An hour's drive northeast of Cape Town, the rolling uplands and fertile valleys of the Western Cape are cloaked in green and russet vines that produce some of the world's best wines. The Cape Winelands are a top tourist destination, and tasting your way around some of the 300-plus wine estates is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon, a day, or longer. But with majestic mountains rising above the vines and the historic towns of Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek creating three fantastic focal points, experiencing this beautiful tract of South Africa isn't just about the bottle.
Mountain biking and merlot
Lycra-clad bum in the air, sweat pouring off my head, I gulped hard and resisted the urge to slam on the brakes as I twisted and skidded past knotted scrub and menacing rocks. The first section of the Porcupine Trail had been thigh-burning in parts but wonderfully scenic, with marked trails leading between neat vines and winding through shady woodland. Here on the downhill section I wasn't feeling quite so calm but, after a chancy glance up at Table Mountain on the far horizon, I reminded myself that this was supposed to be fun.
Ten kilometres outside Stellenbosch, Delvera Farm has morphed from a dedicated wine estate to an outdoor adventure park. Hire a bike from the centre and take your pick of trails to explore, from the family-friendly Farm Trail or the challenging 15km Porcupine Trail, to the 3km expert downhill.
If biking's not your bag, you could stroll along the walking tracks past the Merlot and Sauvingnon Blanc vines, join a full moon or sunset hike in the hills, or put your bird-watching hat on and go in search of Jackal Buzzards and African Fish Eagles. There's also horseback-riding and go-karting to get involved in, as well as an excellent café where you can enjoy a glass of the local merlot after a day in the great outdoors.
Over the past few years, mountain biking has become increasingly popular in this part of South Africa and, beyond Delvera Farm, there are stacks more trails to discover. The slopes above Stellenbosch are particularly exciting, with the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve packed with jeep trails and single-tracks which weave past waterfalls and ancient yellowwoods. Hire bikes at Ride in Cafe where you can also stop for coffee or lunch, stay the night or book a guided tour.
To explore more on horseback, visit Wine Valley Horse Trails and canter into the mountains or combine riding and wine-tasting on a sunset trek. And as far as hiking goes, you've got everything from wandering through the wine estates to multi-day mountain expeditions at your fingertips.
Steeped in history
After mulling over which of the Winelands' main towns to stay in, I settled on Franschhoek – the smallest and prettiest of the three.
Established in the early 18th century by French Huguenots (a religious group who were escaping religious persecution in France), Franschhoek's street names are still written in French. Cape Dutch houses and pomegranate trees line the streets, and cafes spill out into the sunshine beside art galleries and curio (souvenir) shops. There's also a little museum here, which depicts the history of the Huguenots, as well as an orchid nursery, motor museum and stacks of local hiking trails.
This is the foodie capital of South Africa, so save plenty of room for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the alfresco eateries and fine-dining restaurants – I particularly loved the lunch menu at The French Connection Bistro and the relaxed ambience at Café des Arts, while Reubens was one of my favourites in the evenings.
Half an hour's drive west is Stellenbosch – South Africa's second oldest town. I dropped in for an afternoon to see some of the Western Cape's most impressive Dutch, Georgian and Victorian architecture and to wander down streets lined with ancient oaks. Home to a respected university, Stellenbosch has a busier, buzzier feel than Franschhoek and, surrounded by the Stellenbosch Mountains and nearby nature reserve, makes a great base for hikers and bikers.
A further half hour to the north, Paarl is home to the oldest Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa and is considered the spiritual home of Afrikaans: it was here that Afrikaans gained recognition as a written language. It's also a great location for golfers, with two top-notch courses and the Swingfit Golf Academy within easy reach.
With exercise and history ticked off my list, it was finally time to get stuck into a vineyard tour. If a bog-standard tasting experience doesn't appeal, there are plenty of options for more exciting tours, from cycle-rides to guided drives.
For the easiest way to visit several vineyards in a day, I stayed in Franschhoek and took the "Wine Tram". A hop-on/hop-off service that runs from 10am each morning, the Franschhoek Wine Tram ferries passengers between six estates. You can get off when you like and enjoy free wine tastings at the vineyards, linger for lunch or stay aboard and continue to the next stop.
Determined to pack as much in as possible, I caught the first tram of the day from central Franschhoek and trundled into the hills in search of chardonnay. First stop was the Haute Cabriere vineyards, where the heir to the estate escorted a group of us around the family barrels and bottles, filling us in on his history and explaining what makes a great wine as he handed round huge 'tasters'. By 11am I was on my third half-glass of red and watching him slice the cork off a bottle of fizz with a silver sword. "Drink up!" he bellowed "this one's a great year."
By lunchtime I had ticked off two more wine estates and had reduced my half-glass tastings to small sips – the wine was far too good to spit out! By 3pm, after four estates, a light lunch, and countless glasses of whites, reds and rosés, washed down with ports and sparkling wines, I decided it was time to head back to my hotel and sober-up in the swimming pool before dinner, which would no doubt entail more tastings.
After three days in the Winelands I had become wise to the fact that, while not everything revolves around wine, most days wind up with a glass or two.