Cape Town’s (kinda) secret gardens

The gardens in and around Cape Town are a thing of magic – whether that’s manicured Victorian rose beds or the exotic fynbos of the Cape floral kingdom. Beat the crowds and check out some of these “secret” gardens.

The gardens in and around Cape Town are a thing of magic – whether that’s manicured Victorian rose beds or the exotic fynbos of the Cape floral kingdom. Beat the crowds and check out some of these “secret” gardens.

1. Montebello Design Centre

A stone’s throw from the world-renowned Kirstenbosch Gardens in Newlands, Montebello is a great place for a garden breakfast, lunch or tea. Meander through its garden and greenhouse, dotted with fanciful sculptures, artworks and majestic Camphor trees. Part gallery, artists’ studio, nursery and restaurant, this hidden treasure is ideal for personal reflection or relaxed meet ups.

2. Arderne Gardens

It’s a wonder more people don’t know about Arderne Gardens, a quiet haven off Claremont’s boisterous Main Road. Founded in the mid-1800s for timber merchant Ralph Henry Arderne’s eclectic mix of international flora, the garden is now home to one of the most diverse and valuable collections of exotic trees in all of South Africa. This is according to the non-profit group Friends of Arderne Gardens, which says the collection includes one of the largest trees in South Africa, the vast Moreton Bay Fig, and quite possibly the largest Aleppo Pine in the world.

3. Vergelegen Estate

Ok, we know this one isn’t really such a big secret, but it’s a garden of mythical romance nonetheless! Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West has 17 perfectly manicured gardens that seem straight out of a BBC period drama. It’s a perfect place for history buffs or the leisurely wanderer: pre-book a picnic, sample estate wines or leisurely stroll through its myriad of unique gardens.

4. Wild West Coast

If you’re hankering to get out of the city entirely, book your spring trip up Cape Town’s west coast to the West Coast National Park for a five-day flower tour in mid-August. The secret to these wild gardens? You never know exactly what to expect or when exactly this floral fantasy will happen, but when it does, it’s a dazzling display of Mother Nature at her finest.

Earth Fair Market: the place to go for farm fresh goods in the inner city

Food markets may conjure up images of country farms and chickens clucking underfoot, but on Thursday afternoons the country comes to the city centre at Cape Town’s delightful Earth Fair Market on St George’s Mall.

At most hours of the day St George’s Mall – the pedestrian boulevard that runs almost the length of the centre of Cape Town – is abuzz with commuters and office workers. Pigeons flap underfoot and hawkers sell T-shirts and African artworks to tourists.

But come Thursday midday, the end of the mall closest to the St. George’s Cathedral and Company’s Garden is transformed into a vibrant food and produce market that draws locals and tourists alike.

Perhaps the closest thing to a European-style street market you’ll find in the city, stalls line the mall offering up wonderful baked goods, fresh vegetables, charcuterie, cheese and meats.

Along with plenty of great produce to take home, there are also stalls selling delicious street food: either enjoy it in the mall, or grab a take-away and wander into the scenic Company’s Garden.

The market runs from 11h00 -15h00 every Thursday in St George’s Mall.

Fine food, wine and a trip in time at historic Vergelegen estate

While its name translates from Afrikaans as situated far away, Vergelegen wine estate – one of the Cape’s oldest wine farms – is a, easy 40 minutes drive from Cape Town, making for a fabulous day trip.

Tucked away at the foot of the dramatic Hottentots Holland Mountains in Somerset West, the sprawling Vergelegen estate is a perfect example of a traditional Cape farm that has moved with the times.

The original manor house and surrounding buildings  – most of which are open to the public – date back over three hundred years to the very earliest days of the Cape Colony, when it took three days to reach the farm from Cape Town via ox-wagons. Remarkably, the Camphor trees that shade the traditional Cape Dutch buildings are just as old and have been declared National Monuments.

The grounds are a highlight of Vergelegen, with 17 formal gardens laid out around the estate. Don’t miss the remarkable Camellia Garden of Excellence, as well as the historic Octagonal Garden. The story goes that the walls were built to their current height so that they would be too high for a lion to jump over!

Felines aside, there’s good food and wine to be had here too. The estate’s two restaurants cover both ends of the spectrum nicely. Camphors offers modern fine dining, while bistro-style Stables restaurant offers casual food. Stables also overlooks the child-friendly East Garden where you’ll find a sizeable playground to keep young ones entertained.

Cellar master André van Rensburg has a deft touch when it comes to classic winemaking, and his Flagship Range of wines is simply superb. The reserve range, of which the Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are particularly good, are excellent affordable options, too.

Five of the best picnic spots in Cape Town

If you go down to the beach today, you might get a big surprise. Because today’s the day Capetonians have their picnic… Any day, really. If the sun is shining, Cape Town locals will find an excuse to whip out that picnic blanket. Here are five favourite spots…

1. Oudekraal beach

Part of the Table Mountain National Park, Oudekraal beach is one of Cape Town’s best kept secrets. Situated in a sheltered cove between Camps Bay and Llandudno, this pretty little beach is nicely protected from the wind. In addition to a lovely swimming area and its own colony of seals, Oudekraal also features a grassy picnic and braai area between the beach and the parking lot. The Milkwood trees dotted across the lawn ensure some degree of privacy.

Because it forms part of a conservation area, you’ll have to pay an entrance fee (R35 per adult and R20 per child) unless you possess a WILD Card or TMNP MY Green Card. It really is a nominal fee for so much beauty and tranquillity! One point worth noting is that there is a strict no-alcohol policy.

2. Le Pique Nique at Boschendal

One of the oldest farms in South Africa, Boschendal in the Drakenstein Valley offers up not one, but two picnic destinations. Choose between the classic Boschendal picnic on the lawns of the Rhone Homestead or the more casual ambiance of the Werf Garden picnic spot.

Rhone picnics can be enjoyed at carefully laid picnic tables or on blankets under the shady oak trees. Picnic baskets (R440, serves two) include a selection of pâtés, breads, salads, cold meats, artisan cheeses and preserves and delicious farm-made ice-cream.

The picnic baskets on offer at the Werf Garden are slightly less extravagant (for a more modest price of R350/basket) and the picnic area is only partially serviced. This is a great option if you have kids as there is a jungle gym, plenty of space for them to frolic and hammocks and beanbags for lounging. You can also order a kiddies’ picnic basket for R85. This venue also has live music on the first Sunday of every month.

3. Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

Picnics at Kirstenbosch are many things: treasured memories from childhood, lazy afternoons with friends, a prelude to your favourite summer concert, or a quick fix of nature 10 minutes from the city centre.

One of the best botanical gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch offers up 36 hectares of pristine garden, which means that you’ll always find that perfect spot for your picnic. Bring you own – no tables, chairs, or umbrellas allowed – or pick up a picnic hamper at the Kirstenbosch Tea Room or moyo restaurant.

Kirstenbosch is open between 08h00 and 19h00 in summer, and entry fees range from R15 (kids) to R55 (adults) per person.

4. Cape Point Vineyards

It’s hard to beat the view from Cape Point Vineyards in Noordhoek: vineyards, mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. The lawn next to the dam is a great place to drink while away a lazy afternoon. Picnic baskets (R395, serves two), which need to be booked at least 24 hours in advance, include ciabatta, a selection of charcuterie, local cheeses, salads and chocolate, salted caramel and brownie trifle! Your booking also includes a picnic blanket and pillows, so all you need to do is pitch up.

The wine farm is well known for its Sauvignon Blanc wines. Beverages aren’t included in the basket, so you’ll want to bring along a little extra cash to buy a bottle… or two.

5. Vergelegen

Forget about plastic cutlery and soggy sandwiches. If you want to do a picnic in style, head to Vergelegen in Somerset West. From November to April, you can indulge in a sophisticated picnic – at a table, of course – in the Camphor Forest. If it’s romance you’re after, ask them to put you at a table deep in the forest away from the other guests.

Picnic baskets, which exclude beverages and gratuity, will set you back R215 per person (or R95 for kids). You can expect breads and pâtés, smoked salmon wraps, Moroccan beef kebabs, spinach and feta quiches, coronation chicken, a selection of cheeses, and whatever dessert the chef is cooking up that day.

Great food, wine and more at Cape Town’s tower of Babel

In the shadow of the Simonsberg lies one of the most remarkable destinations in the winelands. If you’re going to visit just one wine farm on a day out from Cape Town, make it Babylonstoren in Paarl.

At Babylonstoren the first pleasure comes in confusion, because once you’ve parked your car beside the whitewashed farm wall you’ll hardly know where to start.

Admire the rejuvenated historic farm buildings? Stock up in the deli and farm bakery? Burn through your credit card in the stylish décor boutique?

But leave all of those for later and start with the garden: this remarkable food garden draws inspiration from French monastic gardens, as well as the Company’s Garden in the centre of Cape Town, and is a remarkable example of the edible made art. Fruit trees line scenic pathways while carpets of chrysanthemum throw their heady scent into the summer air. Your best bet is to book a spot on the daily walks guided by the garden horticulturist.

With the gardens visited it’s time for wine. A brand-new wine tasting experience has transformed the offering here, with well-informed guides taking guests through the olive press and wine cellar before finishing in the striking new wine-tasting facility. Cellar master Charl Coetzee crafts particularly good Shiraz, Viognier and Chardonnay. If you’re after a bottle to take home for the cellar, make it the flagship Nebukadnesar red, a striking Bordeaux-style blend.

The estate also boasts two wonderful restaurants, with laid-back lunches at the Conservatory and upmarket farm-to-fork cuisine at the modern bistro, Babel.

If you can’t bring yourself to leave after all that, book a room at the stylish farm hotel in one of the gorgeous suites that overlook the garden.

High tea takes on a whole new meaning at Rhodes Memorial

Perched high on the slopes of Table Mountain, the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant & Tea Garden boasts some of the best views in Cape Town. The cakes are pretty good too.

Colonialist Cecil John Rhodes has something of a chequered legacy in Africa, but his imposing granite memorial on the slopes of Table Mountain remains one of the most popular stops in Cape Town, the oversized steps offering superb views across the city.

Perhaps distracted by those views, few tourists wander up the stone pathway behind the memorial to discover the charming tearoom and restaurant tucked away in the shade of the oak trees.

You won’t find nouvelle cuisine or adventurous dining on the menu here, but the selection of light meals and freshly-baked cakes makes it well worth a stop. You can enjoy wraps, cheese platters and baguettes alongside a handful of meaty main courses. Nothing fancy, but perfectly acceptable fare.

It’s a decidedly family-friendly spot too, with a small children’s menu and a dedicated play area within sight (but almost out of earshot) of the dining area.

Some tables offer wonderful views of the city and distant Durbanville winelands, making it a laid back option for lunch with a view, away from the crowds.

Take time to zone out in Babylonstoren’s magical Garden Spa

Only about an hour’s drive from the centre of Cape Town, the Garden Spa at Babylonstoren will make you feel you’ve gone even further, and stepped into a secret fantasy garden.

While the middle of the Cape winelands is an odd place to find a hammam, or Turkish bath, the hammam at the Babylonstoren Garden Spa near Franschhoek doesn’t at all feel out of place. Tucked away in an enclosure of trees, the hammam, with its beautiful blue mosaic ceiling, is the perfect spot to let go of tension…and inhibitions.

The degree of nakedness required for this treatment — not to mention some of the intimate stretches — could be awkward in the wrong hands. Happily, the therapists at this spa are adept at putting their clients at ease.

The 60-minute water ritual in the steam-filled hammam involves a full-body exfoliation, some passive stretching and a magnificent body-butter massage. The scalp massage and cool water rinse at the end leaves you revitalised and ready to tackle the post-treatment fruit salad and freshly squeezed juice that’s waiting for you.

Who knew you could work up such an appetite being pampered?

While the private hammam water ritual is the Garden Spa’s signature treatment, a variety of other massage treatments, wraps, facials and manicures are also on offer, all incorporating fresh herbs picked daily from the estate’s extensive gardens.

You’ll find the usual spa amenities here: a sauna, steam room and heated plunge pool. If the weather is good you can have your treatment in one of the private outdoor treatment areas and in summer you’ll want to spend some time relaxing next to the pool.

Some of the treatments include — soba noodles with wild mushrooms and a coriander and miso dressing, for example — but, if not, you’re spoilt for choice between the estate’s Greenhouse and Babel restaurants.