Drink in the pleasures on scenic route to wine region
IT'S billed as possibly the world's longest wine drive - but it's not in California's Napa Valley, South Australia's Barossa or New Zealand Marlborough region.
The "string of pearls" of the vineyard and winery variety that is Route 62 is definitely South Africa's most extensive wine experience.
And while that country's "holy Trinity" of wine producers is concentrated in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek, Route 62 - part of the world-famous Garden Route - is emerging as a major and distinct grape-growing region in its own right.
The easy drive links Cape Town with Oudtshoorn, the Langkloof "fruit route" and Port Elizabeth - a shorter, scenic alternative to the N2 highway.
Sharing an affinity with the much-beloved American Route 66, Route 62 is filled with jaw-dropping scenery, quaint farming towns and hospitality gems.
We discovered that over a short break of two nights and three days, a leisurely 190km from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town can deliver a most relaxing, educational, enjoyable getaway taking in Worcester, Robertson, Ashton and Montagu.
The diversity of landscapes and rich abundance of flora and fauna are well worth the trip alone: baboons beside the entrance to Du Toits Kloof tunnel; towering sandstone cliffs with almost vertical sedimentary layers that demonstrate the ancient Earth's upheaval of tectonic plates; the fluffy cotton-wool clouds kissing 300 million-year-old craggy mountains that seem to encircle the highway; engineering feats such as Kogmans Kloof pass through the ranges; pretty roadside heathland below velvet-green hills; lush and tranquil valleys with vineyards and orchards as far as the eye can see; impressively preserved Cape Dutch architecture; and the colours of the Klein (Little) Karoo semi-arid region.
The Cape Floral Kingdom has the highest concentration of indigenous plants in the world and we feel privileged to see colourful wildflowers such as white Cape Daisies and orange Namakwaland Daisies blooming beside the highway and on suburban footpaths.
And Route 62 makes visitors realise how close South Africans live to the wildlife: baboons in the vineyards, leopards in the hills, tortoises crossing suburban roads; eagles gliding overhead in the mountain passes; flamingoes by a waterhole.
To extend your stay, perhaps head out a little further east to Barrydale, taking in the beautiful Tradouw Pass and the Sanbona Private Wildlife Reserve, or to world-famous surf beaches such as Jeffreys Bay near Port Elizabeth.
On the way back to Cape Town, stop at Du Toits Heidaan Lookout and take in priceless views of twin towns Paarl and Wellington, the wheat and dairy industries of the Paarl Valley and mountains in the distance including the granite-domed Paarl Rock (named after a pearl glistening in the sunlight).
So while the bottled goodness may be the initial attraction, Aussies find themselves embracing the easy pace of life in these townships and discovering that businesses along Route 62 or close by are destinations in themselves.
WORCESTER began as a hunting lodge in the mid-1800s, became an agricultural centre and now is a thriving township in its own right.
It is perhaps best known for KWV House of Brandy (cnr Church and Smith Sts, although the headquarters is in Paarl) - a co-op producer of brandies, ports, sherries and other fortified wines, as well as reds and whites that began in 1918 (www.kwv.co.za).
A LAZY Sunday afternoon at Nuy Winery - perched high on a hill in the winelands of Worcester - attracts a boisterous full house of tourists and locals that would be the envy of any pub or restaurant back home.
Small groups gather along the expansive, zig-zagging bar, taste-testing the winery's latest offerings.
The restaurant is packed with families, tour groups, couples and friends easing into a long Sunday lunch (the traditional South African Cape Malay dish bobotie was a winner all-round for our group) and drinking in the vast vineyard views of the Nuy Valley and Langeberg Mountains through the panoramic windows.
Founded in 1963, Nuy Winery began life as a co-op but is now a public company (www.nuywinery.co.za).
The cellar door brings wine lovers a rich harvest - from sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and chenin blanc to muscadel and semi-sweet sparkling wines.
I was more than partial to the Mastery Shiraz 2013, the Koffiepit Pinotage 2015 (made in a coffee style) and a special Muscadel celebrating 50 vintages. But we are also able to indulge in craft beers (Loadshed Lager and Madala's Golden IPA) exclusively available from nearby Mountain Brewing Company.
ABOUT 13,000ha are under vine in Robertson (about 2000 of those being chardonnay), with wineries ranging from the large co-ops to small family-owned boutique establishments.
The dry (about 300mm of rain annually), warm climate with cold night temperatures is ideal for grape-growing.
Formerly known for its racehorse studs, Robertson's wine production began about the 1940s with mostly colombard, chenin blanc and muscadel, turning in the 1960s and '70s to include sauvignon blanc, merlot and chardonnay.
Bourbon St Social
LIKE its New Orleans French Quarter namesake, Bourbon St Social is a feel-good, happening place.
The meals come in "mountain men" size - hearty and tasty fare that are great value for money.
Try the Crackling Eisbein (pork knuckle baked in the pizza oven for the best crackling and served with hot English mustard mash) or my favourite fish tacos (crispy deep-fried strips of fish in soft tacos with slightly spicy cucumber and tomato salsa, ruby coleslaw and drizzled with cilantro and parsley sauce) served with potato and sweet potato chips in a mini deep-fry bucket.
The restaurant and bar boast two big screens bringing sports-mad South Africans the latest news, games and commentary.
The outdoor setting with its drop-down garage doors has a funky, industrial atmosphere and cool music vibes for a casual drink. Order a Klippies (Klipdrift brandy) and Coke and you'll feel like a local.
Route 62 Guesthouse
TURN back the clock 100 years and stay in the cosy Route 62 Guesthouse.
The two-storey farmhouse used to sit beside a flowing river where the road now stands, while the main house that Australians would call colonial is only a little younger at 75 years.
The furniture and antiques that create the rustic but comfortable charm include carved lion paws on the legs of everything from sideboards to wardrobes and dressing tables.
Just up the main road, outside popular Robertson Winery (a stone church building of 1941 vintage) is a roundabout whose rich soil is laid out with grape vines, adding to the town's quirkiness (www.robertsonwinery.co.za)
Viljoensdrift Winery Cruise
AN EARLY start takes us to Viljoesndrift Winery - not to imbibe before breakfast but to marvel at the calm reflections on the Breede River from its boat cruise.
The Viljoensdrift River Cruises are as peaceful as they are spectacular in the eye of the keen photographer.
Symmetrical shapes and mirror reflections of nature, coupled with a plethora of birdlife, make a morning on the water a welcome and unexpected delight.
And Australians will find something very familiar here with eucalypts, blue gums, poplars, and palm trees planted along the banks.
Afterwards, guests can take a gourmet picnic under the pepper trees with produce from the on-site deli, and indulge in the fruits of winemaking that dates back to 1818.
The winery, south of the Elandsberg Mountains, is home to the Viljoen family whose French Huguenot forefathers planted the first vines. Brothers Fred and Manie Viljoen continue the proud tradition today, creating award-winning wines such as their best-known pinotage and Cape blends.
DE WETSHOF Winery was the pioneer of chardonnay in South Africa and has about 120ha currently producing that grape.
And although the grand new-classical architecture and olde-world charm of the tasting area is of 1996 vintage, it quite rightly sets up expectations of something special.
As De Wetshof estate marketing director Bennie Stipp says, the company wanted to deliver something much more relaxed and upmarket than an "over-the-counter" cellar door experience "not only to taste but also to enjoy the wines here".
Bennie says 95% of Robertson farms are still in family hands - many between third and six generations - ensuring "there's more love going into that they do".
So we sample the 2009 Cuvee Brut bubbly (65% chardonnay and 35% pinot noir) and look around us at the rich timber dining room setting, the chandeliers, heritage white couches and occasional chairs under the exposed-beam ceiling. Very civilised.
But the best is yet to come.
Our upstairs masterclass is conducted in a very swish private tasting room.
We soon discover: the unwooded Limstone Hill Chardonnay 2016, produced from the rich red clay soil - is very smooth and highly drinkable; the unwooded Bon Vallon Chardonnay 2016 - from a more gravely lime soil - has good colour and freshness; the much-loved light-wooded Finesse/Lesca Chardonnay 2015 possesses a zesty citrus-clean finish that is a nice all-rounder to accompany salads, white meats, pasta and Asian dishes; the Site Chardonnay 2014 - aged for 12 months in French oak, that is a grafted clone from Dijon in France - shows a nutty character; and my favourite: The Bateleur 2013 - "part of the estate's flagship chardonnays and the pride of De Wetshof" - is a grafted clone from Burgundy and known for its rich fruitiness from more afternoon sun.
ASHTON at the foot of the Langeberg, 10km south-west of Montagu, is known principally for its deciduous fruit production.
The Langeberg and Ashton cannery is based in town (www.langebergandashton.co.za) and dried fruit is a specialty of the area.
Ashton is also home to Zandvliet Wine Estate.
Sample a few varieties - perhaps with some Montagu cheese on hand - or chat to the wine estate's passionate representative Werner Els and even an avid Aussie wine lover might be convinced to swap to South African drops.
WALK the short, litter-free streets of Montagu township and you're likely to encounter sheep grazing merrily in suburbia, grapevines planted right up to the roadway, and some of the best white-washed walls and Monument Green paint of the Cape Dutch architecture in the Western Cape.
Church St has the greatest concentration of best-preserved houses, with the neo-gothic Dutch Reformed Church (1862) looking down from the top of the hill on Lang St.
Our guide Keith Heydenrych (email@example.com) takes us on the stroll through history, pointing out peculiarities of buildings - from thatched-roof gabled former farmhouses to an elegant Victorian townhouse with cast-iron broekielace embellishments at No.33 Long St, and Joubert House at No.25 Long street - the oldest existing house in Montagu that has been restored and transformed into a museum complete with indigenous herb garden.
Many of the historical buildings are now B&Bs and restaurants such as Kokkeman's Kitchen (complete with vault of the former bank) so visitors can enjoy the interiors as well.
Montagu Country Hotel
ONE of South Africa's few remaining examples of art deco style and the only original art deco hotel left in South Africa is the Montagu Country Hotel, built in 1875.
The first hotel in town, Montagu Country Hotel (www.montagucountryhotel.co.za) has 31 ensuite bedrooms, beautifully decorated and furnished in keeping with the style and period but with modern amenities such as spa baths.
And if you still haven't had enough adventure, hotel manager PJ Basson can play chauffeur and take you on a deliciously long, slow drive in an American Dream Car - for just a little extra.
You have the choice of a 1956 Cadillac Sedan De Ville, 1955 Mercury Monterey or 1956 De Soto Fireflight Sportsman.
Custom-made trips come with unlimited mileage included in the rate of R440 per hour.