A Whirlwind Tour of South Africa
Two weeks covering the country from bohemian St. Albert, to the wine region to cosmopolitan Cape Town
Tulbagh (pronounced TOOL-bach, with a hard "h" as in the Scottish "loch"), snuggled in a cul-de-sac of mountains in the Breede River Valley, has one of South Africa's best-preserved streets of Cape Dutch architecture. Like the Art Deco mecca of Napier, New Zealand, the city's textbook-worthy architecture was actually saved by a cataclysmic earthquake. In 1969, Tulbagh was wrecked by a quake that flicked the facades off many of the the 200-year-old farm buildings; in rebuilding, town planners wisely went back to the original plans of all the houses and faithfully re-created the town as it appeared in the 1800s. There are probably no finer or more faithfully maintained examples of a Cape Dutch streetscapes than Church Street in Tulbagh.
The B&B I have chosen is Tulbagh Country House, built at the dawn of the 19th century and one of the town's most historic buildings. Ginny Clarke, the exuberant proprietress, doubles her B&B with an art gallery crammed with quality works by local artists. When I stepped in the door, I set eyes on a watercolor by a painter from nearby Worcester that I simply had to own. The price: about $25, with a handmade frame, for a portrait of such quality that I would easily pay $200 for its equal back home. (Tulbagh Country House: 24 Church Street, 011-27-23-230-1171.)
After telling me all about the history of the house and warning me about a friendly female ghost that sometimes appears in the dining room after hours, Ginny gave me one of the softest beds I've ever slept in, big as a swimming pool, in a cavernous farmhouse room with beam ceilings, the original groaning wood floors, and my own private courtyard. The price? About $17, with a full cooked breakfast served on Spode bone china. (Shocking, isn't it?) Ginny also rents a few detached cottages, also on Church Street.
The surrounding area presents just as much graciousness for such little money, and unlike the high-traffic sprawl around Stellenbosch, most local wineries are within five minutes' drive from the main street, which makes it much easier for foreigners to tour.
Feeling decadent, I went a few kilometers out of town to Twee Jonge Gezellen ("Two Young Bachelors"), renowned for its excellent sparkling wine (known, of course, as "champagne" in France). There, in the growing heat, I sat next to burbling fountains, in the shade of grapevines, and sipped from $3 bottles of fine sparkling wine. Other popular wineries are nearby, including Drostdy Wine Cellar (drostdywines.co.za, known for making South Africa's surprisingly good boxed wine, or "Happy Boxes," as they're insightfully called by locals) and Theuniskraal (theuniskraal.co.za). For incredibly cheap wine blends, try the co-operative cellar at Tulbagh Winery.
Ginny's son, Jayson, turned me on to another local Tulbagh secret: its anonymous-looking slaghuis, or butchery, makes some of the best biltong in the area. Biltong, for South Africans, is a more popular snack than potato chips or even french fries for North Americans. It amounts to a delicious type of jerky, and it's available in many flavors that foreigners find enthralling, including ostrich, springbok and kudu (both African antelopes), or the most popular, beef. South Africa's beef is generally grass-fed, as nature intended, and not pumped with the grains and antibiotics that give American beef its unnaturally pillowy texture. That said, Tulbagh's slaghuis sells some of the softest, rarest biltong I've ever seen; point at the slab of dried meat you want (most cost a little over $1) and the ladies behind the counter will shred it for you. You don't have to dice it up, though; many South Africans, including Jayson, seem to love knawing away on massive hunks of meat.
The refined pleasure of Tulbagh seems a world away from the oddball appeal of Prince Albert. Tulbagh is also much closer to Cape Town. From Cape Town, take the N7 north to Malmesbury, then take the R46 to Hermon, where you turn onto the R44. Everything's marked and easy to drive, and there's even a lovely mountain pass on the way that's not too terrifying for drivers used to right-lane travel. You can also detour through Ceres ("SEER-eez"), not far away, to tour the region that produces the famous brand of fruit juices that often pops up on American shelves. (Tulbagh tourism: 14 Church Street, 011-27-23-230-1348, tulbagh.com.)
Back to Cape Town to tally up the final costs
My remaining time in Cape Town will be spent volunteering. South Africa leads the world in AIDS infections, and its poverty has long been a global concern, so I plan to visit a local shelter for street children and see what service I can be for them. Then, deeply regretful, I will clamber aboard South African Airways (which, as a specialist in long-distance flights, has always succeeded in making me comfortable) for my trip home.