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There are so many fascinating places to visit and things to do in the Western Cape. I've selected a few of my favourite places and drives.
Cape Town ranks (on my list) as one of the world's most spectacularly situated cities, alongside Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver, San Francisco and Sydney. Its location, fronting an impressive bay and backed by the magnificent Table Mountain, is simply stunning. Don't miss the V&A Waterfront, Kloof Street (for some great shopping and cosy restaurants), Bo Kaap (the old Malay neighbourhood, with its brightly coloured houses), Robben Island, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Camps Bay (fantastic beaches, beautiful people, trendy cafes and restaurants and incredible views of the Twelve Apostles), and of course...the truly breathtaking Table Mountain (it can be a long wait at the cable car station but no one should miss the awe-inspiring vistas of the ocean, the city and the surrounding mountains from the top). For that terrific panorama shot of Table Bay, the city and the Table Mountain in the background, head for Bloustrand, a gorgeous white, sandy beach just north of the city.
Rent a car in Cape Town, drive up Kloof Street towards the Table Mountain, then head towards Camps Bay, turn onto the Victoria Drive and head for Hout Bay. When you reach the bay, head for the Chapman's Peak Drive - this will be one of your most breathtaking car trips ever! If I were to move to Cape Town, I would live here, at Hout Bay. The bay is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen, with majestic rocky mountains on two sides, the deep blue water and the magnificent Sentinel (mountain) guarding its entrance.
The Chapman's Peak Drive is a spectacular route that offers unforgettable views of the bay. Stop at one of the viewpoints and if you're lucky (like I was), you might spot some Southern Right whales (the best time for this is October/November). Plan a lunch at Mariner's Wharf in Hout Bay on your way back to Cape Town to enjoy the views and the mouth-watering garlic butter prawns and calamari.
You can also opt to do the Cape Peninsula loop. From Cape Town, drive around the Table Mountain in the direction of the upmarket suburb of Constantia and head towards Muizenberg. At Muizenberg, continue along False Bay past Fish Hoek to Simon's Town. This a great place to stop for lunch while you gaze across the bay. There are also some interesting art shops. From Simon's Town, head southwards to Miller's Point (the coastal scenery here is just staggering) and then into the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve (watch out for the baboons who frequently hang out along the main road - they can be quite vicious). At Cape Point, it's easier just to take the funicular railway to the top (though you'll have to climb the stairs on the last stretch to the lighthouse) for some astounding views of the cape. Back at the nature reserve's exit, you can choose two routes back to Cape Town: a pretty straightforward drive to Scarborough or the same coastal road back to Simon's Town. I prefer the latter as the scenery across False Bay is really spectacular and now you get to enjoy it again, this time from a different angle. Just after Simon's Town, turn left up to Red Hill/Scarborough. It's quite a steep climb but you'll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of False Bay and Simon's Town. Once you cross the ridge, be prepared for a possible temperature drop (it can be a lot cooler on the ocean-facing side). At the junction where the road forks - one goes to Scarborough, the other back to the Cape of Good Hope - stop to admire the open-air exhibition of stone sculptures. There's a beautiful beach at Scarborough but don't venture into the water. Instead, have your picture taken at one of the shark warning signs! Continue along the coast in the direction of Kommetjie. Take a moment to inspect the shoreline along the Witsand road with your binoculars. You might spot some Great Whites as they float on the waves just off the beach. You'll see the full length of them as the waves roll in. From Kommetjie, drive in the direction of Sunnydale, then Chapman's Peak. The Chapman's Peak Drive is undoubtedly the highlight of this loop. Drive slowly and stop at the various viewpoints for some magnificent scenery. Upon reaching Hout Bay, head towards Llandudno and along Victoria Drive back to Cape Town. The whole experience of this daytrip is truly inspiring.
If you're in Cape Town in August/September, do not miss the spectacular wildflowers around Clanwilliam and further up north in Namaqualand. This mountainous region is usually bleak and barren but in the spring, it becomes a magical Garden of Eden as thousands of varieties of plants blossom, carpeting the mountainsides and valleys for as far as the eye can see with an amazing kaleidoscope of colour. The flowers are so abundant and the colours so intense, you'll be struck with awe. Guaranteed!
This loop which winds around and through the rugged Swartberge mountains is another of my favourite drives. You can start the loop in Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of South Africa, with its distinct Afrikaans atmosphere. For accomodation, I can recommend the colonial-style Queen's Hotel in the centre of town. The hotel also has a really good restaurant, Kolonie. Try the crocodile carpaccio or one of the ostrich specialties! From Oudtshoorn, head east towards the quaint village of De Rust. The route takes you through the plains which are dotted with ostrich farms, alfalfa grass fields and the occasional vineyard. De Rust is worth a stop to explore the lovely main street lined with beautiful Cape Dutch houses and old jacaranda trees.
Then drive through the Mieringspoort, an extraordinary gorge which offers a wonderful insight into the geology of the mountains - look up and gawk at the dramatic wave-like layers that form these mountains. At the other end of the gorge, turn westwards to Prince Albert. The drive to Prince Albert is lovely and leads you along the foot of the Swartberge range, over gentle rolling hills and lush green valleys. Prince Albert is a charming village surrounded by fruit orchards. It's a perfect place for a lunch stop. From Prince Albert, head back towards the Swartberge mountains over the Swartberg Pass. This pass is more than 20kms long (along a winding, cliff-hanging gravel road with many blind corners...be careful when driving here) and reaches a height of 1500m. The views from the top of the dusty, expansive Karoo plain is truly spectacular. The geology of the area, exemplified by the many folds, crevices, cracks and intriguing rock formations, is astonishing.
On the other side of the mountain range, the scenery becomes more gentle and green. It's a wonderful, eye-pleasing drive back to Oudtshoorn. If you have the time, stop at the Cango Wildlife Ranch where you can see crocodiles, cheetas, lions, jaguars and pumas.
Hermanus is the whale-watching capital of South Africa. Sandwiched between the awesome Kleinriviersberge ridge and Walker Bay, it is a popular vacation town which draws a sizeable number of tourists in the summer. Visit in October/November when it's sufficiently warm, there are less tourists and when you can spot the Southern Right Whales from vintage points built on the cliffs overlooking the bay.
If you don't have the time to make the trip to Hermanus, you can also spot many whales from the shoreline in False Bay, close to Cape Town, in October. The road from Muizenberg to Simon's Town winds along the bay's shore - stop if you see a group of people along the road staring at the water; they've most likely spotted some whales (the closest I've ever gotten to a whale was close to Fish Hoek when, from the roadside, I spotted a pod of whales that were barely 20m away!).
For the ultimate whale/Great White-watching experience, head out for Gans Bay, about 40kms southeast of Hermanus. You can easily sign up for one of the boat trips or if you're a crazy thrill-seeker, you can opt for cage shark-diving to rub noses with a Great White. I went for the former and had the time of my life! The boat tour will take you along the shoreline for some close-ups with the many Great Whites in the area. They can be seen floating around, riding the waves. A chilling experience indeed. Hold on tight to the boat's railings! We also saw many Southern Right whales and dolphins. It is a truly exciting and, I found, soothing experience to see these inquisitive creatures frolic in the water. The tour also took us to Dyer Island and Shark Alley (a passage between two islands filled to the brim with thousands of seals - an easy meal for the Great Whites). Dyer Island is extraordinary - a rocky outcrop with little vegetation, it's populated with thousands of seals and penguins that produce a wonderously loud cacophony of hoots, cackles, and wails - or maybe they were just excited to see us!
Another great place to see a large colony of penguins (which doesn't require a boat tour) is Betty's Bay. There are literally thousands of them there. If you're in the area, don't miss the drive along the coast between Betty's Bay and Gordon's Bay. This spectacular drive offers many awesome views of the beaches, the mountains and False Bay. End the drive at the immaculate Vergelegen wine estate for a glass (or two) of its famous Chardonnay.
Spend a few days here for a truly relaxing experience. Not far from Cape Town, the valley is bordered by the imposing Langeberg mountains and the tranquil Breede river. Take a cruise along the river (from the Viljoensdrift wine estate - don't miss the magnificent Pinotage from this estate); go wine-estate hopping (Viljoensdrift, Robertson, Graham Beck, Springfield are some of my favourites; the Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 from the Major's Hill estate is sublime); visit the quaint villages of Montagu and McGregor or the town of Swellendam with its well-preserved Cape Dutch architecture at the foot of the Langeberg mountains; go on a safari in the Bontebok National Reserve (near Swellendam); explore the fascinating world of succulents at the Soekershof Botanical Gardens (plan some time for a chat with Yvonne and Joey); or hike through the Langeberg mountains.
One of my favourite drives in this area is the road that winds through the Burgers Pass from the N1 highway to Montagu. You'll find some stunning mountain scenery here, with green meadows, an abundance of wildflowers (in spring) and the dazzling peaks of the Langeberg mountains.
For accomodation, I can recommend Fraai Uitzicht 1798 (near Robertson) and Bloom Estate (in Swellendam). These are gorgeous estates, managed by extremely friendly people who know what good service means, with lovely rooms (cottages) surrounded by beautiful gardens, and to top it off....they both offer fantastic cuisine coupled with some of the region's best wines. If you're in the Swellendam area, book a table at Roosje van de Kaap, a cosy restaurant that serves excellent food.
If you love fine food and wines, then this is the place to be. This region offers outstanding quality and refinement (for prices considerably lower than the established areas in Western Europe and California). Stellenbosch is a historic town that boasts a multitude of grand Cape Dutch mansions, rustic avenues lined by centuries-old oaks and a dizzying array of cafes, restaurants, art galleries and lovely B&Bs. I can recommend dinner at the famous Volkskombuis restaurant which specialises in traditional Cape Malay cuisine.
The drive from Stellenbosch to Franschhoek through the Hellshoogte Pass is stunning. You'll pass mile after mile of vineyards set against the dramatic backdrop of the towering Groot Drakenstein mountains. On the way to Franschhoek, you'll pass two of my favourite wine estates: Boschendal (totally breathtaking location; fabulous wine-tasting/lunches in the garden; try the intriguing Pinot Noir/Chardonnay blend) and La Motte (beautiful wine-tasting hall; exquisite Merlots and Sauvignon Blancs).
Franschhoek is a small village bursting at its seams with restaurants and B&Bs. It is arguably the gourmet capital of South Africa and lies in a luscious green valley surrounded by imposing mountain ranges. Restaurants I can recommend include le Quartier Francais (also a great place to stay), the French Connection and Reuben's. Another great culinary highlight is the Haute Cabriere Cellar at the Haute Cabriere wine estate up in the hills overlooking Franschhoek (and yes, the owner does show off by opening wine bottles with a saber - I preferred to pay more attention to the food! ;-). Places to stay: le Quartier Francais, Maison Chablis (these two are in the village centre), la Petite Ferme and la Couronne.
Another beautiful drive is the Jan Phillips Mountain Drive above Paarl. It offers breathtaking vistas of Paarl and the surrounding winelands and a close-up of the giant granite domes from which Paarl derives its name.
The region encompassing the Cederberg and Swartruggens mountain ranges features some of the most rugged wilderness in the Western Cape. In this region, lush, verdant valleys interchange with craggy mountains and flat barren plains. Spend a few days here exploring the curiously-shaped sandstone formations and get a guide to show you the fascinating San rock paintings. There are many miles of dirt road to navigate but the whole experience of this enchanting, desolate region is worth it. One of my favourite drives is from Clanwilliam across three thrilling mountain passes (Pakhuis Pass, Hoek Se Berg and Kouberg Pass) to Wuppertal, an isolated Moravian mission station (get some delicious Rooibos tea here) surrounded by rugged mountains. This area also houses the Bushman's Kloof, an upmarket private reserve/safari.
We chose to stay at Kagga Kamma, a comparable (slightly cheaper) private reserve which offers cave rooms (quite an extraordinary experience), Bushman rock paintings, fantastic rock formations and safaris (no Big Five here but lots of bontebok, springbok, oryx, wildebeest and elands). Sign up for the Sundowner drive and enjoy a picknick out in the middle of nowhere on a ridge overlooking the expansive Karoo plains while the sun sets and the landscape is coloured with brilliant shades of red, orange and mauve. In the evenings, dinner is served in the 'lapa' around a massive campfire. Don't miss the magical star-studded skies from the hilltop where a large telescope allows you to zoom in on Jupiter and some distant galaxies.
For a more exciting safari, head for the Inverdoorn Game Reserve. The reserve has many species of antelopes (the 'boks'), white rhinos, giraffes, lions, cheetas and many birds. The staff here are very friendly and helpful, the food is fantastic and the sunsets are truly mesmerising.
This region also has some of the most breathtaking mountain passes. In addition to those mentioned above, others definitely worth exploring are the Mitchell's Pass (into Ceres; the passes into the Ceres basin are truly spectacular), the Middelberg Pass and Piekenaarskloof (both near Citrusdal).