Our Uber (an ideal way to get around in South Africa if you don’t drive British-style on the left) quickly left behind freeways for two-lane highways through Cape Town’s wine country’s verdant valleys crowned by jagged granite peaks. More than 300 wineries thrive here in the moderate Mediterranean climate cooled by breezes from the Atlantic and Indian oceans, but they aren’t lined up, Napa Valley-like, on the main roads, preserving an appealing farm-country vibe.
Our arrival in February coincided with harvest – and some of the area’s warmest weather. From our first base, the charming Plumwood Inn, we would explore Franschhoek and neighboring Stellenbosch, historic small towns considered by many to be South Africa’s wine and culinary capitals.
Some of the country’s top 100 restaurants delight gourmands here, and their presence sparks inspired dining all around, as we discovered during our stay. For Valentine’s weekend, we moved to the boutique Steenberg Hotel and Spa, a history-rich retreat on the grounds of the Cape’s first farm. Surrounded by vines and home to its own winery and two top-rated restaurants, Steenberg is nestled in the heart of Constantia where top-rated vintners and restaurateurs draw daytrippers from Cape Town as well as knowing visitors from across the globe.
During our stay there, romance was in the air. At lunch one day, gazing out at the garden, we watched a man fall on one knee to propose. At a nearby table, another couple hugged and kissed as they shared a champagne toast with friends. Bubbles – one of the hallmarks of Steenberg Winery – spread joy everywhere. More toasts – along with chocolates and rose petals – were to come. By the end of our Winelands stay, we were totally smitten. You’ll likely be too as you follow our footsteps through this bewitching place.

Franschhoek Wine Valley

For our visit, cloudless skies and autumn heat basked this valley in the glowing light artists extol. Some of it undoubtedly radiates from the brilliant white-washed buildings that dot the landscape and line streets in the small towns. This traditional Cape Dutch architecture, often roofed with thick black thatch, adds a sophisticated European ambiance to the valley’s pastoral setting.
Among the first to see promise in the area’s climate and fertile soils, early Dutch settlers influenced more than the look of the land when they welcomed persecuted French Huguenots at the end of the 17th century. Given small free plots in Franschhoek, which means French Corner in Dutch, these newcomers drew on their farming experience to grow grapes, olives, and more. Their love of food and art also reverberates to this day.
The town of Franschhoek – population 20,000 – is a patchwork of galleries, antique stores, and better souvenir shops that fill in around tourist shops, gourmet grocers, and sundry stores that cater to locals. Cafes and restaurants enliven the main street and its many courtyards filled with umbrella-shaded tables. During our stay we enjoyed delicious pasta alle vongole at Allora and passable Mexican “with a twist” at Tuk Tuk Microbrewery – all savored outside on balmy evenings before leisurely strolls back to Plumwood.
Our innkeepers Roel and Lucienne Rutten served cooked-to-order breakfasts with fresh pastries and fruit salads on a patio overlooking the pool. Throughout the day, guests used an honor system for cocktails and South African wines along with happy-hour snacks. Roel and Lucienne also were expert guides to the region, as were many of our fellow guests who had come to Plumwood annually for years to escape Europe’s winters.
They, like us, took advantage of Franschhoek’s central location to explore wineries and restaurants, including many in Stellenbosch, a 40-minute Uber ride away. This university town and environs are home to more than 150,000. Its bustling downtown is easily walkable and alive with shops, galleries and bars, many geared to 30,000 students in residence.
During our first visit, several streets were blocked and black smoke billowed into the air as taxi drivers protested tickets for speeding and parking violations. We were turned back and learned from fuming shopkeepers that these disruptive incidents occur all too frequently. Though our second visit to Stellenbosch was protest-free, we were glad quieter Franschhoek was our home base.
Throughout our time in South Africa, blackouts were a regular occurrence. The demand for electricity exceeds the supply, especially during hot spells, so the national utility spreads the pain with rolling load-shedding, planned outages 3 to 4 hours long across the country. At Plumwood the day’s outages were posted, so guests would know when lights and air conditioning would be off. We all grew to share Roel’s relief when he announced a day with uninterrupted power.

Breathtaking Blend

Art and architecture, vineyards and gardens, wine-making, and fine cuisine – all equal in the stellar blend that is Tokara Wine Estate, the first of the area’s wineries we visited. A half-hour Uber drive from Franschhoek (only 3 miles if you’re coming from Stellenbosch), this stunning, world-renowned winery enjoys one of Winelands’ most spectacular settings in the foothills of Simonsberg Mountain. Views stretch across beautiful native fynbos, undulating vineyards, and olive groves to the waters of False Bay and, on a clear day in Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain.
Grapes have been tended in this area for centuries, but Tokara owners GT Ferreria, a banking magnate, and his wife Anne-Marie sought only a quiet home to raise their family when they purchased a small farm there in 1994. Five years later, they ventured into wine-making, naming the new venture after their children Tom and Kara. The first vintages in 2003, which combined the talents of viticulturist Aidan Morton and winemaker Stuart Botha, were greeted with acclaim – as have releases ever since.
Traditional varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, and classic Bordeaux blends dominate Tokara’s wines, but the wine estate itself is refreshingly contemporary. Operations, including the tasting room, restaurant, and family-friendly deli, are housed in a glass, steel, stone, and concrete structure that embraces the majestic landscape while hosting all the necessities of a modern wine enterprise.
Plus, the design by Van Bijon and Visser Architects is an ideal showcase, inside and out, for the Ferrerias’ dynamic, often provocative, collection of South African art. At the winery entrance, Marco Cianfanelli’s laser-cut stainless steel grape vines – their cordons sprouting enology terms – set the stage for the art displayed inside. Prints, fiber art, sculptures, handwoven baskets, paintings, and more catch the eye throughout the building, even down the hallway to the loo.
General manager Karl Lambour estimates more than 500 artworks are on site, including dozens around the estate that he pointed out as we drove to viewpoints above the steep vineyards. One unforgettable work sits in a grassy circle outside the Ferrerias’ tree-sheltered home. Created on site of granite and stainless steel is Angus Taylor’s massive sculpture of “Dionysus.” The Greek god couldn’t be more at home on this land that pays great homage to his realms of wine and good times.
Before shepherding us to lunch in Tokara restaurant, Karl shared a tasting in the boardroom that began with bubbly before moving on to single vineyard reds and whites and the estate’s rightfully acclaimed Director’s Reserve Bordeaux blends. He also wrestled open the antique iron door, pried from a shipwreck, that guards the entrance to the winery’s two-story library of all Tokara vintages, including magnums and more.
Our table in Tokara’s dining room perfectly captured panoramas through floor-to-ceiling windows as well as walls draped with rare “Porter Series” tapestries – 5 in total – by world renowned Johannesburg-born artist William Kentridge. Our farm-to-table multi-course lunch paired with Tokara wines drew from dishes by Carolize Coetzee, who already has earned accolades as South Africa’s most promising new chef since joining Tokara in 2018. Service was unhurried and friendly; we especially enjoyed Sommelier Jaap Henk Koelewijn’s humorous patter and the artful cooking and plating by sous chef Sean-Lloyd van Buisbergen and the rest of the kitchen staff.
Writing this, I can almost taste some of my menu favorites – fragrant fennel topped beet root carpaccio, savory cured ocean trout with watermelon and – oh yes, the venison-like springbok loin with its delicious jus rendered with estate-grown herbs and fruit. Of course we saved room for dessert – a refreshing fruit crumble and pineapple gelato matched with Tokara’s honey-gold Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.
Before piling back into an Uber for the drive home – and a nap (!), We purchased some Tokara wines to take on our cruise, including their very quaffable rose, our warm-weather favorite. As you might expect, none made it on board.