Franschhoek is synonymous the world over with fine wines and high-class dining, but the area is not strictly the preserve of bon vivants, as Jaillan Yehia discovered.
South Africa’s reputation as a wine-producing country leads many a tourist to visit the village of Franschhoek, which is situated in the Western Cape just a short drive from Cape Town. If you are a connoisseur of vintage wine or a fan of haute cuisine, chances are you’ll already be planning a trip to the region’s gourmet capital whose reputation for excellence goes before it like that of no other South African town.
But what may come as a surprise is that the Winelands have far more to offer than pure liquid indulgence – the valleys which are home to the most celebrated vineyards in Africa also make an incredible setting for walking, cycling and horse riding, and the town of Franschhoek itself is a charming Cape Dutch enclave of arts, crafts and boutiques which makes it a worthwhile a stop-off in its own right.
Named by the 277 French Huguenots who came here to escape religious persecution in the 17th Century, Franschhoek (literally ‘French Corner’) was filled with new settlers who chose to name their farms after the areas in France from which they came; this tradition means that to this day local vineyards retain names like La Motte and La Roche. Combine this with the well-preserved historic Cape Dutch architecture and you get a unique South African town with a quaint European feel.
If you know your Sauvignon from your Chablis you’ll be in heaven here as you make your way from vineyard to vineyard, enjoying complimentary wine tastings – there is an assumption that if one of the vintages tickles your fancy you’ll place an order but there’s absolutely no pressure to buy. For the non-wine buffs there are activities in the surrounding countryside to keep you entertained, and you’ll be welcomed back into the town’s foodie folds come evening for a well-earned supper.
Franschhoek at-a-glance: A straightforward 40-minute drive from Cape Town airport, Franschhoek is South Africa’s gastronomic capital and is the most refined area in South Africa’s Western Cape, but if you aren’t big on wine you can take off into the mountains which are filled with walking and biking trails, try your hand at trout fishing in the local streams and dams, or go horse riding. If you want to see some real horse power you can also visit the unexpectedly diverting and immaculately kept L’Ormarins Motor Museum which has a wonderful collection of vintage cars.
See: You can’t miss the Huguenot monument at the top of town – here the road splits in opposite directions so the monument is used as a marker, and you’ll drive pas it time and time again, but it’s worth making a stop to enjoy it in peace and tranquillity.
Do: Wine tasting is the thing on the menu in this town, and the pick of the bunch is Vrede En Lust which combines a heavenly setting with high-quality yet reasonably-priced wines, served to you by charming ladies in flowing red dresses who have a Merlot – The Red Lady – named after them. If wine tasting isn’t your thing, you can find plenty of alternatives with this list of 55 things to do in Franschhoek.
Eat: Where do we begin? The town has more award-winning restaurants than you’ve had hot dinners. There are legendary spots like The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais and Bread and Wine, but you’ll find good food in a more low key setting at Holden Manz which serves local and organic farm produce from their own garden – and they also run a gallery on Huguenot Street, which displays the work of South African artists.
Picnic Provisions: With its idyllic setting and perfect climate Franschhoek makes the most serene picnic setting you can imagine, and some of the local vineyards such as the Rickety Bridge estate have made life easy by offering pre-made picnics which you can enjoy on their grounds – but there’s nothing to stop you making your own picnic and heading into the hills.
Shop: The town is filled with delightful independent shops such as French-inspired interiors shop Toca Madera, and furniture and fine art dealer Ebony.
A refined selection of 36 luxury private villas in a stunning valley setting, L’Ermitage boasts one of the most spell-binding views in the valley, and the outlook from each villa’s private balcony will have you yearning for more time to soak it all up – guests are in the habit of extending their stay and it’s easy to see why.
With the favourable exchange rate you can live like a king in a regal setting at L’Ermitage for pauper’s prices, and couples, families and groups get all the benefits of renting a spacious and indulgent villa without the hassle, and can enjoy hotel facilities giving the best of both worlds. The restaurant serves the high quality cuisine you’d expect from this region but you have the freedom to dine out at any of the celebrated local eateries – or at ‘home’ if the mood takes you. There is also an onsite spa and a quaint private chapel for weddings.
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