The Good Life In Cape Wine Country
“From Cape Town, one road leads to the country’s most famous vineyards, around Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and Paarl, set on sunny slopes overhung by rocky mountains,” writes Correspondent Paul Lewis from South Africa. “My former New York Times colleague Frank Prial wrote, ‘You do not need gorgeous scenery to produce great wines, but it helps.’
“The vineyard tradition is venerable in this part of the world. In 1659, Cape of Good Hope Commander Jan Van Riebeeck thanked God in his diary for the first vintage made from Cape grapes. Today the Cape vine industry, like the French, features many small, quirky producers who have trouble marketing internationally. They are no match for the new mega-vintners of Australia, Argentina, and Chile. Many only break even by hosting weddings or banquets in their romantic old cellars, though these are now stuffed with shiny Italian steel wine vats.
“The other road out of Cape Town runs along the shore of False Bay, so named because bad navigators mistook it for the Cape of Good Hope. Westward lies Boulder Beach, with an impressive colony of pompous jackass penguins who live in plastic pots half-buried in the sand. The only land penguins outside Antarctica, they are named after their bray.
“To the east is Hermanus, a one-street town near the southernmost tip of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. This oceanic clash stirs up rich sea nutrients, creating a choice mating site for whales. The bay is a maternity hospital, filling up each winter with remarkably athletic mothers-to-be rolling around on the surface and blowing up spray. The baby whales weigh 400 pounds at birth. Whale-spotting is all you can do in Hermanus, and every house along the shore is a B&B.
“The drive north on the Indian Ocean is called the Garden Route, because of its luxuriant flora. This is ‘fijnbos,’ a kingdom of plants unique to South Africa, one of seven kingdoms in the world. It includes the geranium, but most fijnbos plants have not spread outside the country.
“A long day’s travel leads to the Addo Elephant National Park, 50 miles from Port Elizabeth with its sybaritic Riverbend Lodge, the best base for safaris. In game parks, humans watch animals eating (sometimes each other) in between enjoying succulent multi-course nouvelle cuisine meals in their lodges. The day begins at dawn with a pre-breakfast safari to see the animals move into their feeding grounds. Visitors then return to their own feeding grounds for a copious breakfast followed by lunch and tea and then stagger heavily back into the Land-Rovers for an evening run to see the animals get ready for bed. Spa services and massages are offered.
“Thick shrub covers the Addo reserve so animals must be sought out, and visitors do not have the luxury of watching them parade across the savannah grassland as in Kenya or Tanzania. But it is still a thrilling experience to meet a couple of male lions standing in the road or be stuck in the Land-Rover on a narrow bush path as a dozen elephants lumber past fore and aft, eyeing their observers dubiously and flicking their tales at the vehicle. Addo’s advantages include admitting children under 14 (banned from Kruger) and being malaria-free.
“South Africa’s best hotels are its guest houses. These B&Bs crowd the coastal regions, offering bright, clean, comfortable rooms, enormous English breakfasts, and friendly hospitality. A double room costs around 700 to 1,000 rands per night. These are the places to stay.”
P.S. “Is South Africa really part of Africa?” continues Paul. “That’s what visitors wonder. Perfect roads, drinkable tap water, few beggars, and no injections needed to enter the country. Everything seems to work.
“Occasionally, though, you glimpse another South Africa. Famous hospitals like Cape Town Groote Schuur (site of the world’s first heart transplant) are still top class. But a chance wrong turn reveals a dirty, run-down hospital with laundry flapping from the windows. The road back from the Cape Wine Country passes enormous shantytowns surrounding the city, invisible from elsewhere. Perfectly quiet now, but are they waiting to explode? That’s the South African conundrum.
“South Africa’s new President Jacob Zuma is a George W. Bush clone who does not reflect much, and many have little confidence in his quick judgments. In a few months, he has managed to undermine the new international criminal court by agreeing not to enforce its indictment against Sudan’s murderous President Bashir. He has three competing first ladies and is a known lady’s man who has said that taking a shower prevents the transmission of AIDS. And it is unclear how he will react to the ANC’s Youth Wing demand that the mines be nationalized.
“Local newspapers are full of real estate ads reflecting departures and the world economic crisis. Mark Thatcher (Maggie’s son) has already left and a lunch with elderly South African relatives revealed that none still have children in the country–Australia, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and even Israel were their preferred destinations.
“Cape real estate is down 20% to 30% on two years ago, but the coastal properties are magnificent and still command prices of US$2 to US$3 million or more, about 1/10th the California level.
“Whatever its risks, the Cape has one advantage over many other coastal paradises in many parts of the world, including Central and South America where beachfront houses can sell for peanuts. It is an English-speaking country with an English intellectual and artistic culture.
“Will retirees heading for countries where English is not spoken ever master the local language sufficiently to feel at home? Here you do feel at home. I am impressed by how easily the races do seem to get along in this Rainbow Country. In the end, I’m hopeful, despite everything.”