Savoring the bounty of South Africa’s Western Cape
GANSBAAI, South Africa—One night as my sister and I walked across the rugged yet strangely delicate terrain of a place called Farm 215, the path to our cottage lighted only by the stars and a flashlight, the wine-wobbly beam suddenly illuminated several sets of legs.
A moment of what the ...? And then we realized that we were standing in the middle of a small herd of horses, including two mares and their foals, that roam the South African eco-retreat outside Gansbaai.
It was a perfect mother-child moment and a symbol of new beginnings in this Southern Hemisphere spring.
We were on a mother-daughter voyage of our own as we ventured off the beaten track across South Africa’s Western Cape province, breaking the confines of Cape Town and entering a wonderfully natural world whose mountains are a cross between the San Gabriels around L.A. and the backdrop of a John Ford Western.
I wanted to show my mother and sister a country that had attached itself to my heart.
On my first trip 10 years ago, I came as the wife of a South African who had left during the depths of apartheid. Five years later, I came as a widow on a solo journey to toss my husband’s ashes into the Indian Ocean off the beach town he loved. This time, I came as a daughter and sister on a trip that turned out to be a celebration of family ties.
Even when we took to the water, we had the mother-child thing going on. We were in the Overberg, a rustic area southeast of Cape Town whose coast is known as the premier breeding ground of the southern right whale. We got lucky and saw a mama whale and her baby only a few yards from our boat on the way to a dive in “shark alley.”
Yes, my sister, Alison, and I had decided to get into a cage and say hello to some great whites on their own turf. Our mom, the smartest of the group, was happy to stay on deck as the documentarian.
Here’s how it works. You clamber into a cage attached to the side of the boat. As cold water starts to seep under your wetsuit, you try to remember to keep your hands and feet safe inside the cage, but the buoyancy keeps defeating you. You also try to forget that in your wetsuit, you look like a shark’s favorite meal—a seal.
You wait until you hear the shout of “down!” from two guys onboard (one tossing a fake seal so unconvincing-looking that you start to wonder about the IQ of sharks). You hold your breath and go underwater and see a great white about 2 feet away. Or, if you’re in the group after us, even closer: A shark rammed their cage.
By the time the dive was over, we’d seen eight great whites. The biggest, our marine biologist guide Nicola told us, was about 15 feet long and probably a female because of its girth (the nerve!).
The shark-diving outfit, Marine Dynamics Shark Tours, is committed to preserving what it calls the world’s most misunderstood animal. I must admit I found sharks less sinister after the trip.
But maybe none was more intent on preservation than the stylish Farm 215 (which everyone pronounced two-one-five, not two-fifteen). It’s a 2 -hour drive from Cape Town along a gorgeous coastal road that gives Highway 1 through Big Sur a run for its money.
If you’re a design buff, Farm 215 is the place for you. Ditto if you’re into nature or saving the Earth. But if you are freaked out by the thought of going without a hair dryer _ solar power goes only so far—maybe not so much. We loved it.
A nearly 2,000-acre private reserve, Farm 215 is committed to protecting indigenous plants called fynbos. We were in luck on our trip: The fynbos were blooming everywhere—delicate purple plants that looked and smelled a little like lilacs, and yellow buds that washed over the landscape in front of our postmodern cottage down to the ocean a few miles away.
Farm 215 also emphasizes sustainability when it comes to food—and drink. The big chalkboard at its restaurant lists all the bottles on offer from the winery next door, with vineyards so close we could see them from the windows of our cottage.
We got into the local spirit with three wine farm lunches in a province that’s a smorgasbord of stunning wine regions.
The first, Bread & Wine, outside the foodie Winelands town of Franschhoek, is famous for its homemade bread and charcuterie. It’s almost as famous for its cozy courtyard dining, but a bit of a spring gale drove us inside. Happily, it was nearly as nice there.
We did get to enjoy the veranda at the Black Oystercatcher Winery’s restaurant in a new wine region, the Elim district. It’s about half an hour from Farm 215 on a dirt road that had us stopping once to let a herd of cattle cross and again as a tortoise slowly made its way to safety.
My favorite wine farm lunch, and favorite wine region, was at the Salt of the Earth farm stand and restaurant. It’s in the dreamy Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley, near the whale-watching town of Hermanus. The people who run it are grand, and we spent a long two-hour lunch on the porch, enjoying the scenery, the food and Spotty the tree-climbing dog. Just up the road is my sister’s favorite South African winery, Hamilton Russell, known for its very Burgundian Pinots.
The most local of our meals was during our stay at the fabulous Babylonstoren, back in the Winelands. It was our big splurge, at about $500 a night.
Our cottage was something out of a home design magazine (think: Wallpaper, not Ladies’ Home Journal). It riffed on the traditional Cape Dutch architecture, all whitewashed walls and clean lines, but it got playful with the vernacular, adding a glass cube of a kitchen.
Waiting for us on the kitchen table was a box of produce picked that day from the extensive gardens a few steps away.
After we explored the beautiful grounds, we roasted the vegetables and tossed them with a good Parmesan and some pasta. And then scarfed it down with the local wines that came with the room. Ahhh ....
Not everything was so expensive on this trip. One of my favorite stays was at Braemar Villa, a self-catering cottage in the slightly boho fishing village of Kalk Bay, on the eastern, False Bay side of Cape Town. It was a rambling 100-year-old family home with four bedrooms and a view of the harbor from the classic South African veranda, and it cost about $100 a night. It was lovely.
We had two more locally sourced meals in town: at the trendy but laid-back Olympia Cafe and a legendary fish-and-chips joint called Kalkies. My vote goes to the former, my mom’s the latter.
Kalk Bay is the ideal base for exploring the peninsula south of Cape Town, including the penguin preserve at Simonstown. On a trip with lots of signs about protecting nature, or protecting yourself from nature, this was my favorite: Warning _ please look under your vehicle for penguins.
Down the road, you reach the most southwesterly point in Africa, Cape Point, a craggy outcropping that seems to look out to eternity. But not so fast if you think it’s the southernmost tip of Africa. That honor goes to Cape Agulhas, about a three-hour drive east. As an added bonus, it’s also the point where the Atlantic and the Indian oceans meet. So cool.
My sister and I, both swimmers, have a fondness for what we call ocean bagging. Just wading doesn’t count—you have to swim at least a few strokes. Because I’d already swum in the Indian Ocean, this time I played the role of documentarian.
As I watched her wade slowly into the still-cold water, I thought about my family and traveling to the end of the Earth together.
And, yes, I thought about the last time I had stepped into the Indian Ocean, to say goodbye to a man who belonged to this beautiful land. He was lucky. And I was lucky. I am still lucky.
If you go:
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 27 (country code for South Africa) and the local number.
Where to stay:
Farm 215, near Gansbaai in the Overberg region east of Cape Town; 28-388-0920, www.farm215.co.za/index.html. Rooms start at about $99 a night to about $163 for the free- standing Fynbos Suites.
Braemar Villa, 6 Harris Road, Kalk Bay, Cape Town; 84-661-0131, From about $75 a night. Four bedrooms.
Babylonstoren, 21-863-38-52, www.babylonstoren.com. Near Franschhoek in the Winelands, about a 45-minute drive from Cape Town’s airport. A double cottage is about $500 a night.
Where to eat:
Kalkies, a fish-and-chips cafe on the harbor in Kalk Bay. A meal will cost you $5 or less.
Olympia Cafe, 134 Main Road, Kalk Bay; 21-788-6396. Meal about $10.
Bread & Wine Vineyard Restaurant, Happy Valley Road, Franschhoek; 21-876-3692, www.moreson.co.za/bread-and-wine/. On the grounds of the Moreson winery. Lunch with wine about $15
Salt of the Earth, R320 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hermanus; 82-922-3815. Lunch with wine about $10.