A Fine Vantage: Discovering the Wines of South Africa's Garden Route
Flight Centre’s Tessa Buckman travels along South Africa’s renowned Garden Route, taking in dramatic scenery, wildlife and a glass or two of the good stuff...
Coming from a small farming village in Leicestershire, for me the words ‘garden route’ evoke memories of horticultural enthusiasts inviting nosy neighbours to inspect their pristine flower beds and orderly lawns. In South Africa, this couldn’t be further from reality.
Stretching 186 miles along the Western Cape coastline, the Garden Route is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It has wild mountain ranges, pretty lagoons, sandy beaches and world-class vineyards, and is home to all kinds of wildlife, from penguins to elephants. You certainly won’t get that at an open-garden weekend in the Midlands!
We started our trip in Cape Town, the most popular gateway to the Garden Route. This waterfront city has a cool urban vibe with street-food markets, live music on just about every corner and boutique shopping, all set against the dramatic backdrop of Table Mountain. You can learn all about the historical side of the city by taking a ferry ride to Robben Island, where many of South Africa’s political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated.
We dragged ourselves away from Cape Town – firmly established as one of my favourite cities – and hit the road, weaving our away along South Africa’s spectacular coastline to Boulders Beach, near Simon’s Town. This sheltered cove is home to some 3,000 African penguins who waddle in and out of the water, seemingly oblivious to the visitors they attract. We walked a little further along the wooden boardwalks and set ourselves down on a sandy stretch of beach to soak up the sunshine and go for a dip in the sea.
The good life
From Boulders Beach, we continued north-eastwards into Stellenbosch, home to more than 150 vineyards and wine estates. After much wine tasting the safest way to get around is on two wheels. No, not a bike: in Stellenbosch, Segway is the way to travel. Our guide took us to Spier, one of South Africa’s oldest wine farms, and introduced us to many varieties of grape. But more memorably, he was proud and passionate about the region; in his view, it’s the perfect combination of mountains, ocean, and a relaxed outdoor lifestyle. With panoramic views of the vineyards and countryside beyond, I had to agree – it’s a special place. Once our car boot was sufficiently stocked with Pinotage, we drove to Franschhoek, a gourmet hub with wine trails, independent craft breweries and some of the world’s best biltong. Next day, we rose at dawn to watch a family of meerkats start their day. It was 6am and we were at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge, sitting in an open-air 4X4, intently watching a patch of red earth and eagerly waiting. After 40 minutes, a small furry head popped up from under the ground. This was the meerkat’s number-one spotter. He scurried off to the highest point, sat back on his hind legs, made himself as tall as possible and nervously surveyed his surroundings. After a few minutes, he returned to the burrow for a second opinion. Two more meerkats emerged and the look-out resumed once again. A few minutes later, assured they were safe from danger, other meerkats started climbing out of their burrows and turning their bellies towards the sun for a bit of warmth.
Back to nature
We headed further along the highway to Plettenberg Bay, a coastal town with long stretches of beach and hiking trails through indigenous forests. It’s also the home of Hog Hollow Country Lodge, a collection of authentically decorated suites on a private nature reserve overlooking the Tsitsikamma Mountains with the ocean thundering below. It’s a dramatic place to stay.
While the meerkats were cute, on our penultimate day we had larger wildlife in mind: the Big Five. And within moments of passing through the gates of Shamwari Game Reserve into the 61,000 acres of private conservation land, we were surrounded by free-roaming zebra, buffalo, impala and warthogs, to name a few.
Immediately after we’d put down our bags, we were off on a game drive: evening is the best time to see wildlife, said our guide, and only 10 minutes passed before we saw a pair of lions just two metres from our Jeep. It was thrilling. Next we came across a herd of elephants, munching on grasslands and nursing their young. They were so close, you could hear them breathing. Our guide explained that they never have more than two vehicles near a group of animals at a time, so guests can interact naturally. Over the next two hours we also saw rhinos, giraffes and antelope, followed by a spectacular sunset over the game reserve, glass of South African wine in hand. This was the moment I fell in love with the Garden Route – and not a plant pot in sight!