Strolling through Stellenbosch

By Karen Rutter

Photography by Mike Snethlage 

It may seem decadent to start one’s day with a dose of handcrafted chocolate, paired with a glass of wine. But if you’re at WATERFORD ESTATE, it’s extremely hard to resist their unique chocolate and wine pairing, which showcases the skills of winemaker Kevin Arnold and chocolatier Richard Von Geusau. Experienced in the estate’s award-winning tasting room, this is a fine way to begin an exploration of Stellenbosch and its surrounds.

Stellenbosch is, of course, synonymous with wine farming, and its wine route is the oldest and largest in South Africa—with over 200 estates to choose from. This is one of the reasons Stellenbosch Wine Routes has five regional sub-divisions—Greater Simonsberg, Stellenbosch Berg, Helderberg, Stellenbosch Valley and Bottelary Hills—to help make things less overwhelming for visitors. Even so, the range is impressive, and with many venues offering more than just a wine tasting—such as Waterford Estate, which also offers wine drives through the vineyards, or HIDDEN VALLEY, which features the award-winning restaurant Overture, with uber-chef Bertus Basson at the helm—it makes the experience that much more memorable. Then, of course, there is the sheer majesty of the area, where a farm such as THELEMA, situated on the top of the Helshoogte pass, offers shady oak trees and mountain views as a backdrop to tasting, while colourful peacocks parade outside. And there’s modern innovation to be found too, such as the clean lines and chic layout of the HOUSE OF JC LE ROUX, where sparkling wine is accompanied by nougat, marshmallows and meringues for a fun-filled taste sensation.

You could spend days—even weeks—driving from farm to farm, taking in the tranquil settings and drinking some of the finest wines in the world. But there is a lot more to Stellenbosch than its vineyards. And the great thing is, whether you are an adrenaline fan, an admirer of art, a golf player (there are three courses) or a nature lover, you’ll find you are spoilt for choice.

The town itself, with its oak-lined streets and 19th century architecture, is the second oldest in the country. Simon van der Stel founded the town in 1679, modestly naming it after himself, and it hosts some of the oldest educational and sporting institutions in the country. Interestingly, a fire burnt down most of the original buildings in 1710, but the town was rigorously rebuilt and its tree-shaded cobbled streets are as pretty as they ever were.

But it’s the blend of the past and the present that makes Stellenbosch so attractive. Funky curio shops, trendy art galleries, cool coffee cafés and retro bars attract both locals and visitors, and the large student population from Stellenbosch University ensures a young, energetic buzz around town. Restaurants are a-plenty, ranging from the HUSSAR, with its solid steak reputation, to theWIJNHUIS, which boasts a stylish setting and a menu that includes vegetarian as well as piscatorial specials. Then there are the more upmarket spaces, such as the award-winning MAKARON RESTAURANT, the much-in-demand TERROIR, and 96 WINERY ROAD.

You want wildlife? Then visit EAGLE ENCOUNTERS at Spier (which is, of course, an eclectic destination in itself, with accommodation, restaurants, craft stalls and more). Eagle Encounters is a bird of prey rehabilitation, education and eco-tourism centre, and it’s a great place to take your kids. Then there’s the GIRAFFE HOUSE WILDLIFE AWARENESS CENTRE, which provides a place to enjoy a family picnic while learning about animals and conservation—including zebra, tortoises and, of course, giraffes. And VILLIERA wine farm hosts a wildlife sanctuary that features a range of animals including springbok, kudu and bush pig. You can go on game drives through the indigenous tree forest. Or for something a little different, check out the more than 1 000 crocodiles at LE BONHEUR CROCODILE FARM.

For those who like to get their feet (and legs, and bodies) a little dirty, Stellenbosch has some serious mountain biking trails to explore. And if you haven’t brought your own bike, or don’t know the area, there’s a company called IRIDEAFRICA, which will rent you a bike to suit your style, plus provide you with suggested routes (road or trail) and a guide if you would like.

Of course, you could also choose a more sedate way to view the territory, by hot air ballooning over the winelands. All you’ll hear is the occasional puff of the burner as you cruise over the scenic surrounds.

Another way to spend a morning or afternoon is to pop in at the variety of art galleries and museums centred around the city centre. The SMAC GALLERY updates its exhibitions regularly, and provides a fine introduction to fresh, new South African talent. The STELLENBOSCH VILLAGE MUSEUMcomprises four historically significant houses and their gardens, all presented as they would have been some three hundred years ago. And the RUPERT MUSEUM houses the impressive private art collection of Anton and Huberte Rupert. This contains over 350 works by South African and international artists including Pierneef and Irma Stern. The venue also hosts regular exhibitions.

The town is small enough to explore most of its interesting features on foot, and you can either pick up a handy brochure called Stellenbosch on Foot at the Stellenbosch tourism office and guide yourself through the streets, or find out about guided tours, which are both informative and visitor friendly. They also cater to a range of tastes, so you can do wine tours, cycling tours, wine-and-cycling tours (seriously!), restaurant tours and more. Stellenbosch is more than geared up to greet its large load of tourists, and you’ll find most services operate smoothly and efficiently. 

And then there is always shopping… The town boasts some delightful and quite unique independent shops that stock local delicacies, South African artwork, designer fashion and more. OOM SAMIE SE WINKEL is an institution in Stellenbosch, and you can’t pass up the chance to pick up some homemade jams or maybe even a hand-carved stoep broom. For something a little different, there’s the Saturday SLOW MARKET at Oude Libertas where you can buy artisan breads, locally grown porcini mushrooms and fynbos flower arrangements. The MOOIBERG FARMSTALL has a fine range of locally produced konfyt, beskuitjies and more—and you must meander through its slightly bizarre strawberry gardens, where traditional scarecrows have been replaced by colourful dinosaurs, blue bulls, rhinos and sharks. Then there’s WILD CLOVER, which has its own brewery, and also a LAZY DAZE SUNDAY MARKET with open-air cooking exhibitions, a kid-friendly zone and plenty of healthy, organic produce to purchase. 

If you have only a limited period to spend in Stellenbosch, a one-day combination of wine farms and city walking is probably the best way to experience the area. But if you have a tad more time on your hands, then dividing your days into sections for art/museum visiting, wine tasting, shopping and dining makes sense. And don’t forget to build in opportunities to cycle, have a round of golf, go for a balloon ride or simply relax at a roadside coffee shop. 

Who knows, after some time you’ll think it’s pretty normal to start your day with a chocolate and wine pairing…