Travel and Leisure 2007-2013


Route 62: the world's longest wine route

First appeared
Saturday, 14 April 2007

There are few towns in South Africa where you won’t find an ATM. McGregor is one of them. My wife and I discovered this late on a lazy Sunday afternoon, having made our way through an olive platter at Die Wilde Vy, an all-in-one enterprise on the high street, where “Ouma Anna se Health en Juice Bar” meets “Oom Kerneels se Negosiewinkel”.

The tapenade was delicious, thank you, and could we have the bill?
(We counted up our cash, and found we were short.)
No, they were sorry to say that they didn’t take credit cards.
No, they couldn’t point us to an ATM.

Fortunately, we also discovered that McGregor is a place where you can say, “Hang on, I’ll be back in half an hour”, drive to nearby Robertson, withdraw the necessary cash, and return to your hosts, who by that time have got the coffee and dessert ready for you. It’s this kind of warmth – the lack of cynicism – that marks a town still relatively untainted by the greed and suspicion that one becomes accustomed to in big cities.

McGregor is hardly an isolated outpost in the middle of nowhere (it’s only about two hours by car north-east of Cape Town) but, even though it is surrounded by vineyards and lush green hills, it has the atmosphere of a Karoo hamlet. On the map, it seems to be situated just around the corner from Greyton, which is a quick drive up the N2. Look more closely, however, and you’ll see that there’s no direct road between the two – unless you’re on foot, that is. The scenic Boesmanskloof Pass tracks through the foothills of the Riviersonderend mountains separating the towns, and is a favourite with hikers in the Western Cape, but thankfully (despite various aborted efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries) no road for vehicles was ever constructed.

This, locals will tell you, is the reason that McGregor has maintained both its architectural integrity and its strong claim to be an authentically rural town; Capetonian day-trippers and real estate developers were, for many years, reluctant to travel up the less-sexy N1, hang a right at Worcestor and follow the extended U-turn, via Robertson, to McGregor. That is certainly no longer the case. Make no mistake, McGregor has become firmly planted on the tourist map, and the townspeople are conscious of the degree to which their livelihood currently depends on tourism. The facades of the two hundred year old whitewash-and-thatch houses that line the high street are carefully protected by local bylaws. There is a tourist information office situated opposite the Dutch Reformed church – a grand old building that stands in thickset contrast to the little knick-knack shops and eateries on the other side of the road.

And, of course, accommodation is plentiful: from home-based B&Bs to more upscale options such as the Old Mill Lodge, and from the venerable Lady McGregor Hotel (attached to the less venerable Jack & Grape pub) to the rooms and cottages tucked behind the ever-popular bar and restaurant at Green Gables Country House. Many come to McGregor for spiritual refreshment at the Temenos Retreat Centre; if you don’t stay there, make sure you visit Temenos for a few hours anyway – the food is hearty and healthy, the gardens are beautiful and, if your religious preferences aren’t too rigid, monuments and meditation areas from a variety of faiths can be explored.

A few kilometers out of town lies The Trossachs. Suspend your judgement when you read that this is a Scottish-themed guest lodge, and imagine instead the sublime effect created by building rough-stone croft houses on the side of a dry but fertile valley, with nothing in sight but grass, rocks, fields and sky. Imagine also that each room or cottage is sumptuously decorated, cool under thatch in the noonday heat and warmed by a fire in winter. There is more than a hint of the highlands in place names such as McGregor and Robertson, but this particular piece of Scotland in the heart of SA is the brainchild of Colin Hutt, who decided he’d had enough of life as an advertising executive and wanted to spend more time wandering through the Karoo in a kilt (a warning: Colin really does wear a kilt, whenever he gets the chance). If you don’t have the opportunity to turn off onto the sand track that leads to The Trossachs, make sure you admire the view from the main road: most of the buildings are hidden behind a koppie, but if you look carefully, just below the peak of the hill you can make out the silhouette of the lodge’s stone chapel, with its characteristic square steeple and flagpole.

McGregor is only one of many delights to be explored in the Breede River Valley, that broad swathe of God’s own earth that greets the eye looking east from the top of the Du Toitskloof Pass. Those rushing headlong to Cape Town from up north usually take the short route through the Huguenot Tunnel and breathe a sigh of relief once they have passed into the stately Cape; but for those who have tired of the Mother City, feeling hemmed in by the gentrified guardians of the Cape peninsular – Franschoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl – the reverse is true. “Down to earth” is a terrible cliché, but that is precisely what one feels as the fresh vistas of the Breede River Valley open up ahead.
If you could bottle the feeling, as they say ... well, the Route 62 marketing initiative attempts to do just that. Actually, the Route 62 concept is not limited to the towns and farms along the R62, but rather ambitiously claims to be the tourist route of the Western Cape, meandering “between Cape Town and Oudtshoorn, the Garden Route and Port Elizabeth, offering a shorter, scenic alternative to the N2 highway”. In this way, the Route 62 tour encompasses towns as far west as Tulbagh and Wellington, and as far east as Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn. Given the number of wine farms situated along the 500km or so of road that Route 62 ostensibly covers, it can (and, depending on who you ask, does) lay claim to being the world’s longest wine route.

Smaller in scale is the Robertson Wine Valley, a section of Route 62 that covers the Ashton/Montagu/Bonnievale area, in addition to Robertson and McGregor. This region alone boasts 48 wineries, and the vinophile is spoilt for choice. The original Graham Beck cellar is situated on the Worcestor side of Robertson, and is worth visiting to find out about their Methode Cap Classique Brut, a firm favourite among South African connoisseurs of the bubbly stuff. This Graham Beck cellar is similar to its cousin in Franschoek, in that it charges for tasting – a fact that marks it off as different to many of the cellars in the Robertson Wine Valley, where tasting is free and the airs and graces of the more pretentious Cape viticulturists are dispensed with. Nowhere is this more true than at Van Loveren, where visitors are shown to a plastic table and brought (often full) bottles to quaff at their leisure, usually served with some greasy fritters to line the stomach in between meal times. Children run in the sun, dogs pant in the shade, and those who are inclined to deride “budget” wines usually climb off their soapboxes after a glass or three.

In between these two extremes, there are gems such as Bon Courage (also well known for sparkling wines in the champagne style, such as the Jacques Bruere Blanc de Blanc 2004); Springfield (try the Life from Stone, a heavenly dry white produced from the yield of vines rooted in quartz outcrops); and Bon Cap, where the wines are all organic. We stayed at Bon Cap with Rolf and Tina du Preez – they have been running Weltevrede Guest Farm there for fifteen years now – and were treated to the homemade buffet (bordkos doesn’t do it justice) at their Bon Rouge Bistro.

There are numerous other farms in the area offering accommodation; a personal favourite is Oppikoppie (not to be confused with the music festival), near Bonnievale, owned by Koos and Natasja Wentzel. Here, at the old farmhouse, a “donkey” water-heater, a private dam and a road that never sees any cars epitomise the experience of the Robertson Wine Valley: nothing too fancy, but peace and quiet in abundance, and open spaces all around providing glorious views.
For most of the year, that is. Events such as Robertson Rocks (which is a music festival, 24-25 November) and the Wacky Wine Weekend (1-3 June) temporarily upset the balance. But don’t go out of your way to avoid these events – life in the Breede River Valley may be laid back and easy-going, but if it’s fun you’re after, the Robertson wine gang also know how to throw a good party.

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