Stellenbosch, South Africa
Another course arrives in front of me. Another paired wine appears in a glass next to it. Lunch, here at the ‘Cellar in the Sky’, captures what is so enjoyable about a visit to the Stellenbosch region of South Africa.
It’s known around here as the ‘Cellar in the Sky’, but technically it’s the restaurant of the Waterkloof Wine Estate. A modern building on the crest of a hill, it has large glass windows that offer views across the countryside and down to the dramatic coastline. The bright and fresh environment of the restaurant matches the weather and landscapes almost as well as the wine matches the food. And, ultimately, it is the food and wine that defines the establishment – and the Waterkloof wines and restaurant have consistently picked up awards all across the country. The dishes being served to me as part of a degustation menu have been prepared by French chef, Gregory Czarnecki.
There are obviously French influences but the food is very contemporary and full of local ingredients. I ask him about how he developed the menu.
“It’s all about transparency,” Gregory tells me, referring to the food but pointing to the glass walls of the building as he says it.
“What I was asked to do when I came to the restaurant was to do something that matches the wines, which are elegant. So the food needs to be elegant. I think it goes well with the whole building and the philosophy behind the wines.”
Gregory has been here for a few years after meeting a South African woman. He’s seen a change in Stellenbosch tourism even in that short time.
“You have more and more Europeans coming – and from around the world, actually – to enjoy what South Africa has to offer, which before the World Cup was just a great destination but I think it opened up a lot of people’s eyes. The food scene has changed according to the people who are coming. There are a lot of restaurants that have upgraded their game and some are still with a South African flavour.
So what is it about Cellar of the Sky that sums up Stellenbosch so well? I guess, for me, it has all the ingredients – fine dining, wineries, friendliness, nature and an attention to the needs of tourists. And this combination is what makes this one of my most enjoyable trips this year.
Oh, and did I mention how affordable it is? The six course degustation menu with matching wines for each course is 900 rand – which is about US$60. I am constantly amazed at the value for money here.
Where is Stellenbosch?
Stellenbosch is about an hour’s drive from Cape Town but (for better or worse) feels like you’re a world away. While I love Cape Town’s vibrancy and energy, it can also be a challenging and chaotic city. Stellenbosch, on the other hand, couldn’t be more relaxed. Nestled in the countryside, it has a provincial European feel – not surprising, considering its history as a Dutch colony. I know some people think South Africa is a dangerous country – I can tell you I felt safer in Stellenbosch than in many cities in Europe that I’ve been to.
This region is to South Africa what Napa is to California, or the Barossa to Australia. It’s a winemaking area that has turned an agricultural industry into a tourism product. And it’s done it very well.
I feel as though Stellenbosch has an atmosphere of sophisticated casualism. (The free street art exhibition in town when I visit is a good examples of why.) The atmosphere comes in part from the mix of charming and modern establishments in the main town – but also the opportunities at the wineries around the town, and even the potential trips to explore further afield. While many tourists to South Africa see Stellenbosch as a day trip from Cape Town, I think that attitude misjudges what’s on offer. A couple of nights in the town, exploring the wineries, opens up a part of the country that you might not automatically think of.
What is there to do in and around Stellenbosch?
Let’s look first at Stellenbosch, the town. It’s the kind of place where you can easily spend an afternoon, meandering through the streets looking at all the little fashion, art and craft shops. If shopping is not your style, don’t worry, there’ll be something for you here. There are art galleries, museums, and theatres. For the more active, there are golf courses. For the really active, there are plenty of good cycling or hiking routes or horse riding tracks.
Personally, though, I just love enjoying the food and drink in the town. From classic high to funky new bars, there’s a bit of everything. It’s a foodie’s delight here from breakfast to a late night snack. And, of course, everywhere serves the local wines.
Speaking of local wines, visiting the wineries in the region is one of the main reasons many people come here. There is no shortage of places to choose from and you will be spoiled for choice. Make sure you try some of the local chenin blanc, the South African specialty. Most of the wineries have created a whole experience for visitors and you’ll be able to taste some wines, have a meal and even (at some) spend half a day doing the activities and relaxing in the grounds.
To help you decide where to visit (assuming I’ve now convinced you to make a trip to Stellenbosch), here are a few of my top recommendations.
Oldenburg Vineyards is a family run winery that makes some of the best wines in the region. The large open tasting room has a gorgeous view out over the vineyards and the mountains. It’s worth coming for the scenery but it’s really the vintages that will take your breath away.
Lourensford Wine Estate
Lourensford Wine Estate is one of the most scenic wine estates in Stellenbosch and uses the different heights of its property to grow different grapes at their ideal conditions. I would recommend trying their rose, which is first class. There’s also a market on the property every Saturday and Sunday with lots of local produce for sale.
Jordan Wine Estate
Jordan Wine Estate is a family winery that does its tastings outside, under trees near the beautiful lake. The wines are fantastic and I challenge you to leave without getting a few bottles. There are also beautiful luxury suites here you can stay in, if you’re looking for accommodation out of town.
Spier Wine Farm
Spier Wine Farm is one of the oldest in the country, dating back to 1692. It also offers one of the largest selection of things to do and is spread out over a large space with several dining options, a farm to explore, and an area for the kids. Make sure you try the tasting that matches wines with chocolate!
Hartenberg Wine Estate
Hartenberg Wine Estate is a traditional winery that still uses its old cellar (an interesting sight!). It is particularly well known for its shriaz, which is definitely worth tasting. Meals are served in a wonderful dining room that evokes an old school atmosphere surrounded by wonderful landscapes.
Now, if all these activities in town and all the surrounding wineries aren’t enough, Stellenbosch is also the perfect base to explore the region. I would highly recommend a drive to the coastal town of Hermanus or even go a bit further along the road to see some of the Cape’s best nature at the Grootbus Private Nature Reserve. And, of course, you can’t leave the region without driving along the famous coastal road – one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see at sunset!
As I said earlier, having the opportunity to spend a week around the Stellenbosch region was one of the highlights of my past year of travel. I never got tired of the incredible scenery that I was constantly surrounded by. On top of that, the food and wine was top notch (without exception) and the community was so open and friendly.
It’s a great holiday destination for anyone – but I think, particularly for Europeans, it’s a perfect option to escape the Northern Hemisphere winter. South Africa is the same timezone as London so there’s not jetlag. That also means that most of the flights go overnight so you don’t waste days travelling at either end. It’s nice and warm in South Africa when it’s freezing in Europe. And the country is pretty cheap – certainly by UK standards, for instance. The value for money is fantastic and you can have a good time for a fraction of the cost of travelling around Western Europe.
Some savvy tourists have discovered all the merits of Stellenbosch and I know many people return year after year.
Have you experienced it for yourself yet?
For accommodation, I suggest the beautiful Bonne Esperance Guesthouse.