Just over a year ago we were sitting at a bar in Wanaka, New Zealand, when the other half popped the question.
“So, where will we go on our next trip?”
I peered over the lake we were overlooking, and within a minute I responded.
The first thing that came to my mind was actually South America, but a continent that big needs more time than we could surrender for a quick getaway. South America will just have to wait until the next “big one”.
The other half did Africa quite extensively in his 20’s; memories that are quite vague, to say the least. As for me, well, I’ve merely scratched the surface with a visit to Morocco and two visits to Egypt back in the early 2000’s.
So come May 2015 and we were in South Africa.
Following an overnighter at a Johannesburg airport hotel, it was another flight down to Port Elizabeth to pick up a rental and hit the road. Not just any road ….the famed Garden Route.
Prior to hitting the Stormsriver / Tsitsikamma region, the eastern point of the Garden Route, we stopped at Jeffreys Bay for a spot of lunch. This part of the cape is all about sunshine, sandy beaches strewn with shells, and more famously, surfing.
At the south end of town, just next to the contrived Marina Martinique canal development, is Die Walskipper. It’s the perfect set-up for a beachside restaurant – a glorified shed that shelters a bunch of tables and benches nestled in the sand.
So off come the shoes and it’s bare toes in the sand, just like the friendly barefooted staff that look after you.
Given the location, seafood plays a heavy part with the edibles at Walskipper; with some more meaty options for those that like to eat from the land. The seafood is as fresh as you’d expect from an eatery that’s a couple of metres from the surf, but to begin with, I went straight for the marrow bones (48).
And considering the exchange rate we had, we were dividing all the prices by 10. Everything was suddenly looking incredibly cheap!
The enormity of the deliciously fatty marrow bones prevented me from indulging in the complimentary bread and pâté’s arranged in the centre of the room by the old hob, but the other half eagerly tucked in and assured me the pâté was delish.
At the back of the restaurant is where most of the cooking takes place – a long stretch of braais (Afrikaans for bbq), heated by coals that are pre-fired in large metal bins next to the restaurant.
Seafood on the braai? Yes please.
Fish of the day (115), or yellowtail with salad, chips and rice fills the other half. And for me, the sole (155) with calamari, mussels and prawns. An absolute steal at AUD$15.
And as for the furry friend with googly eyes that somehow appeared out of nowhere, he didn’t get what he was hoping for, despite the pleading eyes.
The drive from Jeffreys Bay to Knysna, our first overnight stop along the route, quickly introduced us to the way many locals prefer drive when doing 120km/hr. This isn’t a dual lane freeway where you can feel relatively safe hitting those speeds; instead it’s a single lane with oncoming traffic screaming past.
It’s the aggressive overtaking methods they use that probably explain why there are so many roadside floral memorials from fatalities. Loads of them. Anyone wanting to overtake you will ride your cars backside so close that you can see the colour of their eyes in your rear vision mirror.
We quickly learned we were expected to veer off to the side as far as we could to allow them to speed past, often only just missing any oncoming vehicles. And get this, the polite ones will flash their hazard lights a couple of times as a thank you!
Something they don’t mention in the Garden Route guide books.
The weather turned a little grey soon after we arrived at Knysna, a small town built around an expansive estuary. This was where we spent our first night; comfortably shacked up in “The Tower” at the Lofts Boutique Hotel on Thesen Islands.
What used to be an industrial area in the middle of the lagoon has been separated into islands; most of it transformed into an elite community behind secure gates, complete with canals and private moorings.
The Lofts is built in and around The Boatshed, taking full advantage of the water and the views beyond. And it was hard to miss the beds of edible samphire, or sea asparagus, that were revealed at low tide. Foraging, anyone?
Back across the causeway is the Waterfront at Knysna Quays, a precinct geared towards tourists and those that like to shop, dine and hang out on the waterfront.
Such places don’t hold much appeal for this pair, but out of pure convenience and the hankering for an alcoholic beverage nearby, waterside 34° South was where we settled in for the evening.
Not only does this place offer food and drinks, but it acts as a deli, wine store, food emporium and gift store, as well. The food menu has just as many personalities – ranging from Greek, to Spanish, Italian and Japanese. There’s even a sushi train.
Seeing they claimed to be the “home of the Knysna oyster”, I thought it’d be fitting to try some. Yes, I know the best way to eat an oyster is freshly shucked and uncooked, but, au naturel purists, feel free to screw up your face with this one. Grilled oysters in garlic (69).
I love my raw oysters at the best of times, but sometimes I like them with a little cooking action, as well. And I must say, these we incredible. Served in a ceramic dish that’s dedicated for oysters, or snails, they were slightly cooked in a generous amount of butter, garlic – and wait for it – blue cheese. Some house-made rye bread soldiers are there for the dunking.
As much as I could have eaten those oysters for the rest of the evening, we tucked in to Cajun Ostrich fillet and smoked loin pork ribs, as well. No pics, sorry.
As part of our room rate at The Lofts, breakfast was also on the cards. Artisan bakery Île de Païn is the general contender for breakfast, but seeing they were closed for annual holidays, it was a quick walk around the corner to the Island Cafe at the Turbine Hotel, instead.
The name of the hotel is pretty fitting, as it indeed was once a working power station, with much of the industrial elements retained and worked into the refurbishment. As for the cafe, it’s an eclectic mix of furniture and accessories with a definite feminine touch.
We weren’t exactly sure what kind of breakfast we’d be getting, seeing it was included with our stay at The Lofts. Was it continental or did we have a separate menu to choose from? Nobody told us.
When we were given the regular breakfast menu we guessed it was a choice of anything we wanted. Easy. It was flapjacks & hot cinnamon baked apples for him. I had slight food envy after I swiped a little taste of the fluffy stack, but my own savoury mince & fried egg was just as good, in a more savoury kind of way. By default it comes served on toasted ciabatta, but I curiously opted for the banting oopsie bread.
I soon learned this isn’t actually bread. Instead, it’s like a flat aerated egg omelette, of sorts, that has next to no substance. Perhaps I should have stuck with real bread.
Barely an hour-and-a-half from Knysna and we were scouting the streets for a lunch venue around a very sunny Mossel Bay. The main drag of Marsh Street has a great village vibe about it, and it’s lined with a bunch of businesses that are both resident and visitor friendly. Not a great deal was jumping out at us, and anything we wanted to try was closed for annual holidays.
Down on Quay 4 is a glorified fish ‘n chip shop that has some pretty smashing views from its harbour wall location. Sea Gypsy. There’s a gravel courtyard covered with a marquis for those that like to sit outside with the seagulls, or inside on wooden benches where the air may be a little fresher.
The food is well priced, far from fancy and fills the hole. The usual fried and grilled seafoods populate the menu alongside steaks and a handful of burgers.
For those of us with a bigger appetite – that would be myself – the Combos category is probably the best place to look. I went for the Gypsy Combo (140) that’s presented on a rather large tray – featuring 6 mussels with rice & creamy sauce, 2 prawns, crumbed hake, chips and a very decent pile of the most tender calamari I’ve eaten. Fantastic value.
The other half went for a more modest hake & chips (72). Lightweight.
It was here that I encountered my very first malva pudding (39); something that’s akin to sticky date pudding. Love at first bite. Hot, steamy, sweet and sinful. The only thing that let it down it was the poor quality ice cream.
Nestled at the base of the Langeberg mountain range is the historic town of Swellendam, our next overnight stop as the drive gradually took us westward. To my understanding, Mossel Bay was the end point of the Garden Route, so I guess we can tick that one off the list. Which made us question what the big deal is about the Garden Route.
It may be on the petite side, but treelined Swellendam has just enough to keep visitors like us occupied for a short stay. Very short, in our case. One main street with a smattering of shops and places to grab a bite, and a lovely collection of buildings in the Cape Dutch style.
Our bed for the night was in the magnificent Schoone Oordt Country House, a property where you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve been transported to the Victorian era. Beautifully manicured rose gardens, hedges and lawns, fountains and, oh look, there’s complimentary high tea every afternoon!
Located behind the main house are six Luxury Rooms – where we stayed – that have a cabin-feel about them, but are still in keeping with the Victorian flavour. Private patio, abundant foliage and the sound of trickling water coming from the gardens. Delightfully darling.
One of the top restaurants in town – The Conservatory – happens to be located at Schoone Oordt, but it was just the breakfast that we sampled. The light filled room is a real pleasure to eat in; sitting amongst artworks and wooden carvings, overlooking the lawn and swimming pool beyond. And for those that lift their pinkies when sipping a cup of tea, you can probably get away with it here.
Breakfast is a three course affair beginning with a continental spread of freshly baked goodies, cheese, fruit and cereals. A pitcher of just-squeezed juice awaits even before you take a seat.
The second course was an impossibly soft pancake filled with apple compote, resting on natural yoghurt and dusted with cinnamon. I could get used to this! And lastly, a main course of eggs benedict – mine with smoked salmon.
We had the option of staying at the house for dinner in the Conservatory, but hearing about a nearby restaurant that specialises in game meats drew us to de Companjie Guest House for dinner in their restaurant.
Set in an historic 1830’s building complete with thatched roof, de Companjie is all about the rustic charm; with a touch of the modern thrown in just to mix it up a tad. We were advised to book, but having not done that, we rocked up and discovered that we had free rein over the tables in the small candle-lit room. Quiet night?
The country feel of the guest house filters through into its menu, with wholesome offerings and a bit of a leaning towards red meat. A bit of a given, really, considering it comes from the family farm in the Northern Cape.
Starting with local vino, of course, the king’s plate (60) was all mine due to somebody else not having much of an appetite. A generous lump of brie, caraway cheese, bread, olive tapenade, prosciutto and goat cheese. I was astounded at the price. At home in Sydney a log of goat cheese the same size as the one on the board is the same price as everything on the board!
A simple spaghetti (125) was fine with the the other half – chilli, garlic and parmesan. And for me, the kudu (165). For those that don’t know, kudu is a type of antelope that’s endemic to Africa; so think venison, in terms of taste and structure. Here it was simply charred to rare, sliced and served with mash, honeyed carrots and a rich jus.
As brief as our stay in Swellendam was, and as much as we could have easily stayed a little longer, we hit the road bright and early the following morning. Our drive took us in a southwesterly direction away from the mountain ranges and into a much flatter part of the countryside. We were in the vicinity of Cape Agulhas, a rocky headland that happens to be the southernmost point of the African continent. Also the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic.
We chose to visit on a not-so-nice day, complete with a rather low temperature and some rather icy rain carried in strong gusts of wind. Just enough time to get to the Indian / Atlantic Ocean marker, snap a few pics and get back to the car without getting too wet or blown off the boardwalk into the fynbos or one of the oceans.
Nearing lunch time, I suggested we backtrack a bit and check out the small town of Napier – in particular, a couple of places I had pinned on my digital map.
Situated on the main drag just before you hit the centre of town is the Napier Farm Stall; a town icon and one place that many visitors are compelled to park the car for a closer look. A vine-covered arbor hanging with old tin buckets provides the first welcome into this eclectic little business.
Inside it’s a busy collection of vintage paraphernalia mixed with a range of dry foodstuffs, gifts and freshly baked edibles. Not only does the farm kitchen – or plaaskombuis – provide a bunch of tempting pies, bread and tarts to take away, but there’s a breakfast and lunch menu that may tempt visitors to linger a little longer than anticipated. For us it was nothing more than a coffee in quirky surroundings.
Eating choices in Napier are a tad minimal, so settling on one of them doesn’t take too much time or effort. Straddling the edge of town is The Fox Pub, an English style establishment that’s been going at it for years.
Sitting out in the garden wasn’t an option, thanks to the weather, but there’s plenty choice inside. Food-wise, it’s a mishmash of burgers and basic pub grub that’s served up country style.
The lamb curry (78) came with a verbal warning of being on the spicy side, and whilst it did have a bit of a bite, you could safely say it was on the mild end of the scale. No watery eyes or congested sinuses with this one.
The Guinness pie (78) is served in a soup bowl, topped with a disc of buttery puff pastry. A hearty meal with decent flavour and side of chips.
A note on buying wine by the glass – we were quick to learn that most places fill your glass pretty much all the way. Unlike the regulated standard pouring in our beloved Australia where a glass of wine purchased will still be two-thirds (or more) empty.
Value for money in South Africa, people. I love it.
Further west along the coastline is the holiday centre of Hermanus, a cliff-top town that so happens to be the worlds top spot to watch whales from the land. Also the last overnighter on our little journey from the East Cape to the West.
A late arrival meant we had little time to get about and explore the town for all that it’s worth, and it’s here that we encountered a curious little creature called a dassie – or rock hyrax. Terribly cute, a little cheeky, and would you believe it’s the closest living relative to the elephant?
Nestled in one of the oldest buildings in town is the Fisherman’s Cottage, a family-owned restaurant where you can’t help but feel like you’ve been welcomed into their home. Seafood plays a decent part across the menu pages, as you’d expect, with good choices for meat lovers as well as a few things for non-carnivores.
We both wanted to try the boerie balls (30), a very tasty preparation using those aromatically-spiced boerewors sausages. I think being crumbed and deep-fried had something to do with that.
Another one that put a smile on my face was the roasted bone marrow (58). Predictable, right? Just as you’d expect good roasted marrow to be, with the added bonus of red wine snails perched on each one. Yes, snails. Deliciously tender, juicy snails.
Red meat was on my agenda that particular chilly evening, a 250g fillet (138) of beef, where for an added R30, I could top it with a few grilled prawns. Just what the body required.
Curry for lunch and curry for dinner, was the case for the other half. The famous lamb curry (120), served in a cast iron potjie with homemade roti and a couple of sambals. Not a great deal of heat in this one. In fact, no heat what-so-ever; and I found it a tad on the sweet side.
And speaking of sweet, we could have gone for the ubiquitous malva pudding that sure does a few rounds in this country, but a brûlée of bread & butter pudding (32) finished things off very nicely. And the vanilla custard that came with it was something else.
Seeing we were in whale territory, we thought a little boat trip was in order the following morning. Not to see whales, mind you.
We were also very close to the world famous Shark Alley, so you know what that means, right?
Time for a little swim?
Ok, I need to be honest here. The compilation of photo’s below wasn’t taken by yours truly. They were taken by the other half whilst I was on the other side of the boat dealing with the fact that my two motion sickness pills weren’t working. Three hours of vomiting isn’t fun.
The thing is, we were all waiting our turn to jump into that cage when my stomach said “no”. We were the third group to go and I’m glad I forced myself to do it. Sea sickness pretty much vanishes as soon as you’re in the water – 13°C water that day – so it was a big “hello” to loads of white sharks. The biggest we encountered was almost 5 metres long.
The disposable underwater camera we used was next to useless, so everything turned out blurry except the two above, taken in the cage.
So much fun, despite feeling like death.
Leaving the sharks and my sea sickness behind, having solid ground beneath my feet again was the best feeling in the world. Back on Route 44, a quick stop at Stony Point to say g’day to the penguins, then onto False Bay.
The scenery was looking all too familiar. Not because I’d been there before … because I knew the coast looked like this around Cape Town.
Any guesses where we were headed?