Every day, I thought to myself, should start exactly like this: It was a Wednesday morning in early July, and I was looking out over the vineyards in Stellenbosch from the tasting room of the magnificent Delaire Graff Estate, about to taste my first wine of the day – the stunning Cabernet Franc Rosé 2014. Crystalline sunlight dappled the leaves on the vines and threw the hills in the background into razor-sharp relief. The wine, with its bright, subtly spicy, citrus-, raspberry- and strawberry-flecked palate, somehow seemed to mirror the view from our table.
I’ve been thinking about that moment ever since. That’s exactly what visiting South Africa is like: A collection of moments and experiences that stay with you for a long time afterward, far past the day that your flight leaves Johannesburg and you’re winging your way back home, wherever that destination may be.
The fact that that pivotal morning was centered on wine didn’t come as a surprise to me: I’ve had the great good fortune to visit the country twice in the past year, both times as a guest of the remarkable South African Tourism and in the direct daily care of the passionate, kind and generous Erick van Zyl of SA Tourism and Havelyn Pietersen of Roots Africa Tours. Both times, I came away beyond impressed with the wine industry there—and, indeed, with the country as a whole.
While it’s most famous on these shores for Pinotage and Chenin Blanc (both of which are produced in a wide range of styles—far greater than what many American oenophiles are likely familiar with right now), South Africa’s wine industry is crafting world-class bottles produced from Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and much, much more.
One trip to the magnificent Cape Winelands and it’s easy to see why South Africa is on such a steep ascent in terms of how wine lovers and other travelers around the world perceive it. This, after all, is a part of the world that seems custom-made for growing beautiful wine grapes and crafting excellent wine –the countless folds and crenellations of the land, the winds from the ocean and the run-off from the mountains, the variety of soil types, the history of winemaking and the passion of the wine-industry professionals…all of this adds up to a national wine culture as exciting as anywhere in the world right now.
As is the case in the best wine regions everywhere, the dining culture is every bit as soulful and creative: The inherently symbiotic relationship between great wine and food is here expressed with passion and excitement. From the elegance of High Tea at The Table Bay Hotel (the dessert table alone is worth the trip) and the fabulous flights of culinary fancy at Pierneef à La Motte (even the breads were lust-worthy, especially the ciabatta with caramelized onions and black olives), to the epic dinner service (and beautiful rooms) at the Grande Roche Hotel and some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted (courtesy of the stellar Terbodore Coffee Roasters), this is a part of the country that is at the vanguard of global culinary culture. I even broke my rule of trying to never order a hamburger when I’m overseas, and swooned over the excellent Wagyu one at Kloof Street House in Cape Town – its truffled wild mushrooms, Camembert and pickled red onions all zipped through with the bright heat of a horseradish crème fraîche. The Victorian house it’s located in seemed to channel both the aesthetics of South Africa and New Orleans, and the result was oozing with charm and a real sense of hipness.
That balance between old and new is among the many causes of so much excitement and buzz there right now. Cape Town is surely one of the great cities of the world – a highly manageable, utterly beautiful town blessed with beautiful architecture, kind residents, and natural wonders. The view of sunset from Signal Hill should be on everyone’s bucket list as the omnipresent Table Mountain darkens into shadow and the sky above the water turns an ever more dramatic shade of orange then pink then purple. The sunset is also magnificent from The Leopard Bar at the gorgeous 12 Apostles Hotel & Spa.
We arrived there after an overnight trip from Pretoria on The Blue Train, a journey that will surely rank among the best of my life. The detail of the wood-work, the professionalism and kindness of the staff, the food as excellent as the top restaurants anywhere, the passing scenery changing slowly but decisively as we wended our way south and west—all of these speak of the stunning tourism infrastructure that South Africa offers and the range of experiences that are available. If you choose to take the same journey, or if you remain in Pretoria to explore, I’d heartily recommend staying at Cricklewood Manor, a five-star boutique hotel that I’d love to visit again for the hospitality, the accommodations, the excellent food…and the Rolls Royces that transported my colleagues and me to the train station. After arriving in the city we spent several nights at the lovely Westin Cape Town, which I thoroughly enjoyed—especially the huge rooms and the soaring views.
And, of course, if you’re in South Africa, you should not miss the opportunity to immerse yourself in the legendary safaris that the country is so justifiably lauded for. Both times—the first at Thornybush Game Lodge and the second at Shamwari Game Reserve—I had up-close (yet perfectly safe) encounters with the local wildlife, marveled at the vistas that seem to stretch on forever, gained a lifetime’s worth of knowledge from the excellent game drivers, and stayed in luxurious accommodations. (For more of a focus on the marine life and flora of southern South Africa, make sure to visit Grootbos Private Nature Reserve near Hermanus.)
Lately, whenever a friend or colleague asks me where I’d suggest they go for their next trip, I invariably recommend South Africa. This is often greeted with some sort of comment about how far it is, and how difficult it must be to get there, but that they’ve heard great things and wish they could go. I tell them that they should stop worrying and book their vacation there immediately, because it’s an easy trip. Long, to be sure, but remarkably pleasant nonetheless and 100% worth the 14-to-15.5-hour flight. South African Airways offers non-stop service between Johannesburg and both New York and Washington, DC, and is expert at making the voyage a more than happy one. Even in economy seating, there is plenty of room, good food and drink, and friendly service. Next time I go, I absolutely plan on flying South African Airways again, no questions asked.
And I genuinely hope I visit again soon. Because with so much to offer, this is the kind of place that you crave returning to again as soon as you’ve gotten back home. As for me, I’ll wait out the time between this trip and the next with a glass of beautiful South African wine and memories of a place that I’ve fallen in love with. Which, it turns out, is exceptionally easy to do when it comes to South Africa.
Delaire Graff Estate
Helshoogte Rd, Stellenbosch, South Africa
+27 21 885 8160
The Blue Train
+27 12 334-8459 or +27 12 334-8460
The Table Bay Hotel
6, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Breakwater Boulevard, Cape Town, 8001, South Africa
+27 21 406 5000
Pierneef a La Motte
Main Rd, Franschhoek, 7690, South Africa
+27 21 876 8800
193 Albert Street, Waterkloof, Pretoria, 0181, South Africa
+27 12 460 8225
The Westin Cape Town
Convention Square, Lower Long Street, Cape Town City
+27 21 412 9999
Thornybush Game Lodge
Hoedspruit, 1380, South Africa
+27 11 253 6500
Shamwari Game Reserve
R342, South Africa
+27 41 509 3000
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve
Buitekant St, Gansbaai, 7220, South Africa
+27 28 384 8053
South African Airways