There's so much more to Cape Town than the city and the waterfront. Travel south around Table Mountain, where a green and pleasant land of nature reserves, forests and vineyards awaits you
Everyone associates Cape Town with Table Mountain. Dark precipitous crags rising to a level top, skimmed lightly with cloud like an ethereal table cloth, a sight that every traveller would gaze upon as his boat approached harbour.
But, would you believe, after my first three weeks in Cape Town, I had not yet seen this view? We were staying in Tokai, tucked around the back of Table Mountain, in the heart of the famous Constantia Valley. With beautiful nature reserves, forests and vineyards close by, what more could we want?
Tokai is like a vast enchanted forest. Here you will find an arboretum with an impressive collection of indigenous trees and walking and mountain-bike trails. People come here for picnics and barbecues (or braais), while others follow the path up to Elephants Eye Cave. We found this a hard slog, but the towering eucalyptus and pine trees offered delicious shade. We broke out into beautiful fynbos country near the top, a type of vegetation specific to the Cape, with protea and other flowers that can survive this harsh environment. Tokai is famous for bird life, particularly raptors, but watch out for baboons near the tea rooms. They are not such a welcome sight.
Silvermine Nature Reserve
A short drive over the mountain pass from Tokai leads to Silvermine, part of Table Mountain National Park. A small conservation fee of 20 Rand is payable as you enter. It is a unique and wonderful area in the midst of the fynbos, where the surrounding mountains form an amphitheatre around Silvermine Reservoir. You may choose to take a gentle stroll around the dark, still waters, or barbecue at one of the picnic hearths. Be warned however. Should you prefer to stride out on a longer trail, watch out for the heat. You will not find a single tree bearing shade, but the view from above, over the azure waters of Hout Bay, will stay with you for ever.
The Constantia winelands
After a few exertions, there is nothing more relaxing than following the wine trail through the green and fertile Constantia Valley. The scenery is breathtaking, and the wine farms pretty, with their whitewashed Cape Dutch homesteads and well kept gardens. And of course the wines are world class. The oldest and perhaps the most interesting farm to visit is Groot Constantia, with its historic buildings, museum, fountains and gardens. You can do a cellar tour here too, and learn about modern production methods while standing underneath enormous oak barrels from a bygone era. Like all wine farms throughout the Cape, you pay a small fee for an informative wine tasting. Other pretty wine estates include Constantia Uitsig, and Klein Constantia, but if, like me, you sip but don‘t spit, maybe you should visit these another day.
I also particularly like to visit the wine estate at Buitenwerachting (Klein Constantia Road;Restaurant 021 794 3522; to book a picnic 021 794 1012). There is a top class restaurant here, but for me its delicious picnics just can't be beaten. Sitting on the green under ancient oaks, with a picnic hamper laden with salads, cheeses and the most amazing quiches, this is more a "feastnic" than a picnic. And of course a chilled bottle of their excellent sauvignon blanc is a must. Picnics cost 105 Rand.
I believe the food throughout The Cape to be the best in the world. By using the freshest locally sourced ingredients and a fusion of different cultures, meals here are consistently delicious. I have never been disappointed, even in the smallest café. Some of Cape Town's finest restaurants can be found on Constantia's wine estates.
I have always enjoyed the main restaurant at Constantia Uitsig, where the garden setting is sublime. At a recent visit however I was a little disappointed by the over-fussy service and lack of new inspiration. It has now been utterly surpassed by The River Cafe on the same estate. The service here is friendly, the atmosphere relaxed, and the food inspired. I enjoyed a starter of asparagus and porcini mushrooms (R79)which showed a perfect balance of ingredients. My main course, a duo of lamb, rack and confit was equally excellent(R125) As is fitting to a bistro style restaurant, you can also eat quite reasonably. Try a peach,fetta and walnut salad(R48), it really is a cut above the ordinary, or a rib eye burger(R85)
River cafe at Constantia Uitsig ,Spaanschemat River Road 021 7943010
I also love La Colombe on the same estate, which has a French influence. Food prices average 160/135 Rand for a main course. Tel.021 7942390
Another bistro style restaurant has recently been opened on the Steenberg Wine Estate. Book a waterside table for some exciting tapas, such as Gambas Pil Pil(R44) or Beef Tataki(R44). This place is all the rage with Capetonians:
Bistro Sixteen82 Steenberg, Tel. 021 713 2211 www.steenberg-vineyards.co.za
At the far end of the Constantia Valley, nestled up against the southern slopes of Table Mountain, lies one of the world's most famous botanical gardens. This is a place that I like to visit often. Sometimes I just sit and gaze at the lush green sward, which spreads up the mountainside, vanishing into the rocky crevices and ravines of this sometimes treacherous mountain. From this vantage point, I try and reconcile its shape with the familiar picture postcard view. Can it really be the same mountain?
There are a number of graded walks around Kirstenbosch. One through fynbos country; another heading up Skeleton Gorge, a steep but quick route to the top. These gardens can be enjoyed by all however. There are excellent cafés here, and an exhibition centre. The sculpture park show -cases wonderful statues in soapstone and serpentine, original work which first came to light in Zimbabwe a few decades ago. Best of all, there are the indigenous plants. Shrubs, flowers, trees and hedges vie for your attention, some in full bloom, others bearing the promise of future delight. And look out for wildlife too: mongoose, sunbirds, and guinea fowl are frequent visitors. Whether a gardener or not, this place is magic, so be prepared to spend some time here. The less mobile can take a golf cart tour (25 Rand). Entry is 27 Rand. Look out for daily free guided walks.
Kirstenbosch summer sun concerts
This is the most popular thing to do in Cape Town on a Sunday evening in summer. Take a picnic, and spread out in the grassy amphitheatre. Whatever the music: jazz; rock; Afro-beat or classical, it's always fun. (tickets 40 Rand). If you are there next March 9th (2010), catch Simonseeks' number one (to date) writer, Cliff Richard, with The Shadows, on their final tour (tickets 425 Rand).
Where to stay
I recommend two exclusive hotels in the heart of the Constantia valley:
The Cellars-Hohenort (23 Brommerslvlei, Constantia). Wonderfully situated on the eastern flank of Table Mountain, it even has its own vineyard. This is an elegant hotel set amongst award winning beautiful gardens.
Steenberg Hotel (Steenberg Estate, Constantia Valley). This is another elegant wine estate with its own restaurant(Catharina's), new bistro, and luxury hotel.
Both these hotels offer golf. Steenburg has a fine eighteen hole course (using brown water irrigation) and the Cellars has a green for pitch and putt.