Thursday, September 11, 2014

You Can’t Afford Not to Travel Here

Cape Dutch homes in the winter vineyards, Franschhoek
It is about as far away as you can get from the United States and the plane ticket will definitely cost more than a flight to Paris.  But trust me, you cannot afford not to travel here. 

Which Southern Hemisphere paradise am I referring to?  It is a place where the wine flows freely, the green hills roll into impressively towering mountains, three course meals for two people can be enjoyed for less than your average New York dry cleaning bill; where do-gooders will rescue you from flat tires and where a wine shop owner might open the store on his day off just because you emailed.

This is South Africa. 

Namaqualand's spring flowers in full bloom
While images of exclusive $2000 per couple per night safaris are not wrong, that is certainly not the only way to travel here.  Safaris, for instance, can also be done rather cheap.  Rent a car and drive to the parks and you are saving money already.  Better yet, rent a four-wheel drive vehicle with a pop-up tent on the roof and you will be ready to spend the night in one of hundreds of campgrounds around the country most of which come with water hook ups, lights, and communal hot-water shower facilities.

Not in to camping? No problem.  South Africans have mastered a type of lodging that you really don’t see much in the United States.  Most often these cottages, semi-permanent tents, or homes are listed as “self-catering”.  This means you will have a room, likely with all the amenities of a bed and breakfast or hotel, but you are on your own for dinner.  And they’ll even give you a fully equipped kitchen and braai (barbecue as they call it in those parts) to cook up something delicious.

John with our Toyota Hilux 4x4 and the pop-up roof tent
We stayed in a few of these types of lodging on a recent trip through South Africa and Namibia and we passed by many more that we would have been very happy to spend a night in.  A stone cottage at Verbe Farm in Namaqualand was 8 kilometers off the main highway and about 100 years away from our normal lives.  The charming owners had converted the ruins of a stone shepherd’s hut into a cozy retreat.  The lack of electricity only added to the charm- oil lamps and candles filled every room providing more than enough light.  Meanwhile John lit a fire on our indoor braai that served the dual purpose of heating up the stone walls on that chilly winter night and cooking our dinner, a fine curried pork loin. It was a night like none other and for that privilege we paid the nominal fee of $60. 

Kalahari Tented Camp
Most first-timers to South Africa will go the luxury safari route.  There is much to love about this type of travel- great food, experienced guides, 1000-count Egyptian cotton sheets.  You don’t have to worry about much at these posh camps save for what time you’d like to take a nap and what you will drink for your sundowner (evening cocktail).  For those looking for a step up from camping but not wanting to dish out the big money, South Africa’s park service offers some wonderful accommodation inside the best parks from Kruger to Kgalagadi.  On our recent trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the red sand Kalahari Desert, we laid down $113 for one night at the Kalahari Tented Camp, an unfenced compound of a dozen semi-permanent structures.  Each tent had running water, a hot shower, comfortable beds, and a kitchen complete with a full-sized refrigerator.  We had prime seats for watching springbok, oryx, wildebeest, and jackals feed at the watering hole.  And after the sun went down, the roars of the lions and cackling hyenas walking through camp serenaded us with an African symphony.

Snoek cake at Cafe BonBon
Lunch at Cafe BonBon

Franschhoek, a verdant valley surrounded on three sides by towering mountains, has sometimes been compared to Napa in the Alps. This almost under-sells it.  Picture the least pretentious, most charming parts of Napa and Sonoma then put that in Lauterbrunnen, up-valley from Interlaken, nestled against the mountains, and you have the right idea.

We borrowed a house from friends for our four-night stay.  But many of the places we visited from the deservedly famous La Petite Ferme to the cozy Café BonBon at La Petite Dauphine, housed small cottages on the properties interspersed between grape vines. Though there are plenty of luxury accommodations in the area, the self-catering idea works very well in Franschhoek as the main meals of the day are inverted by our Western standards.  In addition to a few rooms, most wineries also have restaurants those the restaurants almost exclusively serve only lunch (some do dinner on Friday and Saturday).  Therefore a big mid-day meal followed by some wine tasting almost certainly leads to an evening nap at which point cooking a light dinner for yourself in the privacy of your pearly-white Cape Dutch cottage is the perfect way to wrap up an indulgent day. 

La Petite Ferme: a must-stop for lunch
Lamb at La Petite Ferme
I would be remiss to not mention the quality of the food here.  Franschhoek, less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town, is in the midst of some of the most fertile soil in Southern Africa.  Their prime location gives chefs here access to fish and seafood from the Western Cape and free-range meat and game from the Northern Cape.  A recent lunch at Café BonBon with two courses each, two bottles of sparkling water and a cappuccino came to $32.  Our food- an elegant watercress soup, crispy snoek cake over an Asian noodle salad, homemade gnocchi, and chicken curry- was as refined as anything you would find in a great British gastropub or West Village bistro. 

Tasting with Jeremy, Sales Director at Chamonix
Even the wine is shockingly inexpensive.  $3 for a glass of wine, a price you could not find so low on most US happy hour menus, is standard here for winery restaurants.  And if you are going big for dinner, say with a meal at the popular Reuben’s in town, you have to try hard to spend more than $50 for a bottle.  But do, because your $50 will go a lot further here than nearly any other wine-centric city in the world.

With Pieter, owner of Verbe Farm in Namaqualand
The final reason why you should visit South Africa is because their citizens really want you to.  Time and time again we were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers when we needed help (flat tires, lost keys), the generous spirit (the owner of the wine shop La Cotte Inn who opened up just for us on a Sunday), and the enthusiasm to share their special part of the world with us, from the Kalahari to Franschhoek.  Of course, we visited just a small selection of this vast country.  There is much more to explore.  And I for one know we will be back.  We can’t afford not to.

Where to Stay

Verbe Farm, Namaqualand
Contact: Pieter and Verencia

Kalahari Tented Camp, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Also see for other accommodations and camping reservations within the South African park system.

Chamonix, Franschhoek
Self-catering and traditional lodge accommodations. Restaurant on-site, lunch weekdays, dinner on Friday and Saturday. Some of the best wines in the valley available for tasting during the day.

La Petite Ferme, Franschhoek
Self-catering and traditional suite and lodge accommodation. One of the best restaurants in Franschhoek, lunch only.

Where to Eat
Cafe BonBon at La Petite Dauphine, Franschhoek
Breakfast and lunch daily.  Dinner on Friday and Saturday.  Some luxury suites on-site as well.

Reuben's, Franschhoek

Where to Shop
La Cotte Inn, Franschhoek

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer currently on her honeymoon, en route to a new home in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell