South Africa: Small towns dot wine country

By Chris Pritchard

Visit some of South Africa's beautiful vineyards. Photo / Thinkstock
Visit some of South Africa's beautiful vineyards. Photo / Thinkstock

If I seem a bit sniffy, I assure Robertson locals, it's certainly not intentional nor an indication that I don't like the place.

I'm not being disdainful in a nose-in-the-air sort of way. In fact, I'm greatly enjoying my time in this small village near Cape Town.

It's just that people keep insisting I sniff this and sniff that - as I move between offered samples, trying to identify herb or spice aromas present in local wines.

I'm at a winery in a town about a 90-minute drive from South Africa's self-styled Mother City that lies in the shadow of Table Mountain.

Robertson is just beyond the Cape Peninsula's famed vineyards centred on Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek.

It anchors an extension of the wine zone and is described by South African vintners as their country's foremost up-and-coming oenological area.

They point out that Robertson had only 25 wineries as recently as 1995 but now there are more than 50.

A gently winding highway transports me through scenic and hilly countryside. A few kilometres before we reach Robertson I spot a troop of 11 baboons clambering across a rocky terrain near the road's edge.

In this easy-to-reach African wilderness, the big smoke seems much further behind me than it actually is.

Robertson is among a clutch of quaint and quirky villages, little more than a stone's throw from the Cape Peninsula's renowned winelands, which are included on most itineraries. They can be visited as a long day trip - but Cape Town travel experts recommend at least an overnighter.

I take their advice, devoting a whole weekend to exploration of these pleasantly low-profile hideaways.

For my money, the best of the bunch are:

ROBERTSON: Purple jacaranda blooms flutter to the ground along a side street where I stop a pedestrian and ask for directions to Robertson Museum. Wine (which visitors commonly buy as souvenirs) is Robertson's biggest industry but the village is also known for olive production.

Most high-profile of the wineries is Graham Beck Robertson Estate, where the cellar boasts a large range of reds, whites and sparkling wines for tasting and buying. Much of the bubbly tipple is exported, making it one of the South Africa's most familiar wines overseas.

Among attractions - aside from the wine trail's many cellars - is the museum where exhibits include ridiculously heavy-looking European-style furniture favoured by early settler families and numerous examples of intricately embroidered lace created by colonial-era women.

Tourists often take a break from Robertson sightseeing to go rafting along the nearby Breede River.

MONTAGU: Increasingly an arts and crafts village, it's also a renowned mountaineering destination. Rock-climbing is growing in popularity. For non-climbers, several hiking trails are signposted.

A Saturday-morning market showcases fresh produce and African handicrafts made by local communities.

However, Montagu is particularly celebrated for its mineral-rich hot springs where travellers almost always make time for a soak.

Several historic buildings - some in the Western Cape's distinctive, gabled Cape Dutch architectural style - are open to the public.

McGREGOR: Farm workers' cottages, white-washed and thatched, have been transformed into stylish B&Bs, restaurants, bars and galleries.

McGregor makes much of its artistic influences - with artists and other creative types from Cape Town among village residents.

These include work-from-home individuals in fields such as architecture and media, where internet links and occasional face-to-face meetings in Cape Town enable a rural lifestyle.

McGregor calls itself "South Africa's most wired dorp (village)" - an indicator that many residents depend heavily on their broadband links.

GENADENDAL: The village's centrepiece is an old Moravian Church dominating a central square. By chance I wander in during choir practice - a serendipitous opportunity to hear voices widely praised as among the Western Cape's most melodious.

Genadendal - meaning "Valley of Grace" in Afrikaans - was established by German missionaries in 1738. The present church, the third on the site, was completed in 1893.

Almost all the 3500 residents are Cape Coloured (a South African mixed-race minority) and live a short stroll from a cluster of German-style historical buildings which were declared a National Monument 23 years ago.

These structures include a fascinating museum. Dr Isaac Balie, the curator, points to exhibits such as "South Africa's oldest pipe organ, ox wagon and fire engine along with a recreated old classroom filled with original materials from the missionary period".

Separate buildings house one of South Africa's oldest printing presses (still operating) and a tannery.

Under apartheid, the village was isolated, though reluctantly tolerated, by authorities who discouraged visits. This suited residents, who preferred to remain aloof from political turmoil. Now, however, it is firmly on the tourist trail.

"Villages in this part of the Western Cape are so close to Cape Town's city bustle but they're so very different," notes Dr Balie.

"It often seems that we're a million miles away."


IF YOU GO

Getting there: South African Airways (flysaa.com) operates between Australia and South Africa's Johannesburg, with connections to Cape Town.

A reliable tour-and-transfer operator is Jorvan Tours (jorvantours.co.za) which conducts one-day (or longer) tours of the villages from Cape Town. Trips can also be arranged through hotel concierges or independently.

Among Australian companies specialising in South African packages, including Cape Town, is Inca Tours (incatours.net).

Staying there: Cape Town has numerous hotels in all categories. The biggest chain is Protea Hotels (proteahotels.com). Among its centrally-located lodgings are Protea Hotel Fire & Ice, African Pride 15 On Orange and - pitched at cost-cutting visitors - Protea Hotel Cape Castle Waterfront.

Alternatively, B&Bs are plentiful in all the villages, except Genadendal (from where accommodation is only a short drive away).

Playing there: Don't forget Cape Town's major attractions - Table Mountain (with climbs and hiking tracks as alternatives to the cable car), Robben Island (where anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for a quarter-century), Greenmarket Square's African handicrafts market and the Stellenbosch-Paarl-Franschhoek wine district.

- AAP

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