Kate Symons discovers a novel and charming way to enjoy South Africa’s beautiful Cape Winelands
It’s easy to get lost at Babylonstoren. Meandering leisurely through this majestic plaaswerf (farmyard) in the heart of South Africa’s wine country, I am enveloped by a welcome tranquillity, and it’s more than just the shiraz taking effect.
Flanked by the Simonsberg, Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek mountains, Babylonstoren is a beautifully preserved Cape Dutch farm, complete with a boutique hotel and spa, three restaurants, vineyards and a cellar door, and 3.5 hectares of labyrinthine gardens.
The owners suggest allocating a couple of hours to the joys of wandering here. I have nowhere near that kind of time, but can’t resist a ramble – past verdant lawns; alongside roaming ducks and chickens; under a pumpkin arbor with its curiously shaped vegetables hanging like chandeliers from trellises; through the prickly pear maze. It’s an entirely grounding experience, which is all well and good until I almost miss my departing wine tram.
No matter, there’ll be another one. Babylonstoren is, after all, one of 27 wine estates serviced by the Franschhoek Wine Tram. Launched in 2012, the daily hop-on, hop-off service is arguably the easiest – and surely the most charming – way to experience Franschhoek Valley’s celebrated vineyards.
Franschhoek, Afrikaans for ‘French Corner’, is an endearing destination located an hour’s drive east of Cape Town. Settled in the late 17th century by French Huguenot refugees, this picturesque village has evolved to pack a mighty gastronomic punch.
There’s just one main street, Huguenot Road, but it is bustling with galleries, boutiques and an impressively high concentration of notable restaurants.
Beyond the high street, there are more than 50 wine producers in the region, from quaint boutique offerings to large-scale wineries, and diverse climate and soil conditions mean both white and red varieties receive strong billing. Franschhoek is also one of South Africa’s leading Méthode Cap Classique (sparkling) producers.
Aboard the wine tram, we tour the Purple Line – a decision based only on the calendar; all eight routes are first-rate – and our first stop is Allée Bleue, named for the grand blue eucalypts that line the entrance.
In a sun-dappled courtyard overlooking the Drakenstein Mountains, the 2014 Isabeau – a silky blend of chardonnay, semillon and viognier – effortlessly converts this most-staunch red drinker. Paired with a creamy camembert, it’s a dream start to this blue-sky day.
The star of the Wine Tram fleet, which includes modified ‘tram’ buses to help reach each location, is the open-sided double-decker tram. Modelled on the Brill Trams of the 1890s, the forest green beauty with brass and timber detailing is old-world charm on tracks; previously dormant, 114-year-old tracks to be precise.
Wine Tram founder and owner, David Blyth, says transforming the railway line from its state of disrepair was the project’s biggest challenge and one plenty of people suggested he run, not walk away from. Thankfully, he persevered.
We board the vehicle and, like school kids hoping for the back seat on the bus, head straight to the top for a position up front on the ‘balcony’.
The sweeping, uninterrupted valley views are jaw-dropping, and then the wine arrives. Appropriately, it’s just a small drop to enjoy between vineyards, but it’s the perfect accompaniment. A quick moment to reflect and I’m grounded again.
The mountains continue to take centre stage at Vrede en Lust, where it’s difficult to peel myself away from the vista. So I don’t. At least not as I swirl and sip my way through a curated selection of the estate’s wine catalogue including the tropical 2017 White Mischief; the crisp and fruity Jess rosé; and the rich 2017 Mocholate Malbec, with its mocha and chocolate aromas.
Speaking of which, Vrede en Lust offers a six-wine tasting with matched Lindt chocolate. Not surprisingly, bookings are essential.
On to Babylonstoren, the site of my timing faux pas. After a quick tipple in the contemporary tasting room, complete with floor-to-ceiling glass walls for more of those magnificent views, I duck off to the much-lauded garden.
I’m knee-deep in fragrant rosemary when I realise the time. There’s only one option and it goes against everything I seek from a luxury holiday. I have to run.
Unfortunately – for me and for those patiently awaiting my arrival – my path to the tram finishes with a long straight. My dash to the finish line has become a spectator sport, and I have all the grace of the garden’s misshapen gourds.
Regardless, I jump on in the nick of time, embarrassingly short of breath and to the effusive applause of my fellow passengers. I take a bashful bow, but know I am in forgiving company. We are, after all, three vineyards in. Cheers to that.