Riverine Rabbit: Inventive Fine Dining with an Environmental Conscience (and a Spring Menu to LIVE for!)

With an emphasis on eco-conscious dining, Riverine Rabbit delivers a gastronomical experience that is both kind to the environment and its fauna and flora and, in equal measure, absolutely unforgettable to the diner. This is the chronicle of my epic 10-course spring menu tasting at this lauded Cape Town restaurant!

The Riverine Rabbit is a critically endangered animal found in the Western Cape, below the Nuweveld Mountains in the semi-arid Central Karoo of South Africa. In fact, it is one of the most endangered mammals in the world with a living adult population estimated at well below 1,000 individuals. In other words: it is a rabbit in trouble.

Riverine-rabbit-Endangered-Wildlife-Trust-min

This sounds a bit off, doesn’t it? After all, don’t rabbits bonk like, well, rabbits? Even if their habitat is being mercilessly destroyed and food is scarce, don’t females give birth to a dozen or more kits before the males get right back on that horse…or should I say lady rabbit? Yes and yes, to the last two questions but the Riverine Rabbit is rather special because females only produce one offspring per year. Rather than ruthlessly over-populating an area, as most rabbits are wont to do, Riverine Rabbits are rather chaste in their approach to multiplying. And, unfortunately, in the face of relentless agricultural development, they simply don’t stand a chance.

There’s an important metaphor in all this and one that sisters Head Chef Ash Heeger and Sommelier/General Manager Mandy van der Berg have employed as the powerful philosophy behind their eco-conscious, fine dining restaurant in Cape Town, Riverine Rabbit.

And, no, there’s no rabbit on the menu.

Eco-conscious fine dining

Farming in the Karoo has left much of the Riverine Rabbit’s natural habitat completely overgrazed and decimated, which has positioned them on the very brink of extinction. Thankfully, more and more of Cape Town’s eateries are shifting their dining philosophies to be more eco-conscious, environmentally friendly, and humane. Riverine Rabbit embodies that shift because Chef Ash Heeger prioritizes hyper-local, freshly caught or harvested, and sustainable ingredients.

“We are a family owned restaurant and strive to promote and encourage the sustainable use of our natural resources.”

With an emphasis on eco-conscious dining, Riverine Rabbit delivers a gastronomical experience that is both kind to the environment and its fauna and flora and, in equal measure, absolutely unforgettable to the diner. I should know because, last week, I was treated to a meal at the Chef’s Table!

Meet Ash, culinary boss babe

Riverine Rabbit Ash Heeger

Chef Ash Heeger has established a Herculean name for herself on the international restaurant scene. Having graduated from the Silwood School of Cookery, she cut her teeth (and probably several fingers) under the tutelage of Chef Luke Dale Roberts at La Colombe and then at The Test Kitchen, both top 10 restaurants in South Africa and, for various years, top 50 restaurants in the world. In other words: holy shit that’s impressive! 

Chef Ash then set sail for foreign shores to expand her repertoire and skillset, working with Brett Graham at The Ledbury in Notting Hill (London) followed by two years at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Both are Michelin 2 Star kitchens and, again, holy shit that’s impressive! Then, in 2018, she competed on The Final Table, Netflix’s version of Master Chef, except that the participants are all vastly accomplished chefs from all over the world. 

Today, Chef Ash Heeger has become somewhat of a household name and if you aren’t suitably impressed by the above biography then you might as well eat at McDonalds because you are beyond redemption.

Meet Mandy, manager and sommelier extraordinaire

I never got to meet Mandy but after tasting the wines she selected for each course of our expansive meal, I am utterly convinced that I’d love the heck out of her. With an astute business background in marketing and events planning, Mandy runs all aspects of the front of house at Riverine Rabbit with a focus on training, curating the incredible wine list, and general administration. Somebody’s got to do it. She also has her WSET Level 3 in wines, which is not only an extraordinary feat of pronouncing virtually unpronounceable French and German wine growing regions but also of palate perceptivity, smell memory, and covet-worthy intelligence.

Together, Ash and Mandy are a formidable team and their restaurant, Riverine Rabbit, is a testament to the spectrum of stratospheric skill they bring to the table. And now that you have met the talent behind the restaurant and the exigent philosophies behind the name, let’s delve into the dining experience!

Riverine Rabbit Restaurant

Spring has sprung!

Indeed, spring has arrived in the Cape and with the warmer weather comes the need for reinvention. Being seasonally inspired by locally available ingredients, Riverine Rabbit’s menu is implicit in this transition, and it was our task – three media folk – to play guinea pigs for Chef Ash’s spring menu, which is due to launch mid-October. What a life, I tell you!

Riverine Rabbit chefs table

We were seated at the luxurious chef’s table, a little nook adjacent to the open plan kitchen, and from where we (and the whole restaurant really) could see Chef Ash and her team at work. What a thing this is to witness! Whisper quiet, the kitchen operates like a well-oiled machine with each and every team member knowing exactly what is required of him or her. Barely a conversation was necessary. Then began the procession of Riverine Rabbit favourites and spring-inspired dishes paired with truly sumptuous wines from all over the Cape winelands….

The opening act

Our epic ten-course meal kicked off with some freshly baked focaccia and a trio of “snacks”: pani puri with chickpea curry and lime yoghurt; “cheese on toast” with burnt onion mayo and truffle; and Riverine Rabbit eggs benedict, all served with a flute of crisp yet biscuity Colmant Cap Classique Brut Reserve NV from Franschhoek. Chef Ash literally invents these titbits daily. 

Then, I smacked my lips through the beef dish, featuring tender pink slices of beef with honey, anchovy, rich egg yolk, aged Balsamic vinegar, garlic, potato, and locally foraged mushrooms. This absolutely exceptional dish was paired with the floral fragranced Paul Cluver Riesling 2017. Finally, we were served the soba noodles from Riverine Rabbit’s autumn menu, a savoury, umami-laced noodle and broth dish featuring chilli, kimchi, seasonal vegetables, and dashi, all served cool and paired with the uber sexy Saronsberg Viognier 2017.

Riverine Rabbit sobu noodles
Sobu noodles

The main event

Four courses down, we relinquished ourselves to a further deluge of sumptuous, imaginative dishes: leeks smothered in vegan béarnaise with breadcrumbs, hazelnuts, and herbs (paired with the exquisite Catherine Marshall Chenin Blanc Fermented in Clay 2018); mushroom and potato with blue cheese, egg yolk, onion, and herbs (paired with the Lismore Chardonnay 2016); and sustainably caught Red Roman linefish with cucumber, fennel, leeks, dill, and hyper local “sea vegetables”, such as West Coast sea lettuce (paired with the Diemersdal Wild Horseshoe Sauvignon Blanc).

Our meal reached a crescendo with the duck served with turnip, cashew nut, citrus, and mustard and paired with my favourite wine for the evening: the Catherine Marshall Pinot Noir. If Ash had served us nothing but this dish and Mandy conceived of nothing other than this wine and food pairing, I would have gone to bed equally as satisfied. I’m certainly not complaining that we were treated to nine other wine paired plates of foods, although my liver had a little something to say about it the morning after.

Riverine Rabbit duck dish

Sweet finale

Finally, after a blackberry, buttermilk, yoghurt, and black pepper palate cleanser, complete with liquid nitrogen sending great blankets of vapour cascading all over our table, we faced off with dessert. Having recently returned from a trip from New Zealand, Chef Ash was inspired to put together this absolutely delicious Hāngi steamed pudding of potato, caramel, honey, crème fraîche, and vanilla, paired with the saccharine Noble Late Harvest from Diemersdal Wine Estate in Durbanville.

An epic experience with an important message

Riverine Rabbit delivers experimental gastronomy that is inventive, beautiful to behold, brave, and – importantly – absolutely delicious. Most importantly, however, is the subliminal, yet pervasive messaging that the Cape is home to a cornucopia of fresh, sustainable ingredients that if harvested in an eco-conscious manner could prevent the loss of precious flora and fauna, like the Riverine Rabbit. I found the experience to be an education, a visual feast, and a hedonistic indulgence (you’d better skip lunch) with intelligent wine pairings in a cosy, unpretentious atmosphere. And I believe Chef Ash to be a true artist and master of her craft. Mandy, your choice of wines and pairings are testament to your enviable skill as a sommelier and wine lover!

I may have rolled out of Riverine Rabbit but I’ll certainly be back again for more, more, and more of all of the above!

Riverine Rabbit

For more information or to make reservations, please contact Riverine Rabbit on info@riverinerabbit.com or +27 (0) 21 424 7204.

81 Church Street, Cape Town, www.riverinerabbit.com

Wander Woman Thea is for sale (but in a totally legal and classy way)

If you like what you see and fancy a talented, witty, and ridiculously verbose writer for your website project, blog, or marketing materials, don’t hesitate to get in touch at thea@wanderwomanthea.com.

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Meet Gorgeous George

Launched very recently in April 2019, Gorgeous George is a boutique designer hotel tucked into two lovingly restored heritage buildings on St George’s Mall in the historic, cultural, and culinary heart of Cape Town. The hotel’s interior is the creative effort of a constellation of local artists and designers brought together by German owner Tobias Alter. One such artist is Lucie de Moyencourt who hand-painted the 1,800 ceramic tiles that now adorn the walls of the foyer, depicting a map of the city; another is David Brits, whose painted murals add colour, depth, and intrigue to walls throughout the hotel, including the interior of the bell tower on the pool terrace. The outcome of this artistic collaboration is a grand masterpiece that is quirky, chic, cheeky, tranquil, fashionable darling, and, of course, gorgeous!

Meet George…

Gorgeous George has 20 studio apartments, eight one-bedroom suites, and four two-bedroom suites, all trendily dressed and kitted out with the usual mod cons and luxuries. The suites have a consistent South African contemporary design aesthetic, which is framed by raw, industrial elements, like the exposed ceiling pipework and original steel or wood window frames. Handpicked treasures, velvety drapery, and patterned rugs add personality and pops of colour.

The bathrooms are equally impressive – some even feature freestanding Victorian-style bathtubs. All are stocked with designer fragranced soaps and creams that are biodegradable and vegan-friendly. A kaleidoscopic floral carpet winds its way through the hotel’s sleek, black corridors like a river of paint. In no other place on Earth have I been so bewitched by the floor and if it weren’t for the guide showing me around the hotel, in my trance-like state I very likely would have walked straight into a wall.

Gorgeous George Interior

Location, location, location

Gorgeous George exists at the very epicentre of Cape Town. In every direction, the Mother City’s famed attractions, historical sites, restaurants, and bars line the streets. Towards Table Mountain, there is the Company Gardens, Iziko Natural History Museum, and South African National Gallery. Towards Lion’s Head, Long Street’s bar scene and foodie favourite-Bree Street unfurl at your feet with the cultural gem of Bo-Kaap a stone’s throw beyond. Then, there’s the vibrant shopping street of St George’s Mall and a vast buffet of artisanal coffee shops, uniquely flavoured eateries, food and craft markets, and sexy cocktail bars, making Gorgeous George oh-so-desirable in the eyes of visitors to the Cape.

Gigi Rooftop Bar at Gorgeous George
Gigi Rooftop Bar at Gorgeous George

Gigi Rooftop Restaurant and Bar

On the topmost floor of the hotel you’ll find Gigi Rooftop, a jungle-inspired lounge, bar, and restaurant where hotel guests can take their meals, sprawl out on the enormous couches, or lounge by the pool, and day visitors are encouraged to “come for breakfast and stay for dinner.” On the covered veranda, the ceiling drips with textured woven baskets and planters with moss beards, while large palm trees lend their verdant fronts to the oasis-like atmosphere.

Gigi-Rooftop-Bar-Gorgeous-George

It all works together to create a tranquil, green space that appeals to the sub-conscious’ need to feel close to nature. Inside, the restaurant has a decidedly different feel of an 18th Century gentleman’s lounge with a rugged, industrial edge. Chef Guy Bennett, previously of The Restaurant at Grande Provence in Franschhoek, heads up the kitchen of Gigi Rooftop, crafting seasonally and locally inspired dishes that are both healthy (read: guilt-free) and delicious. Behind the bar, inventive cocktails are proudly brought to you by well-known mixologist, Jody Rahme.

A place you’ve got to meet

Gorgeous George exudes history, fashion, and charm and presents as a work of art. More than that, however, it feels personal… like someone’s warm, colourful, and perhaps a little eccentric personality has been transposed onto its physical interior. And after spending a few hours poking about the hotel and sitting down to lunch at Gigi Rooftop, I wish that there were more people in the world with personalities like Gorgeous George.

Gorgeous George Hotel and Gigi Rooftop bookings and enquiries: +27 (0) 87 898 6000 | Gigi Rooftop Bar & Restaurant: gigi@gorgeousgeorge.co.za, +27 (0) 87 898 6000

Oldenburg Vineyards: a must-add to any boozy Stellenbosch itinerary

It is all too easy to wax lyrical for paragraph after paragraph about how spellbindingly beautiful the Cape Winelands are. For example, here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote for Southern Vines magazine about a year ago:

“Perched high up on Helshoogte Pass in Stellenbosch, Tokara Wine & Olive Farm affords visitors the kind of views that words fail dismally to convey. From here, you can see the Cape farmlands’ patchwork quilt of emerald green fields and autumnal-coloured vineyards bordered by dramatic, craggy mountain ranges turned blue by a low haze.” 

And another earlier this year:

“I’d need the romantic turn of phrase and poetic dexterity of William Wordsworth to describe the view from Cavalli Estate’s restaurant. An extensive terrace juts out over a small farm dam that reflects an endless vault of creamy blue sky. A neat, yet explosively coloured Fynbos garden thrives around the perimeter of the dam, in and out of which canaries, sunbirds, and prinias flit. The sky was completely unblemished, saved for the occasional soaring raptor, and the sun gently gilded the surrounding rolling hills, rugged mountains, vineyards, and horse paddocks.”

Evocative enough?

So now I sit here, kalaeidescopic memories of Oldenburg Vineyards emblazoned across my mind, trying to cook up a clever new way of conveying its particular allure because I dare say it’s one of the most beautiful of all the Cape’s wine estates I have ever visited. Top three at least!

In fact, to describe the sweeping amphitheatre of dramatic mountainscapes, undulating vineyards, and fiery flowering Fynbos gardens as merely “beautiful” is to nonchalantly say Thai food is “okay” or “Ja, she’s pretty” about the actress from the latest Wonder Woman movie. Beautiful, pah! Such a pedestrian, everyday adjective is almost slanderous in this context. A litany of far more adoring words come to my writer’s mind: mouth-wateringly delicious, heart-breakingly gorgeous, and knee-weakeningly divine…and yes, these apply to both Thai food and Gal Gadot.

So there you have it. Oldenburg Vineyards sprawls across a setting that will blow your mind in the most exquisite way possible and if you receive any visitors to the Cape and want to send them home with immediate plans to relocate, bring them here:

Oldenburg Vineyards Stellenbosch Rondekop

I told you I could wax lyrical for paragraph after paragraph…and I haven’t even started talking about the wine yet!

Wine, glorious wine

Oldenburg Vineyards’ wine tasting centre

On the subject of wine, let’s talk about wine! Located at a higher elevation to most Stellenbosch farms and in the rocky embrace of the Groot Drakenstein and Jonkershoek Mountain Ranges, the valley in which Oldenburg’s vineyards sprawl is several degrees cooler on average. Three to be precise.

Upon arrival at the estate, the velvety-voiced and charismatic Stefan Reinmuth, Oldenburg’s wine ambassador, greeted us with a glass of the estate’s <CL° White Blend. There’s a great story to that name, which I’ll share in a minute but first I need to express how very delighted I was to receive a welcome drink of lightly wooded white wine as opposed to the usual crisp rosé or MCC…not that I have anything against MCC (quite the contrary actually), but a change is as good as a holiday, isn’t it? Also, I’m amongst the endangered species that love a good, wooded Chardonnay.

Yours truly with a grotesque volume of Chardonnay in hand. Awesome.

Oldenburg Vineyards <CL° is a white blend of 63% Chardonnay and 37% Chenin Blanc, both partially wooded. The name is a composite of nerdy symbols, the key to which is provided on the back of the bottle. “CL” is the vehicle registration for Stellenbosch, “<” is the mathematical symbol for less than, and “°” is the symbol for degree, as in temperature. Ergo, slapped together, the name alludes to the fact that the terroir here is cooler than central Stellenbosch, which, in winemaking, is a very good thing.

Oldenburg Vineyards CL-White-Blend-2018
Oldenburg Vineyards <CL°

The <CL° on Oldenburg Vineyard’s bottles of White and Red Blend is what the estate’s marketers call a “message in a bottle” but what the dashing Stefan Reinmuth jokingly prefers to call a “dad joke in a bottle.” I prefer the latter, probably because I was raised on an interminable diet of dad jokes.

(Hopefully this doesn’t get you into trouble, Stefan.)

“Jy dink jy’s cooler as ekke”

Profoundly foul-mouthed philosopher and poet, Jack Parow

Okay, so why is cooler better (within reason)?

Grapes typically take longer to ripen in cooler microclimates and a longer time on the vine means more nutrients for the grapes, a better development of the fruits, and more concentrated flavours. Quality fruit is the bedrock, foundations, and building blocks of an excellent wine. The winemaker is the architect. 

If you’re still struggling to grasp the relationship between temperature and fruit quality, consider the following: have you ever eaten ripe tomatoes off the vine? Aren’t they delicious? Bursting with citrusy, sweet, and vegetal flavour? Quite a bit different to the tomatoes you buy in the supermarket, which are watery by comparison. This is because the latter are typically plucked off the vine when they are green and then ripen en route to the store, in the store, or even after they’ve been purchased. These tomatoes have been cut off from the steady feed of nutrients from the parent plant and so aren’t nearly as delicious and flavoursome as their vine-ripened cousins. This is why “vine-ripened” has become a sexy word in gastronomy and on menus.

So there you have it: the longer the ripening period, the greater the development of those fruit flavours winemakers (and wine drinkers such as myself) covet so dearly.

The wine tasting

After gagging over the view and sipping delicately on my “dad joke” in a glass, we took our seats around a long table in the stylish wine tasting centre to sample the fruits of Oldenburg’s vineyards and winemaker, Nic Van Aarde.

Oldenburg Vineyards Winemaker Nic van Aarde (HR)
The architect.

First up were the Oldenburg Vineyard Series Chenin Blanc 2018 and Chardonnay 2018. The first, a beguiling golden hue in colour, delivered aromas of yellow apples, fresh pineapple, and honeysuckle, followed up by a lovely texture on the palate, filled with flavours of ripe peaches, apricots, and gentle oak spice. The wine was fermented in a combination of egg and older barrels, and matured in 300 litre French oak barrels for eight months, of which 17% were first fill.

Oldenburg Vineyards Chenin Blanc & Chardonnay
Chardonnay on the left, Chenin on the right.

The Chardonnay 2018 was 100% barrel fermented and thereafter matured for eight months in 300 litre French oak barrels, 35% of which were first fill. Bright yellow in colour, the wine imparted a nose of gorgeous ripe tropical fruits: litchi, banana, papaya, and ripe citrus with warm oak spice. The palate was a study in balance between fruit and oak, delivering mouth-filling flavours of tangerine and dried pineapple with a fresh, crisp finish.

Next up were the Oldenburg Vineyard Series Grenache Noir 2017 and Syrah 2015. Mercifully, the tables were decked with great platters heaped with Dalewood cheese, olives, sweet green grapes, charcuterie, and crackers that were as delicious as they were deafening to crunch on in the quiet around the table, while Stefan walked us through the tasting. Oh, and by the way, these platters (minus the charcuterie – we’re special) are served to all guests who visit Oldenburg Vineyards for a wine tasting!

Oldenburg Vineyards Grenache Noir & Syrah
Grenache Noir on the left, Syrah on the right.

The Grenache Noir 2017, a gorgeous, silky red, was matured for 16 months in 300 litre French oak barrels (28% new and 72% second-fill barrels). The wine has a dark plum hue and aromas of rich red fruit, raspberries, hints of liquorice, and pleasant herbal notes. The wood from the oak is elegantly integrated into the body, while the sturdy tannins are rounded off by luscious fruit flavours, leaving the wine smooth and succulent.

To those of you scratching your heads over my persistent referencing to first and second-fill barrels, here’s the deal: oak imparts a distinctive flavour to wine that is strongest with new oak barrels (first fill). After a vintage, the barrels are thoroughly steam-cleaned and sterilized to receive their next consignment of vino, to which they also impart a lovely oak flavour but not as concentrated as the first. Oak barrels can be used many, many times over but each time they impart less and less “oakiness” to the wine. Some wines benefit enormously from being fermented and matured in new oak, like rich, heavy red wines.

Oldenburg Vineyards - barrels

Other wines can be ruined by too much oak, as is the case with Chardonnay and that blasphemous “ABC” movement – Anything But Chardonnay – to which I say: clearly, you aren’t drinking the right Chardonnay. Some wines, such as crisp whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, typically aren’t oaked at all but are rather fermented and matured in great steel containers. There’s more to it – winemaking is mind-bogglingly complex – but consider this your crash course.

The Oldenburg Vineyards Series Syrah 2015

The reason I have given the Oldenburg Vineyards Series Syrah 2015 its very own subheading is because this wine – this liquid velvet ambrosia – was my absolute favourite from our tasting. First, it must be explained that the 2015 vintage here in South Africa is widely considered to be the best ever for our country’s wines. Not merely “one of the best”…the best. Cooler conditions throughout February 2015 allowed for slow, even ripening of grapes early in the season, contributing towards the development of the fruit’s colour and flavour, particularly in the red wine cultivars.

Syrah, Syrah! Whatever will be, will be!

The Syrah 2015 was matured for 20 months in 300 litre French oak barrels (40% first fill, 30% third fill, 20% fourth fill, and 10% fifth fill barrels.) On the nose, this dark crimson wine delivers a powerful, ripe red fruit profile laced with vanilla oak and sultry savoury notes. On the palate, it boasts brooding, dark chocolate flavours with cumin notes and a firm, muscular structure. I fell so ardently in love with this wine that I bought a bottle after our tasting, even though my wine collection overfloweth and, with plans to relocate to Canada in the next six months, I should be whittling down my collection rather than adding to it.

Next was the bold but elegant Cabernet Franc 2015, matured for 19 month in a mixture of new, third, fourth, and fifth fill French oak barrels. This wine, another beautiful velvety red, is a deep, plum-red in colour with a nose of ripe cherry and savoury notes and the most succulent palate of liquorice, violets, raspberries, and red fruit and a mouth-watering pepperiness of capsicum, paprika, and black pepper, particularly appreciable after hoovering down 17 olives (no one else was eating them!)

Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet Franc & Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Franc on the left, Rondekop Cabernet Sauvignon on the right.

Finally, we were treated to a tasting of the Rondekop “Per Se” Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, one of three wines from Oldenburg Vineyards’ top tier range. The grapes for these wines are grown on a low, rounded hill (Rondekop or “round head”) visible from the winery. Like a contagious laugh on an already attractive person, the presence of this geological feature within the valley adds further desirable idiosyncrasies to the microclimate. The result is that the fruit grown here is not just good; it’s blerry good. In fact, only ten barrels showing exceptional quality and potential were selected and left to age in 50% new oak and 50% second fill barrels for 24 months to create the Rondekop Per Se 2015.

Oldenburg Vineyards Rondekop
View from Oldenburg Vineyards’ winery with Rondekop poking its rondekop above the Fynbos gardens.

The subsequent brick-red Cabernet Sauvignon delivers a profound herbal aroma with dried peach and hints of vanilla and a gorgeous full body of broody black currant, plum, and red fruit flavours. The tannins are as soft as a fall-of-the-bone lamb shank, but structured enough to allow ageing of 20 years or more. And, according to the winemaker, “this virile, succulent wine is a textbook example of what Cabernet Sauvignon is all about.”

Sufficiently titillated? Buy Oldenburg Vineyard’s wines here!

Wine estate worthy of your next Stellenbosch visit

Oldenburg Vineyards is a must-add to any boozy Stellenbosch travel itinerary – the wines here are simply superb and the views, as I explained ad nauseum, heart-breakingly gorgeous. The only downfall to visiting such an exquisite wine estate is that you might find yourself insufferably critical of all others to follow!

Wander Woman Thea is for sale (but in a totally legal and classy way)

If you like what you see and fancy a talented, witty, and grammatically pedantic writer for your website project, blog, or marketing materials, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at thea@wanderwomanthea.com.

The Den: a Base to Explore the Best of Stellenbosch

The Den Stellenbosch

The wind gently tousled through the rooftop area and as the sun descended below the western horizon, the chill crept, reminding us that although spring is on its way, winter still has dominion over the Cape; particularly the nights. We milled about, glasses of Waterford “Rose-Mary” Blanc de Noir and gin-and-tonics in hand, chatting and admiring the views over the entirety of Stellenbosch.

In the winelands summer heat, the pool would be irresistibly seductive but tonight, it is just pretty to look at. The rooftop of The Den, the venue for our drinks and canapés (and chin-wag), offers a remarkable space for visitors to spend time. Clean-cut and modern with extraordinary valley and mountain views…how could one not be inspired up here, I mused as I hoovered down my fifth basil, buffalo mozzarella, and cherry tomato hors d’oeuvre.

The Den Stellenbosch

The Den in Stellenbosch

The Den in Stellenbosch is a large apartment complex located on Dennesig Road, on the very doorstep to the historic town centre, the University of Stellenbosch, and all the wonderful wine estates beyond. Cape Summer Villas is a privately owned hotel group that began in 1996 as a single three-bedroom guesthouse, which has since expanded to a boutique collection of high-end properties scattered throughout the Western Cape. All feature “tastefully decorated interiors, the finest linen, and five-star amenities that have all been selected to showcase their surroundings.”

What do The Den and Cape Summer Villas have to do with each other? Well, the hotel group has just added 18 of The Den’s apartments to its portfolio, which it now offers as beautiful and super convenient self-catering accommodation to visitors to the Cape. And it was one of the 15 open-plan studio apartments that I would be spending the night – taking it for a test run, if you will.

Thank you Waterford Estate for the gift of wine and chocolate, and Stellenbosch’s very own Banhoek Chilli Oil Co. for the gift of oil that I shall slather my next slice of pizza with!

The Den Stellenbosch

Modern, comfortable, and entirely serviceable

If a luxury hotel and the student digs of your dreams had a whirlwind romance, the offspring of that would be what the Cape Summer Villas have done with their self-catering apartments at The Den in Stellenbosch. The rooms are compact and feature everything you could possibly need to live, never mind spend a night or two. Yet they also convey a sense of space so that you don’t feel claustrophobic. For example, my humble open-plan studio apartment had a queen-sized bed, a fully kitted-out kitchen (complete with high-end appliances, a washing machine, stove, and medium-sized fridge), small table for meals, study nook, large flat-screen TV, and ample closet storage on either side of the bed. It even had a balcony with a built-in braai. You could actually live here and very comfortably too.

The Den Stellenbosch

This made me think about the audience for such accommodations. Being a budget traveller, I’m always attracted by accommodations that have kitchen facilities and allow for complete independence. This is what The Den offers – complete independence – which essentially means that the target audience is limited only by imagination: foreign and domestic tourists, business travellers, tour groups, wedding parties, long-stay visitors; heck, even parents visiting their kids at the University of Stellenbosch. From R1,250 per night, it’s incredibly affordable accommodation, conveniently located, and allows for complete travel independence.

Practical considerations aside, these apartments are gorgeous. Artfully decorated with interior design by Clara’s Interiors, each room blends a palette of soft greys, whites, and blonde woods with pleasing accent colours (in my room, a gentle azure blue), whimsically patterned tiles, and artwork inspired by nature. There’s also high-speed fibre Internet and, for those concerned with safety, private parking, closed circuit cameras, biometrics, and 24-hour security. If I were a trust fund baby and a student at the University of Stellenbosch, this is where I’d like to spend my college years.

The Den Stellenbosch

Dinner by Chef Rich Rorich; wine by Waterford

That evening, a glass or two of Waterford’s “Rose-Mary” down (a delectable Blanc de Noir made from Shiraz, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, and Grenache grapes), we all gathered for supper in one of The Den’s two-bedroom apartments. Just to illustrate to you how serviceable these accommodations are: Rich Rorich, the Head Chef of Cape Summer Villas’ Sky Villa Boutique Hotel in Plettenberg Bay (who had been brought down to Stellenbosch for the purpose of cooking for us), was able to use these kitchen facilities to whip up a delicious three-course meal. On the subject of working in a small kitchen, as opposed to the imposing stainless steel jungles he’s accustomed to, the gently spoken Ritchie had this to say:

“As chefs, we love nothing more than this. This is how we learned to love our craft: by cooking for friends and family in cramped spaces and environments.”

The Den Stellenbosch

How wonderful! Additionally, each course, I was absolutely titillated by, was brilliantly paired with wines from Waterford Estate: a starter of creamy mussels in coconut and coriander with the Waterford Chardonnay 2017. Mains of tender lamb curry, turmeric rice, and vegetables paired with the Waterford Grenache Noir 2017 or tall, dark, and handsome Kevin Arnold Shiraz 2015 (or, if you’re a wine glutton like me, both). Finally, for desserts: a kalaeidescopic selection of macarons and a fun game of “guess the flavour.”

Falling asleep has never been so easy.

The Den Stellenbosch
The Den Stellenbosch

A base to explore

The Den in Stellenbosch is the most recent addition to Cape Summer Villas’ constellation of properties and after spending the night, it’s clear that there is very little restriction on the audience these beautifully furnished and affordable self-catering apartments appeal to. With summer slowly on its way, even I am hatching a plan to get friends and family here to enjoy an itinerary packed with the best the Stellenbosch Wine Valley has to offer.

Cape Summer Villas: www.capesummervillas.co.za

The Den: www.thedenstellenbosch.co.za

Waterford Estate: www.waterfordestate.co.za

Roodeberg Red Wine: a 70-year-old has never tasted THIS good!

Back in the Palaeozoic Era, when I was in my early 20’s, I worked as a waitress at an Italian Trattoria in Hout Bay. This was my first encounter with “real” wines and not the sweet R20 plonk I used to take with me to braais and parties. The wine list here was impressive, even if the owner was decidedly not; being all of five feet tall and grumpier than Donald Trump after a colonoscopy. 

Whenever patrons would leave a little wine behind in a bottle, I’d sequester it away behind the bar and enjoy a tasting after my shift. Yes, after. In this way, I became acquainted with some of the great wines of the Cape: the Alto Rouge, Backsberg Merlot, Diemersfontein Shiraz, Buitenverwachting Buiten Blanc, and that iconic of South African wines: KWV Roodeberg.

So, when I received an invitation to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations of the lattermost wine – Roodeberg – a sense of nostalgia washed over me, bringing to mind images of dusty wine racks, being wildly shouted at in Italian, and the feeling of peace after an arduous shift as I sat in a dark, garlic-fragrant corner sipping my wine. It’s been a long time since Roodeberg and I have hung out together and so my RSVP to the invitation was a resounding yes!

A brief history of a lasting icon

dr-charles-niehaus-founder-of-roodeberg-bw-hr
KWV Roodeberg winemaker, Dr. Charles Niehaus

Roodeberg was born in 1949 to proud parent Dr. Charles Niehaus, winemaker for leading South African wine and spirits producer, KWV. This sultry, Cabernet Sauvignon-driven red wine blend was crafted from classic red grape varieties (including Shiraz, Merlot, and a great variety of others) harvested three years earlier, in 1946. The wine was exceptional and so, before the local market could enjoy the fruits of our soil, it was immediately exported, as many of our country’s great natural products and resources are.

By the 1950’s, Roodeberg exports had begun to flourish with Canada (blame Canada!) becoming the gateway to the international market. In 1971, Dr. Charles Niehaus decided to call it a day and enjoy a well-earned retirement of wine drinking rather than wine making. #Lifegoals. Finally, in 2004, Roodeberg was released in South Africa for the first time. What had established itself as an icon of the South African wine industry was a South African icon everywhere else butin South Africa! 

Oh well, welcome home Roodeberg!

roodeberg-red-wine-south-africa

“The narrative of Roodeberg spans over seven decades, and is still being written. From the early days of the South African wine industry, Roodeberg personified the typical Cape red blend. On the 70th anniversary in 2019, Roodeberg has solidified its reputation as one of South African’s best loved brands.”

KWV Roodeberg Circa 2019

Today, Roodeberg is a sexy 70-year-old brand that has diverged into a wide range of reliably excellent wines. These include the Classic Roodeberg (the one you find on liquor store shelves all around the world); the Roodeberg rosé; the Roodeberg Reserve; the Dr. Charles Niehaus Roodeberg (released in 2011 to commemorate its founding father); and the 1949 Roodeberg (released in 2019 in honour of the wine’s award-littered career). There are others but these are the true stand-outs in my opinion. And it was at the 70th anniversary celebration, hosted in the gorgeous Cathedral Cellar at KWV in Paarl, that we stupendously lucky media folk got to taste them all in shamefully copious amounts.

We sincerely thank the organisers for arranging transportation to and from Paarl. Many lives were saved that day.

Johané Neilson, Anel Grobler, Nadine Carrol and Thea Beckman (5)
A bribe of MCC has Johané Neilson, Anel Grobler, Nadine Carrol, and Thea Beckman (me, that’s me!)eager to pose for photos | Credit: Photographer Andrew Swarts

The Cathedral Cellar at KWV

Roodeberg Cathedral cellar (3)
The Cathedral Cellar at KWV in Paarl | Credit: Photographer Andrew Swarts

Walking through the entrance to the Cathedral Cellar, it’s immediately obvious why such a regal name has been bestowed upon this venue. The ceiling rears up above our heads, enormous wine barrels with intricate carvings line the walls, and the red carpet has literally been laid out for us. I grab a glass of KWV’s biscuity Centenary Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) and begin a long and boozy meander around the room, catching up with media friends and meeting members of the KWV team, like exceptionally talented winemaker Louwritz Louw.

Before long, we all filed into an adjoining oak barrel-lined room you simply had to have seen to believe!

Roodeberg strawberry rose table (3)
The Roodeberg rosé grazing garden | Credit: Photographer Andrew Swarts

No disrespect to anyone who reveres nirvana or any other iteration of the afterlife for that matter but, truly, if there is such a place, I’d imagine it to look somewhat like this. That, or an acid trip. One long table dominated the pink-lit room and it was littered with glasses of Roodeberg’s Provence-style rosé and a veritable smorgasbord of delectable, wine-paired bites, from fresh strawberries and blueberry crème fraîche to smoked salmon and dill mousse and thyme and olive roasted grapes.

The Roodeberg rosé grazing garden | Credit: Photographer Andrew Swarts
The Roodeberg rosé grazing garden | Credit: Photographer Andrew Swarts

For 30 blissful minutes, we grazed our way along the aptly named “Edible Spring Strawberry & Rosé Grazing Garden”, trying in vain to capture the enchanting scene with our phone cameras, before finally making our way to the main event….

Lunch and (more) Roodeberg

Our lunch venue | Credit: Photographer Andrew Swarts

In yet another wine barrel-lined cellar, we took our seats around a scattering of elegantly-dressed tables for lunch paired with the other members of the Roodeberg range. For starters, we climbed aboard Flight SAA2019 to destination “braai and beyond”: a traditional South African braai tray loaded with grilled lamb chops, boerewors meatballs, mini lamb sosatie, mini braaibroodjie, and skilpadjie. Okay, there’s a lot of Afrikaans going on here, so let me break the deliciousness down a little for you non-South Africans:

A “braai” is a barbecue, except way more awesome because it involves a wood fire and copious amounts of wine and/or brandy (and Coke); “boerewors” translates to ‘farmer’s sausage’ and is a well-endowed coil of spiced pork or beef; a “sosatie” is a skewer loaded with cubes of meat, usually lamb, and cut vegetables; “braaibroodjies” are little sandwiches we cook on the braai, usually filled with cheese, tomato, and onions; and finally, a skilpadjie is a slab of lamb liver wrapped in crispy bacon and is one of the most delicious things you’ll wrap your lips around. If you like liver, of course.

This proudly South African feast was paired with the tried-and-tested and always delicious Roodeberg Classic Blend 2017, as well as the richly complex and sophisticated Roodeberg Reserve 2017, the gorgeous label of which brings to mind a bloodshot sunset on the South African highveld.

Roodeberg Reserve 2017

Next, we were treated to Ouma Niehaus’ Sunday Lunch, featuring a lamb rib roll stuffed with onions and nuts and served with honey and thyme carrots, all generously slathered in an aged cheddar cheese sauce.

Roodeberg turns 70 celebration

The wine pairing was newly released Roodeberg 1949, a voluptuous blend of 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Tempranillo, 20% Carignan, and 13% Carménère. With its sultry dark berry, blackcurrant, and vanilla nose and a palate of cinnamon, sweet spice, and ripe, juicy dark fruit, there is no greater embodiment of this wine than Italian vixen, Monica Belucci.

great-monica-bellucci-wallpaper

There was more traditional South African food, all by the wonderful Chef Mynhardt Joubert: a slow-roasted Springbok pie with aniseed pumpkin puree and peppered greens followed by a dessert of spiced fruitcake with sour cream frosting, koeksuster, Wild Africa Cream caramel milk tart, cinnamon meringues, and green figs with a generous molecule-thin sheet of gold leaf. It goes against one’s instincts to pop a sheet of metal into your mouth but, wearing that gold leaf on my teeth made me feel like a million bucks, if only for a few seconds.

Roodeberg 70 Dessert

Still sexy at 70

In 1949, Dr. Charles Niehaus sired a wine that would become a stalwart of the South African wine industry with more awards than Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep (combined). However, more than that – international recognition and accolades aside – the Classic Roodeberg is a fabulous red wine you can trust to stand up against any meal or occasion. The special editions of the Roodeberg are outstanding  wines of a calibre and sumptuousness that even my verbosity and weird analogies fails to convey. My absolute compliments to winemaker Louwritz Louw, who worked closely with viticulturist Marco Ventrella and former KWV Cellarmaster and renowned wine educator Prof. Charl Theron.

You, sir, make excellent red wine!

And a hearty thanks to Chef Mynhardt Joubert for the delicious, indulgence meal and to KWV for my treasured gift of Roodeberg 1949!

One can only hope and strive to be this  sexy at 70.

roodeberg wine 1949

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Stellenbosch in Spring!

The country’s best wine and food celebrated against a backdrop of blossoms, tender leaves, and singing birds

The sun is peeking out, the once skeletal fruit orchards are bursting into white and pink blossoms, the birds are singing their little love-struck hearts out, and the gnarled grapevines are sprouting tender green leaves. Spring has sprung and there’s no better vantage point for the bountiful show than a Stellenbosch wine estate…or two! So we packed up the car and headed to Le Pommier Wine Estate for an overnight spoil followed by a wine pairing and Sunday lunch at Skilpadvlei Wine Estate.

Le Pommier Wine Estate

Ah, Le Pommier… apple of my eye. Located on Helshoogte Road in Stellenbosch, adjacent to Zorgvliet Wines (to which the estate used to belong), Le Pommier is a wine estate that’s also home to a luxury country lodge and a rustic country-style restaurant. It used to be an apple orchard, hence the name, which means “apple” in French, but while its acreage is now dedicated to growing quality grapes, you’ll still find apple trees scattered throughout the estate.

Le Pommier Country Lodge

Le Pommier Country Lodge

Le Pommier is decidedly “country” in feel and agenda, delivering a more laid-back, authentic Cape experience coloured with staggeringly gorgeous views, thick embracing nature, easy drinking wine, and honest, delicious food. Our accommodation for the night was a suite within the luxury country lodge, which features six suites, seven rooms, and two self-catering units. The décor here is simple: clean white wood furnishings with red highlights courtesy of scatter cushions, couches, and curtains. There’s a king-sized bed, freestanding Victorian bath, bedside fireplace, and large flat screen TV. The suite overlooks a generous wooden deck and a dam heavily fringed with reeds and tangled nature; craggy blue mountains beyond that.

What more could you need?

Le Pommier Country Lodge
Le Pommier Country Lodge

Wine tasting

Wine, of course! And so we walked the short five-minute walk (ten if you like to stop and look at birds) to the wine tasting room adjacent to the restaurant. Here, with awe-inspiring views of the imposing Simonsberg and the quilted farmlands and vineyards between, we sipped and smacked our way through Le Pommier’s range of wines in the dappled shade of the spring sun, under the guidance of charismatic wine ambassador, Zin. I wonder if that’s short for Zinfandel? My favourite wine of those we tasted was the Le Pommier Red Blend 2018 (R105), a rich blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot with a powerful nose of dark berries, a full, firm structure, velvety tannins, and a generous, lingering aftertaste.

Wine tasting at Le Pommier: R40 for four wines

Le Pommier Wine Estate

Le Pommier Restaurant

Dinner was taken at Le Pommier Restaurant, which spills out onto a two-tiered shaded al fresco dining area. Ambitiously, we sat outside to enjoy the sunset but with winter still clinging to the Cape, we headed inside where it was cosier and a fire had been lit. For sustenance, we enjoyed a hearty country meal of creamy, thick chicken and noodle soup and roasted tomato and basil soup, followed by a shared portion of spaghetti and meatballs. The lovely servers looked quite disappointed when we didn’t order dessert but I would have had to be carried out of that restaurant in a stretcher if I’d had another bite.

In the morning, after a long languorous night in soft sheets, we completed our luxurious overnight at Le Pommier Wine Estate with a “build-your-own” breakfast of scrambled eggs, tomato smoor, chicken livers, and farm-baked bread. Ah, my mouth waters as I fondly remember the meal!

With such a spoil under our belts (literally), we could quite happily have headed home to rest up and recover but it’s spring in Stellenbosch and it would have been a travesty to waste the good weather. So we hopped on over Skilpadvlei Wine Estate for more wine and food.

Le Pommier Wine Estate: +27 (0) 21 885 1269 | www.lepommier.co.za | Helshoogte Rd, Banhoek, Stellenbosch

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate on Stellenbosch’s Polkadraai Road is a special slice of heaven. First of all, driving in, I spotted a great-crested grebe paddling in the estate’s dam, which, being a birdwatcher, instantly made me happy. You don’t see them too often and they are beautiful birds with an exceptionally beautiful courtship dance.

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate Great Crested Grebe
Great Crested Grebe spotted at Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

Secondly, Skilpadvlei’s tasting room is gorgeous, rustic, and cosy with the heat of an enormous fire lapping gently at your back. Here, we sat down to a very goedkoop soup and wine pairing for only R100. This indulgent taste experience pairs (1) the Skilpadvlei Grenache 2017 with a creamed butternut and coconut soup, roasted nuts, and crispy bacon; (2) the Skilpadvlei Shiraz 2018 with a roasted tomato and chicken soup with deep fried mozzarella balls and paprika; and (3) the Skilpadvlei ML Joubert (the estate’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blend) with a seafood chowder, crispy prawn, and coriander…

All with freshly baked bread.

Skilpadvlei is open for wine tasting Monday to Saturday, 08:00 to 16:00 and Sunday 09:00 to 15:00:

Lunch at Skilpadvlei

And because we apparently hadn’t had enough food the entire weekend, we skipped across to Skilpadvlei’s restaurant right after our tasting for a truly hedonistic lunch of steak, chips, and onion rings; and fried calamari, Greek salad, and pan-fried vegetables. Oink. Aside from the fact that Skilpadvlei serves up really excellent, honest South African cuisine, they’re gearing up with a suite of “Ruggas Specials” for the coming Rugby World Cup and, very truthfully, I can’t imagine a better place to watch a game, enjoy a meal with friends, and sink a couple of glasses of their beautiful wines or Stellenbrau beer.

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

Yes indeed: spring is in the air and while Stellenbosch’s wine estates are making it exceptionally hard to get the body summer-ready, there simply is no better place to celebrate the arrival of the warmer weather than on a deck overlooking the winelands, or in a festive restaurant with delicious food and wine before you!

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate: +27 (0) 21 881 3237 | www.skilpadvlei.co.za |

Skilpadvlei Farm, M12 Polkadraai Road, Stellenbosch

Skilpadvlei Wine Estate

This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/08/29/enjoy-stellenbosch-in-spring/

Bites & Sites: a whirlwind walking tour of the beating heart of Stellenbosch

In 1679, in a land far, far away from Cape Town (by foot), a plump man with a thin moustache and a head of flowing auburn hair that would have been the envy of any self-respecting Duchess decided to call it a day and stepped down off his steed – or ox wagon, it had been a three-day horse ride from Cape Town and the derriere could only take so much. Settling on the banks of a river, the Dutch Commander appraised his surroundings and conceived of the idea of expanding the Cape colony to include a second settlement here because, well, why not? Three and a half centuries ago, the human ego was hob-tied to conquering and owning things (oh, wait, it still is).

And so, on the banks of the Eerste Rivier (the first river), sprawled out under a bosch (bush) for shelter, the Dutch Commander and first Governor of the Cape, Simon Van Der Stel, had the epiphany that conceived one of the Cape’s most ardently loved destinations. He declared the new settlement “Stellenbosch” – a nod toward his own ego and the humble bush that sheltered him on that first night he camped out under the stars.

Or so the legend goes.

These are the delectable historic titbits one learns on a walking tour with Stellenbosch-based tour company, Bites & Sites Food Tours.

Bites & Sites Food Tours

Fast forward to Saturday 24th August 2019…

A group of two Americans from Miami, one from New Jersey, a family of three Belgians, and we two humble South Africans convened at 10:00 at 47 Church Street, Stellenbosch: the home of Bites & Sites Food Tours and Stellenbosch Wine Routes. Here, we met our Bites & Sites tour guide, the crimson apron-clad and crimson-headed Louise Smit, and hit the streets on foot to experience the town’s most alluring, internationally renowned attractions of history, architecture, food, and wine, glorious wine!

Bites & Sites Food Tours depart daily, Monday to Sunday at 10:00 and again at 13:00.

The tours centre on the five oldest streets in Stellenbosch: Dorp, Andringa, Plein, Kerk, and Rhyneveld Street, stopping quite regularly for anecdotes and architecture, and to appraise features of the town’ original build, such as the deep grachts or gutters that line the streets. Additionally – and this is where the offering is so greatly elevated above any other walking tour I’ve experienced – the tour makes frequent stops at various restaurants, cafés, a butcher, and a wine bar for distinctly South African refreshments, thereby giving visitors a holistic and unforgettable impression of the history, heritage, and culture of Stellenbosch and the Cape.

A hop and a skip back in time

Our first stop was the Stellenbosch Museum where Lousie laid out the basic foundations for the town’s history, introducing us to the indigenous Khoisan people, the early Dutch settlers, and the first Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel. For those of you who get narcolepsy at the mere mention of the word “history”, fear not. The Bites & Sites tour guides keep it light and entertaining without hovering for too long in any one place but at the same time, ready to delve deeper should you have any questions.

The Stellenbosch Museum property is home to four houses built during different time periods, the oldest of which, Schreuderhuis (1709), we toured. From the robust yellowwood furniture, meat hooks made from fire-hardened Protea tree roots, and kitchen ceiling adorned with bushels of drying herbs to the taxidermied cat enjoying a permanent nap on the bed, stepping into Schreuderhuis, which once belonged to the court messenger, is like stepping back in time. The house has also eerily survived the numerous fires that have swept through the town over the centuries.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Anecdote: since doctors were so appallingly ignorant in those days, the corpses of dead people would be buried with a string tied to their wrist, connected to a bell above ground. Then, should they wake from their misdiagnosed death (perhaps they were in a coma, fever, or deep sleep), their movement would ring the bell and attract the attention of some poor passer-byer who would probably spend the remainder of his or her life in sore need of therapy. Hence, the origin of the expression “saved by the bell.”

Our third and fourth stops were the impressive Dutch Reformed Church on Kerk Straat (1863) and the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Theology, housed within a handsome, historic building and with lovingly kept gardens shaded by a monstrous 52 metre tall, 200-year-old Norfolk pine tree.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Desserts first

With a leisurely hour’s strolling around under our belt, we stopped in at Dora’s Restaurant at 2A Ryneveld Street for refreshments of tea and South African sweet treats. As locals, we found it endearing and strangely pride-inducing to watch foreigners dip a big toe into our culture and, for the first time, taste and enjoy the cuisine we were raised on. Dora’s served up three indigenous teas (rooibos, honeybush, and buchu) and three absolutely delicious sweet treats: milk tart, koe sisters (not to be confused with koeksisters), and malva pudding drizzled with amarula cream. These were accompanied by enthusiastically told tales of how the various spices and recipes that characterise South African cuisine were introduced to the Cape and the country.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour
Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Biltong, droëwors, and wine

Have you really been to South Africa if you’ve omitted biltong and droëwors from your bucket list? (Vegetarians and vegans, you’ll be excused from this one.) And so, after another hour of meandering the historic streets of Stellenbosch and listening to fascinating, romantic, and sometimes ghostly tales of the town, we stopped in at the Eikeboom Butchery, the oldest surviving traditional butchery in Stellenbosch. Here, we picked up snacks for our wine tasting, which was hosted at the Brampton Wine Studio, where we sampled the dry, fruit-driven, and easy-drinking Brampton Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, and Pinotage.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Personally, I would have preferred it if we got to taste wines that better showcased the high calibre the Stellenbosch winelands are capable of. With Americans and Europeans in our tour group, we were competing against Californian and French wines! Nevertheless, the wines were drained and the biltong enjoyed by all.

Optical illusions and spiritual phenomena

With wine coursing through our veins, we resumed our tour of Stellenbosch’s historic streets, stopping in at various arts and crafts shops to indulge in a little retail therapy. We took in the Stellenbosch City Hall and its stunning artwork of late President Nelson Mandela. With the sun bouncing off the screen of my cell phone, taking pictures was more a “mik-en-druk”  (point and push) exercise. So I was quite taken aback when going through my photos later to see two beams of sunlight eerily coursing their way down on either side of Nelson Mandela’s artwork. An optical illusion or a spiritual phenomenon? I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

Lunch at Oude Werf

For lunch, we stopped in at the Oude Werf, a luxury hotel in the heart of Stellenbosch whose history dates back almost to the town’s very beginnings (1686). The menu, of course, was a collection of classic Cape dishes: bobotie wraps, chicken pie, roasted sweet potato, snoek cakes, and yellow (turmeric) rice. This was served (I was happy to see) with two gorgeous wines from the Stellenbosch winelands: the Waterford Pecan Stream Chenin Blanc 2018 and the Kleine Zalze Pinotage 2018.

Whilst there, our guide Louise took us down a short flight of stairs to show us a slice of the hotel’s exposed, preserved foundations, which, since the Oude Werf used to be a Church, was where the wealthy (and only the wealthy, since they could afford the honour) were buried. It gives a whole new meaning to the expression “stinking rich” doesn’t it?

Bites and Sites Stellenbosch Walking Food Tour

A wonderful, whirlwind experience

Three to four hours of strolling, admiring architecture, and listening to evocative tales of South Africa’s second oldest town, with a bit of wine, biltong, retail therapy, and a traditional South African lunch thrown in…this is what Sites & Bites tours are all about. It’s a whirlwind, multi-sensory immersion in Cape and South African culture that will send you home – whether you’re a local or a foreigner – with colourful memories, beguiling anecdotes, and perhaps even a few new international friends!

For bookings and enquiries, please email info@bitesandsites.co.za, call +27 (0) 76 032 8234, or visit www.bitesandsites.co.za

47 Church (Kerk) Street, Stellenbosch

This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/08/29/bites-sites-a-whirlwind-walking-tour-of-the-beating-heart-of-stellenbosch/

The Annual Blooming of the Cape Wildflowers

Namaqua daisies Cape wild flowers
Carpet of Namaqualand daisies on abandoned fields, Skilpad, Namaqua National Park, Northern Cape, South Africa. By LBM1948 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Beneath the seemingly infertile soils of the Western and Northern Cape lie the dormant seeds of more than 1,200 different species of wildflowers; waiting for the sun to rally against the winter chill. Towards the end of August and the beginning of September, when the days begin to warm, the seeds split open and send tender shoots skywards to bloom. And so, it is that the arrival of springtime in South Africa becomes marked by a spectacular event that transforms the otherwise drab and semi-arid landscape into an explosive cacophony of colour.

For a few precious weeks, places such as Darling, Clanwilliam, the West Coast National Park, Cedarberg, and, further afield, the Namaqua National Park, Kamieskroon, Port Nolloth, and Springbok become heavily carpeted with purples, oranges, yellows, and reds like thick brush strokes of oil paint. This spellbinding show by nature attracts people in the thousands from all over the country, as well as from abroad. But, for all their beauty and vivacity, the blooms are short-lived and as September passes, the spectacle wanes until the landscape is once again returned to its usual shades of browns, greys, and greens.

Darling Wildflowers Show
Silver Dune Photography

The Darling Wildflower Show 2019

The annual blooming of the wildflowers isn’t only celebrated by the local wildlife, which delights in the unusual abundance of food; several towns in and around the so-called “Cape Flower Route” also put on exciting festivals. And perhaps the best known and loved of these is the Darling Wildflower Show, which is held every year on the third weekend of September. This year, the 102nd instalment, it’s taking place on the 20th to the 22nd September and is set to be an extravagant affair; the perfect complement to a morning or afternoon spent admiring the spectacular wildflowers.

Here, visitors can enjoy attractions, such as craft and gourmet food markets, a beer tent, a mini-wine route, tractor-drawn wagon rides, veteran car and tractor shows, kids’ play park, live entertainment by local artists and musicians, conservation talks, and educational workshops for both adults and children. And, of course, when you’re not delighting in the food, tipple, entertainment, and enlightenment on offer, there is the remarkable Cape floral kingdom to admire.

The main celebrations will be going down at the Darling Golf Club but there will also be shuttles taking visitors on a tour of Darling’s key points of interest, including the Renosterveld Reserve, Darling Museum, Duckitt Nurseries, and Evita se Perron: famous South African comedienne Evita Bezuidenhout’s cabaret theatre and restaurant.

Darling Wildflowers

Wildflower viewing tips

Wildflowers bloom in gardens, fields, and along the roadside throughout the Western and Northern Cape but the best places to see them are those that are undeveloped and unspoiled. The West Coast National Park, Darling (both 1 hour’s drive from Cape Town), Clanwilliam (2 hours, 20 minutes), and the Biedouw Valley in the Cedarberg (3 hours, 20 minutes drive) are rewarding spots to travel to. However, getting the most out of your wildflower viewing requires more than just jumping in your car and driving to your destination.

The wildflowers are coaxed open by the warmth of the sun and so they are best viewed on warm, sunny days between the late morning (±10am) and late afternoon (±4pm). If the weather is poor or it’s too early or too late, the flowers will close to protect themselves from the cold and possible frost, and you won’t get the full visual effect. The wildflowers also angle their heads towards the sun, so it’s best to travel from north to south or from east to west along the flower route so that you keep the sun behind you and, therefore, the flowers open towards you.

Tienie-Versfeld-Wildflower-Reserve

A bucket list must for Capetonians and visitors

The annual blooming of the wildflowers is a truly magnificent show that every South African needs to see at least once in his or her lifetime. With the fun and flamboyant Darling Wildflower Show, and some of the most ostentatious floral displays as little as an hour’s drive from Cape Town, there’s every reason Capetonians and visitors should add this to their travel bucket lists!

For more information on the Darling Wildflower Show:
Telephone: (+27) 72 178 5744 or (+27) 84 916 1111
Email: info@darlingwildflowers.co.za
Website: www.darlingwildflowers.co.za

This article was originally written by Thea Beckman for Southern Vines Magazine: http://www.southernvines.co.za/2017/08/13/annual-blooming-cape-wildflowers-2017/ 

All Aboard! MSC announces its INCREDIBLE plans for the new cruise season and the next 8 years

In Cape Town, MSC is one of the most widely recognised company acronyms. The name is emblazoned across the gargantuan hulls of the cargo ships that frequent our harbour and, of course, the name has become lovingly associated with luxury, all-expenses-covered sojourns into the Indian Ocean and beyond. Cruises and cargo: that’s MSC. But, since 2017, the marine brand has been hard at work plotting its upward trajectory, the ambitions of which would have Superman quaking in his crimson boots.

Ross Volk
Ross Volk, Managing Director of MSC Cruises South Africa

But “It’s better to set your sights high and fall short, than to set them low and always succeed.” This is the unofficial mantra at MSC, said Ross Volk, Managing Director of MSC Cruises South Africa during a media brief that took place Monday 19th August at the Old Harbour Conference Centre, Westin Cape Town. Seated around a conference table the size of a rugby field, 30 pairs of eyes grew larger and larger as he and Angelo Capurro, Global Executive Director at MSC Cruises, laid out the company’s plans for expansion, renaissance, and revolution in the coming decade – plans that have been on the drawing board since they kicked off their “second phase” in 2017.

But before I spill the goods, let’s take a brief look back at the history of this vastly accomplished cargo and cruise company.

Then and now

Unlike most other cruise lines, MSC is a family owned company with a family spirit. Its 50-year history began in 1970 with its conception as a cargo shipping enterprise in Brussels, Belgium, under the stewardship of businessman Gianluigi Aponte. Then, in 2003, MSC added commercial passenger ships to its offering and over the course of the next 10 years, enjoyed a monstrous growth of 800%. Today, MSC Cruises is the number one cruise line in South Africa, Europe, South America, and the Gulf, with 70,000 employees transporting millions of passengers to 211 global destinations on five continents annually.

“Phase Two” AKA Operation Reach for the Sky

Or should I say horizon?

The new phase of MSC’s expansion, which is as much about getting bigger as it is about getting better, is multi-faceted and has been laid out over a 10-year timeline, from 2017 to 2027.

“South Africa is an important market for MSC Cruises and reflects our broader growing investment in cruising globally,” says Capurro. “We have committed to launching 13 next-generation ships between 2017 and 2027, which will bring our fleet total to 25 and see our passenger capacity more than triple. Our total investment in these ships amounts to approximately R200 billion.”

This year alone, the company has added two new ships to the family: the MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa. But this is small news compared to the grand scheme of their designs; designs that bode exceptionally well for South Africa in terms of our choice of holiday destinations, our tourism, our economy, and our future.

MSC Grandiosa
MSC Grandiosa

I. Four ship classes

The company has identified four ship classes that are based largely on delivering the best possible experience to passengers based upon their desires and, to a lesser extent, budget. For example, ships in the Meraviglia Class are primarily for cruises in off-peak seasons, when the weather might not be so conducive to outdoor lounging. And so the ship is designed with more indoor space and a focus on indoor entertainment and activities. The Seaside Class, on the other hand, is tailored to travel itineraries in sunny, peak season travel with maximum outdoor space and sophisticated outdoor amenities, entertainment, and activities, giving passengers that ultimate “seaside” experience. Next in the portfolio is the World-class fleet, which delivers longer trips to far-flung cruise destinations. And finally, the Ultra Luxury Class: for people with more green than the Amazon rainforest.

II. Expansion and Improvement

Hand-in-hand with the development of these ship classes comes the addition of new cruise vessels to MSC’s already handsome portfolio of ships. As previously stated, the company introduced the MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa this year and have committed to adding one to two ships per year to swell their ranks to upwards of 27 ships by 2027 (that’s triple their current guest capacity). As for their original fleet, which has been in service since 2003, they have received a loving “make-over” and major upgrade through MSC’s Renaissance Program, so that they can offer passengers a modern, luxury travel experience.

Ever in pursuit of improvement and refinement, MSC is also evolving its fleet to offer greater comfort and a more seamless experience that begins on the shore already. Refreshingly, they are doing this by tapping in to their most valuable resource: customer feedback (don’t we wish more big brands would do that?) And so, the design of new ship prototypes has been largely dictated by customer feedback on the existing ships and the experience they deliver.

III. Partnering with the best-in-class

If you want to build a beautiful, sophisticated space and curate an unforgettable experience for your passengers, you need to work with a grand variety of partners who are considered the best in their class. And since a cruise ship is essentially a self-sustaining microcosm, MSC has established partnerships with people and brands that are considered to be at the pinnacle of their field, from top chefs, wine estates, and tech companies to entertainers, musicians, and even toys for kids. If you want to offer the best, you’ve got to work with the best!

IV. New infrastructure

More than mere ships, cruises, and cargo, MSC is set to revolutionise the cruising industry in South Africa by investing in infrastructure to enhance and extend the cruise experience and offering. This investment has been particularly noteworthy in the development of the Durban port terminal over the past few years: a R200+ million construction of a new world-class Durban Cruise Terminal as part of the KwaZulu Cruise Terminal Consortium (KTC).

“This multi-user terminal will make Durban an even more desirable destination for cruise ships from all over the world,” explains Volk. “It will substantially boost tourism numbers, create thousands of jobs, and lead to supplier development. All the partners in the initiative will shortly sign off the final design of the terminal and ground-breaking is scheduled to begin in November this year. We want the Durban Cruise Terminal to be an iconic destination. We hope the new port will be operational by January 2021.”

V. FREE training program for South Africans

“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy, 1961

MSC has made a commitment to the betterment of South Africa by introducing their Shosholoza Ocean Academy, which offers a FREE three-month training program (either in hospitality or some kind of trade) to 5,000 students. Upon successful graduation, these students can seek employment with MSC and work as many seasons as they wish.

In other words: it is a wide open doorway to a career at sea, whether it’s as a server in a fine dining restaurant aboard an MSC cruise, or as an electrician on an MSC cargo ship. Did I mention the Shosholoza Ocean Academy is free? It is, and with no obligation to even work for MSC upon graduation. This is just one facet of the company’s commitment to investing in the future of South Africa.

VI. More travel itineraries for South Africans

Finally, MSC has announced the addition of several new cruises and itineraries to South Africa:

  • MSC Opera will sail from homeport Cape Town from December 2020 to March 2021;
  • MSC Musica will sail from homeport Durban from November 2020 to April 2021;
  • Next season will offer over 60 cruises from one of two home ports (Cape Town and Durban);
  • And guests will have eight different itineraries to choose from: the most in Company history!

“Our decision to increase the number of ships for the South African cruise season in 2020/2021 is due to the significant growth in demand we have seen in our guest numbers over the past few years,” explains MD Ross Volk. “Our most recent season saw a 25% increase in guests compared to the same period in 2017/2018. MSC Cruises has been bringing bigger and better ships to this country and enriching our itineraries as more South Africans are realising that a cruise is an affordable, convenient, and exciting holiday option.”

MSC Opera, which can accommodate 2,500 guests and was completely refurbished in 2014, will offer 22 cruises next season alongside MSC Musica. MSC Musica can cater for approximately 3,200 guests and will offer 40 cruises. The ships will alternate routes, providing South African cruisers with a wider choice of options to suit their holiday needs. This means that both Cape Town and Durban ports of embarkation will get to experience the leading cruise line’s elegant and diverse product offering and enjoy more cruise destinations and packages than ever before.

One highlight of the 2020/2021 cruise itinerary is MSC Cruises’ 14-day New Year cruise around Southern Africa, incorporating destinations such as Portuguese Island; Nosy Be, Madagascar; followed by Port Victoria, Seychelles; and then Port Louis in Mauritius. MSC Orchestra will also make her maiden voyage to South Africa in November, offering three, four, and five-night sailings around the South African coastline until April 2020, visiting Pomene Bay in Mozambique – a marine safari experience complete with its own beach club – Portuguese Island, and Maputo.volk

Investing in the country’s future

“If there is one thing that can save South Africa’s economy, it’s tourism,” said Volk during his presentation of MSC’s incredible new plans, and with the company providing more cruise ships, more destinations, and more infrastructure for travel here in South Africa, not to mention a free training program that could give 5,000 students a career, they are guiding the country quite powerfully towards a better future.

What adventure awaits?

www.msccruises.co.za

This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/08/23/all-aboard-msc-announces-its-incredible-plans-for-the-new-cruise-season-and-the-next-8-years/

Eden on the Lagoon – Knysna and the Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa

Two years ago, the worst wildfire disaster in South African history befell the Garden Route, so named for its lush and ecologically diverse vegetation, lagoons, and lakes. A combination of drought, powerful winds, and abundant fuel in the form of hardwood forests and indigenous scrub lead to the stoking of a “mega-fire” that killed seven people, consumed more than a thousand homes, and razed hectare upon hectare of verdant coastal landscape to the ground.

Two years on, driving into the picturesque emerald town of Knysna, sitting pretty on its glittering throne of turquoise lagoon, it’s difficult to fathom the tragedy that occurred here. The vegetation has rallied, the people have rebuilt, and, as ever, this neck of the woods remains an utterly gorgeous holiday paradise for visitors from all over the country and world. And for two indulgent days, we would be calling it our home.

Nice, ne?

Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa

www.turbinehotel.co.za, +27 (0)44 302 5746

Our home away from home for our stay was the Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, a fabulously quirky five-star hotel located on Knysna’s Thesen Island, a multi-award winning marina development in the scenic Knysna estuary. The hotel – one of Knysna’s most unusual – used to be a wood-fired turbine that powered the town, as well as neighbouring Sedgefield and Plettenberg Bay. Today, of course, its massive industrial machinery has been retired, artfully strewn about the hotel, and given a colourful coat of paint. What is an indelible part of the establishment’s history is now also, through décor, an indelible part of its present and future.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

A little too early for check-in, we dropped our bags off in the lobby, scuttled off to a miniature quay a stone’s throw away, and boarded a motorised pontoon barge for Featherbed Nature Reserve with a stop en route to admire the Knysna Headlands or “Heads” as they have become affectionately termed. The steep sandstone cliff faces, which serve as the gateway to the Knysna Lagoon, protect the estuary from the unbridled fury of the thundering Indian Ocean beyond, transforming it into a watery wonderland for boating and kayaking. It’s also created a favourable environment for the endangered Knysna seahorse to thrive in, as well as a plethora of beautiful birdlife, from African spoonbills, grey herons, and black oystercatchers to pied kingfishers, little egrets, and that most iconic of our country’s birds: the African fish eagle.

Featherbed Nature Reserve

www.knysnafeatherbed.com, +27 (0)44 382-1693

Featherbed Nature Reserve has long served as one of Knysna’s top attractions, offering visitors nature trails, hiking, birdwatching, unparalleled views of the area, and a decent lunch. Tragically, the nature reserve succumbed to the 2017 fire, losing a staggering 98% of its vegetation. But, in a heroic real-life demonstration of the phoenix rising from the ashes, the team at Featherbed Nature Reserve used the opportunity to weed out all of the alien vegetation and replant only indigenous trees and plants. Today, the reserve is carpeted with new growth of indigenous fynbos and coastal forest, and the towering trees they thought would never recover, came back from the dead.

The new, wholly reimagined offering (opened since December 2018) is elevated several storeys above its predecessor. The new restaurant, which boasts a bar, wedding venue, and conference facilities, is a gorgeous affair; riddled with botanical and nautical-inspired décor and masterfully crafted indigenous wood tables by a local artist.

The reserve also offers affordable tour packages, such as the Eco Tour, which includes a return ferry trip on the Knysna Lagoon; a 4 x 4 drive up the headland onto the reserve, stopping at spectacular viewpoints and to hear the specialist guide talk about the history, fauna, and flora; an optional guided 2,2 km walk through coastal forest and fynbos into ancient sea caves; and concludes with an outdoor buffet lunch of such epic proportions, you’d do well to starve yourself beforehand. All of this for only R700 per person, and they also have South African resident rates for winter, which never hurt anyone’s wallet.

A visit to Featherbed Nature Reserve is a pilgrimage that all visitors to Knysna should make, or so I thought as we putted back to Thesen Island on the still waters of the lagoon.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

Settling in and spa treatment

Back at Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, we finally checked in to our rooms, many of which had balconies overlooking the spectacularly beautiful surrounding canals and waterborne suburbia. Each of the establishment’s 26 rooms has a unique name and theme (mine was the botanical room) and, of course, the hotel’s history is honoured with industrial elements like painted pipework and wall-mounted panels containing gauges and buttons. Yes, you are welcome to fiddle with them.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

After settling in, which included a hot chocolate, a quick nap in soft white sheets, and a restorative shower, I luxuriated under the sure, strong hands of my lovely masseuse at the Turbine Spa – is there any better way to dissolve the tensions of travel than with a spa treatment? A laid-back supper at the hotel’s Gastro Pub (with cocktails) doesn’t hurt, either.

Turbine Hotel Knysna
Turbine Hotel Knysna

Breakfast and bicycle ride

Breakfast is served in the hotel’s Island Café, which also serves a decent lunch and dinner. And after accosting the continental breakfast buffet, we grabbed a bicycle from the Turbine Hotel’s very own adventure centre, the Turbine Water Club – offers lagoon cruises, ferries to Featherbed Nature Reserve, kayaking, bicycle hire, and more – and struck out on two wheels to explore the estuary all the way up to the headlands. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to a more deserved lunch and glass of rosé!

Dinner that night was taken at the Island Café – an exceptional, fall-off-the-bone lamb shank with vegetables and potato purée, which I washed down with a glass of Hartenberg Estate’s Alchemy Rhone Style Red 2017. One thing I greatly enjoyed about the Turbine Hotel is the fact that, in spite of its boutique status and compact lunch and dinner menus, it maintains a generous wine list, featuring beautiful picks from wine routes all over the Cape.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

Ancient Knysna Forest Walk

On our final morning, after another plunder of the hotel’s breakfast buffet table, we struck out for the Knysna Forest, the largest in South Africa, and went on a 9 km hike in the deep, cool shade of 900-year-old yellowwood trees. The tap-tap-tapping of woodpeckers, the liquid melody of orioles, and the harsh barking of Knysna loeries were the soundtrack to our adventure; that and the burbling of the streams that cut their way through the ancient thick tangle of vegetation and towering trees. One could scarcely imagine a more tranquil and deeply restorative place on Earth, and if you ever find yourself on the Garden Route, I urge you to visit the Knysna Forests and relinquish yourself to its verdant embrace.

Luxury base with a personality

Birdwatching, outdoor adventure, charming shops, a thrumming restaurant scene, and raw nature… Knysna is a unique and heart-achingly beautiful town that leaves a lasting impression. The Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, a luxury accommodation with a personality (and with convenient connections to all of this action) is a highly recommended place from which to soak it all up.

Turbine Hotel Knysna

www.turbinehotel.co.za

This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/08/20/eden-on-the-lagoon-knysna-and-the-turbine-boutique-hotel-spa/