Savoring the bounty of South Africa's Western Cape

Posted Online: Feb. 09, 2013, 5:00 pm
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By Kari Howard
GANSBAAI, South Africa -- One night as my sister and I walked across the rugged yet strangely delicate terrain of a place called Farm 215, the path to our cottage lighted only by the stars and a flashlight, the wine-wobbly beam suddenly illuminated several sets of legs.

We realized that we were standing in the middle of a small herd of horses, including two mares and their foals, that roam the South African eco-retreat outside Gansbaai.

It was a perfect mother-child moment and a symbol of new beginnings in this Southern Hemisphere spring.

We were on a mother-daughter voyage of our own as we ventured off the beaten track across South Africa's Western Cape province, breaking the confines of Cape Town and entering a wonderfully natural world whose mountains are a cross between the San Gabriels around L.A. and the backdrop of a John Ford Western.

I wanted to show my mother and sister a country that had attached itself to my heart.

On my first trip 10 years ago, I came as the wife of a South African who had left during the depths of apartheid. Five years later, I came as a widow on a solo journey to toss my husband's ashes into the Indian Ocean off the beach town he loved.

This time, I came as a daughter and sister on a trip that turned out to be a celebration of family ties.

Even when we took to the water, we had the mother-child thing going on. We were in the Overberg, a rustic area southeast of Cape Town whose coast is the premier breeding ground of the southern right whale. We saw a mama whale and her baby only a few yards from our boat on the way to a dive in "shark alley."

My sister, Alison, and I had decided to get into a shark cage to see some great whites on their own turf. Our mom was happy to stay on deck.

You get into a cage attached to the side of the boat, and as cold water starts to seep under your wetsuit, you try to remember to keep your hands and feet safe inside the cage, but the buoyancy keeps defeating you.

We saw eight great whites. The biggest, our marine biologist guide Nicola told us, was about 15 feet long and probably a female because of its girth.

The shark-diving outfit, Marine Dynamics Shark Tours, is committed to preserving what it calls the world's most misunderstood animal. I did find sharks less sinister after the trip.

But maybe none was more intent on preservation than the stylish Farm 215, a 2 1/2 hour drive from Cape Town along a gorgeous coastal road.

A nearly 2,000-acre private reserve, Farm 215 is committed to protecting indigenous plants called fynbos. We saw fynbos blooming everywhere -- delicate purple plants that looked and smelled a little like lilacs, and yellow buds that washed over the landscape in front of our postmodern cottage down to the ocean a few miles away.

Farm 215 also emphasizes sustainability when it comes to food and drink. The big chalkboard at its restaurant lists all the bottles on offer from the winery next door, with vineyards so close we could see them from our cottage.

We got into the local spirit with three wine-farm lunches in a province that's a smorgasbord of stunning wine regions.

The first, Bread & Wine, outside the town of Franschhoek, is famous for homemade bread and charcuterie. It's almost as famous for its cozy courtyard dining.

We also enjoyed the veranda at the Black Oystercatcher Winery's restaurant in a new Elim district wine region. It's about half an hour from Farm 215 on a dirt road that had us stopping once to let a herd of cattle cross and again as a tortoise slowly made its way to safety.

My favorite wine-farm lunch, and favorite wine region, was at the Salt of the Earth farm stand and restaurant in the dreamy Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley, near the whale-watching town of Hermanus.

We spent a two-hour lunch on the porch, enjoying the scenery, food and Spotty, the tree-climbing dog. Just up the road is my sister's favorite South African winery, Hamilton Russell, known for its very Burgundian Pinots.

Our most local meal was during our stay at the fabulous Babylonstoren in the Winelands. It was our big splurge, at about $500 a night.

Our cottage was something out of a home design magazine, with traditional Cape Dutch architecture, whitewashed walls and clean lines, but it got playful with the vernacular, adding a glass cube of a kitchen.

Waiting for us on the kitchen table was a box of produce picked that day from the extensive gardens a few steps away. After we explored the beautiful grounds, we roasted the vegetables and tossed them with parmesan and pasta, and then scarfed it down with the local wines that came with the room.

Not everything was so expensive. One of my favorite stays was at Braemar Villa, a self-catering cottage in the slightly boho fishing village of Kalk Bay, on the eastern, False Bay side of Cape Town.

It was a rambling 100-year-old family home with four bedrooms and a view of the harbor from the classic South African veranda, and it cost about $100 a night.

We also had locally sourced meals at the trendy but laid-back Olympia Cafe and a legendary fish-and-chips joint called Kalkies.

Kalk Bay is the ideal base for exploring the peninsula south of Cape Town, including the penguin preserve at Simonstown. On a trip with lots of signs about protecting nature, or protecting yourself from nature, this was my favorite: Warning -- please look under your vehicle for penguins.

Down the road, you reach Cape Point, the most southwesterly point in Africa, a craggy outcropping that seems to look out to eternity. But the southernmost tip of Africa is Cape Agulhas, about a three-hour drive east, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet.

As I watched my sister wade slowly into the cold water, I thought about my family and traveling to the end of the Earth together. And I thought about the last time I stepped into the Indian Ocean, to say goodbye to a man who belonged to this beautiful land.

He was lucky. And I was lucky.

I am still lucky.

Telephones: To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 27 (country code for South Africa) and the local number.
Where to stay:
Farm 215, near Gansbaai in the Overberg region east of Cape Town; 28-388-0920, farm215.co.za/index.html. Rooms start at about $99 a night to about $163 for the free-standing Fynbos Suites.

Braemar Villa, 6 Harris Road, Kalk Bay, Cape Town; 84-661-0131, From about $75 a night. Four bedrooms.

Babylonstoren, 21-863-38-52, babylonstoren.com. Near Franschhoek in the Winelands, about a 45-minute drive from Cape Town's airport. A double cottage is about $500 a night.

Where to eat
Kalkies, a fish-and-chips cafe on the harbor in Kalk Bay. A meal will cost you $5 or less.
Olympia Cafe, 134 Main Road, Kalk Bay; 21-788-6396. Meal about $10.

Bread & Wine Vineyard Restaurant, Happy Valley Road, Franschhoek; 21-876-3692, moreson.co.za/bread-and-wine/. On the grounds of the Moreson winery. Lunch with wine about $15

Salt of the Earth, R320 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hermanus; 82-922-3815. Lunch with wine about $10.
Black Oystercatcher Restaurant, R317 (Moddervlei Farm), Bredasdorp; 28-482-1618, blackoystercatcher.co.za/index.html. In the Elim wine district not far from Cape Agulhas. Lunch with wine costs about $12.

What to do: Marine Dynamics Shark Tours, 5 Geelbek Street, Kleinbaai; 79-930-96-94, sharkwatchsa.com/en/home/, offers shark dives out of Gansbaai. About $160, including breakfast and snacks.
To learn more: South African Tourism, southafrica.net/sat/content/en/us.


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