Sojourn to South Africa, 2020

Posted 10/21/20

First, a little background

What do you do when your three-week sailing trip across the Atlantic on a 43’ sailboat gets canceled? You plan another adventure, and that is where our story begins. 

Ken, Chuck, and I had been planning for months to crew our friend’s sailboat home from Europe in January 2020. Chuck scheduled a month off, and Ken and I were rearranging our January schedules for this long journey when the trip got canceled. 

Having been anticipating this grand adventure and arranging our lives around it for months, we now had a big hole in our schedule and nowhere to go. We decided to craft an experience of a different kind. 

As a pilot, Chuck gets to bring friends and family along with him on “Buddy Passes” when he travels. Chuck’s buddy passes would prove to be our ticket to the perfect adventure to replace our transatlantic crossing. The only problem was that you cannot book buddy passes in advance. You must use these passes by flying standby, and you don’t know if there will be seats on the plane until only a short time before the flight departs. 

We decided that we would travel someplace warm, out of the country, and where wine is made. That destination was left entirely to chance. We packed the smallest bags we could with clothes chosen for a warm climate and began our trip by driving to Newark airport armed only with our cell phones and a sense of adventure.  

As we made the five-hour journey to Newark, Chuck began to review the flights departing in the next 24 hours that fit our criteria. The first plane that had three open seats and fit our criteria was a nonstop flight leaving that evening for Cape Town, South Africa. We would not know for sure that we could board that plane until the final hour before departure, a chance we decided to take. Should this flight not pan out, we hedged our bets with an opportunity to fly to Buenos Aires the next day. 

We arrived at the airport in plenty of time to make the flight and enjoy a Martini at the airport bar while awaiting our fate. As boarding time grew ever closer, the realization that we were about to travel to South Africa, a place none of us had ever been, started to become a reality.  

Enjoying a Martini while awaiting our seats.
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At 8:30 pm on Sunday, January 12th, 2020, Ken, Chuck, and I boarded a nonstop flight to Africa. Our adventure begins! 

Before going any further, let me first explain how important this trip is for us and the future of Hermit Wood Winery & Deli. As our business has grown from something slightly more than a hobby to what it has become today, our time together has grown ever more precious. In the early days, the only way anything got done resulted from the three of us spending all our free time, days and nights, making wine, sharing it with you, and planning our future. We were attached at the hip.

Today, things look a lot different. Today, we seem to go days or even weeks without seeing each other at all. Not because we want it that way, but as our obligations to the business grow, we find ourselves dividing and conquering, doing the things we each do best for the health of the company. Ken focuses ever more on the over 4,000 cases of wine he is parenting in the cellar; I focus on managing the day to day operations of the tasting room and Deli, and Chuck, of course, is usually flying around the globe. 

January 13, day one. Ok, back to our adventure. It was a 14-hour direct flight to Cape Town, South Africa. We landed around 5:00 pm on Monday, January 13th, South Africa time. The first order of business was to make sure we had access to wifi and cellular services. As we had no idea we were going to be in South Africa just 24 hours earlier, we had no place to go and no way to get there. Thanks to modern communication, we settled this issue rather quickly and began our search for the night’s lodging. 

View of Cape Town from plane

Over a beer in the airport, we made reservations at the Mountain Manor in downtown Cape Town and were soon in a taxi heading that way. Thirty minutes later, we arrived at what would be our home for the next five days. 

The Mountain Manor is a late 1800’s Manor located in the heart of Cape Town. I am not sure we could have planned a better destination if we had been planning for months. Michelle, the owner, turned out to be an exceptional host. Michelle and her team prepared an excellent breakfast every morning, and she invited us to attend a previously scheduled wine tasting with a premier winery in the region. She also provided excellent guidance as to how to get the most out of our time in the city. 

The Mountain Manor

From our base at the Manor, we ventured off each day in pursuit of sightseeing, wineries, and restaurants. With only 12 days to work with, we needed to be judicious with our time. We filled every moment. To recount all the details of our grand adventure would take a book. So, I will attempt to capture the highlights for you. 

Hop on Hop off Bus ride

One of our favorite discoveries was the “Hop on Hop off” bus that was accessible from just a few hundred yards from the Manor. From this bus, we had access to all the major attractions and local wineries in Cape Town. We used this bus liberally during our stay. An especially nice feature of this bus was that it was topless and came with headphones and a recorded tour that played along with the ride. 

January 14, day two. Thanks to the bus, we were able to cover much ground and learn a great deal about South Africa and its history. On our first day, we rode around Table Mountain, a famous Cape Town landmark referred to as one of the wonders of the world. It rises to almost 3,500 feet above the city and dominates its landscape. On the way around, we stopped for a quick visit to Beau Constantia, a winery in the Constantia Wine Region. The winery had a beautiful tasting room enclosed entirely in glass with spectacular views of the valley and surrounding vineyards, not to mention excellent wine. 

Birt Santuary
Camps Bay

We ventured on from there with stops at the World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary & Monkey Park, then proceeded the rest of the way around the mountain to Camps Bay, a beautiful beach town just south of Cape Town that reminded us of the French Riviera. After drinks and a walk on the beach, we hopped back on the bus for our return to Cape Town and the V&A waterfront.

Camps Bay Beach

The V&A waterfront is a cosmopolitan waterfront with shops, restaurants, street performers, sculptures, and much more. It reminded me of Pier 49 in San Francisco, only larger. We wandered the waterfront looking for a place to dine for the evening; the choices were numerous. Before dinner, we took advantage of the free harbor tour afforded us by the purchase of our Hop on Hop off ticket. 

January 15th, day three. We spent the next day exploring Table Mountain. We took the Hop On Hop Off bus to the Aerial Tramway that takes you to the summit of Table Mountain. You can hike it in about 1.5 to 2 hours, but given our limited time, we choose the tram. It was a spectacular bluebird day. We wandered along the flat summit for a few hours before enjoying a cold one at the tram restaurant and returning down the mountain. This is a must-do when visiting Cape Town. It was simply breathtaking. Fortunately for us, our visit was timely. Due to high winds, the tram was closed for the remainder of our time in Cape Town. 

Upon returning from Table Mountain, we headed back to the V&A waterfront, where we spent the afternoon visiting the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art. We toured four floors of art, much of it depicting the history and challenges that have faced the country over the past several hundred years. In addition to a vast collection of art, the building the museum resides in is a piece of art itself. The museum was housed in a former grain silo that was carved out for the building’s new purpose. We finished our evening with dinner and drinks on the pier

January 16th, day four. Thursday, we again boarded the Hop On Hop Off bus for a tour of The Cape of Good Hope, the South West corner of Africa. It was about an hour and a half bus ride. Peter Van Wyk, our host, proved a most excellent guide. This trip included hiking the cliffs surrounding the famous lighthouse and down to the southern point. We had numerous sightings of wildlife, including a group of baboons. There were spectacular views in all directions. On our return ride, we stopped to visit the South African penguins – who knew there were warm climate penguins. 

Upon returning to the Manor, we cleaned up and joined the wine tasting that Michelle, the owner, had scheduled with a local winery. Nick Plummer was our host along with the winemaker from Landskroon Wines. We sampled nine wines along with some excellent appetizers prepared by the Manor. We met some great people, including one who invited us to enjoy one of the best steak houses in the area, Nelson’s Eye. We closed the place with steaks, wine, and scotch to top it off. 

Landskroon Wine Tasting at The Mountain Manor

January 17th, day five. Our host and guide, Nick Plummer, owner of Abuzz Wine, from the previous evening’s event, organized a winery tour of three wineries in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Our first stop was Remhoogte. Chris, owner, and winemaker, spent the next couple of hours sharing wine, winemaking ideas, and stories with us, followed by a tour of the winery. It was a beautiful place that crafts superb wines. Chris was a generous host and an excellent winemaker. We look forward to sharing our wine with Chris someday. 

Our second stop was Stony Brook Vineyards. Another excellent choice by our guide, Nick. Again, Craig McNaught, owner, and winemaker was a most generous host. Craig regaled us with stories and winemaking ideas as he poured over a dozen of his finest wines. We spent three hours enjoying Craig’s time and wine. Again, some outstanding South African wines are being produced here in a storybook setting. 

Having spent so much time at our first two stops, we missed the opportunity to visit the third winery. Instead, we stopped at a local wine shop and stocked up on additional beverages, cheese, and bread for an afternoon snack. 

Nick Plummer on the right

Nick was an outstanding host who understood what we had come to South Africa to learn and guided us to wineries that would best serve that purpose. Every place we visited was spot on and spoke the same language as us as we talked about what was important to us in the wine industry. 

January 18th, day six. Our last day at the Manor. We packed our bags and made arrangements for a rental car at the airport. Before leaving the city, we tackled Lion’s Head. This breathtaking mountain forms a dramatic peak of 2,200 feet above the city of Cape Town. The hike to the summit was approximately 1.5 miles, and the latter part was achieved literally by ladders and chains. It was breathtaking. You can’t visit this city without taking this hike. We hope on our return to do the famous full moon version of this hike.

Upon returning from the hike, we hailed an Uber ride back to the Manor to pack and say goodbye to our new friend, Michelle, the Manor owner. Our Uber driver delivered us to the airport, where the next half of our adventure ensued. 

If you were not aware, they drive on the (wrong) left side of the road in South Africa. After picking up our rental car, it took us two trips around the airport to figure out how to get out safely. I never knew it would take three people to drive a car, but pleased that we had the numbers. With me (Bob) driving, Ken navigating, and Chuck and Ken both yelling out the correct lane to turn into and the right way to go around roundabouts, we eventually made our way. A bit of humor interjected every time I applied the blinker, and the windshield wipers came on. The blinker switch is on the opposite side of the steering wheel than on vehicles in the US.

The remainder of our trip took place amongst the wine regions of South Africa, where we stayed in two Airbnb’s. The first Airbnb was located in the middle of hundreds of acres of grapevines and a wild animal sanctuary. We had two nights here. On our first night, we ate in and enjoyed some African beer, wine, and gin. The rest of the night is history. 

January 19, day seven. This day we ventured into the Wellington wine region where we explored a couple of wineries, including Fairview, known widely in the states for their Goats do Roam wine. Fairview turned out to be a highlight for us. As this winery also kept goats and produced cheese, their tastings were all wine and cheese centered. Their wine was outstanding, only to be matched by their cheese and quality service. We left with many bottles and several kinds of cheese. 

We concluded the day at the Cattle Baron restaurant. We splurged on some of the finest cuts of beef and sumptuous amounts of wine (did I mention gin). Service was outstanding, and we learned of a popular South African tradition of the braai, preparing your steaks over an open wood-fired flame. We vowed to pursue this tradition before departing from our vacation. 

January 20th, day eight. When we arrived in South Africa, the first thing we did was reach out to some of our international friends in the wine industry for recommendations. Our good friend Clark Smith promptly replied that we must visit Upland Organic Estate. Dr. Edmund Oettlé and his wife Elsie, run this fantastic place. They produce some of the most excellent wines and spirits we had on our entire stay in South Africa. Edmund generously spent several hours with us exploring his property and sampling many of his superb wines and spirits. If there ever was truth to the statement that the best wines are found within a few miles of where they are produced, Edmund proves this point. You will be hard-pressed to sample Edmund’s wines anywhere else. 

From Upland, we ventured into the mountains and crossed the famous BainsKloof Pass, a windy mountain pass that was built in 1884 and rises nearly 2,000 feet above the plain. With a breathtaking view, waterfalls, and mountain fauna, this made for a great way to head toward our next destination, the southern seacoast, and the Walker Bay Wine Region.

BainsKloof Pass

We spent the evening in the most enchanting Airbnb I have ever had the pleasure of staying in, Berseba Cottage, which is situated several hundred feet up the side of a mountain with 180-degree views of the South African plain below. From the expansive veranda, you could see for miles. Our home for the next three nights included a braai, a wood-fired hot tub, and comfortable accommodations for the three of us, a perfect way to conclude our stay in this beautiful country. 

January 21, day nine. We spent the day visiting small wineries, breweries, and exploring the town of Hermanus. We visited Honingklip Brewery and the Hermanus Brewery. Our bartender at Hermanus Brewery has just returned from a several-year journey around Africa guided only by the bartenders he met along the way. Fascinating character. We walked the famous Hermanus Cliff Path Biodiversity Walk along the sea coast. 

We concluded our day at a well-known butcher shop where we acquired several cuts of excellent steaks and ostrich personally selected by the owner. Our mission was to experience our first braai at our Airbnb. 

Chuck took on the task of mastering the braai, and mastered it, he did. As the number one rule in braaing is “no backseat braaiers,” Ken and I left braaing Chuck’s good hands. Since returning to the States, Chuck has continued to develop his braaing skills to great results. Ken and I remain appropriately silent as he does. 

Traditional Braai
Benguela Cove Lagoon Wine

Thanks to Chuck tackling the braai, we had the most outstanding evening on the veranda. We enjoyed excellent food and drank several bottles of fine wine that we had acquired along the way. We finished the night in the wood-fired hot tub. 

January 22, day ten. We ventured off to discover the beautiful wineries of the Walker Bay wine trail. We started with Benguela Cove Lagoon Wine Estate. This spectacular estate winery had one of the most impressive collections of sculptures. Sadly, their main focus was to sell property, not wine, and their wine reflected this. Indeed, nothing to scoff at, but we made no purchases. 

From there, we visited Creation Wines, which was quite the opposite of our first choice. Our tasting was over the top, including a well versed knowledgeable host, foods to sample along with our wine, and an education of the local terroir that produced these excellent wines. We followed our tasting with an exceptional light lunch, including abalone. The winery was surrounded by beautiful sculptures as well. 

Our last stop was Hamilton Russell Vineyards, one of the area’s oldest wineries. Our visit here was short but well worth it. The place was spectacularly beautiful, and as the only guests, we had a private tasting of some outstanding wines. 

Before returning home, we visited a fresh fish market in Hermanus. We acquired several cuts of local fish for a second night of braaing on our Airbnb’s veranda. We enjoyed another fantastic evening with excellent food and wine, a spectacular sunset, and our wood-fired hot tub.

January 23, day eleven. For our final day in South Africa, we ventured along the beautiful sea coast cliff drive from Betty’s bay to Gordons Bay. This 25 mile stretch of highway runs along the cliffs with spectacular views across False Bay to the Cape of Good Hope, where we had been just a few days earlier. 

Upon arriving in Gordons Bay, we sought out a shipping store to help us pack our three dozen bottles of wine for the return home. After acquiring our boxes, we had a couple of hours to kill before our plane departed. We chose, as you might guess, to spend that time at a local brewery. 

We spent our final moments in South Africa at the Triggerfish Brewery. This was a great way to conclude an excellent vacation. The brewery was decorated with several relics from the Mad Max movies along with an eclectic collection of sculptures and paintings. While enjoying our beer, we had the good fortune of meeting the brewery manager. She proceeded to offer us a grand tour of the brewery, distillery, and a sampling of some of their many great products. We spent the next two hours there before heading to the airport in time to drop our car and board our plane home. 

In conclusion, our 12 days in South Africa turned out to be one of the most inspiring, invigorating, and educational trips my partners and I have been on together. Combined with the impromptu nature of our travels, the spectacular places we visited, and most importantly, the people we met, our journey surpassed all our expectations. I have merely scratched the surface in the telling of this story. There were so many special moments shared by the three of us during our time together; it would take a book to tell the whole story. 

500Home again

Most important of all, the experience we had was made most special through the quality time we got to spend together. In truth, I don’t know that it would have mattered where we ended up. Getting to spend twelve days together made for a journey of a lifetime. However, I am glad we got to spend it in South Africa.