White Folks Fun

Sunday evening, March 14
On our first day in South Africa, when we drove around Johannesburg with our guide, Danie, Steve and I were both struck by how much the center city reminded us of an aging city in the US heartland, Detroit, say, or Cleveland. But Friday when we left the famous “Garden Route” (between Port Elizabeth and Mossel Bay) behind us and a few hours later entered the South African “Winelands” region, we felt transported instead to the European Alps. Our destination for the night was Franschhoek, once a French Huguenot settlement and now one of the most important centers in the world’s 9th largest wine-making country. Surrounded by tall and rugged mountains, the town occupies a huge green valley. Vineyards have been staked out on the valley floor, and they also climb up the foot of the slopes. It reminded me of Switzerland… or Galt’s Gulch… or some combination of the two.

In Franschhoek we were staying in the “guest room” of a couple named Marilyn and Charles Chance, and we arrived too late in the afternoon to visit any wineries. The Chance’s room for rent was large, pretty, and outfitted with a king-sized bed and excellent linens, with its own entrance from a beautiful garden located within a gated housing development designed to look like a vineyard. We didn’t enjoy it as much as it deserved, as we were harried from the long day of driving 75 mph on narrow 2-lane roads with lots of passing. Instead we walked around the town for a bit, then headed for Le Bon Vivant, recommended by our guidebook.

The guidebooks say that Franschhoek is where you find the finest cooking in South Africa, and this restaurant was cited for being one of the best. So we threw caution to the winds and ordered the five-course tasting menu (actually six, including the little seafood-mouse-topped-with-cucumber salad amuse-bouche), accompanied by five different wines. Considering that we’d enjoyed a five-course feast at the Phantom Forest in Knysna, as well as a complicated and superbly executed meal at The Fernery (our last stop on the Dolphin Trail adventure), we probably should have shown more restraint. But would a pilgrim to mecca not visit a mosque? How could we dine in the gastronomic capital of South Africa without seeing what one of their best chefs could do? (Such was our reasoning).

It was all extremely impressive: other mousses (tomato, raspberry), intriguing meat combinations (medallions of grilled eland atop roasted pork, things I’d never tasted ever (cold smoked eel soup!). I’m not enough of a foodie to declare how this part of the world compares to other haut cuisines in other regions, but it certainly was a respectable competitor, and the skill and thoughtfulness was evident not just in the fine restaurants. Yesterday we ate lunch at one of the wineries, and (still feeling overindulgent about the previous night’s repast), we only ordered starters. Mine turned out to be a healthy pile of smoked salmon on blue-cheese-flavored shortbread, served along with a mushroom mousse, baby salad greens and an asparagus coulis. (Steve’s “beef baguette” starter was so huge, he could hardly work up any appetite for the rest of the day.) The lunch offerings, plus a bottle of water, cost $18 (including the tip).

More than just the food Impressed us. The last Dolphin Trail hotel and the place we stayed the next night, in Knysna, both ranked among the best commercial lodgings I’ve ever experienced anywhere. In both, we occupied wooden chalets, superbly equipped with amenities I’ve never seen before (insect repellant! flip-flops! raincoats!) along with the more standard teas and coffee and biscotti and creams and lotions. The king-sized beds in both were clad in zillion-thread satiny cottons. Both commanded unique views. Our chalet at The Fernery (which, btw, is also a working commercial fern farm) overlooked a deep, wild gorge leading to the ocean, and you could slide and fold up an entire wall in the bathroom, climb into the oversized tub, light the candles and gaze upon the wilderness without any barrier between you and it. You couldn’t open up the bathroom walls at the Phantom Forest, but they incorporated so much spotless glass it felt as if they were open. And they provided protection from the vervet monkeys who thrive in this forest (and at one point came to check out our patio — and us.)

These hotels were our big splurge of the trip, and they carried a cost beyond dollars. Unlike everywhere else we’d stayed up to then, it wasn’t possible to easily engage with other guests (overwhelmingly white, as were the other diners at the Bon Vivant). Indeed they were designed to insulate each couple or small group within little bubbles of luxury. While this is a marvelous thing if you want to bathe outdoors, other travelers often can be entertaining (at least to us).

Similarly, the pleasures of our wine-tasting outing yesterday sprang principally from the excellence of the wine and the extreme beauty of a couple of the wineries. The weather was sublime, we motored over gently rolling hills, vines pressing in close on each side, and found ourselves in elegant, opulent tasting rooms with heart-stopping views of the Stellenbosch valley; they were at least the equal of anything I’ve seen in the Napa Valley. At the Engelbrecht Els winery, we sat out on a stone terrace to taste the four bold reds. Nearby a guitarist played softly and sang American ballads. Other murmuring white people sat at other tables.

It was easy to imagine we were in a glossy, prosperous country, filled with mostly white-skinned inhabitants, and protected from any hint of strife. We were glad to experience it, and we could understand why other travelers with a greater passion for wine or more miserable home climates might want to come here and hunker down. But more than one night would not have interested us. We were happy to press on to Cape Town, our current and final site for South African explorations.

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