* This article first appeared here in the Saturday Citizen
The Winelands town of Stellenbosch has rightfully earned its title as both a wine and university town, but on a visit this spring, I set out with a different focus: to enjoy the plethora of outdoor spaces and green sanctuaries the city offers.
Kicking off the journey was a walking tour of the city itself with guide Juliana from Stellenbosch On Foot. I spent an hour winding through the historic city centre; an informative introduction to the history and architecture – including meeting the oldest of the oak trees that line the streets. Planted in 1812 the magnificent tree has seen over two millennia of life unfold around it. stellenboschonfoot.co.za
With the legs now fully engaged, I strode over to the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden, which despite its convenient location in the centre of town, I’d strangely never visited. I was lucky to join a tour led by Dr Donovan Kirkwood, and spent ninety minutes in biodiversity bliss. Beginning in the Topical House where in Dr Kirkwood’s words, we met a “set of crazy curiosities”.
In addition to the café, gift shop, and lawns, the glasshouses and themed gardens are what he calls ‘plant bait’ for helping usher interest in plant biodiversity, hopefully helping nurture that interest into a lifelong respect. The gardens celebrate the endemism of the South African landscapes and within minutes of visiting you become aware it is one of the most important collections in the world: the gardens protect around 200 almost extinct species – and that’s just part of their work. Hardly anywhere else can you encounter so many near-extinct species. sun.ac.za
From one garden first to another – this time the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden. The now renowned South African artist’s provenance is a proud lineage of artists. As seems essential for those whose work follows their life story, his artistic journey has been moulded over the years, and over the past two decades, his fascination with cats and Animalia has shifted to human and abstract forms with notable influence from Greek mythology and Jungian input.
A tour – or self-guided experience at the gardens – takes in a treasure trove of his sculptures. A team of around 10 gardeners and a dedicated horticulturist ensure the gardens are a haven for exploration – and much like the artwork to be discovered – manicured in some areas and wild in others.
Artist and guide Diane Harper (who also runs hands-on workshops in the gardens) led me on a short introductory tour and then armed with the map, set out to explore. Tours must be booked in advance and allow for a minimum of two hours to enjoy the gardens. An unforgettable experience that I’ll savour for some time. dylanlewis.com
Having walked up an appetite, it was time to dine and the restaurant choice was Spek & Bone: one of the gems in much-loved chef Bertus Basson’s collection. The eatery is tucked away from the street, with its courtyard accessed through an ivy-leaved lane. Appropriate for a wine bar in Stellies, the al fresco dining section sheltered under the town’s oldest fruit-producing vine. An enticing selection of small plates is on offer for sharing, and the wines are presented as a traditional wine list but also a ‘wine wall’ bringing the choices to life in front of you.
Unmissable on the menu is the Gnocchi, mushroom, Dalewood Huguenot cheese, and chives plate and then the FFMM steak, Cannetevallei asparagus, and velouté. Combined with Chef Michael’s approachability (he willingly offered one of his recipes to me) it’s a Stellenbosch must-visit. bertusbasson.com
After all the exploring it does come time to rest your head, locals Louis and Elsje have created a magical homestay in the very historical heart of the city. Aptly named Treetops, the apartment’s balcony is nested in the city’s ancient Oak trees. Bringing the outside inside, stretching across the bedroom is a custom wallpaper of one of Lady Anne Barnard’s drawings of Simonsberg.
With the doors open, the buzz from the cafes and restaurants below is a reminder that when you’re ready to step away from your treetop cocoon, the excitement is only steps away. Their private home rests on the foothills of spectacular Groteberg mountain, also offering two overnight options for those who’d like to stay a little outside of town. elsje.co.za/stayinnstellies
Speaking of all things green, it would be impossible to ignore the garden destination of Babylonstoren. The veritable Garden of Eden is a magnificent reimagining of what Cape Town’s early Company Gardens would have looked like. While walking around the estate and enjoying a wine tasting are great ways to explore the estate, for me the magic lies in the various tours on offer daily.
The Essential Oil Tour explores the bounty of the farm with one of the gardeners, with a focus on fragrant plants – followed by a hands-on experience to make my own herbal scrub. Next, on the Olive Oil & Balsamic Vinegar Tour I found out how the farm makes each of these tasty products, ending with another hands-on experience of blending my own oil. Not forgetting that Babylonstoren is a world-class wine estate; when you’re ready for some vino, leave behind the visitors in the tasting room and opt for a 90-minute cellar tour – which includes tasting a tasting of 10 wines and various accompaniments.
When it comes to culinary pursuits, the estate offers three dining experiences. Babel is the estate’s signature dining offering with tantalising meals with a few surprises thrown in. By the day The Bakery provides baked goods, and in the evening transforms for special events, among others, Italian-inspired and carnivore evenings. Lastly, the Greenhouse is situated deep in the garden with unbeatable and light meals. babylonstoren.com
This curated selection of activities have all been a sheer celebration of Stellenbosch’s garden magic, from the artist creations, tasty culinary offerings, verdant vineyards and then the green warriors keeping species alive. Experience them all yourself this spring and summer – and do take note of the Garden Town Stellenbosch festival when the magic will be enhanced by a range of special events.
Garden Town Festival
From the 27th October – the 5th November Stellenbosch will be in full bloom with the the enchantment of Garden Town Stellenbosch. Immerse yourself in horticultural wonders and floral artistry, embark on culinary journeys and invigorating hikes, and engage with the rock-star Gardening Specialists, all against a captivating Stellenbosch backdrop and much more – all showcased in this year’s programme at gardentown.visitstellenbosch.org