Originally published in Cape Etc magazine
It’s difficult to believe that there was a time when locals almost universally eschewed the Cape West Coast for the warmer waters and lush greenery of our east-coast holiday hamlets. Thankfully, we’ve wised up, and a road trip up the ‘Weskus’ is now a staple itinerary for anyone in need of an easy-breezy escape from the city. Though officially this region continues past Lambert’s Bay and right up to our province’s northern border, the most pleasant way to tackle it is to hop on to Route 27 and spend a few days exploring the towns that are within an hour or two’s drive of the Mother City.
If one of the hallmarks of a good road trip is continually evolving scenery, then the R27 delivers, shifting from pastoral landscapes to wild fynbos, with the tantalising hint of that rugged Atlantic coastline often just out of sight on your left.
THE NOT-QUITE-COASTAL COASTAL TOWN: DARLING
With Melkbos in the rearview mirror, you’re soon faced with two options: turn off on to the R307 inland to Darling, or stay on the R27 and divert later at the R315. If, like me, you prefer to think of a road trip as a mobile culinary adventure, you’ll want to plump for the latter route, which may add 20 km to your journey but keeps you closer to the sea and includes the Vygevallei Farmstall and Wine House, a popular pitstop. Here, the Roosterkoek eatery does a roaring trade in about 20 permutations of its namesake doughy braai bread. There’s also a farm stall with piles of freshly baked goods, a small farmyard to placate the kids and a wine boutique stocking local producers.
Taking the R315 also means you’ll pass the Tienie Versfeld Reserve on your way into Darling, a 20 ha section of protected land that is a great spot to pull over, stretch your legs and enjoy the area’s famed wildflowers between August and October. The Cape Floristic Region is known for its endemism – it’s considered one of the ‘hottest’ of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – and the Cape West Coast plays its part by being home to hundreds of flowering plant species, celebrated annually at the Darling Wildflower Show in September. If you’re visiting at the right time of year, you can see an astonishing display of Sandvled blooms at ‘Oom Tienie’s’ before continuing on your journey.
Once you’re in Darling, however, even the vivid wildflowers have a hard time competing with the town’s other perennial attraction: Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout, the ‘most famous white woman in South Africa’ and the alter ego of satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys. Evita lays claim to an entire precinct near the railway line, including the Evita se Perron theatre (dinner and a show here are a must), the contemplative pathways of Tannie se Tuin, a small apartheid museum and the Boerassic sculpture garden, which offers a more tongue-in-cheek commentary on South Africa’s chequered past.
Darling itself could easily have slipped into the past, too, were it not for mavericks like Uys. Instead, the small town is constantly evolving, and its attractions include a small but worthy wine route (Groote Post is a firm favourite, and hosts a gorgeous country market on the last Sunday of each of the summer months), the ever-popular Darling Brew (stop in at the Tasteroom for a beer pairing and tapas platter of local bread, cheese, olives and cured meats), and Darling Sweet, where I like to live out my Willy Wonka fantasies watching row upon serried row of delicious, butter-rich toffee being made in the glass-walled factory.
After a night or two drinking Slow lager and cavorting with Evita in Darling, lace up your walking shoes and set your course once more for the R27. Your destination? The West Coast National Park.
Established in 1985, this coastal reserve comprises some 32 000 ha of land describing a slender U around the saltwater Langebaan Lagoon. A day spent here is the very definition of slow travel – even if you opt to explore it by car, there’s a 50 km/h speed limit that forces you to slow down and smell the vygies. And speaking of endemic flora… The park is a botanist’s paradise and enjoys a proud reputation as the place to take in the spring wildflowers. Indeed its Postberg section, located at the tip of the bulbous peninsula and open only during August and September, can be otherworldly in its amazing technicolour dream carpet.
As glorious as this floral display is, there’s plenty to do during the other 10 months of the year, too. As you trundle along the park’s roads there seems to be always another picnic spot, spectacular viewpoint or unspoilt beach (try Kraalbaai and Tsaarsbank) just around the corner. A latticework of hiking and biking trails criss-crosses the visitor’s map, and bird hides reward the patient watcher with sightings of some of the 250 indigenous and migratory species that find sanctuary here. These include curlew sandpipers and red knots, which travel the 15 000 km from the Siberian tundra to enjoy their annual holiday down south. Bontebok, eland, duiker, gemsbok, Cape mountain zebra, caracal and other wildlife are also commonly sighted. Oh, and you’d do well to remember that the local angulate tortoise population always has right of way on the road…
At the Geelbek Visitor’s Centre you’ll find a replica of Eve’s Footprint – a cast of the fossilised tracks of a young woman who lived beside the lagoon around 117 000 years ago. The original rock bearing the print, discovered in 1995, was transplanted to the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town for preservation. You can follow in this ancient woman’s footsteps on the two-night catered and portered Eve’s Trail (book via capebiosphere.co.za).
Accommodation in the WCNP is available in a number of self-catering cottages and at the eco-friendly Duinepos Chalets. However, for a truly unforgettable experience, book one of the houseboats moored on the lagoon. Waking up on the water, with the rising sun gilding the tips of the surrounding fynbos, simply cannot be beaten.
LEKKER BY DIE SEE IN LANGEBAAN
Just north of the WCNP (and home to the reserve’s northern access gate) is Langebaan, a popular escape for local holidaymakers. A stopover here should include two things…
First, water sports. Kite-surfing on the lagoon seems to be a mandatory town-wide hobby, and there are plenty of outfits offerings lessons and equipment to first-timers. If you’re a little timid about taking the plunge yourself, it can be nearly as much fun to nab a cold one at beachfront restaurant Pearly’s, and watch the kites whizz around the water.
Another thing Langebaan is famed for is Die Strandloper restaurant. Follow the boardwalk from the parking lot and you emerge into something like Captain Hook’s pirate stronghold. Nets, buoys and other seafaring paraphernalia provide the backdrop to a 10-course (yes, 10) feast of West Coast cuisine, from fish curry and kreef (Cape rock lobster) to moerkoffie and koeksisters. No one will judge you for undoing your top button.
AN ANSWER TO YOUR PRAYERS
Paternoster is perhaps the star of the variety show that is the Cape West Coast. This tiny fishing village curls around an almost impossibly picturesque beach, with neat rows of white houses sporting pale-blue shutters, looking for all the world like a child’s storybook made real.
In keeping with this fairy-tale aesthetic, I decided to play the princess on my most recent trip to the town and made a reservation at the five-star, beachfront Strandloper Ocean Boutique Hotel. It’s the kind of place where you could be forgiven for deciding to sequester yourself in your suite; reading on your private deck, strolling along the beach (a literal stone’s throw from your bed), doing laps in Paternoster’s largest swimming pool, and generally having your every creature comfort catered to. Thanks to the opening of the on-site Leeto restaurant last year, you needn’t even leave the vicinity for a fine-dining experience. Here, chef Garth Almazan (formerly of Catharina’s at Steenberg) and his wife, Cecile, offer diners contemporary West Coast cuisine set against more of those breathtaking sea views. The restaurant’s name is derived from a Khoisan word meaning ‘journey’, and a meal here is a true exploration of the region’s flavours and traditions.
Good food has become a priority in Paternoster and, if you can tear yourself away from Strandloper and Leeto, there are a number of gems worthy of your appetite. Capetonians have been making the two-hour drive just to dine at Kobus van der Merwe’s Wolfgat, to linger over a seven-course tasting menu featuring indigenous and foraged ingredients. The cosy courtyard of The Noisy Oyster is a Paternoster institution, with a new summer menu that includes the likes of grilled oysters, a Mediterranean fish stew, and pan-roasted angel fillet. You also can’t go wrong with the signature chilli salt squid followed by pork belly at Reuben’s, located at the luxurious Abalone House & Spa. Then, there are few better places to catch the sunset than the front veranda of Gaiitjie. Housed in an 80-year-old restored fisherman’s cottage right on the beach, it serves Asian-influenced local cuisine – think curried monkfish with poppadoms and salsa. Another beachfront favourite is the cheerful, red-roofed Voorstrandt Restaurant, where the oyster and MCC specials are perfect if you’re looking for a lighter bite beside the seaside.
After a few days spent indulging in all of the above, I’m standing on the high street drinking in the postcard-perfect view of Paternoster beach one last time. The still-weak spring sunshine has turned the surface of the water into hammered silver, and the promise of summer is in every sparkle of the gentle waves. A bakkie full of local fisherman cruises past and, as I wave in response to their friendly greetings, I notice the faded bumper sticker reading, ‘West Coast, best coast’.
I can’t help but agree.
Photo by Josh Taylor