I have been visiting Clarens since I was a little girl. Every year, around Autumn, my family would bundle into a car brimming with warm clothes and head in the direction of the Eastern Free State. The reason: my dad absolutely loved to photograph the tall, lanky poplar trees as they began to turn from green to yellow to fiery orange. In fact, every year we would travel with a heap of photographers who would do the same.
While the morning routines weren’t always expected of us, my dad would get up before sunrise, layer up and then head out with his gear to try and get the poplars at just the right light, looking as if they had caught fire amidst the mist and morning dew with the sandstone mountains of Clarens in the background.
While my dad hasn’t visited Clarens in quite a while (this annual pilgrimage lost popularity after a while), I have had the chance to visit a few times in my adult life. Clarens has changed, expanded and has a lot more to do than it did twenty years ago, but the same factors that have kept it popular as a weekend getaway have stayed the same. The same galleries have stood in place for years, while some restaurants are still as they were when I was a kid. Yes, there are some tacky bric-a-brac stores that have made their way into shopfronts, but the essence of Clarens is still very much alive!
Alessio and I went to Clarens for a weekend break last year. I had some research to do for a travel feature for Woolworths TASTE magazine, and while we’ve both been to Clarens, we have never visited together. It was all the excuse we needed to go! I decided to put together this little weekend guide to Clarens, not because these resources don’t exist, but because I believe after having visited so many times, I’ve perfected the Clarens weekend getaway.
Where to stay in Clarens
This is probably the question that I get asked most often about Clarens, and also the easiest to answer: Anywhere! In all the time I have stayed in Clarens, I have stayed in many of the self-catering options, as well as the big Protea Hotel on the front of town. The thing is, Clarens is so orientated to visitors that all of the accommodation is well-serviced and looked after. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway, I’ve written about Lilliput House, before, otherwise, there are a ton of bigger houses that work well for groups of friends and families that a simple Google search will reveal. We stayed at the Beethoven Cottage at Ashbrook Country Lodge on our recent trip, it had a lovely fireplace and was on the very edge of town.
The only advice I do have for booking accommodation in Clarens is this: You can book in town or there are options on the golf course. I personally prefer staying in town because it means I can walk everywhere during my stay. If you do choose the golf course, there are incredible views over the mountains and Clarens itself, but you will need to drive into town (unless you have plenty of time to walk).
Where to eat in Clarens
Because most of the accommodation options in Clarens are self-catering, you might get the impression that there aren’t too many dining options in town, but that is totally untrue! A lot of the growth in businesses in Clarens is because there has been an (albeit tiny) explosion of eateries opening up here.
There are a few new places that I have yet to try, but these are my top options for your palette when staying for a weekend getaway:
- Clementines Restaurant – Inside the big red shed (it used to be
a busmaintenance shed for SA Railways), is my favourite place to eat in Clarens. The food here has always been good and is a great mix of comfort food to suit the cold weather and fusion dishes that could rival any Jozi eatery.
- Clarens Brewery – Expect tasty pub grub here. My favourite thing here is to order a tasting palette of the beers on tap and then pair it with a barrel of German sausages.
- Highland Coffee – Roasted in Clarens, and brewed perfectly, Highland Coffee is great for a morning stop in before the day gets too busy. You can also buy beans and ground coffee to take home.
- Purple Onion Deli – An enormous deli just off the town square, Purple Onion Deli has a huge selection of preserves, jams, dried fruit, nuts, coffee, handmade sweets and drinks.
- Eat Cheese Deli – Overlooking the square, Eat Cheese Deli is worth getting to early on a Friday. As the other explorers roll into town, it’s the perfect vantage point to sample a cheese and charcuterie platter to get the weekend started.
- The Posthouse – Best breakfast in Clarens! The Posthouse gets extremely busy on weekends so its best to get there early (about
9am) so you can make sure you get a seat!
What to do in Clarens
Clarens may be small, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t much going on. In fact, it seems like the adverse might be true with more to do than you can really fit into a single weekend.
I’ve tested all of the below suggestions so you can be assured of fun…
- Galleries – Clarens first gained popularity as an artist’s haven just over two decades ago. The quiet atmosphere and the arresting views are certainly inspirational! It’s only natural that local artists are exhibiting their works in the numerous galleries around town. You can spend an entire morning just looking through these, with art priced for all budgets.
- Adventure Sports – Where there are rocks and rivers, there will be adrenaline junkies! Mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, quad biking and white river rafting are just some of the activities, but make sure to book in advance!
- Browsing for books and bric-a-brac – Part of the charm of Clarens are the small stores woven amongst the restaurants and galleries. From antiques and vintage clothing, through to second-hand books and cookware, you’re going to find it. My personal favourite is the Bibliophile Bookshop.
- Dinosaurs – Well not living ones, but dinos nonetheless! Large dinosaur fossils from over 200-million years ago have been found near here and you can book a tour with a guide to discover more. It’s the perfect chance to get out of town and into the Sandstone Mountains that surround Clarens.
- Nightlife – I feel like small towns know how to party harder than anywhere else and Clarens is no different! There are a couple of pubs that stay open as late as they’re allowed and there’s always a vibe in one of them. You may need to try a few before you find the one that’s just right.
- Kgubetswana – As with most tiny towns in South Africa, there is an apartheid-style township situated right outside that historically housed the workers that served the townspeople. Kgubetswana is that for Clarens and seriously underrated. It may be a bit out of your comfort zone, but it’s worthwhile to see how the waitresses, store assistants and the labourers of Clarens really live. You can read more about Kgubetswana and it’s incredible street art on 2Summers blog here. Note: Ism Skism mentioned in the post has since closed, but Kgubetswana’s residents are quite friendly and happy to help.
- Nothing – Clarens is also the perfect place to do… absolutely nothing. Whether you’re looking for somewhere to spend your hours reading a book or just staring into the distance, or beside a fireplace with a glass of wine in your hand, it ticks all of the boxes for pure relaxation.
Travel tips for Clarens
Clarens is a small town, a popular one, but still a small one. Because you’re likely to be staying in self-catering accommodation, you’ll need to plan accordingly. There is a small supermarket in town that stocks some basics, but honestly, we prefer taking in most of what we need. Bethlehem is the closest town if you need something that you can’t find, but better to avoid driving back if you don’t need to.
The weather is also sometimes a gamble. Temperatures drop below freezing in winter and the summer evenings can also get pretty chilly so make sure you’ve packed enough warm clothing for your stay. Comfortable walking shoes are a must as the town’s roads are almost all dirt, except when you’re on the town square.
It’s better to book most activities in advance, especially during school holidays and over long weekends, as the operators often only take small numbers and can’t handle too many last-minute bookings. The same gies for restaurants when you want to visit for dinner.
If you’re visiting for the Clarens Beer Festival, you want to make sure you’re within walking distance of the town square. You can read about my ridiculous slop situation during Beer Fest weekend and I’m rather glad I didn’t have too far to walk…