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If Cape Town is laid back, Franschhoek is a fully reclined open air sun lounger (aside from the enormous mountains that make up the nerve-janglingly bendy Franschhoek Pass). It’s also breathtakingly beautiful. The town itself, originally a French settlement (Fransch, oui?) is quite touristy in a sort of quaint, Lake District village kind of a way, with a number of decent if overpriced (only by South African standards, mind) cafes, restaurants and craft shops selling locally made goods. In high season the main stretch gets enormously congested with both pedestrians and traffic, but moments from the centre are a seemingly limitless number of vineyards and estates, all producing exceptional wines at staggeringly low prices. Even better, almost everywhere has a restaurant that exclusively serves produce grown on site or locally, or if you fancy a less formal option you can pre-order a picnic with wine to enjoy in the grounds. I’ve listed the places we went to, but to be honest you could pull up at any old vineyard and find yourself having one of the best meals of your life in a picture perfect setting completely by accident. Children are pretty much universally welcome (though do check before), and if you want to really sample the wines without the hassle of driving you can get the wine tram. Be warned: advance booking is absolutely essential.
This place alone is worth emigrating for. Imaginez pour un instant that Raymond Blanc never moved to Oxfordshire but en fait settled on the Western Cape avec les Huguenots and opened Le Manoir here instead, and you’d still have aucune idee of just how stunning Boschendal is. On the road out towards Stellenbosch and situated within the Cape Floral Ecosystem, this working farm and vineyard grows the produce it serves at its various restaurants and delis. Wander round endless rows of vegetable patches, get a fresh juice from the deli, then leave the children chasing free roaming hens and playing in the splash park while you sample wines, before heading to The Werf for the sort of high end dining experience you usually save up years in advance for. Then, if like me you can’t bring yourself to let go, you can buy all the produce you’ve just been served at the onsite Farmshop and attempt to recreate it at home; the beef I bought from the butcher was so good it made me cry. There’s a spa, a farmstay, and if you go for the picnic hamper they even provide beanbags on the lawn. Unmissable.
Great for: Everything and everyone.
Best dish: Baby squid stuffed with tuna tartare and an oyster emulsion. Heaven.
The Werf opening hours:
Wednesday to Sunday:
12:00 – 2:30pm
Friday and Saturday:
6 – 9pm
This place on the main stretch in Franschhoek did a decent lunch with a nice selection of local craft beers. Service was a little too relaxed, shall we say (no two year old wants to wait forty minutes for their ice cream) but the springbok croquettes with mustard pickle dip were extremely tasty, and the light option of coconut crusted kingklip was fresh and zingy. Some combinations seemed a litle questionable – I didn’t fancy my chances on the mussels cooked in brie, bacon, cream and brandy – but it’s ideal for a casual lunch.
Best dish: Coconut crusted kingklip.
Great for: Al fresco dining, watching the world go by.
Hidden away among the vineyards is this second outpost of small coffee producers Terbodore. See the beans being roasted on site, then enjoy an expertly crafted coffee in the blazing sun surrounded by mountains. Bean to Cup is a phrase often bandied about, but it couldn’t be more appropriate at Terbodore. The Iced Coffee, just a honeydrop of sweetness, is perfect in the heat. You can buy beans to take home, and they even make Nespresso capsules for those who like things easy and hate the environment.
Best dish: Coffee.
Great for: Coffee. Obviously.
A quick mention to Montmartre Guest Chalets, around 2km up the road from the Huguenot Memorial and opposite the celebrated La Petite Ferme hotel and restaurant. Don’t be fooled by the name, no seediness here, just four curiously named purpose built chalets (um, Fuzzy Wuzzy, Zulu Tigger?) looking out across the valley. There’s no shortage of guesthouses in Franschhoek – I think the majority of the town’s population is transitory – and I’m sure they’re all perfectly adequate, but how many give you a view like the one on your left when you wake up in the morning? Clean, well equipped and, joy of joys, they seem to be the only homestay in the Western Cape to give you protection from the savagery of the local mosquitoes. It’s walking distance from a couple of vineyards and Tim, who looks after the guests, is exceptionally cheerful and always on hand to help with any queries.
The former Dutch colony of Stellenbosch isn’t quite as polished as Franschhoek. It’s much larger, and there’s a definite sense of a well to do centre surrounded by not so privileged suburbs. A number of gated communities highlight a social divide, but compared to the purely tourist oriented vibe of its neighbouring town it feels like a more accurate representation of South Africa as a whole. We only spent three days in each, but while I suspect you might get bored of Franschhoek after you’ve exhausted the tourist trail, Stellenbosch struck me as somewhere that might reveal itself over time. You have to drive a little further to get to each of the vineyards, but once you get there it’s business as usual: irresistible food, relentlessly drinkable wine, picture perfect surroundings.
As soon as you step through the door you know this place is serious. Striking contemporary architecture, site specific wines, fine art; it’s hard not to feel intimidated by the ambition of the place. But though the seasonal food strives to push boundaries the service at the restaurant couldn’t be more welcoming; we arrived with screaming toddler in tow and she was swiftly placated with fresh lemonade (homemade, of course) and not an eyelid was batted as we left her to Peppa Pig while we sampled the wine. Sometimes the dishes tried a little too hard, but when they worked they were exceptional, and it’s worth a visit for the interiors as much for the views over the immaculately well-kept vines.
Great for: Romantic dinners, a splash.
Best dish: Peppered springbok with pomme puree, strawberry, asparagus, parmesan and black pepper jus.
Lunch – Monday to Sunday
Dinner – Tuesday to Saturday
This was the second picnic we tried, after Allee Bleue in Franschhoek. While that was a disaster, the only bad meal we had in South Africa, this was out of this world. Don’t be put off by the vast, slightly corporate appearance from outside; all produce is grown and freshly prepared on site (this is getting repetitive), and the tranquil setting by the river couldn’t be a better place to enjoy locally cured meats, fresh sourdough, homemade salads, pies, cheese, pickles, brownies. There’s so much food you could feed a small family, and the wine…Well, I gave up drinking indefinitely after that picnic, and if the Signature Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend I polished off by the river is the last thing I ever drink then I can rest easy knowing I went out in style.
Great for: Picnics, craft market.
Best dish: The homemade fig preserve that went with the cheese was really quite extraordinary.
Also worth a visit:
Vergenoegd Wine Estate is a beautiful sunny spot to taste wines, with a food market on weekends and a thrice daily parade of the thousand odd runner ducks they use as pest control on the farm. Perfect for children.
Those with children too young to go on safari can take them to Giraffe House instead. It’s no match for the wild but they do have two enormous giraffes and an enormous ostrich with a fearsome stare that made me very glad for the barbed wire between us. Children will love feeding the animals that don’t want to peck out your eyes. Monday – Sunday, 9am-5pm.