Stellenbosch and the Winelands
The scenic Boland (literally ‘Upland’) immediately inland of Cape Town enjoys twin claims to fame. Not only is it home to some of South Africa’s oldest and most vivid towns (most notably Stellenbosch and Franschhoek), but it also forms the hub of the Cape’s burgeoning wine industry.
Characterized by lush vine-planted valleys set below spectacular mountain ranges such as the Simonsberg, Groot Drakenstein and Helderberg, these beautiful areas are collectively referred to as the Cape Winelands, and few visitors pass up the opportunity to enjoy a ‘wine tour’ through some of its more famous estates, most of which offer free or inexpensive tasting facilities.
Stellenbosch and some of the older wine estates also house some handsome examples of Cape Dutch architecture, a uniquely South African style typified by whitewashed thatched buildings with a rounded and ornately bordered gable set above the main door, and two flanking perpendicular wings.
Established in 1679, South Africa’s second-oldest town, Stellenbosch, is named after its founder Simon van der Stel.
Nicknamed Eikestad (Town of Oaks), it retains a pleasingly time-warped Cape Dutch character whilst also hosting a lively selection of contemporary restaurants, cafés and shops.
The Stellenbosch Village Museum comprises four restored houses – the oldest being the Schreuderhuis, one of the few buildings to survive the great fire of 1710 – representing different phases in the town’s development.
Founded on the outskirts of Stellenbosch in 1692, the scenic Lanzerac Estate is known for its stately Cape Dutch architecture and for producing the world’s first commercial Pinotage (a red cultivar unique to South Africa) in 1959, and it includes a five-star restaurant and hotel.
Named for the many Huguenot refugees who settled there in the late 1680s, pretty little Franschhoek (‘French Corner’) hosts a few historic buildings, notably a pastoral Cape Dutch church built in in 1848.
Its French roots are reflected in the handsome arched Huguenot Monument built on its outskirts in the 1840s, and the adjacent Huguenot Memorial Museum. The village is a culinary Mecca, hosting several of the country’s finest restaurants.
Set in a verdant valley flanked by the Groot Drakenstein and Simonsberg Mountains, the perennially popular Boschendal Estate was first planted with vines in 1685 and is notable both for its superb Cape Dutch architecture and Mediterranean-style picnics served on the oak-shaded lawn.
Regularly known for its spring wildflowers and sleepy museum, the quaint town of Darling not only has its own wine route but is home to the cabaret venue and supper club Evita se Perron (named after Evita Bezuidenhout, a politicized South African equivalent to Dame Edna Everage created by the cross-dressing satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys).
The family-friendly Spier Estate might lack the ambiance of its older counterparts, but its excellent range of activities and amenities includes a swimming pool, spa, playground, cheetah outreach program, raptor center, horseback excursions, and two onsite restaurants.
Founded in 1685 on the slopes of the Helderberg, Vergelegen (roughly translated as ‘far away’) is arguably the loveliest estate in the Winelands thanks to its gracious manor house, octagonal garden, and row of gnarled camphor trees planted circa 1700. The restaurant and award-winning wines are also exceptional.
The Winelands’ largest town, Paarl, is redeemed from mundanity by the pearl-smooth granite dome of the adjacent Paarl (‘Pearl’) Mountain, reached on a footpath through the protea-rich slopes of the nature reserve bordering the town center.
The Taal Monument, built in 1975 to commemorate the centenary of Afrikaans’ recognition as an official language, lies on its lower slopes.
A recommended diversion for devotees of Cape Dutch architecture is modest Tulbagh, whose Church Street has been restored in traditional style following a devastating earthquake in 1970.
Ideal for those traveling with children, the unpretentious Fairview Estate combines a laidback farmyard atmosphere with a superb deli serving a fabulous range of handcrafted cheeses and homegrown wines.
Travel Tips for Stellenbosch And The Winelands
- Stellenbosch lies a mere 50km (31mi) inland of Cape Town and 35km (22mi) from Cape Town International Airport, which is served by several international flights and several dozen daily flights from Johannesburg, and domestic flights to all other major centers in South Africa.
- The winelands can easily be visited as a day trip out of Cape Town. For those who prefer an overnight stay, the region is well-endowed with hotels, B&Bs, and backpacker hostels, most of which offer a more rustic feel than their coastal and city counterparts around Cape Town.
- Although self-drive is a straightforward option, the best way to sample a few of the region’s wine estates is on an organized day excursion out of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, or Franschhoek. These usually take in around five different estates and are recommended because the self-drive wine-tasting option is in contravention of both commonsense and the law.
- Opening hours vary, but you can safely assume that any name estate will be open for tasting over 09:00-16:00 Mon-Fri, and most are also open on Saturdays and Sundays.