally renowned contemporary artists.
My favourite is five life-sized sheep – Wilma Cruise’s “Sheep may safely graze – The return of the Bultfontein sheep”. The original is an installation at the Oliewenhuis Museum in Bloemfontein, and its inspiration was provided by an infamous occurrence during the Anglo-Boer war. On the farm Bultfontein, which lies between the Vet and Sand rivers, sheep from the neighbouring farms were herded together, shot and left to rot in the sun. It is in memory of those sheep in particular, and the animals of the Boer war in general, that “Sheep may safely graze” was conceived.
If you’re after a tranquil self-catering getaway, the two gorgeous cottages on the Beaumont Wine Estate just outside Botriver are an idyllic base from which to enjoy the unique flora and birdlife of the fynbos-covered mountain, swim in the dams, enjoy the valley’s food and wine, or explore the old mill on the farm which has been lovingly restored by local engineer Alex Selfe.
Green Mountain offers a host of adventures, from quad biking to fly-fishing. All the guesthouses have walking trails and there is also a four-day guided and fully catered Green Mountain Trail hike. The route, laid out for the exclusive use of those on the trail, is certainly not a walk in the park – for example, the first day takes hikers over the top of the Groenlandberg – but it is slackpacking at its finest, with an emphasis on really appreciating the unique fynbos and wine, olive and fruit farms that dominate the area through the efforts of knowledgeable guides and hosts.
The trail is linear, but hikers spend the first two nights at Porcupine Hills and the rest at Wildekrans Country Estate, getting thoroughly spoilt. The guiding is superb, so you come away enlightened and enthused, and the lunches that are laid out on the mountains have to be seen to be believed. If you’re a nature lover who loves a stiff walk by day but a soft bed, good food and fine wine at night, this is your trail.