The road less travelled is often more interesting and enriching.
Franschhoek can teem with day or weekend visitors from Cape Town. The tourists from afar are back, too. Almost everyone drives straight in, focusing on the main road, Huguenot, with its piazzas and pretty shopping centres, art galleries and bistros.
But — like life, perhaps — aiming higher reaps rewards. At the entrance to the town proper, do as SA Tourism advises, in this case literally, and take a ‘sho’t left’ onto Uitkyk Road. It climbs quickly in the direction of the Wemmershoek mountains, and the road’s name, Afrikaans for view or lookout, is apt.
The places on Uitkyk aren’t exactly secrets. But life is more tranquil away from the bustle of the town, and it pays to phone ahead to check opening hours and to make arrangements.
The fun and intrigue starts about half a kilometre up. On the right, unmissable, two lion statues guard the art gallery at the entrance to Artemis Barn Garden Retreat. Owner Andrea Desmond-Smith is the resident artist, sculptor and curator for her work and that of near neighbour Henk Scholtz.
Scholtz’s productions are difficult to define. He is an internationally acclaimed garden designer, having been featured in the BBC’s Around the World in 80 Gardens, but Desmond-Smith exhibits his paintings, which are predominantly eclectic, attention-grabbing abstracts. Both he and Desmond-Smith are outsider artists — self-taught, unaligned to the mainstream, their work largely unknown, but they create beautiful things.
She’s also an eco-warrior, or, in more genteel language, a land steward, insisting on preserving her three-hectare property close to its original state. In her case, keeping property developers at bay has encompassed a light-touch transformation of the indigenous veld and fynbos into something magical: paths meander between her sculptures; around one curve is a large labyrinth; another section features a lily pad laden pond alive with dragonflies, like miniature drones; higher up, a gently gurgling stream feeds a mountain-water dam where guests can swim, or liberate minds under the nearby meditation tree.
Artemis hosts occasional music and wine weekends, and Desmond-Smith runs regular art classes and tai chi courses. It’s a spiritual place, and a stay at one of the two self-catering cottages is sure to restore perspective and serenity.
Contrarian wine philosophy
Directly across from Artemis is Black Elephant Vintners. The denomination is a play on the names and roles of the three founder-partners in the enterprise: MD and operations manager Kevin Swart (Black), investor Raymond Ndlovu (Elephant in Zulu), and viticulturist and winemaker Jacques Wentzel. This kind of idiosyncrasy typifies their philosophy. “We’re the rebels of the wine industry. Wine tasting? Everyone does that,” mutters Swart. “Is our wine good? The people who love it buy it, those who don’t, well, they don’t.”
They’ve been in business for 20 years, so what defines them? “Music,” he replies, adding that “there’s a story behind it, which can take three hours.” I’m confused; Swart explains that their main weekend tasting is really an event, where visitors sample up to nine wines paired with an ever-changing selection of music. He grins playfully: “People love it. It ends when it ends – I usually have to kick them out late each Saturday afternoon.”
The Black Elephant range is diverse. The music theme is evidenced by the Power of Love chenin and cabernet, the name and label a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, and a premium cabernet, Amazing Grace, made from grapes grown on the premises. Even quirkier are the more quaffable red blend Three Men In a Tub With A Rubber Duck, and the Two Dogs, A Peacock and A Horse sauvignon blanc.
Discerning wine lovers will appreciate the Backroads brand of small production volumes, including, this year, an old vine semillon and a grenache. “I bought this place because it had cabernet, because that’s what I love. But we can bring in grapes from wherever we like, so we make whatever we feel like,” confirms Swart.
Indeed, there’s more: five Golden Circle’Cap Classiques. “If I had to start again, I’d focus only on Cap Classique,” he says.
As we drive further uphill the Franschhoek wine tram trundles in the other direction, down Uitkyk Road. Which is something of a relief, because we’re heading to Chamonix where the wines are exquisite but the tasting venue’s nooks and crannies are designed only for small groups.
If our first two stops on Uitkyk Road were fun and whimsical, Chamonix is serious – not exactly austere, but an estate where wine requires respectful musings. We ooh and aah over a few samples; the estate’s chardonnays always accumulate awards, and it’s tempting to sip some more, but we want to be careful not to overindulge before lunch.
We could simply amble through a doorway to dine at celebrated chef Richard Carsten’s Arkeste where, despite his reputation and the restaurant’s accolades, we notice a few free tables. We make a pact for another time, because we intend to go all the way to the top of Uitkyk Road. We want to eat in the clouds at the Dieu Donné wine estate.
There intermittent but weighty raindrops prevent us from sitting outside and in touching distance from the vineyards. But the Country Grand restaurant interior has floor-to-ceiling windows, so the same eagle’s nest vista can be experienced: blue-grey mountain ranges, green-brown autumnal vines, and shades of cream and white of the houses in the valley floor. Through the clouds the light is still bright enough to allow glimpses of horses on a nearby stud farm – and is that the famous Pigcasso animal shelter, nestling between an elite residential estate and a boutique hotel? In a word, it’s grand.
What’s the food like at the Country Grand? Pleasingly, it matches the setting in taste rather than pretentiousness. Surprisingly for a country venue, the menu offers a preponderance of seafood options, which suits us, because my wife’s been craving fish and chips and I’ve been missing mussels. Our charming waiter, Sibusiso, brings a basket of rolls; they’re outrageously good. My wife says she wants to cancel her order and replace it with another basket and a few slices of cheese.
People around us are having fun. There’s a birthday gathering at the table to one side, a romantic young couple dressed to the nines on the other. Kids play in the drizzle outside, Asian tourists are in awe at the size of their pizzas. The ambience adds to our enjoyment of the meal, and the day.
We’re not even sure we’ve seen all Uitkyk Road offers. Mysteriously, heading back down, homeward bound, three lifelike sheep gaze from the roof of what appears to be a small roadside business, The Creative Adventure Society. Perhaps, instead, it’s a philosophy school, or a book club. We also scan attentively for signs indicating the premises of sculptor Carey Carter, who has recently relocated to Franschhoek and has her studio on this street. Or so we thought.
To confirm, we’ll have to return. It will be a pleasure.
Artemis Barn Garden Retreat and Blue Lion Gallery, 37 Uitkyk Road, 083 383 1614
Black Elephant Vintners, 40a Uitkyk Road, 021 876 2903
Chamonix wine estate, 40 Uitkyk Road, 021 876 8400, and Arkeste, 021 876 8415
The Country Grand at Dieu Donné wine estate, Uitkyk Road, 021 569 9352 or 021 224 0667