Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ai-Ais and the Fish River Canyon: Burning Water and Vertigo

Following our dusty and bumpy drive, we arrived at Ai-Ais Hot Springs Resort.  Ai-Ais means burning water (for the hot springs) and the “resort” is situated on the banks of the Fish River, near the end of the canyon of the same name, which we had come to this area to see.  It is a bit of a stretch to call our odd accommodations a resort, but German tourists seem to have come from far and wide to stay at Ai-Ais.  There is an outdoor pool fed by the hot springs, as well as an indoor pool (pictured here) just outside our room.  We thought the pools were a little dirty, but apparently the speedo-clad Germans and Afrikaaners didn’t mind.

We used what little daylight was left to explore (and find the perfect sundowner location).  There is a five-day/50 km hike through the Fish River Canyon that ends at Ai-Ais, so we set off up the riverbed in the canyon to see what the hike was like (at least the end of it).  It’s dry season, so the Fish River is completely dry in places and in others is just a trickle – this makes it the perfect, albeit sandy, hiking path.  Even trudging through the sand, we quickly left Ai-Ais behind and were on our own, or so we thought until we ran into these guys:

At Aus, our next stop, there are definitely wild desert horses and we were thrilled to find a small group of them before that.  Even though they were skittish, they didn’t immediately bolt like many of wild animals, so we picked a nearby rock as our sundowner/horse watching location.

We devoted Saturday to a more complete exploration of the Fish River Canyon.  Bright and early, we drove 50 km through the desolate landscape to the main viewpoints.  Turning west into the national park at Hobas, a short drive brought us to the edge of the canyon, which appears out of nowhere in the desert.

The Fish River Canyon is said to be the second largest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon).  Although we won’t be able to compare the two until February, the sight of the Fish River snaking its way through the steep cliffs was quite magnificent, although difficult to capture in photos.

Many visitors simply stopped at the main viewpoint and headed back out of the park again, but we were quite happy to spend our day exploring the canyon edge.  From the main viewpoint, we hiked to the so-called “Hiker’s Viewpoint,” where the path steeply descends into the canyon for the official five-day hike.  Our guidebook indicated that too many people had been injured or killed on day hikes into the canyon, so such excursions are no longer allowed. 

From the “Hiker’s Viewpoint,” we continued to various other poorly signed viewpoints (Namibian national parks do not seem to be as well organized as their South African counterparts).  Accidentally driving down a 4x4 only road and hiking along various unmarked paths, we tried not to fall over the edge of the canyon into the depths below, particularly given the gusting winds.  The lack of crowds, or really any visitors at all, was refreshing – throughout the day, our car was the only vehicle parked on the edge of the canyon! 

Following a picnic on an empty canyon edge, we were back on the road to Ai-Ais.  In case you were wondering, it seems that driving everywhere in Namibia is an adventure.  Each time we embark on a drive, no matter how short, we check the map to see if there are gas stations en route.  If not, we make sure the tank is full.  Except for a rusted out truck from the 1950s by the side of the road, we’ve hardly seen any other cars, but have sighted ostriches and oryx.  We did see one couple that was biking from point a to point b in the desert – we quickly agreed that a trip like that would probably lead to the end of our marriage.   

Our desert drive continues north, with a stop in Aus to see more wild horses and then four days to see the famous dunes at Sossusvlei!


The N7 to Namibia: Mangos, Flowers, and Rain

On Tuesday, we traded in our trusty Nissan for a new (and hopefully more trusty) Nissan and headed off up the N7 towards Namibia, with a few stops along the way.  We were happy to be leaving the city for the bush again – who knew that two New Yorkers would be happier in the countryside instead of the city?  We quickly left Cape Town behind, even the townships, and emerged into the Swartland, an agricultural region with fields full of wheat and vines. As we approached the town of Citrusdal, these crops were increasingly oranges and tangerines, as the name implies. 

Near Citrusdal, we turned off on a poorly marked dirt road to reach that evening’s accommodation, a working (and organic) mango and citrus farm.  Located on the edge of the Cedarburg mountain range and nature preserve, we had hoped to explore a bit before heading north, but a late departure from Cape Town and heavy rain in the morning limited any such exploration.  Regardless, we enjoyed meeting the eccentric owners (Giorgio had the chance to inquire about the operation of South African mango farms) and had a lovely dinner in our cottage overlooking the mountains and river.

The rain in the morning not only prevented us from any hikes into the Cedarburg, but also put a damper on our plans for the afternoon and following day – seeing the springtime flowers in Namakwa.  Every year, winter rains in this northern desert lead to a springtime profusion of wildflowers.  The typically barren landscape is suddenly full of unexpected color.  However, the most vivid flower displays tend to be found on sunny days, as the diminutive flowers close their petals to conserve energy at night and on cloudy/rainy days. 

After continuing north on the N7, we took the turnoff for the national park known for having the most flowers to see what we could find on a gray day.  Before we arrived, we were struck by the fields of blue flowers along the edge of the dirt road and even more impressed with the acres of orange flowers in the park itself (slightly reminiscent of the poppy field in the Wizard of Oz).  As we waded through the fields to take a closer look, we saw numerous other flowers “hiding” with their petals folded – we can only imagine the display of different shades when they are opened to the sun.    

The flower displays are not confined to national parks, so we stayed at a nearby lodge.  Braving the rain for hike on the extensive property, we encountered flowers of all shapes and colors, including a few (closed) Williams flowers plus various Williams shrubs!  

We also startled a herd of oryx and watched them gallop into the distance.

As we left Namakwa on Friday, the rain and clouds were a distant memory, the sun was shining and the flowers were beginning to open their petals.  However, exiting Springbok, the last major town before the border where we stocked up on extra water and groceries, our surroundings became increasingly desolate.  Would our drive through Namibia be the same?

Seemingly out of nowhere, the border crossing to Namibia appeared.  We breezed through the efficiently run South African immigration office and police checkpoint, but progress slowed upon reaching the corresponding Namibian offices.  We weren’t sure where to park, what building we needed to enter or where to pay the fee for our car.  However, we muddled through (along with a large group of confused German tourists) and soon enough were off in our Nissan again.  At the final checkpoint, the police had no interest whatsoever in the contents of our car, so our 20+ bottles of wine remain in our possession. 

Leaving the border crossing in the dust, we headed northwest toward our first Namibian destination, Ai-Ais hot springs, on a newly tarred road.  When that road became a gravel road 50 km later without any warning, we quickly realized that the northern stretches of the N7 couldn’t compare to the “highways” here in Namibia.  We drove for miles without seeing another car (easily identified by the clouds of dust trailing behind it) and continually peered into the distance to see if the road ever turned or ended.

More adventures to come as we drive almost the entire length of the country!


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Steph and Gio’s Definitive* Guide to Wine Tasting in South Africa

*By definitive, we mean our guide to vineyards we visited and wines that we happen to like.  So if you disagree, plan a trip to South Africa and send us your own guide!  The descriptions below are presented in the order we visited rather than in order of preference.

We spent five days wine tasting in the Western Cape, which we have determined is a sufficient amount of time to become experts.  Our first two days were spent in the Robertson Valley, a bit farther from Cape Town than many tourists tend to venture for wine tasting.  Our next few days were spent based in Franschhoek, with day trips to nearby Stellenbosch and Paarl.   

We learned a few new terms:  quaffable means a cheap (under R50 or less than $5 bottle) wine that you can drink lots of – it doesn't taste great but isn’t absolutely awful.  Easy drinking is one level above quaffable.  Vineyards here in South Africa also grow a unique varietal, pinotage, which we have not grown to love.  Overall, Steph highly recommends almost any sauvignon blanc – they are quite similar to sauvignon blancs from New Zealand.  Red wines are more variable in terms of quality, but we we were quite impressed by most of the shiraz we tasted.  Of course, we couldn’t stop ourselves from buying a few bottles (we have a problem...) – we are hoping they don’t charge us duty for them at the Namibian border (or take them away entirely) tomorrow and that we can drink them all before we get to Botswana at the end of September.

Saturday: Klein Karoo

KarusaWe did not expect to find a decent vineyard in the desert around Oudtshoorn, known more for its ostriches and meerkats.  However, our stop at Karusa Vineyards was a lovely surprise – plus they brew beer!

Sunday: Robertson Valley, Part 1

Apparently, we were supposed to be at church on Sunday, not wine tasting.  (Hopefully, Terence was praying for our souls.)  Most of the tasting rooms were closed, so we had limited options.

Van Loveren:  Van Loveren, perhaps the largest vineyard and tasting room in the Robertson Valley, is where we learned the term quaffable.  Given their large size, we hoped that a few special wines would be available in addition to the mass produced, or quaffable, but that was sadly not the case.  Regardless, the tasting room is quite pretty.  We only recommend going here if you are out of options on a Sunday.

Graham Beck:  Our experience at Van Loveren left us somewhat concerned about our wine tasting plans, but things started looking up as soon as we arrived at Graham Beck.  Most well-known for its methode cap classique (sparkling wines), the vineyard produces a wide range of wines, including a few very special bottles.  Fun Fact: Apparently, Graham Beck sparkling wines are a favorite of Barack Obama.

TanagraOur home for the two nights in the Robertson Valley was Tanagra, a small vineyard owned by a German couple.  Not only is the vineyard a perfect setting for the cottages on the property (in the photo below, you can see ours nestled amidst the vines), but Annette and Robert are amazingly friendly and produce a unique range of wines and grappas.

Monday: Robertson Valley, Part 2

Springfield:  Our first stop on Day 2 in the Robertson Valley (thankfully no longer a Sunday), Springfield is known for its sauvignon blancs, but we enjoyed the full range of their wines.  It was our only day with sunny weather (the rest of the trip, it rained every day), so we were particularly happy to be outdoors on the edge of the lake.  Bonus: There are plenty of dogs roaming the property who are happy to sit and enjoy the wine tasting with you.  

Bon Courage:  Next, we stopped in at Bon Courage, immediately adjacent to Springfield.  Although the tasting room was somewhat thinly staffed (likely due to our winter-time visit), we enjoyed the range of "easy-drinking" options. 

Viljoensdrift:  Although we wouldn’t recommend a stop here solely for the wine, which we would characterize as quaffable, this is a great spot on the river and you can create picnics from the choices in the on-site deli.

Esona (air-sor-na)The only vineyard on Day 2 self-described as a "boutique" winery intrigued us and we weren’t disappointed.  With relatively few hectares planted, the owners produce only three wines – sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and syrah.  We were treated to vertical tastings of each varietal. Giorgio even decided to enjoy white wine (quite the feat) and Stephanie was happy to drink a glass (or two) of chardonnay without complaining.  We ended up buying a bottle of each!  For Grandma Carol, they also make a wine simply known as “Frankly My Dear.” 

KranskopTo sum it up, there are lovely views while wine tasting at this small vineyard near the mountains, but the wines are just OK and the owner was a bit racist.

Rosendal:  When we arrived shortly before closing time at 5, the staff was unenthused.  However, the wine was unique and we would have loved to spend more time at Rosendal.

Robertson Winery We had purchased a Robertson pinotage at the grocery store and were distinctly unimpressed – would there be anything better in the tasting room?  No – not recommended unless you just really want free wine.

Tuesday: On to Franschhoek!

Chamonix:  Although Chamonix is situated in a lovely setting (an old blacksmith shop), we were underwhelmed due to the quality of wine and slapdash service.  Our lunch, however, was delicious! 

Rickety Bridge:  We stopped here en route to our next tasting – not our absolute favorite wine, but certainly an enjoyable stop in front of the fire to get out of the rain.

Anthonij Rupert (L’Ormarins) One of the few tasting rooms that required a reservation to enter the property, we weren’t sure what to expect as we arrived at the gates.  We found an impeccable farm and a tasting room in the foyer of a large Cape Dutch style home.  After a brief tour of the well-appointed mansion (it turns out that Rupert is a billionaire and one of the wealthiest individuals in South Africa), we were seated for two tastings.  One, a vertical tasting of four years of the flagship wine, and the second, a comparison of several red varietals.  We were blown away by the high quality of the wine and their cellaring potential (one of the wines we tasted was a 1991 vintage) – unfortunately, it costs a small fortune to ship any bottles back home to save, so we had to content ourselves with buying just two bottles for sundowners in Namibia.

Wednesday: Franschhoek + Stellenbosch

StonybrookA small, family-run farm, Stonybrook was a welcome change of pace after a few stops at larger wine-making operations – we were treated to a personalized individual tasting with the owner. Highly recommended (both the tasting and the wines), just call in advance to make a reservation. 

Boekenhoutskloof:  Since it was quite close to Stonybrook and known for a few highly rated wines, we made a quick stop here.  Sadly, only the quaffable and easy drinking options were offered for tasting.

Stark-Condé At Stark-Condé, tastings are served in a pagoda in a small pond surrounded by vine-covered mountains – an idyllic setting.  We enjoyed the informative tasting of primarily red wines, but decided not to purchase any.

Dalla CiaThe most important thing to know about Dalla Cia (an Italian-owned vineyard that offers tastings at its restaurant, Pane e Vino) is that they produce a "Giorgio" wine.  Also, they make a mean pappardelle with osso bucco and offer grappa tastings.  Clearly a highlight.

Vilafonté:  Several years ago, we tried a fabulous South African wine at a restaurant in New York (Hearth).  Unfortunately, we couldn’t remember the name, just the fact that said name was a single letter.  After scouring through lists of South African wine, we determined that we must have had a Vilafonté wine – they only make two, a Series M and Series C.  They also export to the US.  A small operation, Vilafonté does not offer standard tastings, but they happened to be next door to our lunch stop at Dalla Cia.  We knocked on the door and were treated to a tour of the facilities and tastings of both series direct from the barrel.  Not surprisingly, we now have a bottle of each.

Tokara: Tokara is a vineyard with a few bottles that came recommended by Wine Spectator.  Although we did not absolutely love any of the choices, we enjoyed our time spent in the tasting room out of the rain by the fire.  In addition, this is one of the few free tastings in Stellenbosch.

Thursday: Paarl + Stellenbosch

Backsberg: We enjoyed our wine, but were not particularly impressed by any of the varietals we tried and somewhat put off by the disinterested service.  However, if you’re looking for South African kosher wine to serve instead of manischewitz, this is your best bet.

FairviewGoats do roam!  This is pretty much what we knew about Fairview prior to our visit – Fairview exports wine in large quantities to the US under the label Goats do Roam.  It turns out that they offer a wide variety of wines at a variety of price points.  We booked a “master tasting” which not only gave us the opportunity to try their higher end wines, but also included cheese pairings.  In addition to wine, Fairview produces high quality local cheeses – hence the roaming goats, which even have their own tower.  

GlenellyA French-owned estate in Stellenbosch – a lovely setting, but we were underwhelmed with the wines (or perhaps just had too much wine at Fairview).

ThelemaAn extremely scenic vineyard producing wine in both Stellenbosch and Elgin (closer to the coast with a cooler climate).  A nice variety of wines to taste (some highly rated by Wine Spectator) poured by a knowledgeable staff. 

Friday: Stellenbosch

De TraffordIf you only have time for one stop, this should be it.  De Trafford made it onto our list due to the rave profile and reviews in Wine Spectator (which Steph has been carrying around the wine country).  The reviews were certainly well-deserved.  For one thing, De Trafford produces a small amount of wine relative to many of the other vineyards and still manually presses the grapes (with the press pictured below).

We had one of only two big/bold cabernets of the trip here and would have bought a case of each of their varietals if we could have carried them all. Please note, however, that De Trafford is only open on Fridays and Saturdays for three hours each day.  Plus, they are located a long and winding drive from the main road – we started to think we had gotten lost en route.  Given the extra hoops we had to jump through to make it to De Trafford, we weren’t surprised to be the only ones upon arrival the tasting room.  The manager seemed impressed that two Americans had travelled so far to taste the wines and provided an extremely informative background to the tasting.  Halfway through, another group of Americans (one of whom was in town to conduct the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra) arrived, along with the same copy of Wine Spectator.  De Trafford wines are exported to the US, so buy immediately if you see a bottle at the at the liquor store or on a wine list.

Rust en VredeRust en Vrede is also highly recommended by Wine Spectator, but is a larger and more established vineyard.  We enjoyed the wines during a tasting on the patio looking out over the mountains, but the bottles were significantly more expensive than any others we had seen during our travels and did not seem worth the higher price point.

Cheers!  Salud!  Gesondheid!


PS:  We also stopped at Groot Constantia, one of the largest and oldest estates in the Constantia wine region (a suburb of Cape Town).  We can’t speak to the wine, but had a scrumptious breakfast.

PPS:  We no longer have two bottles of Vilafonté – one was consumed out to dinner in Cape Town. Speaking of which, we highly recommend dinner at Bistrot Bizerca.  In addition to having a low corkage fee, the food is absolutely delicious.