24 Hours in Franschhoek
Celebrating South Africa’s bounty.
The food and wine capital of South Africa is a small village in the Western Cape, one of the country’s oldest colonial settlements. Quietly burrowed in a lush, transcendent valley more than 70 kilometers east of Cape Town and about 40 more kilometers past its larger and more well-known sibling, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek boasts a population of about 15,000; 50 wine producers, most with adjoining eateries and many with spas; and one of the “Top 50” restaurants in the world, according to the definitive S. Pellegrino list, along with a number of South Africa’s “Top 100” restaurants.
Founded in 1688 by French Huguenots who got the land from the occupying Dutch government, Franschhoek is Dutch for “French Corner.” Today, it retains a blend of the two nationalities, as the well-kept Cape Dutch farmhouses combine seamlessly with French topiary practices and of course wine.
South Africa’s disturbing past and difficult present feel a world away from this bubble of rustic opulence. At its best, Franschhoek celebrates South Africa’s bounty, bringing visitors a feeling of excitement for what these gifts — extraordinary wildlife, a buzzing and young class contributing to its dining and arts scenes, and a tangible national pride that spans skin colors — could mean for the country’s future.
Breakfast at Leeu Estates, a young boutique hotel, spa and restaurant just outside of the main town, is a singular experience. The fresh juices, thick yogurt with homemade granola, and flaky pastries are all finely made enough to make the experience in itself, but leave room for the a la carte menu. Offerings like chickpea rosti with foraged mushrooms, buck rarebit, spicy pork hash with black pudding, and blueberry flapjacks with Canadian maple syrup will put you in the right mental space for what the day will bring: a full-on sensory overload.
While you’re there, wind through the hallways, studies and library and take in the fabulous contemporary art collection, including work by the activist painter Robert Slingsby; the provocative, quirky “Justine” by hyperrealist sculptor Daniel Firman; and of course Deborah Bell’s glorious “Artemis.”
While hiring a car is certainly an option, pre-arranging rides via wineries and hotels or calling taxis is easy in Franschhoek, and allows for more freedom if you’re planning on sampling the area’s delicious vino. The Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve is a 15-minute drive from Leeu Estates. Work off your breakfast and get your blood pumping for a wine tasting at the UNESCO-declared Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve, situated in the Franschhoek Mountains and offering majestic views of the Franschhoek Valley.
For those wanting a quick scramble, the Breakfast Rock Hiking Trail starts and ends at the main entry gate, and is also the route used to continue on to more ambitious options. The walk is just two kilometers round trip, and still peaks with sweeping vistas.
Folks interested in carrying on for another two to four hours can take the Uitkyk Hiking Trail, which follows the westerly valley slope of the Perdekloof stream, whose waters are clean, delicious and refreshing. The Utikyk climaxes with a magnificent panoramic view of the secluded Wemmershoek Valley and Wemmershoek Dam.
Back at Leeu Estates, shower off quickly and arrange a visit for a tasting at its wine studio, a modern, intimate room decorated in burnt orange and brown. A partnership between the Leeu Collection and the Mullineux family (helmed by South African and San Franciscan winemakers, respectively), the wines are scrumptious; in fact, Andrea Mullineux was named “winemaker of the year” by Wine Enthusiast magazine in 2016. Experienced staff members from South Africa and Zimbabwe guide the experience, which can range from casual to formal depending on your mood and interest in detail.
Leeu offers a complimentary shuttle transport to town, and to Le Petit Ferme, which is a steep two-kilometer drive up the hill past Huguenot Road. The quaint luxury hotel has a winery and a well-received restaurant. It’s worth going in the afternoon — if not for lunch, then at least for a wine tasting or their delicious dessert. Think honeycomb mousse with pumpkin icing, brandy and dark chocolate.
Huguenot Road runs through the twee town center, starting at the Huguenot Monument to religious freedom and running down past the Holden Manz contemporary art gallery. Further down sit jewelry shops, smaller galleries and other curio stops for browsing.
If you haven’t already had a bite at La Petit Ferme, plenty of options abound here: Tuk Tuk is the only brewery in town and offers tasty Mexican-inspired pub food. The French Connection for French, Dutch East for Scandinavian/South African, and Marigold for Indian are other local favorites.
The Austro Daimlers, Bugattis, Chevrons and Mercedes Roadsters at the Motor Museum on the extensive L’Ormarins Farm will titillate different senses. The collection, owned by the late South African billionaire businessman Anthonij Rupert, also includes Nelson Mandela’s armored BMW, the first Ford imported into South Africa, and the first South African–built Protea — making it surely one of the most impressive collections of its kind on the planet.
The Motor Museum is also part of the Anthonij Rupert Wyne Estate, where you could easily spend a day or longer. The 700-hectare property produces wine for five house brands and boasts trams that guide visitors from the various tasting rooms to the Italian eatery and throughout the massive estate, which despite its size feels small against the jagged peaks of the Groot Drakenstein Mountains.
Before dinner, grab a cocktail at Le Quartier Français on Huguenot Road. With amaretto, sauvignon blanc, passion fruit, grape and mint, the Cape Wine Grape is a must-try refreshment as you settle into the night.
End your day in grand style with dinner at La Residence, a five-minute drive but a world away from any other place on earth.
Don’t let the TV team on site covering “the world’s most amazing hotels” distract you from embracing the sparkling wine and sizzling fire upon arrival. If you get too comfortable, the staff will lay out your meal at the generous hearth, but otherwise, graduate to the dining room and enjoy the offerings from the ever-changing seasonal menu in baronial splendor.
The palatial farmhouse aesthetic, dotted with modern oil paintings, recently won the hotel a listing as one of the world’s best in Travel and Leisure magazine, and is the most outright encapsulation of the sublime on offer in this valley.
Amanda Sperber is a foreign correspondent based between New York, Nairobi and Mogadishu. After four years traveling the continent, this was her first trip to South Africa, a country she’d much anticipated meeting. It did not disappoint.