The most amazing holiday ever: South Africa

So I know this website is supposed to be about my art, but I would like to share other areas of my life, such as travel (plus it beats setting up another WordPress site). Sharing other topics with all of you also means you get to know me better and I get to practice my writing more – it’s a win-win really. Now that that mini explanation is out of the way, let’s return to the main purpose of this blog post – to describe my recent trip to South Africa and hopefully give you some tips along the way.

To say South Africa is a beautiful place is an understatement. I’m sitting here in my bedroom, many weeks later back in Ireland, and I am still in awe. Before the holiday, I had never considered South Africa as a travel destination, but luckily for me my boyfriend is South African and we had a very important family wedding to attend! Of course, that also meant we had the chance to do a lot of travelling.

After months of planning and scheduling, my partner and I set off on our adventure at the beginning of April 2018. ‘Excited’ couldn’t describe what we felt. However, if you decide to go to South Africa, be warned that the flight is obviously very long (we left Cork, Ireland at 4pm and arrived in Cape Town at 1pm the following day). Trust me though, it’s worth the wait.

One thing that made our trip to South Africa so relaxing was renting a car to go around to different places. You avoid all the nonsense of trying to figure out how the public transport works and you can settle into your journey much faster. We rented a lovely Nissan Micra from the car rental service right next to Cape Town Airport, which was so convenient for us.

While the first day was mainly spent sleeping off jet lag, unpacking, showering etc. I made sure to write up a schedule for each day. Using what I read on Google and my partner’s South African expertise, I quickly compiled a list of things we could do each day. This was my longest holiday ever and I wanted to make sure we got the most out of it. Since we were based in Grabouw (about an hour from Cape Town) and we had a car, there was no limit to the amount of wonderful things we could experience.

Week 1

On our first proper day in South Africa, we went to a place called Caledon Springs (35 minutes by car from Grabouw) – a beautiful resort and spa that hosts natural hot springs you can bathe in. Overlooking some lush scenery, it was the perfect way to start our South African journey. Within the hot springs, there are a number of different pools of varying temperatures that you can relax in.

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Caledon Springs Resort

After enjoying the springs, we headed to the nearby casino in the Caledon hotel. I had never been to a casino before, so this was something totally new. At first, I didn’t get the whole casino obsession, but that quickly changed when I won some money. There is also a lovely restaurant near the casino if you are looking for something to eat close by.

Just when our first day couldn’t get any better, it did in the form of penguins at Boulders Beach (about a 1 hour drive from Caledon). This beach is a definitely a must-see in South Africa. When we visited, the area was very quiet with the only other person being the security guard near the entrance gate. Across the beach, you will see numerous penguins interacting with one another. While we took many photos, we were cautious not to get too close to those sharp beaks!

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Penguins at Boulders Beach

On our second adventure day (a Thursday), our main attraction of the day was Lourensford Wine Estate – a tranquil winery that also hosts an art gallery, outdoor markets and a restaurant. While we didn’t taste any wine, it was enjoyable to simply take in the surroundings of this beautiful estate on a glorious sunny day.

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Laurensford Wine Estate

Day three, we headed to a town called Hermanus – a seaside town 45 minutes from Grabouw.  The array of restaurants were a fish lover’s dream – with prawns, hake and other fish delicacies at every corner. In addition, there were some great markets and malls to visit, which gave us ample opportunity to shop shop shop. Like everywhere else in South Africa, the beaches were spectacular and served as the background drop for many of our selfies.

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Hermanus

Later in the evening, my partner and I visited a beautiful beach called Kleinmond beach on our journey home. Kleinmond beach is an ideal spot for a tranquil walk and is particularly popular among dog owners. Again, the mountain views were out of this world.

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Kleinmond Beach

Day 4 was a very special day for my partner’s family – his sister’s wedding!  With the warm weather, small number of guests and chill atmosphere, the wedding was definitely a change from an Irish wedding. The first noticeable difference was the outdoor setting; this is definitely an occurence that doesn’t happen too often in Ireland’s rainy climate 😉

While the wedding was at Devon Valley Hotel in Stellenbosch, the reception continued at JC Le Roux, a winery a few minutes drive away. The classy ambiance of this venue only added to the greatness of a perfect day, and we were even greeted with oysters and wine at the door (yum!). For the wedding meal, we simply chose what we liked from a vast buffet; we all thought this was a great idea as we weren’t restricted by a set menu.

Having been to many weddings, it was great to see the differences between a South African wedding and an Irish wedding, and experience a new and vibrant wedding atmosphere.

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The outdoor wedding venue

Day 5 was another jam-packed day with visits to surrounding areas Franschhoek, Paarl and back to Somerset West.

Franschhoek is a picturesque food and wine hub that boasts a selection of art galleries, markets and tourist activities. During our short time there, we visited some local craft stores that really showed off the beauty of South African art; this included vibrant nature paintings and emotive sculpture. On our walk, we also visited the exquisite Huguenot monument that portrays the history of the French Huguenots who came to South Africa at the end of the seventeenth century.

Week 2

Week 2 got off to an amazing start with a trip to somewhere I could have only dreamed about: Cape Town. Those 3 and a half days were my favourite of the whole trip and you’ll soon find out why.

As soon as we arrived in Cape Town, we headed straight to Table Mountain where I proceeded to take approximately 10,000 photos and selfies (by the way, a selfie stick is totally worth it). Luckily, it was a beautiful day and the queues weren’t too long, so we took the cable car up instead of hiking.

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Breathtaking views on Table Mountain

As my partner’s sister was on her honeymoon, we stayed in her apartment in the idyllic location of SeaPoint. Using Uber, we made our way around easily. We visited the famous V&A Waterfront where there is a host of markets, great shops and even an observation wheel if you wish to take in all the sights of Cape Town at once.

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The V&A Waterfront

If you really want to see everything Cape Town has to offer (and be a pure tourist at the same time), it is highly recommended that you take the ‘red bus‘ service. You can find out everything you need to know about this service near the V&A Waterfront, but basically the different routes allow you to hop on and hop off at different tourist destinations. Some of the places we visited were Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Groot Constantia winery and Camps Bay.

When you want to stay a little closer to Cape Town city centre, there is also plenty to avail of. For example, we hung out in SeaPoint and The Waterfront a lot, and even took a canal cruise to see the main city sights. We also went to visit the Castle of Good Hope – a Cape Town landmark and South Africa’s oldest colonial building where we received a guided tour of the grounds.

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Castle of Good Hope

Upon leaving Cape Town, we stopped at another popular tourist destination – Cape Point. Cape Point is a scenic peninsula that hosts a range of botanical delights on one of the most southerly points of South Africa. The Point is also home to an array of animals that we had the pleasure of viewing – including bamboos and ostriches. If you decide to visit Cape Point, be prepared for a lot of steps (bring your runners) and numerous breathtaking views of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

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Cape of Good Hope

Before heading to South Africa, I wanted to do some hikes, so when I was presented with the option to climb a mountain or spend the day at the beach, which option did I go for? The ambitious streak in me screamed ‘mountain!’. Now, I enjoy walking, but I think I underestimated the height of the Helderberg Mountain.

Situated in Somerset West, Western Cape, The Helderberg Mountain offers different hiking trails with picnic places and botanical delights for the energetic traveller. Like most other destinations in the Western Cape, the views are superb at any height. It took three of us around 4 hours to get to the top and about 3 hours to get down. However, if you are a more experienced mountaineer (unlike myself) it will probably take slightly less time.

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Helderberg mountain views

Despite my aches and pains now generously covered with Deep Heat, we spent a more relaxing day at the Big Cats Lion Park in Vredenheim, Stellenbosch. Here we saw some lions, tigers and rabbits accompanied by an informative tour. As the park is an animal sanctuary, the animals are well looked after and their surroundings are very similar to their natural habitats.

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The Big Cats Park

Week 3

We had pre-booked some activities before our trip, and one of these was horse riding at Alpha Equestrian in Paarl. I hadn’t been horse riding since I was a child, so I was definitely nervous when the moment came to hop on a horse again. Luckily, I had a friendly tutor to guide me and my partner through fruit orchards and vineyards. There was even a wine tasting on the same grounds afterwards – bliss!

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The horse riding grounds

From our base in Grabouw, we drove about 1 hour or so to Robertson – where some of my partner’s relatives reside. Along the way, we stopped at the beautiful Nuy Valley for food, followed by the Willow Creek Estate where their signature olive oil is made. As there are a staggering number of wineries in South Africa, we seized the opportunity for yet another wine tasting – this time at the Graham Beck winery.

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Outside Willow Creek Estate

There are some quiet and peaceful areas surrounding Robertson including Montagu, McGregor and Ashton – all of which we visited the following day. In Montagu, we visited a couple of museums including Joubert House and Montagu Museum ,which both give insights into how people used to live in the area. Unfortunately, the donkey sanctuary in McGregor was closed when we arrived, so we just went for coffee. Ashton hosts a great one-stop shop called Platform 62 that sells great wine and also showcases a steam locomotive out front (top tip: this is an ideal selfie spot).

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Me at the steam locomotive

Another day another beautiful beach to visit; this time we visited Betty’s Bay beach situated about 85km from Cape Town. This pristine white, sandy beach with sand dunes on one side and ocean on the other, is the ideal place to go for a brisk walk. As the water is usually shallow, the beach can also be great for swimming. Be warned though that it is quite windy there!

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Betty’s Bay beach

Back on the road again, we stopped at the ‘Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens‘, which is an ideal spot for any nature lovers with its wonderful variety of plants, ponds, waterfalls and even trails to suit different types of hikers. If you aren’t a plant expert like myself, there are plaques that explain the ins and outs of different plants. As it was a rainy day, and there were plenty of bamboos around (you’ve been warned) we didn’t walk too far on our visit.

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Harold Porter botanical gardens

Close to the botanical gardens is Pringle Bay covered with silver sand and set upon a cold sea. What is so unique about Pringle Bay is its unspoilt and tranquil setting; you could honestly walk for for miles without meeting anyone. We even found an abandoned lifeguard chair in the midst of our peaceful walk (which of course we used for a mini photoshoot!).

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Pringle Bay

Drawing closer to the end of our amazing trip, we kept things local by heading to the Elgin Railway Market in Grabouw. This is a truly spectacular place where traders and visitors converge to enjoy healthy produce and a lively atmosphere. The market takes place every Saturday, and it is an ideal place for artisan food lovers, wine enthusiasts and adventure seekers. On our visit, we enjoyed a deluxe wine tasting – something highly recommended to do in South Africa.

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Inside the Elgin Railway Market

We enjoyed the Elgin Railway Market so much, we went back for a second time. Our visit, however, was short lived as we made a beeline to get tickets for the ‘Elgin Cool Wine and Country festival’. For a small fee, this festival was made up of various local wineries we could visit at our own discretion. We visited Oak Valley Estate, Almenkerk Wine Estate and Lothian Vineyards, which were all exquisite and featured delectable wines, great entertainment and Instagram-worthy scenery.

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The luxurious Lothian Vineyards venue

Week 4/ Home Time

On our last day before heading home, we couldn’t resist a second visit to Caledon Hot Springs. After rejuvenating in the springs, we headed to the nearby casino and restaurant, both of which I would highly recommend.

Unfortunately, the last two days of our break weren’t that exciting and we spent the rest of our time travelling back to Ireland. Despite this long blog post, I can’t emphasise how great the trip was – hello I’m still thinking about it! I would really recommend for anyone to go to South Africa on a long holiday; it opened my eyes further to the beauty of the world and reignited my travel bug! I hope this blog post was helpful if you’re considering a trip to South Africa, and I for one will definitely be heading back.

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