Valley of love
Tulbagh, Western Cape
Historic Tulbagh is tucked into a horseshoe-shaped valley with just one route in and out. It offers good chances for snow on the surrounding Witzenberg and Winterhoek mountains, and ample opportunity to curl up alongside crackling fires while sipping on the valley’s signature Shiraz. Tulbagh’s estates are among the oldest in the country, with some seemingly ancient cellars, such as those carved from underground prison cells at De Oude Drostdy. The country’s only earthquake museum is situated on Church Street, which is where a number of original historic houses withstood the 1969 tremors because they were built of mud bricks. The street was renovated and declared a monument with other museums, guest houses and restaurants. Fiercely hot in summer, winters here are magnificent – the riverside hiking trails offered by Murludi are especially lovely because rain and snowmelt add to the waterfalls and fill the rock pools. Jo Lister’s horse trails through the vineyards and forests are extra lovely in winter, too, and by August you’re potentially riding through carpets of spring flowers.
Christmas in Winter festivities happen this year on 23 and 24 June. There are activities in town and all the estates put on events, from glühwein-sipping with pots of stew to entertainment and tastings in their cellars
Woo on the West Coast
Paternoster, Western Cape
For many, the West Coast is an acquired taste – the wind can blow like no one’s business, and when it gusts over the Atlantic, the chill can creep beneath your skin. This makes Paternoster perfect for cuddling in one of the whitewashed fisherman’s cottages on the beach. Staring out across a boulder-strewn beach and watching as the sky glistens off the surface of Paternoster Bay is a delight. The natural beauty and isolation have lured some of SA’s top chefs, transforming the village into a hub of world-class cuisine. At Wolfgat, Kobus van der Merwe practises ingenious experimental cooking using foraged ingredients. A newer spot is Leeto, opened by Chef Garth Almazan – his unfussy-but-fabulous food emphasises local produce. A morning on a kayak is a great way to experience the dynamism of the marine environment – paddle to the penguin colony, and you may see dolphins, whales and seals too. At night, nip into the Panty Bar at the village’s only hotel to soak up the weirdness – set in the former jail house, it’s where tipsy imbibers hang their underwear from the ceiling, a tradition probably started during a wild bachelorette party.
One worthwhile excursion is to the West Coast Fossil Park, about 30 minutes away; and the harbour at nearby St Helena Bay comes alive during the winter snoek season
Love at the end of the road
McGregor, Western Cape
They call it the ‘Road to Nowhere’ because McGregor is a cul-de-sac, so there’s no through-traffic, which ensures its exquisite tranquillity. There’s also no need for supermarkets nor banks nor hard business because Robertson is 12 minutes away. This makes it a haven for hermits, creative people and romance seekers. There’s a belief that ley lines converge here, giving rise to its popularity as a hub of spiritual tourism. A big draw is Temenos Retreat, where yoga, meditation, healing and relaxation therapies are offered. The friendly hamlet is ideal for stoep-sitting, watching life go by with a bottle of wine
– perhaps something from Solara, home to the town’s first 100% organic wine. Good restaurants thrive here too. Karoux is the best of the lot – the potato and nettle soup is perfect in winter. Stop by the Eseltjiesrus sanctuary, a refuge for abused, abandoned and elderly donkeys, with a daytime restaurant in a 100-year-old farmhouse. Opposite the sanctuary, the owners of Tanagra Private Cellar hail from a grappa-growing part of Germany – they have a traditional pot still, which they use to produce an experimental witblits-like firewater, which you can taste when you visit.
The McGregor Poetry Festival happens in winter (24–26 August, poetryinmcgregor.co.za) because red wine and log fires go beautifully together with the spoken word
Be enchanted in a fairy kingdom
Hogsback, Eastern Cape
As you ascend from the Tyume Valley and find yourself enfolded by bundles of mist, the effect is of entering a mystical realm. Here, in the heart of the Amathole Mountains, the hamlet of Hogsback ranks as one of the country’s prettiest villages. Having started as a hill station to escape the heat of summer, today its community bustles with artists, eco-warriors and hippies. Also here are eccentric types who believe in fairies and crystal magic, and some who spread rumours that Hogsback was the inspiration for Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings. It’s for hikes into these woodlands that many people visit – venture into a cool, shadowy world of towering yellow-woods, gnarled branches and knotted vines where waterfalls cascade down vertical rock faces, and crystal-clear streams churn over moss-covered rocks. Start your stay by finding cosy digs – take your pick from farm stays and B&Bs, self-catering cottages and old-fashioned homesteads, and sink into a winter reverie.
A great spot on a cold day is Happy Hogs, a laid-back restaurant with a fireplace, soup and coffee that’ll help ease the mountain chill. Curl up in front of the fire in the bar at Hogsback Inn, the oldest hotel in town
Make magic in the Midlands
Nottingham Road, KZN
The Midlands is dotted with farming villages set in lush meadows, where cows chew the cud and the mellifluous sounds of a gently flowing river are never far away. Such places inspire cosying up in front of a fire in the local pub, or settling in under a blanket on the veranda of a stone cottage gazing across a serene countryside scene. At the heart of KZN’s so-called Midlands Meander is a village that evolved along the approach to a garrison – Fort Nottingham – established here in 1856 by an English former regiment from Nottinghamshire. Today, it’s popular for weddings, where couples are drawn by the chance to be steeped in a mix of historic stone farm buildings, churches fringing meadows, and serene lakes and streams. Look up, though, and it’s the Drakensberg that beckons. Tackle MTB trails, horseback riding, and trout-fishing. The village is also known for the artisanal ales and lagers crafted by the Nottingham Road Brewing Company, while local lore is rife with tales of haunted hotels.
On Netherwood Farm, Blueberry Cafe is a typical Midlands spot for cakes and coffee, tea and scones; there’s a slick arts-and-crafts and homeware boutique attached
Have a Highland fling
Amid mist and black sandstone rock formations, Kaapsehoop – once known as Duiwel’s Kantoor (‘the Devil’s Office’) – is a tiny hamlet at the top of a plateau that bulges out from the Drakensberg escarpment – it’s just 27 km from Nelspruit, but light years from the modern world. A quainter, more charmed little village is hard to picture. Although once a gold-mining boom town of almost 5 000 residents, today there are 200 at a push, and you’ll see signs urging you to keep watch for wild horses and fairies. The latter is tongue-in-cheek, but there really are feral horses that roam the surrounding countryside – the free-spirited steeds are descended from work horses brought to the Lowveld many decades ago. Arrive here to escape the world – squirrel away in a cottage converted from the ruins of an old tin house built on stilts and go on treks into the mountainous surrounds. Or set off on horseback through the pine trees and eucalyptus with a local cowboy. One phenomenon worth checking out is the so-called ‘Adam’s Calendar’, an African version of Stonehenge believed to be more than 75 000 years old, or join the village ghost tour for a bit of a pre-bedtime thrill.
Koek ’n Pan is a great spot for sweet or savoury pancakes – a real institution in the village, with toasted sandwiches, strong coffee and cold beer