The breathtaking Helshoogte Pass

The Heavenly Delights of Hell’s Heights Pass

If there is one stretch of road worth driving more than any other in the Cape Winelands I would have to say it is the windy mountain pass linking the historic oak lined university town of Stellenbosch and the fertile Banhoek valley leading into the French Huguenot town of Franschhoek. Not only are the vistas absolutely extraordinary but the wine farms, attached like amulets on a chain, each have a unique story and are each a worthwhile destination boasting top wines, restaurants, delis, accommodation, art galleries and sculpture gardens.

The beautiful picnic setting at Boschendal

The beautiful picnic setting at Boschendal

The ‘Helshoogte’ or Hell’s Heights Pass otherwise known as the R310 was originally built in 1854 and then upgraded in 2010. It links the wine districts of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch and is 15 km long with the summit reaching 387m above sea level. If you are coming from the Franschhoek side on the left is Boschendal which has undergone a renaissance and become a real destination winery with plenty on offer. When my brother got married ten years ago the 3 day wedding extravaganza for their overseas friends who had travelled to the Cape Winelands culminated here with ‘le pique-nique’ on the Sunday. Boschendal pioneered the luxury wine farm picnic with beautifully presented hampers of fresh farm goodies to be enjoyed in the verdant grounds.

Pniel at the foot of the Simonsberg Mountains

Pniel at the foot of the Simonsberg Mountains

Further up Helshoogte you will pass through the small village of Pniel in the shadow of the Simonsberg Mountains. It is here where the first freed slaves chose to settle in 1842 after the abolition of slavery in the Cape in 1833. Its name comes from the book of Genesis in the bible and means ‘face of God’, an apt name for such divine surroundings.

Beautiful fynbos on the Bartinney farm

Fynbos on the Bartinney farm

Just before you reach the top of the pass on the left is a very special farm called Bartinney, overlooking the Banhoek valley. Owned by one of South Africa’s leading businessmen, the story goes that due to financial constraints the family farm passed out of the Jordaan family hands, but was able to be repurchased by the son who now lives there with his young family. Delicious Cabernet Sauvignons come from the Banhoek valley and I recently had the privilege of enjoying a tutored tasting conducted by the female winemaker Ronell Wiid at this boutique winery. At Bartinney sustainability is a business philosophy and the sustainable farming practices are seeing the return of wildlife and birds such as Guinea fowls. The shy Cape Leopard has also been sighted in the mountains above the farm. Social balance and harmony is regarded as equally important as environmental balance at this forward thinking winery, where the effluent from the wine-making process flows though the fynbos, indigenous to the Cape Floral Kingdom. By removing alien vegetation such as Blue Gums and Pine, a spring that had been dormant for 40 years recently started flowing.

Delaire Graff - known as the 'gem of the winelands'

Delaire Graff – known as the ‘gem of the winelands’

When my father turned 60 some years back he invited his friends to join him on a tour of the Winelands. A bus was hired and off we set confident in the knowledge that no-one had to drink and drive especially when navigating the windy pass. The chosen lunch venue was Delaire at the top of Hell’s Heights then owned by Erica and John Platter of Platters – the wine bible of South Africa fame. The simple country lunch we enjoyed was memorable. Today my father would not recognise what has now become ‘the gem of the Winelands’. Delaire-Graff owned by the founder of luxury jeweller, Graff Diamonds, Laurence Graff is a seriously impressive destination winery designed to leave visitors breathless. The gardens were created by South Africa’s leading gardener and celebrity horticulturalist Keith Kirsten and each season offers the visitor something new. Not only is the best of South African art on display but award-winning restaurants commanding magnificent panoramic views make this destination winery at the pinnacle commanding 360 degree views Table Mountain in the distance a must-visit. Across the road from Delaire-Graff you will find the well-known estates Thelema – recently rated one of the world’s top 100 estates and Tokara – known for their excellent wines, restaurants, olive oil, art galleries and charismatic winemakers.

Heavenly offerings.

Heavenly offerings.

Thelema has a lovely old world feel nestled into the valley. Owner and viticulturist, Giles Webb, a former accountant planted all the vines. As a student the first ‘sophisticated’ white wine I can remember which made an impression on my palette and which I could order with confidence was Thelema’s Blanc Fumé which they sadly no longer produce – we are talking more than a quarter century ago and one thing is for sure is that all these wineries are dynamic, constantly re-inventing themselves!

Tokara is housed in super modern buildings with gorgeous views. Original art works by South African Masters such as William Kentridge are to be spotted on the walls. The small gallery annually hosts an artwork competition where students are invited to paint around a theme using red wine as their medium. The results are astonishing and one can imagine the fun the students have in producing them. The sculpture garden walk through the olive grove between the more relaxed deli and fine dining restaurant is also well worth doing.

It might be called Hell’s Heights but the views as well as the offerings are certainly heavenly. A leisurely drive over this short but dramatic pass with multiple stops is a treat not to be missed and a delight for the senses on every level.

IMG_4200

Art Galleries in the Winelands

 

I was recently invited to the opening of an artist friend’s exhibition in Franschhoek. To make a day of it, I asked a girlfriend to join me on the journey – not only to enjoy the Cape Winelands’ fabulous wine and food offerings but also the visual feast on offer through magnificent South African art located at some spectacular galleries in the Winelands. It turned out to be a wonderful excursion.

First up was Cavalli in Stellenbosch located on the R44 coming from Somerset West. Cavalli is the Italian name for horse and the theme is evident throughout the estate. Owned by the Smith family, Cavalli started as a stud farm, housing what must be the most aesthetically pleasing and luxurious stables in the world! As a destination winery it is hard to beat.

The Equus Art Gallery on the estate ‘aims to encourage the local arts through its platforms of public sculpture spaces and a public art gallery.’ From the entrance to the restaurant, once can see Table Mountain in the distance. Enter through the restaurant and across the water is a huge Dylan Lewis sculpture. Down the stairs and carved into the hillside below is the wine tasting room and then an astonishingly large 600 square meter gallery showcasing rotating exhibitions of visiting curators, alongside a permanent exhibition of other notable works from the Cavalli Estate Private Collection. When we visited, the Equus exhibition with a horse theme was coming to an end but we managed to view Janko de Beer’s astonishing Sea Weed horses. The Gallery is open Wednesday to Saturday, 11am to 7pm and Sunday 10am to 5pm gallery@cavalliestate.com or call 021 855 3218. There is no entrance fee.

Janko De Beer Seaweed horses

Janko De Beer Seaweed horses

Our next stop was the Rupert Museum at the entrance to Stellenbosch on Dorp Street. Housed in a custom built space, the Rupert Museum showcases the unique private art collection of billionaires Anton and Huberte Rupert. The walls are literally dripping with the most spectacular South African art – showcasing talents such as Maggie Laubser, Irma Stern, Alexis Preller, Walter Battiss, Jean Welz, and JH Pierneef. In fact the one gallery is dedicated to the original Johannesburg station panels painted by Pierneef in the 1950s and is in itself worth the visit. In addition, there are also major European works by leading sculptors such as Auguste Rodin.

Anton Rupert Museum Stellenbosch

Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch

Dylan Lewis @ Anton Rupert Museum

Dylan Lewis at the Rupert Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

En route to lunch in Franschhoek we stopped at the top of Helshoogte pass and another billionaire’s dream – this time the awe-inspiring Delaire-Graff estate, which describes itself as ‘South Africa’s premier art, hospitality and wine destination’. Graff is a leading diamond dealer and the boutique jewellery shop off the foyer dominated by a huge Lionel Smit canvas is well worth drooling over. We were enthusiastically shown around the art collection on the estate by an estate ambassador who made us feel very welcome. William Kentridge is well represented as are the sculptors Deborah Bell and Anton Smit and Dylan Lewis whose sculptures strategically dot the estate. We were blown away by the latest acquisition called Morpheus a 3 ton mirror-image sculpture of a Malay woman by Lionel Smit.

Lionel Smit at reception to Delaire Graff

Morpheus by Lionel Smit at Delaire Graff

A visit to the Pierneef Gallery at La Motte on the outskirts of Franschhoek is always worthwhile, but by this stage we were starving and Café Bon Bon at La Petite Dauphine wine farm in Franschhoek proved the perfect spot to linger. The setting on the terrace under the oaks, the red rooster and the timeless feel of the place .Their food is visually presented like art on a plate and was both delicious and fresh.

A visual feast @Cafe Bon Bon

A visual feast at Cafe Bon Bon

Before making our way to the Gallery at Grande Provence and my friend’s exhibition we popped in for tea at Sir Richard Branson’s Hotel, the newly revamped Mont Rochelle and discovered the best deal in town. A pot of Earl Grey tea and rusk size biscotti with a view to die for over the Franschhoek valley for R15!

We finished off our perfect day with a glass of delicious wine at The Gallery at Grande Provence with its sublime setting. Not only does the gallery exhibit local artists like Angus Taylor, Deborah Bell and Lionel Smit but also emerging artists such as Arabella Caccia as well as artists from Europe and America.

We drove back to Cape Town having experienced a feast of South African art in spectacular surroundings whilst enjoying world class wine and food. This is an outing which can be enjoyed all year around come rain or shine.