Where I escape to …

by Mariette du Toit-Helmbold on 07.08.2013

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1. Pringle Bay

Our cottage, nestled in fynbos, on the edge of the mountain with wraparound views of the Kogelberg Mountains across False Bay to Table Mountain, is my bolt hole. Pringle Bay is where I go to recharge my batteries, breathe, sleep, walk among the fynbos and sit in silence for hours ... just an hour and a bit from Cape Town, but a world away. Pringle Bay is part of the Kogelberg Biosphere and lies in the heart of a UNESCO nature reserve, and on one of the world's most spectacular coastal mountain passes (voted by Reader's Digest as One of the World's 10 Most Scenic Routes).

Contact Baytown Rentals for a list of self-catering cottages and houses in the area.

2. Oudrif Farm  Clanwilliam, Cederberg Mountains

Oudrif Farm is one of those places that you do not want to tell too many people about ...

Bill and Jeanine Mitchell are the heart of Oudrif. The perfect hosts, they quietly make sure that everything is just perfect without you even noticing them cooking up a storm in the kitchen, topping up your wine or throwing more wood on the fires. Oudrif accommodates a maximum of 10 people in the five very private and beautifully simplistic straw-bale cottages, perched on the edge of the Doring River.

It is quiet, remote, a mission to reach, but worth every god-awful kilometre of the winding dirt road. You can lose yourself here for a few days – explore the beautiful surrounding ridges with its rock art, hundreds of plant and bird species, and just drink in the simplicity of the silence and stars.

This place ranks in my personal top 3 in the world! And once you have been, I guarantee that you, too, will guard this secret jealously, only telling those few special people who will really appreciate this piece of heaven.

3. Hunter's Log Cabin  Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve

The Hunter's Log Cabin is situated on the edge of the Grootvadersbosch Wilderness Reserve, one of the most beautifully preserves wilderness areas in South Africa. The cabin is part of the Honeywood Cottages owned and run by the Moodey Family. John Moodey produces the Cape's best honey and their passion for this special piece of earth is contagious.

I have been going to Grootvadersbosch since my varsity years, when we started the Stellenbosch University Bird Watchers Club – we went for the bird-watching, but more for the excuse to have a good old "dirty weekend"!

Whenever I recommend the best honeymoon or romantic weekend getaway spots, Hunter's Log Cabin features high on the list. It is not much more than a double bed, huge fireplace, wraparound wooden deck and views, views, views of the amazing Grootvadersbosch.

4. The best road trip  De Bergkant and Red Mountain Reserve, Prince Albert and surrounds

Charles Roux is one of those people who makes his dreams come true, no matter what – he has also renovated and runs two of the most amazing places in South Africa, tirelessly and passionately promotes the Karoo life, lovingly restores old jails and fire engines, and in between all of this, he is still determined to go to Oxford.

Just past Calitzdorp is a sign for the Red Stone Mountains ... turn left to the Red Mountain Nature Reserve and some of the most incredible settings you'll ever come across.

It's worth splashing out on a night or two at this retreat – pack comfortable shoes and go explore the red ridges, and feast your eyes on the luxury of space. The region within which the nature reserve lies has the largest diversity of succulent plants in the world. Enjoy the spacious suites with Charles' state-of-the-art Victorian bathrooms, and early-morning swims in the 25-metre saltwater swimming pool. They serve traditional dinners beneath the brilliant Karoo night skies, or in the gracious dining room on chilly evenings.

The last leg of this journey should take you over my favourite mountain pass in the world, and one that all people should drive at least once, preferably a few times – 27km of gravel road that winds to the summit 1 583m above sea level in steep zig-zags and sudden switchbacks, with breathtaking views at every turn, before the Karoo falls open before you on the other side.

It is no small wonder that the Swartberg Pass is considered the most spectacular and breathtaking pass in Africa – a tribute to Thomas Bain, who built it with his motto: "Good hat and good boots." The road to Gamkaskloof, "The Hell", is accessed from the peak of the Swartberg Pass. Gamkaskloof was for more than a century the home of a self-sufficient farming community, but now visitors can experience its unique cultural heritage protected within the Swartberg Nature Reserve, while they overnight in one of the restored houses.

Prince Albert, lying at the foot of the Swartberg Mountains in a fertile valley, is described as the Oasis of the Karoo. If Prince Albert is the oasis, then De Bergkant Lodge is the paradise of the Karoo.

The guest lodge is a prime example of beautifully preserved Cape Dutch, Karoo and Victorian buildings – 13 of which are national monuments. Prins Albert is an absolute gem – it is no wonder that so many people from all over the world have chosen to sacrifice the rat race and settle in Prince Albert, where life is slow and salig (blissful), and stars shine at their brightest.

The town also boasts some of the Western Cape's best restaurants – Prince Albert is fast becoming a worthy contender on the gourmet map, best known for its sun-ripened fresh and dried fruit, especially figs and apricots. In the Prince Albert Valley, to the south of the village, farmers are restoring vineyards last farmed in the 19th century and now producing award-winning wines. Karoo lamb, olives, olive oil and cheese are local delicacies – make sure you get hold of the Kudu salami made by the local butcher for your "sarmies" for the trip back home.

5. Jan Harmsgat Country House – Swellendam

This is one of my favourite places in the world, and Brin and Judie Rebstein are two of my favourite people in the world. Situated on an historic farm (established in 1723) in the beautiful Klein Karoo between the towns of Swellendam on the N2 and Ashton on the R62, Jan Harmsgat is a very special place.

One of only a few places that boasts the sought-after "Fair Trade in Tourism" stamp of excellence, they are dedicated to fair labour practices, community upliftment and generally operating in an ethical way. Judie and Brin offer an experience in hospitality, great food and warm country ambience that is tough to beat.

Named after the original farmer, Jan Harman, the farm was called Jan Harmans Schat – Jan Harman's Treasure, which later became Jan Harmsgat. Brin and Judi bought the farm on a whim 15 years ago, and have patiently and lovingly restored the farm and original buildings. A two-hour scenic drive from Cape Town, the Country House accommodates guests in understated elegance and comfort in the farm's beautifully restored original slave quarters.

I love the interior. They have really managed to capture and present to the visitor a unique and authentic country ambience and history. Whilst every luxury and comfort have been catered for, Judie's creative flair and the good old "Overberg Country" style are wonderfully displayed in the small details. My favourite place in the Country House is the large kitchen with its racks of preserves, big Dover stove and wooden table, where guests can savour some of the great food, fresh fruit and homemade breads and preserves.

Fine dining in the formal dining room is also a treat, and Brin matches the delicious food perfectly with some of their fine local wines from the cellar. Brin also revived the dairy farm, which now produces the first-class cheeses that are served after dinner and at breakfast. From classic Leiden to mature Cheddars and Boeren Kaas, the cheeses are complemented by a wonderful array of homemade preserves.

The Rebsteins have managed to put the word "treasure" back in Jan Harmsgat!

6. Mosaic Farm, Stanford

I grew up in paradise – on the Stanford side of the Klein River lagoon, 15km on a hectic gravel road from Stanford, or 5km over the dunes from Hermanus (when 4x4s were still legal). See-Eike was part of a farm bought almost 40 years ago by my grandfather and two friends.

We lived like family Robinson Crusoe for many years, first in tents and then in a new rock fortress, built from sandstone and wood (collected over years from old ruins and auctions), on the water's edge under 2 000-year-old giant milkwood trees. Getting to school was always an adventure – we crossed the lagoon by boat, caught the Stanford bus at the Yacht Club or went by Land-Rover over the dunes until the road was closed a few years later.

This is where I fell in love with life, with the environment and became obsessed with tourism.

The Spookhuis (Ghost House) was just a fence away from See-Eike and I remember being dared by my brothers to walk around the beautiful old house at night with just a torch. Today the Spookhuis is part of the Mosaic Farm, lovingly restored by the new owners into a magnificent chapel for weddings and a small conference centre.

For over a century, people have sailed across the lagoon or travelled the old ox-wagon route to visit the abandoned Spookhuis. Some camped on the grassy shore by the old stone homestead, and told scary stories in the moonlit nights. Evidence of their passage is seen engraved throughout the plaster walls, one of which comments on the reputation of the house by asserting that "this place ain't haunted".

Mosaic Farm has a very strong conservation focus – working hard to eradicate alien vegetation and restore indigenous plants, animals and birds. They are active members in the non-profit conservancy in the Western Cape, the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy, and guests can participate in some of the many conservation programmes and see the positive results achieved by a group of conservation-focused farmers.

I love the family's vision, one of renewal and restoration: renewal for all who stay here; restoration of this magnificent creation back to its indigenous state; and the restoration of livelihoods in the local community through job creation and education. It reminds me of my childhood and growing up in this incredible part of our country. My heart remains here.

Go and stay at the beautifully designed Lagoon Lodge, or opt for self-catering at the quaint cottages set on the water's edge.

7. River Magic Cottages, Vermaaklikheid

Vermaaklikheid is a miniature old-world village of thatch and whitewash along the tidal Duiwenhoks River – 10km from the sea and 30km off the N2, near Stilbaai. It seems forgotten, or maybe it is just miraculously undiscovered, by the madding crowds and the trendy country folk. If you are in desperate need for some soul time and good old-fashioned living, there is no better place than Vermaaklikheid.

River Magic offers three beautiful, fully equipped cottages – best of all, dogs are welcome, that is if they are brave enough to get into a canoe and be friendly with birds, sheep and all sorts of furry animals.

Glory Be is my favourite! To get to the cottage requires a ferry across the river, your car, your Nokia and your worries are left behind on the other side. Apart from the odd boat chugging by, Glory Be is totally private. I love the simplicity of space, glass, thatch and wood – with a semi-covered patio with braai, benches and tables overlooking the brown river. Idyllic!

You can do absolutely nothing or enjoy the river – swim, canoe (each cottage has the use of a canoe or rowing boat) and fishing – or as I did, sat on the stoep with my feet up, armed with a glass of wine and my binoculars. River Magic is a birdwatcher's paradise. If it gets chilly, cuddle up in front of the big fireplace.

Prices range from R100-R150 per person. A minimum rate per cottage may apply over weekends in season (R500-R800), so take a few friends if the budget is tight. Dogs pay R10 a night, which can be left in the SPCA tin on the mantle, donated to Riversdale SPCA.

8. Silverspray, Victoria Bay

Victoria, or Vic Bay, is made up of a total of 15 houses lined up in a row next to the beach, two campsites and a café. It is a surfer's paradise; no wonder, then, that it is my husband's favourite place in the world. I must say, it is a wonderful getaway. Just a few minutes out of George, Vic Bay is very different from all the other over-populated and developed coastal dorpies. We love staying in Silverspray, one of the original three houses in Vic Bay. It is literally a stone's throw from the water, a perfect place for me to chill while Tony surfs Vic Bay's famous waves.

It is a great value-for-money, no-fuss house. It sleeps eight people and starts from R650 per day, depending upon the time of the year.

9. Treasures along the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hermanus

Delicious homegrown food and fine wines mixed with exquisite scenery, some quirky locals and an artist’s haven to rest your soul make the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley one of the most divine escapes on earth, so take a drive out there and linger a little.

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley nestles between two mountain ranges, Babilonstoring and the Klein River Mountains of Hermanus, with the Onrus River winding through the valley. It is easy to see why the earliest residents of the valley, a leper colony established in the 1800s, called it “Heaven on Earth”. Not only has the valley produced some of South Africa’s most acclaimed wines, it also offers some other wonderful treasures. Here are my recommended stops en route ...

Drive over the scenic Rotary Way to Hamilton Russel Vineyards. It is a bit of a back-road that locals choose not to share with the madding crowd, but well worth trying to find. Stop for a romantic picnic in the olive groves, ordered from Under the Willows, washed down with a delicious Hamilton Russel Chardonnay, or continue to Bouchard Finlayson to savour Peter Finlayson’s award-winning Pinot Noir and the delicious French country-style food served at La Vierge. If heart-warming comfort food is what you are after, continue along the valley to Mogg’s Country Cookhouse, my all-time favourite Hemel-en-Aarde institution. Jenny and Jozi have been treating explorers of roads less travelled with their delicious country fare for years – try the hearty chicken pie with sweet desserts, and enjoy the farm setting, complete
with dam and geese.

No trip up the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is complete without stopping at Creation to stock up on some of the world’s most delicious Syrahs and Chardonnays. I love the tasting room, with its beautiful views over the valley and the innovative food-and-wine pairings offered. They cater for kids with special activities and a kiddies' menu – plenty of reasons to settle in for the afternoon …

The best find by far, though, is painter Gail Catlin’s home, The Artist’s House, nestled in a private reserve – Stonehaven Farm. It has an incredibly relaxed atmosphere, the perfect and shamelessly romantic hideaway for those who got a little lost along the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and are just not ready to get back to Earth. Rates are from R442 per person, bed and breakfast. They passionately support the Slow Food philosophy, a movement dedicated to reviving the pleasures of the table, to slow down, to know where one's food comes from, and to eat fresh and local.

10. Grootbos and a Dyer Island adventure

One of the most special places on Earth is Grootbos Nature Reserve, an exquisite five-star lodge in an idyllic setting where the unsurpassed beauty of nature dominates the lavish interior and exterior design. The luxurious lodges have been artfully crafted within rare fynbos and milkwood forests, on a mountain slope overlooking the whale-watching mecca of Walker Bay and Hermanus.

The Lutzeyer family is a very special family, with a passion for conservation, responsible tourism and the region almost as big as their dreams, courage and determination.

Grootbos offers a wide variety of activities for guests to enjoy during their stay. Specialist guides lead 4x4 drives and walks through the fynbos and forests of the reserve, trips to the nearby coast to view the southern right whales from land, walks along deserted beaches, visits to archaeological and cultural sites, as well as boat tours to Dyer Island and Geyser Island, an incredible marine ecosystem with thousands of Cape fur seals, and endangered marine life like penguins, dolphins, whales and great white sharks.

It is an experience well worth saving up for, and treating yourself and your loved ones to … it will change your perspective on many levels …

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