If the prospect of visiting Africa seems too unlikely and daunting, a family holiday in South Africa’s wine region will dispel any fears. Don’t be intimidated – this is the perfect beginner’s trip to the larger continent. Not only is the landscape almost ridiculously picturesque, it’s so refined, colonial and quaint that at times it’s hard to believe you are not in Germany, the French countryside or even the Adelaide Hills. Which all means it is a safe, friendly, pleasant little family holiday destination and a great introduction to South Africa with kids.
Like a charmed pocket of yesteryear, The Winelands of South Africa are perfectly preserved European settlements. The townships are impossibly pretty and the shops filled with a good mixture of tourist buys, practical necessities and genuinely interesting artworks. The food and wine are divine which suits foodies and vino lovers. There are the stunning wineries – and all this against a backdrop of magnificent Helshoogte Pass. For a relaxing holiday where parents can cellar door hop and kids can get up close to endangered species, this is the ideal combination.
The two major towns worth exploring are Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Both will capture big and little imaginations. Tree-lined streets with historic white-washed buildings, some still bearing pristine thatched roofs, make this a fun and unintimidating way to learn about history. There is enough shopping and good eateries to satisfy the adults while there are quirky and interesting curios to keep children entertained. Best of all, it’s relatively safe. While there are some touts, this is not a place where you will feel hounded or harassed – in fact the locals are noticeably friendly and happy to help.
The vineyards around the area are stunning but relaxed and family-friendly enough for kids to run amuck. Opting for a larger winery, such as Boschendal, means you can make this almost a full day event with a long lunch, a tour of the historic Cape Dutch homestead and cellar tastings while the children play games on the huge lawns. The stunning architecture and the painstakingly preserved grounds make this feel like you could be on a European holiday.
A unique way to explore the wineries is via the Fanschhoek Wine Tram which might initially appear a little kitsch, but is actually an easy crowd pleaser with children and ensures no adult has to sacrifice themselves as designated driver from vineyard to vineyard. The tram shuttles between various pre-designated wineries such as Rickety Bridge and Grande Provence every hour and wine tastings and some soft drinks are included in the ticket price.
There are also a few animal excursions on offer, the most impressive being Cheetah Outreach at Paardevlei in Somerset West. Amazingly, here you can get right up close and touch the endangered big five animals, so rarely seen in the wild. Even children as young as two (feline temperaments permitting) can enter the cheetah cages to pet the enormous grown cats. (Young kids are not allowed into the cub cages though – walk your toddler past one and you’ll quickly discover why.)
The area is a popular cycling route for lycra-clad hipsters so another family outing is taking the older kids for some sun and exercise along the glorious country bike paths.
The eateries in The Winelands are divine – world-class, contemporary and vary from basic family-friendly cafes to Michelin star standard. One of the best experiences of the area is a day spent at a winery over lunch while the children play in the sunshine. Perfection.
The facilities in The Winelands are first world. This means easy access to fresh food, safe tap water, most standard infant needs and emergency medical amenities in Cape Town. But although this is an authentic historical area where you could easily spend a deliciously chilled week, if you don’t go anywhere else, all the things that make it so family-friendly also mean you might walk away with the sense that you never actually went to “Africa”, whatever that means.
It is extremely easy and safe to self-drive the region. The roads are well maintained, speed limits strictly patrolled and police a distinctive presence (although driving at night is still not recommended in South Africa). It’s definitely worth considering the independence of a hire car so that you can adapt your schedule at will. For instance, one of the best experiences is just a simple drive over the Helshoogte Pass which is truly unforgettable.
Perhaps the only hardship to visiting The Winelands with children is that it gets extremely hot in the summer. This means dragging tired feet around a township must be well-timed (perhaps with a planned ice cream break mid-way) and hydration must be strictly monitored in infants and toddlers.
Choosing a hotel or a guesthouse with a pool and other activities (Le Franschhoek Hotel & Spa also has tennis courts, petanque and a herb garden, for instance) provides other children’s entertainment options in hot weather. (It also makes it a little easier to justify spending half a day doing adult activities, such as wine tastings, if the kids get their own chill out time afterwards.)
The closest city to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek is Cape Town. For the suitcases&strollers travel guide to things to do in Cape Town with kids, click here.