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Do it all in two wild weeks…

How often have you dreamt about standing right next to the thundering Victoria Falls, enjoying a sundowner on Cape Town’s stunning Table Mountain, shopping in Johannesburg, gliding in a dugout canoe through the swamps of the Okavango Delta and sleeping in a remote bush tent… but thought it not possible as your budget – and holiday leave – only stretches to two weeks.

Well, it is doable. In January my husband and I explored Southern Africa in 15 days. We spent five days in Cape Town, a weekend in Johannesburg, two days at Victoria Falls and five days in the Okavango Delta, taking in the best of South African, Zimbabwean and Botswanan sights and culture.

 

"Do it all in two wild weeks", by Alannah Eames

Click here to read the full article by Alannah Eames in the travel section of the Sunday Times, Malta, July 24, 2011.

Asara: a 5-star wine estate

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

So far I’ve counted 126 wine estates in the Cape Winelands but there are probably many more than this. Each one is unique in its own way and you would probably need a month, visiting around four a day to do them all properly.

The stunning view from Asara's main restaurant

We’re staying at the five-star Asara in Stellenbosch. The name Asara is inspired by the African gods of Earth, Sun and Sky (Astar, Asis and Asase) and the focus here is on balance and harmony with nature.

Which we feel immediately as we enter the long tree-lined driveway, passing the mirror-like dams packed with birdlife. Behind the water lie green vine-covered slopes. It’s a small intimate hotel that is elegant but not stiff and with breathtaking views over the Stellenbosch wine region, which we just can’t get enough of.

Asara is one of the bigger wine estates in the area – not in terms of its 120 or so hectares of grapes – but because it also offers 36 rooms, a restaurant, ballroom, bar and visitor center including a kitchen shop. The shop makes me laugh – if you are looking for a European pot or pan, or a kitchen gadget, you’ll find it here; they also have their own handmade chocolate truffles for sale. Service is also good, and fast, maybe the credit is due here to Asara’s Austrian owner Markus Rahmann, an avid wine collector who bought the 320-year-old Asara estate in 1999 and opened the hotel in 2008.

The perfect end to 2010 - a bottle of Asara's sparkling wine

We sample seven of Asara’s red and white wines (65% of Asara’s wines are red; 35% white) at the seven-course New Years’ Eve dinner. The food is delicious, especially the “trilogy of foie gras” (which is a unique combination of goose liver and chocolate pralines) and the cold melon and crayfish soup. For the main course there’s quail filled with prawns or a fillet of beef if you don’t feel like tasting the local birdlife. Their dessert and sparkling wines are particularly good.

Having dinner at a wine farm, served with wines produced from the grapes you are looking at and celebrating New Years’ Eve in the Cape Winelands is definitely an experience to remember. Unfortunately, there aren’t any fireworks, but on the distant horizon a bushfire is burning just outside Stellenbosch; luckily it doesn’t seem to be spreading in our direction.

I fell in love with the Asara the minute we checked in, enjoyed every minute spent there … and was sad to go down the driveway for the last time. It’s the perfect spot for a romantic weekend getaway with your partner, a few quiet days with friends or family or as a base to explore the magnificent winelands. You can put your feet up and chill out, but for people with itchy feet like me, there’s enough in the surrounding area to stop you getting bored – the sea is just 30 minutes away, Cape Town is less than an hour away, the stunning wine routes are on your doorstep and pretty Stellenbosch is just around the corner.

The charm of the Cape Winelands

February 9, 2011 1 comment

If you’re a fan of South African wines, you’re going to be in heaven in the Cape Winelands, outside Cape Town. And if you’re not, you’re still going to love the winding wine routes that weave their way across the stunning landscape which is dotted with colonial-style wine estates, green vineyards, colorful flowers, set against a rugged backdrop of rocky mountains and gently sloping hills. The effect is so postcard-pretty that it looks almost like a “Photoshop job”.  That’s why the Cape Winelands were added to the “cultural” category of the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 2004 – the first step towards getting them included on the official World Heritage List.

The picture-postcard-perfect Cape Winelands

Unofficially, Stellenbosch is often thought of as the “capital” of the magnificent Cape Winelands as it is the best known (and marketed) out of the six areas that make up the Winelands. However, the other five regions – Constantia, Franschhoek, Paarl, Robertson and Wellington – also have their fair share of great wines. In fact, Constantia has some of the oldest wine estates in the Cape Winelands.

South Africa is world renowned for its excellent wines. But this wasn’t always the case. The first attempts to produce wine in the Capelands in the 17th-century were more or less a disaster; it took many years of trial and error before the locals got it right and earned the respect of the more established European wine industry.

Who wouldn't want to live here!

Back in the 1670s, Simon van der Stel, governor of the Cape, set his sights on developing the region and in 1679 he set the foundations of Stellenbosch. His own wine estate at Constantia, one of the first, also became well respected in Europe.

And, in another stroke of luck, the Protestant Huguenots were kicked out of France in the late 17th-century. Fortunately for South Africa’s wine industry, some of them settled in the Cape area – mainly around Franschhoek, Paarl and Drakenstein – bringing their viniculture know-how with them which helped greatly to develop today’s South African wines, and on occasion, surpass their native French ones.

In 2008 South Africa had a “record crop” according to the Rabobank Wine Quarterly report and 2011 is expected to be another “healthy” crop, estimated to reach 1.35 million tonnes. However, while domestic demand for local wines rose in 2010 (in part due to the side-effects of the World Cup), exports dropped by around 4% due to a stronger-than-usual Rand and the ongoing impact of the economic crisis in its export markets.

Regardless of competition from New World countries like Chile, New Zealand and California, and from more traditional wine producing nations like Italy, Spain and France, South Africa is still right up in the top ten global rankings. One of the keys to the success of the industry, a wine industry graduate from Stellenbosch University tells us at a wine tasting, is that “we have always been open to new influences and technology and have a much more modern viniculture than that of the more traditional European vineyards.  We always try new things to improve the quality of the wine and to make our production more effective. Sometimes, in France, they still try to do things the way they did them hundreds of years ago, but they need to update because they are losing their competitive edge.”

Chinese visitors, to the Cape Winelands, she told us, are also increasing. “They want to learn from us so they can go back home and apply it to their own wine industry,” she says. Wine from China? Yep, China also has aspirations here and is moving up the list of global wine producing nations. It was recently ranked the seventh largest producer of wine in the world, according to a study by the International Wine and Spirit Record.

Just one of the many well-known South African wine brands that you'll find on your supermarket shelf.

“I’m at the bottom of the world – well almost!”

February 8, 2011 4 comments

Cape Town's famous Victoria & Alfred Waterfront with Table Mountain in background (under the clouds).

It’s five years since I’ve been in Cape Town and, although it feels like just yesterday that I strolled through the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront admiring the majestic Table Mountain and dodging the hordes of tourists, something feels different.

Table Mountain really is there, hiding under the "tablecloth".

It first hits me as we land at Cape Town airport at the end of December, the height of the South African summer season. The most southernly city in Africa can get windy (especially because the next piece of land is Antarctica) but this is really windy and despite the azure blue color of the sky, there is a huge cloud permanently plastered to the top of the Table Mountain for the next three days (“the tablecloth” as it’s called), while another top attraction – the rotating cable car is not running due to the winds. “The weather’s been strange the past few weeks,” our hotel receptionist tells us. “It was nice last week but it’s going to be very windy the next few days.”

The second thing that strikes me as different is the airport. Like Jo’burg (Johannesburg) Cape Town also attracts international long-haul flights but it’s always been ten times smaller than OR Tambo in Johannesburg. Now, it’s more sparkly, modern, bigger and different with a bit more of an international feel to it. Apparently, since hosting the World Cup in 2010, South Africa pumped money into developing the infrastructure, airports included. The vast Cape Flat slum areas still lie sprawled along the highway from the airport to the city, a stark reminder that in 2010 the UN said South African cities were among the most unequal in the world. The millionaire enclaves on the other side of Cape Town and expensive cars parked along Camps Bay, further evidence that in this part of the world the rich are filthy rich and the poor extremely poor.

Mention “South Africa” to most people and Cape Town will be the first thing that springs to their mind. The city – often listed as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and one of the most common places on people’s “bucket list” – conjures up images of endless coastline, majestic mountain tops, fantastic wine, great food, great white sharks and pretty colonial towns. Even though it has a population of around 3.5 million, it feels more like a small town as the city center itself is actually pretty small. But actually most of these things are not in Cape Town itself but within a one-hour drive of the city. I blew up my expectations of Cape Town grossly five years ago and got disappointed when I first saw the desolate slum areas, the somewhat scruffy city center and the uber-touristic Victoria & Alfred (V&A) waterfront which turns a part of colonial history into a commercial enterprise … yes, it is pretty, yes it’s very European but for us Europeans, we don’t want pretty or European – we want Africa, well I do anyway!

Cape Town attracts just about everybody – from surfers, outdoors lovers, gays, old, young, models, jetsetters and now “Black Diamonds” (the emerging South African black middle class). It should feel cosmopolitan but I just feel cut off from the rest of the world by this massive chunk of a mountain.

So first impressions aside, after the usual haggle at the airport to get a car rental (despite waving my prepaid voucher, they have no car, and worse still, no booking for us and make a new one) … this, at least, was the same experience as five years’ ago. At peak times, there are simply not enough cars to go around in Cape Town and the only way to see the Cape area and to get out and about is by renting a car. Almost an hour later, we leave the car rental office with a car, luckily, even if it is a smaller one than what we had booked and paid for. Renting a car in Cape Town is a “must” as it gives you freedom, flexibility and it’s much safer and cheaper than using local taxis.

Like five years ago, I’m not overly impressed by the city itself so we soon head out to enjoy the magnificent scenery as we drive down past Camps Bay, the winding rocky coastal road along Chapman’s Peak, stopping off to view the cute, and protected, African penguins at Boulders Bay and for some delicious fresh shrimps and mussels at Simon’s Town, the base of the South African navy. From there it’s on to the Cape Point National Park – there’s a traffic jam getting into the park – and to the Cape of Good Hope. The rugged coastline, short heather bushes and windswept barren landscape remind me of the west coast of Ireland today as the temperatures have dropped to 16 degrees Celsius. But once we spot the famous Cape baboons – which are unique as they fish for shellfish – I remember I’m actually at the bottom of Africa. Many tourists mistakenly believe that Cape Point is the most southernly point in Africa but if you read more carefully, you will see that it is actually the “most south-westernly point in Africa”. It’s the Cape of Good Hope that attracts me most. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by this rocky outcrop which has conjures up images of shipwrecks and sailors battling its fierce currents and rocky promontories.

African penguins at Boulders Bay.

There’s plenty of accommodation choices in Cape Town – from backpacker hostels and self-catering apartments to luxury hotels like The One & Only which will set you back at least EUR 600 per night. We choose a reasonably-priced chic, city boutique hotel appropriately called Urban Chic Hotel on Cape Town’s vibrant Long Street. This is one of the best streets to stay on – lots of quirky cafes, unassuming restaurants and lively bars within walking distance – and in a country renowned for its crime, this is a safe street to walk on. The rooms are modern and airy with earthy neutral colors and some have side views over Table Mountain. The reception staff are friendly…the only thing I can complain about is the breakfast which is not the best in the world.

A "quiet" Long Street which turns into the heart and soul of the city at night.

Thanks to the reception staff, we find a great restaurant just a block away called Five Flies. South African food is rarely, if ever, bad and you are spoiled for choice with restaurants in the Cape area but this one has become one of my favorites. It is housed in a historic Cape Dutch building with a maze of interconnecting rooms, wooden beams, a small yard area, a bar upstairs and super-friendly service. The chargrilled steaks are delicious as are the local wines to wash them down. We like it so much, we go back on the second night and I try the beetroot and roasted butternut with goat’s cheese, pumpkin seeds and pink grapefruit dressing which is delicious.  We round off our evening in Cape Town with a few drinks in the lively Irish Bar on Long Street where a super-energetic DJ is the life and soul of the party.

The next day I notice another difference in Cape Town from five years’ ago – the shopping mall at the V&A Waterfront has quadrupled in size. Five years ago, people used to tell me that Cape Town was great for shopping and when I asked them “where” they used to tell me to go to the V&A Waterfront and the Clock Tower mall. But compared to shopping in Jo’burg’s fantastic Sandton Center, these two Capetonian retail outlets with their weird selection of stores and tacky souvenir shops didn’t exactly scream “shopping paradise” Now, however, the shopping mall has dramatically improved and, if like us, you’re off on safari, head straight to the Cape Union Mart which has great safari clothes at a good price. You also get your 14% tax back. This is also different than five years’ ago as now it’s quite a cumbersome process to reclaim the VAT at the airport – you no longer get cash back on departure but after queuing for half an hour you are handed a visa card to which your cash rebate will be credited six weeks after you leave the country. Not the smartest or most shopping-friendly solution as instead of spending the money again before leaving the country, it means I will spend it in six weeks’ time (if the system really works) in Europe. Another con now of shopping in South Africa is that the Rand (ZAR) is much stronger now against the Euro, meaning you pay more. South Africa is still reasonably good value and money still goes far, but definitely not as far as it stretched in the past.

My top 10 recommendations for the Cape area:

  1. Watch the African penguins at Boulders Bay
  2. Enjoy a sundowner at Camps Bay
  3. Indulge in a steak and bottle of local wine at Five Flies
  4. Take a day-trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years
  5. Take a spin in the rotating cable car up Table Mountain for spectacular views
  6. Don’t miss a photo opportunity at the Cape of Good Hope
  7. Drive around the bends of Chapman’s Drive in a convertible
  8. Spend an evening bar-hopping in lively Long Street
  9. Bend your credit card in the malls at V&A Waterfront
  10. And … drive … do the  “Whale Coast” route from Cape Town to George and visit the stunning Cape Winelands around Stellenbosch and Paarl
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