Monday, February 01, 2010

January 29, 2010 - Frivocity

These past few days of traveling around the Western Cape with Kate and Amy have been dedicated to frivocity. Or was it frivosity? It probably was frivolity, which apparently is a word, unlike the two prior versions. But I quite like frivocity. It suggests a state of being weightless and without worry, which is, I think, exactly how one should be on vacation. And in life. As often as possible. And the "c" conjures impressions of felicity, with its implications of great happiness, bliss, and good fortune. All of which are wonderful things to share with friends. And so, I give you our pursuit of frivocity . . .

What better place to forget ones cares than on a wine farm? So on Tuesday morning we loaded up the car and headed to Stellenbosch, the heart of South Africa's winelands. Our first stop was Meerlust, whose red blend Rubicon is a South African icon. We weren't all that impressed with the wine, though the art in the tasting room was really fun.

Typical Cape Dutch architecture at Meerlust

We drove up out of the valley and into the heights of the Helshoogte Pass. The arrival at Delaire, the "Vineyard in the Sky" was simply stunning. Close at hand were lush gardens, leading up to a beautiful modern tasting room and restaurant, which are surrounded by soaring mountains. Every detail in the decor was well thought out. We found just being in such a stunning environment uplifting. And then we tasted the wine. Lovely. We wished that we could have stayed for lunch, but we had reservations in Franschhoek, so had to move on.

Delaire - a vineyard in the clouds

Over lunch at Dieu Donne, the girls asked us what we planned to do when we got home. As I tucked into a delicious bowl of laksa, we hatched a plan to open a food truck and call it Lekker Laksa (lekker being Afrikaans for all things tasty and delicious). But then Kate pointed out that making big steaming vats of laksa every day might not be such a lekker lifestyle. Ah well, back to the drawing board.

After lunch we wandered down the road to Chamonix, where we spent an idyllic hour under the trees by the old blacksmith's shop, tasting their wonderful chardonnay and red blends. Sten abstained from many of our tastings during the day so that he remained fit to drive us around, but he was always on hand to lend an opinion. It quickly became apparent that between the four of us we were split straight down the middle when it came to reds. Amy and I would lean towards the big, bold cabs and syrahs, while Kate and Sten favored the more subtle Bordeaux blends.

We ended the day (as one should, as often as possible) with a champagne tasting at Haute Cabriere. Here was one thing we could all agree on, the blanc de blanc blend was the best of the bunch. Oh, and that Cape Brandy is definitely an acquired taste.

Five o'clock rolled around and we needed to find a place to spend the night. After making a few calls, we found that the Cook's Cottage available for the night. Jo, the owner, had done some sailing too, and seemed to understand when we bargained for a reduced rack rate. Then he was nice enough to clean the pool for us. We grabbed a bottle of champagne and our swim togs, and slipped in for a soak, surrounded by the heady aroma of lavender bushes.

Late that night, coming home from the pub, Kate and Amy had their first run-in with South African security systems. Unlocking the front door, they managed to set off the panic button on the key chain. Sten and I laid in bed, listening to the racket and them talking about it. "Should I get up?" Sten asked. "Nah, they are fine. Besides, the security company will be here in a minute." Moments later, the security guard arrived. Then he proceeded to fuss with the panic button for several minutes, I'm sure much to the pleasure of the surrounding neighbors.

The following day, Wednesday, was one of my best days ever. Strolling around Franschhoek with good friends, window shopping, trying on jewelry, buying chocolate from the chocolatier, strolling through galleries, and relaxing over a long lunch at Rueben's, one of the best restaurants in South Africa (and one of the best meals any of us have had in years), enjoyed with a fabulous sauvignon blanc from Kevin Grant's (of Hamilton Russell fame) new vineyard, Ataraxia. We had truly achieved a state of frivocity.

As we drove up and over the pass that would take us up out of Fraschhoek and down into the Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven on earth) Valley, we pulled off at a few scenic overlooks to look down at the river rushing through the gorge below us. At one pull off, we stumbled across a couple, clearly getting busy in their car, which just isn't something you see every day, on any continent. And so to give them their privacy, we kept going, down through the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and into Hermanus, where we stopped to pick up some olives, bread and cheese for dinner.

Kleinzee Guesthouse - in season this porch would be a perfect spot to watch whales spout and breach

Sunset found us at a beautiful guesthouse, perched on the edge of Walker Bay. After a walk among the fynbos along the edge of the cliff, we retired to the balcony to enjoy the warm night air, the pervasive scent of lavender, and some wine from Chamonix and Delaire. During the season, Walker Bay is filled with Southern Right Whales, but not this time of year. We'd come here in search of a more menacing sea creature - the Great White Shark.

Sunset over Walker Bay

The following morning we were up bright and early to join a shark diving trip out of Gansbaai. The night before I slept badly, tossing and turning, worrying about how we were going to get from the boat into the cage that would protect us from the jaws of the Great Whites. I shouldn't have worried. The cage was lashed right against the hull of the boat, and all we had to do was slide in and out of it . . . once we got over the fact that we would be taking a bath in chum.

Heading out with the dawn to get to the shark grounds

The crew uses a mixture of chum and fish heads to lure sharks towards the cage

Behind those oh-so-attractive hoodies and masks Amy and I smile in nervous anticipation (or was it apprehension?) of the next shark pass

Sten was stoked to have Great Whites swimming a foot from his face. There was nothing about the experience he didn't like . . . though he could have done without the idiot next to him sticking his arm out the cage to pet a Great White.

Visibility in the water wasn't very good, but it was good enough to see the pink bloody gums and gleaming white teeth of the sharks as they swam right towards the cage.

Kate - rocking her wetsuit like a Bond Girl

We returned to our guesthouse in Die Kelders to take some much needed long hot showers and then we had lunch at Coffee on the Rocks, a little restaurant in a home just down the street from the guesthouse. After lunch, with the day half over, we decided it was too late to put on many miles, so we drove back up the road to Hermanus, where we checked into another guest house and then we headed back up the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley to do some wine tasting.

Our first ever caption contest -- one bottle of lekker SA vino to the reader who sends us the wittiest caption for this photo

It is possible that we'd had a bit too much wine at this point

Our first stop was Hamilton Russell, whose pinot noir has long been our favorite pinot. But over the years, as their wine has won more awards the price has ratcheted up. At $14 a bottle it was a steal. At $26 it was still a relative value for the quality. At $36 a bottle at the cellar door, it is decidedly out of our budget. So we enjoyed our tasting and drove on up the road to Bouchard Findlayson and Newton Johnson to see if we could find some wines for the bilge that aren't priced so decidedly for the export market. We had really enjoyable tastings at both estates, plumbing the tasting room attendant at the former for restaurant recommendations and at the latter for help with Kate's Afrikaans.

If only I had the photoshop skills to make these labels read "frivocity"

After a decadent guesthouse breakfast this morning, we intended to drive back into Cape Town. But some texts with friends and a call to Table Mountain revealed that the cable car up the mountain was closed due to gale force winds. Ever since our lunch at Rueben's, Sten had been thinking about Ataraxia. So we called up the vineyard to see if we could visit their tasting room. They were more than happy to have us, so we headed back up the Hemel-en-Arde Valley.

Ataraxia is a relatively new vineyard, but their excellent chardonnay has been winning awards. The vines are still young, so they have been sourcing most of their grapes from Elgin and other vineyards in the valley. But they will soon be releasing wines made from grapes grown on their vineyard. We were lucky enough to visit the tasting room the day after their US distributor, and were able to try the chardonnay blended for the Cape Winemakers Guild auction. With Kevin Grant at the helm, we are excited to watch this vineyard develop.

The new tasting room at Ataraxia - no appointment necessary

Our next stop was Creation, where we enjoyed a lunch of small bites paired to the vineyard's wines. It was really interesting to see how the flavors of food changed the flavors of wine. And now I know that to choke down an overly oaked chard, all I need to do is to pair it with some Ceasar dressing. Brilliant. But nothing, and I mean nothing, can make a tanic merlot enjoyable.

As we sat on the deck, looking out across the vineyard to the mountains beyond, Amy took advantage of a lull in the service to deal with a problem at work via her Blackberry. As she communicated with the office, I could feel the stress seeping back into her. It reminded me too much of how I used to be, and made me determined not fall back into old patterns when we go back to work next fall.

On the way back to Simonstown we stopped in Elgin at a friend of some friends' wine farm. While we were there, a couple of older Europeans walked in, clutching their copy of the John Platter guide to South African Wines. Apparently Platter thinks that our friends' friends make a good value rose. So "the swallows," as Europeans who spend their winters in South Africa are known, tasted the rose, decided it was lekker, and bought a case. But they never bothered to try anything else. The Platter guide is certainly a helpful tool . . . we couldn't have navigated our way though so many wine regions these past few weeks without the outdated copy I picked up at the weekly Simonstown library book sale . . . but blindly following his ratings struck us as a limiting way to visit a wine region or a vineyard.

As soon as we got back to Simonstown, Amy ran up to Boulders Beach to get a look at the penguins. Then she joined the rest of us at the Bay Cafe for our last dinner together. In the morning we will drop Kate and Amy at the airport for their flight out to Nelspruit and then on to Sabi Sabi. It has been a terrific visit, full of laughter, adventure, great wine and food, and a healthy dose of frivocity. We can't imagine better travel companions. We're going to miss them. But now it is time for us to turn our attention to preparing ourselves and Mata'irea for the run up the Atlantic.

1 comment:

CatamarĂ£ Moonwalker said...

Hey you! Very nice indeed, I am here glad, for the first time, that we didn´t join you in this adventure. I would be so very pissed off for not being able to gargle all the goodies... Good on Sten for being the good boy. Oh well, all for a good cause. Brazil is lovely as usual but hot as hell. Can´t wait to hear your stories of your visit here. Love from the Moonwalkers