South Africa 2014

This time I was co-leading a team of 20 volunteers building houses with Habitat for Humanity South Africa in the Cape Flats just outside of Cape Town. Ah Cape Town. Is there a more dramatic, breathtaking and wondrous city on the continent? I think not.

FIRST STOP | STELLENBOSCH

This is wine country South Africa. And thanks to a burgeoning market, fantastic varietals, committed growers and wine makers and television, you probably already know about South African wines, even if you haven’t left your hometown. They are delicious! And the region is gorgeous. A trip to the Western Cape wouldn’t be complete, in my humble opinion, without a trip to one of the many vineyards along the Cape Wine Route. Even better if you can stay a few days in one of these charming small towns. I would count myself lucky to return.

A few friends by my side, we parked ourselves for a few days in Stellenbosch at the Coopmanhuijs; we are really glad we did! It’s well worth the money. It is quaint, charming, the rooms are very well-appointed and the hotel is immaculately clean. Breakfast is delicious and you can’t beat the location, right in the center of town. This small boutique hotel also boasts a well-known, and well-loved restaurant, Helena’s. The girls and I ate there on Valentine’s Day, sitting street-side, for, dare I say, a perfect evening (minus the red roses and tacky chocolates). Bliss!

If you have time, go to The Big Easy for dinner. Make a reservation, even if it’s mid-week. The mushroom risotto was “ridiculous” (as in good) and the ostrich steak perfection. We also had the wine the waiter recommended, a local syrah, which we thought was much better than the Australian syrahs we’ve tried. In fact, we only drank South African wine and there was NOTHING we didn’t love!

Wandering around Stellenbosch you can happily stumble upon so much, no agenda necessary. Worth a visit is the Stellenbosch Historical Museum. You won’t be disappointed. Just a few dollars will get you into these historic buildings where ladies dressed in period clothing will give you the skinny and answer questions. The buildings themselves and their contents are worth seeing. It’s a very cool way to spend a couple hours.

More shopping.

More drinking wine.

More relaxing by the pool.

We ended our visit driving along the Stellenbosch Wine Route, enjoying tastings at five of the over 200 wineries along the Route. The best wine tasting was at Stellenrust, for three reasons. The first is Ilse. Ilse conducted our tasting. She’s smart, jovial and has mad people skills. She’s full of funny stories and full of life. I was hooked on Ilse before I was hooked on the wine. Which brings us to…the wine.

You must try the oak aged Chenin Blanc and the late harvest Riesling. Both are delicious and quite unlike many of the other varietals we tasted. The third reason to love Stellenrust, is its successful participation in the Black Economic Empowerment program. The farm employees are now the majority shareholders and have access to financial services previously denied them.

If you meet Ilse, tell her Helen Hunt sent you and that you want to taste the wine that will put you “on the table.”

SECOND STOP | CAPE TOWN

The Habitat build was the meat of this trip to Cape Town and we had a fantastic experience getting to know a lot more about housing issues facing today’s poor South Africans. Most people know something about South Africa’s storied past; it was interesting to be a part of building it’s very bright future. As with any Habitat build, the team has a chance to get out after the work day and on the weekend to do some sightseeing. There’s a lot to see and do! Here are some of my favorites.

Exploring the Cape

We booked a bus tour, driving down to the The Cape of Good Hope. The Cape of Good Hope, Cape Pointe & the Lighthouse are actually part of a national park, so you’ll need to pay an entrance fee to see them. Be sure to allot enough time if you think you’ll want to hike around to see everything. After spending some time exploring the southernmost point on the African continent we headed north again driving along the eastern side before heading back to Cape Town. If you can, stop to take some great photos at Maiden’s Cove & The Twelve Apostles. You won’t want to miss Boulder Beach (which now also has an entrance fee) to see the penguins.

The City of Cape Town

This city offers so much to the traveler. I was in town for nearly two weeks and scratched the surface. Here are a few of my favorites and some tips!

Getting Around | Hop On Hop Off Bus

Save the cab fare by using this handy double-decker bus service. If you plan it right, you can ride all day and see just many of the main attractions in Cape Town. I would even use it multiple days, so you can spend an entire day at the beach or at Table Mountain or a museum and then be entertained along the way. Pay attention to the times posted at the stops. We found the bus to be on time and very efficient. Also, DON’T LOSE YOUR TICKET! It is your only way on and off the bus without paying again. It’s about $15 US. Well worth it considering the expense and hassle of taxi service.

Table Mountain

If the clouds part and the weather is good, DO NOT delay! Get up the mountain! We took the cable car, as opposed to hiking. It’s well worth the price (about $20 US). The operation is well run, clean, trails are well-marked, there is a gift shop, restaurant and bathroom facilities. You can walk all over the mountain top for the most spectacular views of Cape Town and region on all sides. Check the website ahead of time to make sure it’s open, as it closes often due to inclement weather.

District Six Museum

If you are expecting a lot of audio and Disney like effects to give you the story of this very famous neighborhood, you will be disappointed. It’s worth the visit, but the museum is small and you have to read a lot to really get the gist of what happened. My opinion is that you can see everything thoughtfully, in about an hour or less.

Victoria & Alfred Waterfront | Table Bay

We took a sunset cruise on Table Bay one night before dinner at Quay Four. Definitely get out onto the water if you can and if you love boats like I do. The restaurant is not noteworthy, except for the view and live music playing downstairs for the bar crowd. The entire waterfront is lively, especially on weekend evenings. If you don’t mind heights, ride the Cape Wheel ferris wheel for more spectacular views!

Sleeping & Eating

Our large group of 20 had a great stay at Cape Town Lodge, a centrally located, clean, affordable and very friendly hotel. This is not a fancy hotel, not charming or unique, but the staff was incredible – accommodating and super helpful. Everything from dinner reservations, taxi service, recommendations for getting around town – they did it all and with a smile!

The hotel opposite the well-known artsy neighborhood of Bo Kaap and is within walking distance to many shops, restaurants, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, many attractions and museums. Speaking of the Bo Kaap, if it’s a cool cafe art gallery vibe you want with excellent food and hipster tunes wafting out of the open doors and windows, visit Cafe Haas.

I Love My Laundry – This is one of those cool new dual businesses in Cape Town. Laundry and…um…latte? That’s right! Drop off your dirty clothes (you’ll be charged by weight) which will be swept out of site and order a café or a glass of wine and enjoy the light streaming through the big windows while Latin jazz delights your ears.

& Union – This is a hoppin’ place especially around happy hour. Lots of people vying for seats at the large communal outdoor tables, having beers and drinking wine and eating….well, sausages! The menu is decidedly German with almost everything on offer ending in a ‘wurst. Go inside to the counter and place your order; have a seat and viola someone brings your food. It’s on the corner at 110 Bree Street, Cape Town City Centre.

Africa Café – Sample food from all over the continent, all served family style (and it just keeps coming)! We had a room that was semi-private, which made having team conversation fun without feeling like we were interrupting other guests.

Col’Cacchio Pizzeria – Another great meal at this Italian chain restaurant (42 Hans Strijdom | Foreshore).

LAST STOP | KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – THORNYBUSH GAME RESERVE

After many hours of research to book a safari for our group, we settled on visiting a private game reserve which abuts Kruger National Park, but is not actually in the park proper. There was some debate about the merits and demerits of staying in or outside the park. In the end, it didn’t matter because we had a fantastic safari and had the opportunity to see the Big Five (which, as far as I can tell, everyone wants to see) and enjoy all the amenities an upscale lodge has to offer. We chose Thornybush Waterside Lodge and we are so grateful that we did!

Everything about our experience was top-notch in every way! We flew to Nelspruit, one of the small airports near Kruger, and hired vans to take us to the Lodge. Once we arrived we were stunned at the beauty of the lodge and the grounds. The accommodations exceeded expectation. All the staff people personify hospitality. The guides and trackers are superb! They have incredible knowledge and passion for what they do and share that on every game walk or drive. If I gave out stars, I would give Thornybush a galaxy.

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