If the year is getting too long, everyone is working on your nerves and you're about to throttle your boss, kids or significant other, it's time to escape to the countryside for some much needed TLC.
Take out a map and check out the towns that fall within a 100km radius of your home town. Is anything grabbing your attention? Remember, you don't have to drive far or spend a small fortune to unwind. All you need is to get away from the crowds and frenzy; and to breathe in some good clean country air. By spending just one day in the outdoors, away from the city buzz and your daily routine, you’ll be able to switch off completely. Add an overnight stay in a quaint little B&B at your destination, and your taste of heaven is even better.
Well, I was long overdue for a break, so I did exactly that: I took out the map, drew a big circle, and my eye fell on the beautiful Elgin Valley - just under an hour's drive from Cape Town. We city slickers tend to rush past Elgin, following the N2 to Hermanus and yonder. However, you’ll be surprised to discover that Elgin is far more than just “the place where apples come from”. It’s an unbelievably fertile valley offering great wines, wonderful fresh produce, olives, fynbos and cut-flowers, plus fantastic outdoor activities such as mountain biking, hiking, swimming and fishing. To top it all, the Elgin Valley forms part of the Green Mountain Eco Route, the world's first biodiversity wine route.
The timing of my trip to Elgin was perfect, as the weekend coincided with the annual Elgin Open Gardens, a special event where 20 avid gardeners share their flower power by opening their private gardens to the public.
As I drove into the valley, I was greeted by a beautiful picture of lush orchards, vineyards and olive groves surrounded by the mountains and decorated with splashes of colour from the roses blooming next to the road.
In full bloom
My first stop was Fresh Woods, a rambling, romantic country garden belonging to Elgin Open Gardens Organiser Barbara Knox-Shaw. Her garden boasts a huge collection of heritage and species roses; many rare trees and shrubs including maples, rhododendrons, hydrangeas & deutzias; and a maturing woodland garden under pine. The highlight for me was the lovely little garden cottage overgrown with roses and other creepers that is the study of Barbara’s husband, a retired English professor. Who could wish for a more magical setting?
My next stop was the rose farm, Duncan’s roses. The impressive show garden is in full bloom with hundreds of roses as far as the eye can see and their beautiful scent makes you want to buy all you can at the adjacent nursery.
You don't have to be a gardening expert to enjoy gardens. The magnitude of colours, textures and wonderful scents, combined with the warm sun on your face and fresh air, is enough to make you float on cloud nine.
If you can’t make it to the Elgin Valley soon, check out your local newspaper, garden centre or gardening magazine for listings of open gardens in your area; or simply pack a picnic and spend the day in your local botanical garden. If you are lucky enough to have your own big garden, get your hands dirty and plant some colourful annuals to bring some summer joy.
I have developed a new sense of appreciation for the beautiful cut-flowers that are on sale in the shops, after visiting the Oak Valley estate, also in the Elgin Valley. Apart from their quality cool climate wines, fruit and beef cattle, they are renowned for their quality cut-flowers. In fact, Oak Valley has become the largest production unit and wholesaler of fresh cut flowers in the Western Cape and is the long-time supplier of Woolworths.
Imagine being surrounded by hundreds of bunches of Woolies flowers. The visitor’s tour of the Greenhouse production units was fascinating. I had no idea of the amount of work and dedication that goes into flower production. And the science and technology that goes along to guarantee the long-lasting bloom and quality is mind-blowing. I will never again complain about the price of flowers!
Mountain bike trails
If it’s exercise you’re after, Elgin Valley has much to offer. Oak Valley is famous for its mountain bike trails. There’s a 14km Green Route for the family; a 24km Red Route for stronger riders; and the 32km Black Route for more advanced riders. It’s also interesting to note that Elgin is home to a famous stretch of the Cape Epic Cycle Race. You could also go quad-biking or waterskiing at Mofam River Lodge, the beautiful retreat of the Moore Family (hence the name: Mofam) situated on the banks of the Palmiet River. Here you can also take a lazy barge cruise on the river or reconnect with yourself by walking the stone labyrinth on the hill.
You can also reconnect with yourself by going for a few wine tastings at the number of excellent wine estates in the region. I popped in at Almenkerk, a new wine estate owned by the Almenkerk family. The striking modern winery buildings are surrounded with masses of indigenous planting. Sip on a glass of their excellent Sauvignon Blanc 2009 while enjoying the magnificent valley views onto the Kogelberg.
If you're not into wine, chill with some Appletiser, the champagne of fruit juices - Elgin is the home of Appletiser, after all!
Follow your heart
Remember to pack your walking shoes, as Elgin has some fantastic hiking trails, ranging from easy trails on several estates (including Almenkerk) to the four-day Eco Green Hiking Trail, a slack-packing adventure where your luggage is delivered each night, you sleep over at lovely B&B on farms and get spoiled with good wine and food.
One of these B&B’s is the Wildekrans Country House, a beautiful 200-year-old homestead set in a tranquil countryside garden at the foot of the Groenberg-mountain. Owners Alison Green and Barry Gould have furnished the guesthouse with stunning antiques and a wonderful collection of contemporary SA art and sculptures. After enjoying a meal of homemade food and wine, you can literally follow your heart into the mountain, on the Follow your Heart Trail, signposted with silver metal hearts.
You can also fuel up with a wholesome and yummy meal at the brand new restaurant “Fresh” on Paul Cluver Estate. It’s a real countryside kitchen serving super fresh local produce prepared lovingly by Joan and her staff. She picks the herbs from the garden outside the kitchen and the fruit, veggies and, of course, the lovely Paul Cluver wines, are all locally produced, except for the walnuts and avos that Joan’s mom sends her all the way from Tzaneen! A lunch at “Fresh” can easily turn into a lazy extended afternoon and by the end of the meal Joan and the staff feel like good old friends.
If you’ve got kids, go to Old Mac Daddy, part caravan-park (with a collection of vintage Airstream Trailer Suites) and part designer farm lodge with a lovely restaurant. Old Mac Daddy welcomes little people with a special playroom and outdoor tractor gym. They can also book babysitters so you can enjoy your restaurant in peace and quiet.
Before you head back home, stop at one of the farm stalls to stock up on some fresh fruit and homemade treats like freshly baked bread, jams, olives and sweets. One can never drive past Peregrine Farm Stall without stocking up on their wonderful “mosbolletjies”. We gobbled up half a dozen before we reached home.
- (Birgit Ottermann, Health24, November 2010)
(Visit the Elgin Open Gardens on Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 November 2010 from 10:00 to 17:00. For more info and a map visit www.elginopengardens.co.za. For more info on the Elgin Valley visit the website of the Elgin Valley Tourism Bureau.)
(Photos: Birgit Ottermann, Elgin Valley Tourism, iStock)