North, East, South and West; South Africa’s Western Cape Region really has it all…
‘The fairest Cape in all the world’ has been a magnet for visitors for several hundred years, but there’s never been a better time to go beyond the Waterfront, Table Mountain, Cape Point and Robben Island…
With just a little careful planning and forethought, you can unpack the very best of the entire region. There’s a host of fabulous little towns, stunning destinations, amazing attractions and superb activities waiting for you across the region. All you’ll need is a friendly tour guide or information office, a good map, a relaxed attitude, and a healthy curiosity to discover all its hidden gems and secrets.
The Western Cape Region is an incredibly diverse area encompassing the Winelands, the Overberg, the Garden Route and little Karoo, as well as the Cape Karoo proper, and lest we forget, the magnificent West Coast and Cedarberg. Each area has its own uniqueness and charm to the point where you are literally spoilt for choice.
The Cape Winelands (head north-east)
Most Capetonian visitors are keen to discover the rich and fertile green valleys that are collectively known as the Cape Winelands, situated just a short drive east of the Mother City itself. Home to over 200 estates nestled amongst towering mountain ranges, the Winelands is a laid-back delight of towns and villages stuffed with historic homesteads, monuments, taverns and cellars. Thanks to its Mediterranean climate the area produces some of the best South African wines, sherries, ports and brandies, as well as olives, cheeses and plenty of good old-fashioned farm stall products. In short, it’s tourist heaven.
Start along the Helderberg route, the area that incorporates Somerset West and Gordon’s Bay. A short drive east along the N2 out of the city of Cape Town sees you ensconced in wine country in just on half an hour. The ‘hottest’ estate here? It has to be Vergelegen, with its wine tasting, fabulous coffee shop and superb old fashioned gardens.
Next, drive the Stellenbosch wine route, which again begins less than 45 minutes drive from central Cape Town. Established as a settlement in the mid-1600s, this town and surrounding area is now the area for some fabulous tourist attractions – and an excess of great wines! Crammed with period buildings, such as the Rembrandt van Rijn Art Museum and the Old Parsonage, as well as being home to some magnificent shopping opportunities, you’ll want to spend hours exploring.
From here, if you can drag yourself away, it’s just a short hop into the Franschhoek valley. This original French Huguenot 17th century settlement is also the home of the world-famous Boschendal estate, and has become a Mecca for lovers of haute cuisine and fine wines.
After all this wine tasting you’ll need a designated driver, as from Franschhoek you must head for Paarl, a town named after the enormous mountain it nestles under, that shines in the sun like solid Mother of Pearl. Laborie is to be found here, another world-class wine estate with a legendary reputation. This is also KWV country, and the famous KWV cellar complex is reputed to be the largest in the world, covering some 22 hectares. In particular, the magnificent Cathedral Cellar, with its barrel-vaulted roof is a must-see.
If there’s enough time on your trip, you won’t want to miss the little town of Wellington, with its own intimate wine route that will in turn lead you on to the Bain’s Kloof Pass built in the 1850s, and the link to the beautiful fruit-growing regions of Ceres and Worcester. But that’s another story.
The Overberg (this time South East)
Just another 45-minute-drive from Cape Town lies the Overberg, a region that takes you into the apple and grain-laden valleys of Elgin and Grabouw. The coastline here forms the main breeding grounds of the Southern Right Whale between June and November, and both the coastal village of Hermanus, along with nearby Walker Bay, have become world renowned as the epicentre of the new ecological whale-watching experience.
Caledon is the Overberg’s ‘capital’ and hosts a Wild Flower Show in September that is quite simply delightful. Further along this route one can discover the colonial town of Swellendam at the foot of the Langeberg, offering a picture-postcard glimpse of life in bygone times. Witsand, a water-sport resort, and the charming village of Bredasdorp lie even further beyond. This is shipwreck country, heading towards Arniston, a 200-year-old fishing village that is a legendary modern aquatic playground, and home to a phenomenal fish market. Two-and-a-half-hours out, Gansbaai has recently built its reputation on cage-diving with the Great White Shark. (Whilst not the prettiest town in the region, this is an adrenaline-pumping paradise, and not recommended for the faint hearted).
This region is also the beginning of The Garden Route (due east) that stretches all along the Indian Ocean coastline to Port Elizabeth, several hundred kilometres away, encompassing some arid semi-desert conditions in the Klein (little) Karoo – and a journey in its own right that should be undertaken at least once in a lifetime. George, Plettenberg Bay and Knysna are just some of the coastal jewels in its crown.
This is also home, on a slightly different journey due north of the Garden Route and Klein Karoo, to the area known as the Cape Karoo proper. The Cape Karoo covers some 400 000 square kilometres that, some 250 million years ago, was a vast inland sea. It ultimately became a vast amphibian and reptilian swamp, then later a huge dry arid area, and is today both a geological and paleontological delight.
The heart of the San tribe with a mystical, magical set of landscapes, the region bears witness to some 40 000 years of ancient and tribal human settlement. Too large to cover in one article, specialist tours abound in the region, but for now we must swing our attention several hundred kilometres back to Cape Town, and start to think about…
The West Coast
Originally home to just the Khoi people, one of the oldest African nomadic tribes, the Atlantic Ocean’s Cape West Coast has born witness to the later arrival of explorers and missionaries alike, who like the Khoi people before them, found the Cedarberg to be rugged, harsh and yet strangely beautiful and spiritual, as do the tourists of today. The entire area is crammed with ancient artefacts and rock art paintings, many of which can still be seen in pristine condition and are nationally protected monuments.
Today tourists tend to think unspoilt beaches, impressive mountain ranges, as well as a springtime profusion of wild flowers. Now is really the season to head west, up from Cape Town on the R27, through Milnerton, and Bloubergstrand, to the charming dormitory town and actors’ paradise of Darling (don’t miss the Wild Flower and Orchid Show in September). The West Coast National Park is also highly recommended at this time of year.
Langebaan’s lagoon lies ahead - a paradise wetland area which is becoming well frequented thanks to its tourism potential, and the eternally long beach at Paternoster just up the road has a rugged charm of its own and is well worth visiting.
This brief overview of the Western Cape region can hardly do justice to the myriad of potential delights and discoveries to be found across the entire territory. As an appetizer however, you could do a lot worse than to explore the Cape’s tourism offices and websites, as well as the advertisers in this publication – all of whom are bursting with energy and enthusiasm to present their own particular versions of the paradise that this incredibly diverse region has to offer.
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with simply shopping, eating and drinking in the immediate central Cape Town vicinity, our best advice is to try and do more – and there’s no better place to explore than this fantastic, huge and diverse area. Enjoy it… and send us your postcards!
Article courtesy of Avis South African Magazine.