Two world class gardens under the eastern flanks of Table Mountain; one barely ten years old, and one a century. Don't miss them
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Whenever I arrive in Cape Town, the first place I visit is Kirstenbosch. When I get there, I just want to find a quiet spot and stare at the mountains. For it is in this area of enormous beauty, on the damper eastern flanks of Table Mountain, that human skills of gardening and design have helped create a garden that fills the senses and renews the spirit.
Kirstenbosch has been home to Botanical Gardens for nearly a century. Its large conservatory displays plants from different South African habitats, while the garden itself concentrates on indigenous Cape vegetation.
There are so many reasons to visit:
If you are a gardener, then this is a place to gain inspiration. You can wander over the expansive lawns, past gloriously colourful beds of flowers such as agapanthus and lilies, and gather ideas on plantings. You can explore larger areas dedicated to specific types of vegetation, like the protea garden, the fynbos walk, or the Dell with its giant cycads, telling us of a time 200 million years ago. There is a shady avenue of vast camphor trees, a Braille walk, areas dedicated to both medicinal and endangered plants, and my very favourite corner, the perfume garden.
I am not an expert gardener, and living in the South of France I have to battle with very dry summers. There is a large and informative section at Kirstenbosch dedicated to water conservation gardening, which I found very useful. As the effects of climate change become more apparent, this expertise may be more universally needed.
Kirstenbosch is loved by Capetonians and tourists alike. Many people become members of the South African Botanical Society. This not only permits free access to all botanical gardens in South Africa, but also offers talks, guided walks, and voluntary activities for its members. Yearly membership costs R290 for African residents and R520 for overseas residents. There are special deals for families, students and OAPs.
There is so much space here, that it is a brilliant place to bring kids. There are no “KEEP OFF THE LAWN” signs here, and so you will always see families picnicking, lovers entwining, mothers chatting while their toddlers tumble on the grass, and older kids just rushing about. On Sunday evenings it feels as if every family in Cape Town has come to enjoy the Summer Sun Concert.
I love to climb above the formal garden to where the contour path runs along the mountain edge between Constantia Nek and Rhodes Memorial. It is from here that the famous Smuts Path leads up through Skeleton Gorge to MacClear’s Beacon, the highest point of the” Table“. I heed the warnings of potentially hazardous conditions, and prefer instead to stay at this level, with its wonderful views over the gardens, Cape Flats and the Hottentots Mountains. All of the footpaths are well sign-posted, and include the longer Silver tree, Fynbos and Yellow tree trails, and a shorter Stinkwood trail.
For animal lovers
Although pets are not allowed in the main garden areas, dog walkers are permitted to use some of the higher footpaths. These are well sign-posted.
Such is the enchantment of this very special garden, you will see a myriad of small animals and birds. They seem to sense that they are safe here. On my most recent visit we enjoyed watching a group of malachite sunbirds flitting amongst the blossoms in a tree, and a group of guinea fowl with their chicks. Although some creatures like the porcupine, genet, and cape fox will remain hidden until evening, I have seen on other visits: mongoose, spectacular butterflies, sugarbirds, a tortoise, Egyptian geese and sacred ibis. Once, while walking the Fynbos trail, a snake slithered across my path.
For the hungry
There are two eateries. My favourite is the Kirstenbosch Tearooms where you can order fresh and imaginative salads from R59, freshly baked cakes and scones, and amazingly inventive sandwiches.
For souvenir seekers
There is an excellent gift shop and bookshop here. If you are looking for well made African mementoes, clothing, botanical prints or guide books it’s a great place to shop. You won’t find any bargains though. Access is from the main car park, and you don’t have to pay garden entrance.
For art lovers
There is often an exhibition of local art in the hall which adjoins the tearooms. Most of the paintings are for sale.
An area of the gardens has been devoted to a permanent exhibition of Zimbabwean stone sculptures. Carved in mainly serpentine green or black stone they range from abstract to literal human form. My favourite was of a mother with her children (see photo) but alas, even if it had been for sale, my baggage allowance was much too small.
Getting in and around
Admission to the gardens costs R35. Open 7/7
Every day at 10a.m. there is a free guided walk of the gardens.
Golf cart tours take place every 30 minutes at the cost of R25
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens( Rhodes Drive, New lands, Cape Town; 021 799 8783)
The Gardens at Cellars - Hoenhort
Not far from Kirstenbosch, in the grounds of a delightful hotel, lies another garden. It is much smaller than its famous neighbour, nine acres in fact. Ten years ago it was little more than a field, but today it is very special.
On approaching the hotel (93 Brommersvlei Rd, Constantia) you are surrounded by rose gardens dripping with blossom, both pink and white. Old fashioned roses set amongst formal beds, a perfect setting for the whitewashed historic Cape Dutch buildings.
I had often heard people speak of "Cellar's wonderful gardens". Fondly thinking of those roses, I would nod my head in enthusiastic agreement. Little did I know that while I had been visiting friends there, or dining in one of the two main restaurants, I hadn't seen the half of it.
Recently, we arrived a little early for our meal in the Greenhouse Restaurant, and decided to take a stroll. The friendly receptionist handed us a garden map, and I was surprised to see how far the gardens extended. But alas, South African evenings fall swiftly, and the garden paths were dark and treacherous. No problem! We were exhorted to return the next day.
And so we spent a glorious afternoon exploring. We saw the white garden, rustic garden, water garden, citrus terraces and shady woodland area. We strolled along pretty pathways, sat on rustic benches, and leaned over wrought iron bridges. One part of the garden incorporates part of Cape Town's history in the form of eight camphor trees, over 200 years old. And if we hadn't already sampled the hotel's excellent cuisine, then the extensive herb terraces, crammed with the freshest and greenest herbs: basil; oregano; and sage; would have been evidence enough.
In March, Liz McGrath was presented with the Relais et Chateaux 2010 Garden Trophy in recognition of this world class garden. Jean Almon, Garden Manager at The Cellars-Hoenhort gives guided garden tours every Tuesday at 10.30am. The cost is R40 per person and includes tea/coffee and scones. Bookings essential.
This is a superb hotel. I can also wholeheartedly recommend both of its restaurants. The traditional Greenhouse Restaurant offers an amazing tasting menu called "African Origins" costing R575 with Constantia wines included. Normal menus from R195.
The Cape Malay Restaurant offers spicy Cape Malay cooking that is unique to the Western Cape. As you approach the elegant rooms, which are decked out in rustic colours, you will be enticed by the exotic smells. It is a wonderful dining experience. Menu R220.