Cape Town - When we arrived back to the hiss and steam of two uniformed maids ironing our billion thread- count linen sheets — still on our bed — it became clear Franschhoek’s La Residence was not your run-of-the mill hotel.
To be fair, there were plenty of pointers. No check-in, no messing about with credit cards and passports, no overpriced mini bar (just a full fridge and an enormous ornate sideboard with every conceivable spirit from which to help yourself), a jolly chef who cooked whatever we fancied and gardens planted to match the avant-garde interior decor of each private villa.
The only thing to worry about was how many of the luxury bathroom unguents we could transport home without exceeding our baggage allowance.
But even if you’re not fortunate enough to be able to wallow in such ridiculous loveliness, South Africa is a brilliant escape from British floods, frosts and dark afternoons.
The 12-hour overnight flight could not be described as a joy — particularly with a toddler.
But just when you think you can’t bear it any more, you’re there, popping out into the 25c sunshine and a mere two-hour time difference with gritty eyes and a tearful gratitude for sun, blue skies, 14 rand to the pound and seemingly endless empty beaches and deserted roads.
Cape Town is everything everyone’s always banging on about.
Fabulous scenery, Table Mountain glowering down at us when we draw our curtains in the One&Only’s vast and sumptuous room, exquisite food (the tasting menu at the Cape Grace Hotel’s Signal Restaurant was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had and a snip at £35/R300), lashings of wine, flowers everywhere and endless activities. Even without rushing off to a game reserve in search of the Big Five, there’s enough Little Five action to keep a toddler enchanted — malodorous penguins, bottom-flashing baboons and a wonderful aquarium with sinister (if rather small) sharks.
Not forgetting the wonders of Monkey Town — the world’s worst signposted attraction, but brilliantly old fashioned, cheap as chips and full-to-bursting with happy-looking monkeys, chimpanzees, emus, ostriches and an awful lot of highly sexed tortoises, very slowly making love.
You can smell the 3,000 African penguins at Boulders Beach long before you see them, waddling about like fat cartoon characters.
They’re delightful and friendly and very obediently stick to the rocks within the sanctuary where you have to pay to view them from boardwalks. Another must, we were told, is a visit to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point.
It turns out it’s neither Africa’s most southerly point (which is further down the coast) nor the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
It is, however, the spectacular graveyard of at least 26 shipwrecks, including the Portuguese liner SS Lusitania.
It is accessed via the Table Mountain National Park — a vast moorland ablaze with pink and plants with flowers like enormous white broccoli.
Intrepid visitors can walk the hour-and-three-quarter round-trip to Cape Point. Rather shamefully, we seized on the triple excuse of Freddy, our 16-month-old nipper, vertiginous drops and a pair of expensive, but disappointingly pinching, Italian brogues to justify lounging in the cafe instead.
You can’t visit Cape Town without going up Table Mountain. We drove most of the way and then entrusted our car to a man who promised to “keep it safe”, but scammed us out of a few rand while we took the cable car to the top.
The views were spectacular — great swathes of coastline, the whole of Cape Town, craggy cliffs and the glint of Camps Bay’s golden sand.
The only things missing were dassie rats — dog-sized furry rodents that run wild on the mountain and, bizarrely, are the closest living relative to theelephant.
“They’re everywhere!” we were told “You can’t miss them.”
We looked and looked. After an hour, we came upon a group of Germans quivering with excitement beside a scrubby bush and what looked like the world’s largest guinea pig.
There’s so much to do around Cape Town — eating, drinking, cycling, horse-riding and lounging on the beach in Camps Bay and trying not to be tempted by any of the holiday tat.
But it would be madness to fly all the way there and not sample a bit of the world famous Garden Route — a 140-mile swathe of flowers, blossom and spectacular scenery east of Cape Town.
If you like wine (which we do, very much), dip your toe in the winelands — Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek.
We chose Franschhoek because my husband had romantic memories of a teeny place with sweet shops, restaurants and vineyards beneath spectacular mountains that he’d visited with a previous girlfriend ten years ago.
A decade on, the then girlfriend, along with a teeny bit of Franschhoek’s charm, have gone. Today the ‘strip’ goes on for well over a mile.
There are shops selling all manner of stuff you’ll neverneed, a vast chocolate emporium that looks like a wedding cake and a huge, walled residential estate.
The vineyards are neat and ordered behind enormous ornate gates and miles of picket fences.
But there are still thousands of roses that cast an extraordinary perfume everywhere you go, dozens of secluded terraces on which to taste local wines (our favourite was Cape Chamonix’s oaked Sauvignon Blanc 2010 — delicious, if not quite the bargain of a decade ago) and endless lovely places to eat.
The loveliest — at least when it comes to setting — must be La Petite Ferme, one of those low-key, but classy, family-run places, perched on the side of a hill overlooking the town.
They make their own wine, smoke their own trout and make a fuss over their guests.
There’s even a lush sloping lawn where you can crash out on a rug clutching your stomach and vowing you’ll never eat four courses again while sipping pudding wine and giggling about randy tortoises. Oh yes, and planning next year’s trip.
Because everyone’s right — Cape Town is brilliant. If I could afford it, I’d go every year to smell the roses (if not the penguins), gasp at the vast skies and looming mountains and avoid the gloom back home. In fact, I’m tempted to go even if I can’t afford it. - Daily Mail