So stated the sign as we drove into Cape Town, South Africa. Judging by the clear blue skies, luscious vegetation and brightly coloured houses, this was indeed going to be an escapist trip for the next eight days.
After an eleven-hour flight which was largely spent in the land of nod, we touched down in Cape Town and immediately left the city for the country town of Franschooek. Literally meaning ‘French Quarter’ in Dutch, we expected nothing but indulgence and relaxation from the self-proclaimed ‘Garden of South Africa.’ The area is largely known for its vineyards and outstanding food and now, on the flight home, I can testify for this by saying my jeans are a little tighter than a week ago. But oh my was the food worth it.
The cooking in Franschooek focussed heavily on locally grown produce and flavours, although there was plenty of fusion, with Spanish tapas, French bistro and Japanese flavours heavily featured in restaurants across the town. The English influence is also clearly visible, with many hotels and cafes offering afternoon tea; having had afternoon tea at The Ritz I didn’t believe anything could beat it, but I have now discovered the best scone chef in the world. He practices his art from a tiny café we wouldn’t know existed had we not got lost en route to lunch and preaches the religion of fluffy tiny scones smothered in vanilla cream and homemade strawberry jam. I was in heaven.
Our hotel was in the middle of a working farm – of course – and so our stay was full of freshly picked passion fruit, plums and peaches, as well as grazing springbok and Shetland ponies. The ponies especially were a welcome petting feature when we returned a bit woozy from a few consecutive wine tastings.
The best meal I have possibly ever eaten came on the third night, when we visited the seemingly innocuous restaurant attached to a vineyard we had visited earlier that day. Although modest on the outside its food did all the talking; a delicious dim sum starter was followed by grilled hake with chorizo and clam chowder and a chocolate fondant, with a amuse bouche and palate cleanser between courses. Accompanied by a glass of wine, this equated to £30 per head which, considering the quality of the food and service, would have cost no less than £100 in an equivalent establishment in London.
After a few days’ relaxing and touring vineyards in Franshhoek we moved on to Cape Town which had a very different feel. An open-top bus narrated the fascinating history of the city and provided some spectacular views of Camps Bay, Table Mountain and the city centre. A very welcome ice-cream stop was interrupted when some fur seals plopped up onto the waterfront dock and took a nap in the sun. How can you possibly concentrate on your Mr. Whippy when there’s a fur seal sleeping mere feet away?
We decided to see the most beautiful coastal areas of the city by car and so drove down the coast from Cape Town, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and back up in time for dinner. Along the way we spotted African penguins, ostriches and baboons, which leapt out into the road before spotting us and striking a few poses for photos, clearly no strangers to tourists. Everywhere we went the scenery was beautiful; turquoise waters, with often menacing waves, met sandy-white beaches and beach houses that rose several stories high without blocking the road, as per city law. Our visit ended with a visit to the South African Jewish Museum and the stunning Table Mountain, providing a breath taking end to what was an amazing holiday.
One activity we didn’t do whilst in Africa was a tour of the townships and shanty towns that surround the city and line the motorway. There are two sides to this argument; one states that seeing these shanty towns is essential to a real understanding of the lives of ordinary Africans, however the other side of the coin argues that it’s demeaning and humiliating for the residents of these areas to have buses full of tourists gawping at their living conditions and taking photos to show others back home.
My family and I subscribe to the latter view; not that we are opposed to facing the reality of life in Africa, we just opposed the idea of an organised visit in such a way that would invariably make the residents uncomfortable – I know I would be in such a position. We were lucky enough to meet people along the way who were more than willing to talk to us about their own lives and experiences, including one who offered to show us where he lives – their generosity and warmth was incredibly endearing.
What was so effectively conveyed through my visit to this beautiful country is a universal sense of pride and pleasure that South Africa is their country and that has come so far. When news of Reeva Steenkamp’s death and Oscar Pistorius’ accusation broke, the general mood was of inconsolable disappointment; that a man who had come to embody the country’s fervour for sport had been accused of such a crime was an immense shock to many we met.
South Africa, by all accounts, is a country still finding itself and establishing its true identity. Remnants of apartheid remain and these difficult reminders of a horrendous period that ended just before my birth will take generations to eradicate and may never fully disappear. The variety of religions, races and languages is what makes this country so interesting – the infectious pride of this country becomes understandable when you consider what a jigsaw of peoples combine to create it. If I can establish this from a mere eight days in the country, I can only imagine what I’ll glean from another visit in this unique place, truly an esCape from the norm.