A Whirlwind Tour of South Africa
Two weeks covering the country from bohemian St. Albert, to the wine region to cosmopolitan Cape Town
It is indeed an eccentric but exceedingly comforting place, much like Key West, Lahaina, or Santa Fe were in their heyday, I can't think of anywhere in the United States that still has its equal in a place like Prince Albert, where the main Kerk (Church) street is filled with art galleries and other signs of upward mobility, yet perfectly preserved farmhouses, complete with working windmills, still sell for as little as $7,000.
Naturally, it doesn't cost much to sleep here, either. Options for self-catering (i.e. no-meal) accommodation are laid out at the main Tourist Office on Kerk Street, and most come to less than $15 for an entire house and yard, all to yourself. (Onse Rus Guest House, 47 Church Street, 023/541-1380).
I chose to go with the full-board option, and landed a darling three-bedroom house (stocked with books, furniture, a full kitchen, a huge garden with four silly ducks, and all three meals prepared to my specifications with dairy-fresh ingredients)-all for $27 a night. It doubles as a wellness center, and I did have a reiki session for $16 (far less than what they cost back home). I have the entire house to myself (the proprietor lives a block away in a much more modest abode), and spend hours lounging beneath blooming bougainvillea branches, reading novels as the ducks nibble around my tanned feet. After a lifetime of hotels, I can't imagine anywhere more serene and alluring than the Bijlia Cana (De Beer St., 023/541-1872, ). I went half-way around the world to find this kind of peace and feeling of security. I originally planned to stay here one night. Now I'm staying four, and the cost of everything-meals, accommodation-will be a little over $100. That's right; I could stay nearly two weeks for $300.
For dinner, locals are unanimous in recommending Karoo Kombuis (Karoo Kitchen, 18 Deurdrif St, 023/5411-110.), run by a trio of those aforementioned free spirits, with a menu that changes daily. For one night yesterday, I went off my Bijlia Cana meal plan and had the bobotie (a traditional South African crumbled lamb bake) with vegetables and a lemon bake, that set me back all of $5. As with all establishments in sleepy Prince Albert, where you never know where the next customer's coming from, you need to call ahead for reservations. Ask for a table on the stoep (porch), since it overlooks Prince Albert's most haunted street. (If you spot a white dog trotting past, summon a priest.)
Another popular place, this one upscale, is The Blue Fig (61 Church St, 023/541-1900), which does traditional South African food like lamb, ostrich, yogurt, and so on in a semi-nouvelle style. Dinner will cost about $10 here (which is shocking to some locals) and there's a pleasant forecourt. After dinner, most of Prince Albert's cast of characters pass through the Swartberg Arms pub, on the main street, and they're very friendly to outsiders since many of them were introduced to the town that way.
On one end of town is an olive farm and a weavery that both encourage visitors. On the other end, Gay's Dairy sells full-cream milk that was inside a cow yesterday, and beyond it, the Swartberg Nature Reserve (and a rugged valley known darkly as "The Hell") beckons with miles of empty hiking trails. The main street features a handful of funky shops, such as a vendor of brilliantly colored mohair blankets (they start at $25, a steal), and an abundant co-op gallery (next to the tourist office), where local artists offer their desert-inspired works. I was tempted by a chair that was cleverly covered with bits of broken ostrich shells. It was by a quirky young artist named Gideon, who inside the gallery, also offered for sale a toilet emblazoned with "Elvis is Alive," again in ostrich shell.
And beyond this blip of a town, swaddled in the serenity of the Karoo desert, are miles of quiet, windblown hillocks. Pick one around sunset, which is always the lurid fluorescent red that only desert sunsets can be, and watch the show. You may find underfoot, as I did, a leftover shard of rock, hewn by ancient hands, that once served as a spearhead for a forgotten African warrior.
Everything can be arranged, for free, at the Tourist Office (023/541-1366, patourism.co.za). Make sure you visit the one marked by the figure of a man inside the South African flag; the other "tourist info" office is not official and has been known to turn people away when its "partner" inns are full. Chalk it up to another one of those town eccentrics.
Wine, wine and more wine
My tenth day in South Africa brought me to Cape Town's famous wine region. Instead of venturing to the very well-trod vineyards of Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, which have become so popular that their prices are no longer completely fair, I drove an extra half-hour (making a total of about two hours) to the glorious town of Tulbagh.