If you know me, it isn’t a secret that I’m not all that much of a fan of Cape Town. So why would I go on a Western Cape road trip?
Let me back up a second. Cape Town is not terrible. I totally understand the appeal to travellers, and I have enjoyed a few of my trips there. But in general, I find it a bit overrated, very expensive, a little too gentrified at times and the parking situation makes me grind my jaw at least three days before I arrive.
My perception of Cape Town is usually attacked, but I have my reasons and they’re really too dull for this blog post. Alessio and I had a bit of a monster trip in 2017 that I should’ve blogged about at the time, but chose not to. And that sorta set the tone for me. Take me to coffee sometime and I’ll tell you the story, okay?
Anyway, we decided that we needed to try and better our perception of the city, and also create some new positive memories of the place so we agreed to spend two weeks in the Western Cape with some of our closest friends. Each year, they travel a route from Cape Town, all the way through the small towns and winelands to Plettenberg Bay, where they spend a further week.
We opted to travel from Cape Town, onto Arniston, Calitzdorp and end in Plettenberg Bay, and I’m so glad we did! I’m still not Cape Town’s biggest fan, but we did spend some quality time in the city, ate some tasty bits and pieces, and then saw parts of the Western Cape we hadn’t experienced before…
Cape Town, oh Cape Town
When it comes to food, I cannot dispute that Cape Town has the best options in the country. I love Jozi, but we don’t have nearly the sheer volume of options that the Mother City does. For Alessio’s belated birthday present, I took him to Janse & Co (he loved the interior when he first spotted it online). The food was impeccable, the service was attentive, and the interior lived up to expectations. I expected it would be busy, but a weekday lunch was wonderfully quiet and we got to watch the chefs prepping for dinner service in the open kitchen.
We only spent three full days in Cape Town, and enjoyed some wine tasting in Constantia, lots of cocktails on the Seapoint promenade, dinner at legendary Posticino for woodfired pizza, and a trip down to Kalk Bay.
During the trip we headed to Fishhoek where we bought fish and chips (wrapped in paper of course) and then Kalk Bay beach where we set up a makeshift picnic spot and ate with our fingers. The friends we travelled with have a tradition for this: you have to go to the local bottle store and ask for the cheapest bottle of red wine to enjoy with your meal. Luckily, even cheap wine in Cape Town tastes good on the beach!
One of the my other longtime lusts of Cape Town was to visit the Oranjezicht City Farm Market at the V&A Waterfront. I have to say, it didn’t disappoint. We went quite early to try and avoid the crowds and mostly browsed the food and fresh produce stalls while sipping on some iced Redspresso with cloudy apple juice (delish!).
One of the highlights of this particular trip was our very first visit to the Zeitz MOCAA. This incredible art museum is dedicated to African art and is built into an old silo right on the harbour of Cape Town. The architecture is a treat and the different styles of contemporary art are pretty mindblowing. I wish I had more time to go back for a second session, I always find that it’s too difficult to take in as much as you want to on a single visit to any museum.
After leaving Cape Town, we headed towards the tiny village of Arniston. While the drive is not a long one, we opted to take what is considered the longer route along the coast and through Gordon’s Bay. There’s something so familiar about the town, like you’ve been before but you don’t quite remember when?
Anyway, it was worth adding the extra hour onto our trip just so we could dig through the stacks at Bikini Beach Books. You can’t miss this secondhand bookstore right on the beachfront (there’s a decent coffee shop next door), as it’s Vegas-like signage and a clapped-out car on the roof of the building scream at you to stop.
Piles and piles and piles of books are climbing up every wall in the place, and nothing is in much of an order. The fiction titles alone are spread out in a mixed-up alphabet across about five rooms and a long passage.
Back along the coast, we stopped in at the Steenbras Lookout Point, which sits outside the gates of a rather ominous art deco-style hydro station (it’s visible from Bikini Beach Books). There isn’t much to do other than see the view, but it’s a quick pit stop for pretty nonetheless.
Heading into Arniston, we weren’t sure what to expect. I’ve seen tons of picturesque views of the village and its whitewashed houses, but didn’t expect it to look like as much of a postcard as it did.
What I didn’t realise about Arniston is that there is VERY little there. The houses of Arniston, the Arniston Spa Hotel, Kassiesbaai fishing village and the harbour, pretty much make up the list of everything it has to offer, but that’s exactly what makes it so brilliant. You need to buy supplies in Bredasdorp before heading right down to the coast, as there really is nowhere to get supplies. And you’ll want to plan a braai every night.
We spent our days lazing about, reading books, occasionally replying to messages from the real world and watching the fishing boats come in and out of the harbour. We stayed in a self-catering house that sits right on the edge of the point of the bay. Steytler House has the harbour and Kassiesbaai to its left, and the houses of Arniston and the beach to its right. It’s a spectacular place to stay.
I have two highlights that I want to tell you about in particular in case you do go. The first, we chatted to an owner of a local restaurant and got the number of a guy who dives for oysters. We called him up, told him we were looking for fresh oysters and agreed on paying R6 per oyster (yes really!). After this, he collected his dive gear and swam out to harvest about 40 oysters for us. He brought them to our house, shucked them right there in the garden, and we feasted!
The second highlight? It was a completely unassuming local restaurant in Kassiesbaai called Willeen’s. Wooden benches outside, simple tables inside, the menu is bursting with seafood and Cape Malay dishes. One of the most exciting items was the fish pancake, but the fried fishcakes were also tasty. I enjoyed some fresh line that had been grilled simply with salt, pepper and lemon juice and it was truly perfection.
Calitzdorp and the Karoo
After spending three nights in Arniston, we headed into the Karoo for something completely different! But first, we needed a stopover for the drive (it isn’t that long, I’m just that thirsty). We pulled in at Diesel & Crème in Barrydale, with its huge collection of vintage signage and memorabilia on display, for their famous milkshakes. The milkshakes are enormous and are a meal unto themselves, just make sure you take enough time to explore the interior of the restaurant.
Arriving in Calitzdorp after our milkshake detour, it felt like a furnace. The Karoo in February is not a joke people. At least, it’s the dry kind of heat I can handle, not muggy and humid. But nonetheless, it was important that we taste the local tipple right?
Calitzdorp is known for its ports and hanepoot-style dessert wines. While I tasted a few other varietals, I don’t think you should bother too much with them (meaning they weren’t great). We stopped in at De Krans Wines, Calitzdorp Cellar, Boplaas and Du’SwaRoo Wine and Olive Farm. My absolute favourite taste of Calitzdorp was the Calitzdorp Cellar White Muscadel. It’s perfume-y, has a thick, silky mouth texture and is deliciously sweet. And at about R70 a bottle, an absolute steal!
While we only spent two nights in Calitzdorp, we got a good feel for the sleepy town. It is more than just a drive-through and the people we met were kind and friendly. There were also some pretty spectacular sunsets…
While staying in Calitzdorp, we were also invited by Cape Country Routes to an early morning safari of a different kind with Five Shy Meerkats. This really is an incredible opportunity to spend time with these timid little creatures as they go about their morning routine of warming their bellies in the sun, evaluating whether any threatening predators are nearby and then heading off to scrounge for breakfast.
The wake-up call is pretty early. We had to be at the meeting point just outside Oudtshoorn at around 6am. The meerkats wait for nobody so if you’re late, you miss them. Our guides explained how the meerkats had become acquainted with them over time and now were quite content to let humans watch their morning rituals.
After an introduction about these tiny animals, we were all seated in camping chairs and eagerly awaited as the sun’s rays began to light up the burrows. After about 20 minutes, the first sentry poked his head out with curiosity. Within ten minutes, there were about eight meerkats preening themselves and facing their belly to the sun, like solar charging panels.
Thirty minutes later, our heads filled with meerkat info, the troupe set off on their daily foraging mission, leaving us behind at their burrow. What I loved about this experience is that it feels quite intimate, you are just metres from the meerkats, but it’s still responsible in nature and in no way exploits the animals. The experience costs R660 per person and needs to be booked in advance.
Our final destination for this trip was Plettenberg Bay, but as Hermanus was on the route we headed out on along the coast, we opted to stop for lunch there. I have always loved the simplicity of the food at Bientang’s Cave.
We enjoyed seafood for lunch with wine from the nearby Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, but the best part about dining here is the view into the bay….
Finally, Plettenberg Bay…
Arriving in Plettenberg Bay for few days at the end of this epic roadtrip was quite cathartic. We knew we only had a few days left to make the most of it, and basically spent the days eating good meals with friends, exploring local coffee spots to get some work done, and checking out some new spots that have opened since my last time in the town.
A highlight of Plett for me will always be Monkeyland. This conservation project started as a means to home monkeys that had come from terrible circumstances and abusive environments. It’s a hands-off wildlife experience that gives an amazing insight into these gentle souls.
This wasn’t my first time at Monkeyland, but what I did get to experience on this visit was the gibbon couple who can be quite elusive. Swinging by vines over the water and generally just acting like a loved-up couple, it was really special to just follow their loping walk around the sanctuary.
One of the new places we got to try was lunch at Sky Villa. Overlooking Plettenberg Bay, this luxury boutique hotel is open for meals and drinks. The decor is sublime, and while the food is good, it is pricey so it’s a good spot for a treat or a special occasion. I’d recommend going for sundowners here, and while we didn’t test it out, the sushi is supposedly very good.
Another recommendation that I’m glad we listened to was to plan a meal at Golden Palm. Hidden in a courtyard off the main drag, this small Asian fusion restaurant has a really compact menu, but the food was absolutely delicious and the owner was especially charming. If nothing else, it’s worth going for the decor.
On the last morning of our trip before flying back to Joburg, we stopped in for high tea at The Plettenberg. I’ve always been fond of this hotel from when I used to assist with digital marketing for the hotel a few years back, and it was so lovely visiting again. The weather was perfect to sit out on the terrace and indulge in the new high tea menu. And for just R165 per person, it’s honestly one of the priced experiences you can find in the area!
While my trip was largely paid for by me, my meerkat excursion, lunch at Sky Villa and high tea at The Plettenberg were by invitation,