South Africa’s Garden Route must be one of the world’s most successfully marketed tourist itineraries. The circuit – in its broadest sense heading east from Cape Town, linking the coastal towns of Hermanus, Knysna and Port Elizabeth via the eastern N2 motorway – is practically written into law as a Thing To Do when visiting South Africa. And yet, would it be sacrilege to admit the route is a little overrated? In high season it’s horrendously busy. And the name itself is a misnomer that suggests country lanes when it mostly describes a tour by highway. Which is not to say the area hasn’t its attractions – but nevertheless, the Garden Route is ripe for competition.
Instead of heading east from the mother city, there is a strong case for heading the opposite direction – a trip that hugs the west of the cape. First destination: Paternoster, a pretty coastal village surrounded by empty veld, two hours from the city. Paternoster has long been a weekend retreat for Capetonians, who flock year round to its perfectly preserved, whitewashed fishermen’s cottages – with their crushed shell paths, blue shutters and thatched or metal roofs – that spread back from a wide, sandy beach. In summer these are booked out months in advance, but in autumn, when I visit with my husband and son, it’s quiet, with just a few people in the restaurants at night, and a bright, crisp chill to the afternoon sunshine.
It is a lovely spot, with one main road leading to art studios selling handcrafts and ceramics, a few hotels, a pizza joint, a sushi spot and a fish market where warehouses have been converted into a smart new development called Crayfish Wharf, with the occasional food truck in summer catering for a picnicking crowd, and a smart restaurant called The Hungry Monk serving seafood year round. We are staying at Kamakoo – a large cottage with three bedrooms, pared-back but comfortable interiors and views of the ocean. It is part of The Cottage Collection, the rental portfolio of the very charming Strandloper hotel, a dune-side property housing 14 suites and rooms (there are another six to come shortly) dressed in marine hues, with private terraces planted with bougainvillea and enormous picture windows looking towards the Atlantic or into fynbos gardens where sunbirds flit. The restaurant, Leeto, with its view of the beach and a summer terrace for sundowners – and in autumn, the fires lit and wonderfully cosy – serves sophisticated dishes of fish and grilled springbok.
Leeto is part of Paternoster’s growing reputation as a place to eat well, where the unfussy offerings rely entirely upon the freshness of their ingredients. Voorstrandt is a jaunty shoreside shack serving seafood curry and surf and turf, while Gaaitjie has a beautiful location overlooking the ocean and giant granite boulders up over which a passel of children is scrambling in the mauve-glowing twilight as we eat grilled oysters and giant prawns one evening. Not far away, Oep ve Koep is a characterful village store offering enamel teapots and mugs and a truly spectacular caramel layer cake. This humble outfit is owned by the parents of South Africa’s exalted young chef, Kobus van der Merwe, and was the training ground for his foraged fine-dining offering. “I enjoyed the surprise of people coming in expecting the usual sandwich or pie and being offered a seven-course tasting menu – but in a very humble and inexpensive way,” he says.
Van der Merwe and I are talking on the high, sea-facing terrace of Wolfgat, the Paternoster restaurant he graduated to three years ago from his parents’ store. It was recently named Restaurant of the Year at the World Restaurant Awards. “I didn’t even know we were nominated,” he says. Bearded, dressed in black, van der Merwe wears an air of slightly put-upon bewilderment. We share a quick cup of rooibos at the end of lunch service, the tea flavoured with something floral and fragrant and served with a tiny dish of thick, golden honey. The restaurant is booked out for several months in advance – I couldn’t get a table, hence my intense focus on the tea – but this is a problem of capacity rather than an urge for exclusivity, the idea of which is anathema to van der Merwe. Wolfgat, someone later tells me, has apparently turned away archbishops and visiting heads of state because there simply isn’t room to seat them.
Housed in a low-slung converted fisherman’s cottage, the restaurant’s diminutive dining room is warm and inviting during lunch hour. There is a fireplace and tables under a sloped, beamed ceiling and a small kitchen at the far end. The space is big enough for 20 diners and six kitchen staff (the majority of them female, Paternoster born and bred) and not a soul more – a “golden ratio” that suits a chef who prizes humility, a quality in evidence in the lack of distinctions between cooking and serving staff (“everyone does everything”) and in the unadulterated ingredients on his menu. When I visit, the main dish consists of only two elements, “Venison and Seaweed”, the latter foraged each morning by van der Merwe and his staff. (Of the comparisons between Wolfgat and Noma, he is emphatic: “I get it, but we’re completely different.”)
Inspired equally by South African botanist, writer and doctor C Louis Leipoldt and his grandmother’s culinary eccentricities (“seaweed jellies”), van der Merwe makes a pantry of the beach: dune succulents “come with their own seasoning”, seaweed forms the base for many dishes, and shellfish and seafood feature heavily, while the village’s weedy municipal plots offer bounty in the form of edible leaves and Kei apples. (By now he’s inured to the curious glances of locals.) “I’m trying to put something on the plate that’s truly representative of this place,” says the chef. “Everything comes from within a 6km radius. Everything is completely sustainable. This is such a unique location – the surrounding landscape is semi-desert, the water is cold, the vegetation looks dry and unappealing. But the west coast is an underdog: that’s its charm.” It helps that it happens to be incredibly beautiful.
A thick mist drifts off the sea, the low, lonely moan of a foghorn sounding as we drive out of the village and up the coast, turning inland, the cover burning off as we climb into the Cederberg mountains. This is the home of Bushmans Kloof, a wilderness lodge that has been running, quietly and elegantly, for almost 20 years, over which time it has reliably drawn visitors north from Cape Town. It is a superlatively spoiling hotel, a dot of green lawns and flowering gardens in an immense, arid panorama of red cliffs imprinted with ancient rock art and vast, unspooling plains upon which eland, oryx, red hartebeest and springbok graze. Such are the delights of evening nature drives, where malachite kingfishers, bat-eared foxes, jackals, zebras and a pair of black eagles are often sighted – or, rarer still, an aardvark, loping across the veld. At sunset, the light clings softly, casting a Valentine’s blush over the sandstone cliffs.
In the years since I was last here, and in decadent defiance of the arid terrain encroaching its perimeter, the hotel’s grounds have grown even more outrageously verdant: a garden of agapanthus, bird of paradise and red-flowering aloes. Sharply outlined against the blue sky, white Cape Dutch buildings house 17 suites and rooms, a library, lounges and dining rooms indoor and out, serving an autumn menu of oxtail and ostrich with knockout salads picked from the lodge’s extensive kitchen gardens whose walls antelope have been known to clear at a leap.
Cederberg House is the hotel’s newest offering, a handsome two-bedroom thatched villa. Toni Tollman, daughter of illustrious South African hoteliers Stanley and Beatrice Tollman (the people behind international hotel collection Red Carnation), has outfitted it with framed indigenous textiles, as well as works by South Africa’s finest artists, including wonderful woodcut prints by Gregoire Johannes Boonzaier. There are leather wingback armchairs, a fully stocked bar, antique armoires, a deep sofa covered in a muted floral cotton and a four poster so tall it comes with steps. There’s a pool and a shaded terrace set with wicker rocking chairs and sunloungers, and a succulent garden into which the hartebeest wander each afternoon.
As you might expect of a long-standing and singular exemplar of the country’s hotel scene, Bushmans Kloof runs like a well-oiled machine – but with none of the robotic quality that comparison suggests. A fishing picnic to the nearby dam, the lake water slack in the afternoon sun, sees a table of sandwiches and salads and chilled white wine set out beside a 10,000-year-old rock painting daubed onto the sandstone. A magical dinner in a disused shepherd’s hut is lit by candles and oil lamps, their glow competing with the starlight above.
Half an hour from Bushmans Kloof, Cederberg Ridge Wilderness Lodge is also intent on showcasing the beauty of this setting. Opened at the end of last year, the lodge sits atop a high outlook dominated by a mountain with a rounded outline like a child’s drawing of a hill, the veld dropping away below. The hotel has been cleverly landscaped with dry-adapted grasses and flowers, cacti and wild garlic. The central guest area is contained within a converted farmhouse, with floor-to-ceiling Crittall windows and a welcoming rustic-styled lounge, library and dining area where guests are served robust, upscale fare such as skilpadjies (lamb’s liver). There’s a lawn leading to a swimming pool that is surely a mercy on summer days, when temperatures climb to over 40 degrees.
From the outside, nine blocky, tin-roof cottages seem rather lacking in charm – my husband and I exchange worried looks as we approach our room – but appearances deceive. Inside are spacious, calming, comfortable spaces of Scandinavian simplicity, with Wegner-style rope lounge chairs, industrial mirrors, Anglepoise bedside lamps, rattan rugs and enormous picture windows – one with a window seat, one by the bathtub, another wall of glass giving onto a shaded verandah – all offering up the spectacular view.
Engagement with that view is what Cederberg Ridge is all about. The hotel’s co-owner, Anton Bergh, is a 10th-generation farmer here. A 17th-century ancestor was among the first settlers in the Cederberg, and the Kleinvlei farm has been in the family since 1907. The passion project of his wife Kate, it comprises 3,000 hectares carved out of the veld to create the hotel’s wilderness experience. There are treks into the mountains, waterfall walks, heritage trails, stargazing – but also farm visits that illuminate the area’s agrarian heritage and importance: not least its rooibos, the tea leaf that is endemic to the area. At Groenkol Rooibos Tea Estate, the fields occupy dry, sandy hillsides, the plants wild-looking despite their manicured row patterns, the terroir and temperatures inimically African and the very opposite of the manicured lushness of estates in Sri Lanka or India. Yet something of the uncompromising nature of the land’s immense beauty seems to encapsulate the appeal of this new Western Cape route – a place where treasures are to be found if you look beyond the obvious.