PAARL has its share of claims to fame: founded in 1687, the city is the third-oldest settlement in South Africa and has a rich cultural and historical heritage; the Afrikaans language is recognised by the Taal Monument (Language Monument) atop the southern slopes of the Paarl Mountain; the 12km Main Road is the longest of its kind in the country and is lined with fine examples of Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and Cape Dutch architecture, and just outside the city is the Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Correctional Centre), where Nelson Mandela spent his last years of captivity and from which he completed his “long walk to freedom”.
Beyond all this, Paarl offers wonderful country hospitality with many accommodation options, and plenty of wine farms, eateries and activities to please visitors.
On almost all of my trips to this pearl of the Winelands, I’ve headed left off the N2 out of Cape Town to spend weekends at Laborie and Grande Roche, watched track cycling, tasted the wines of Nederburg, and, yes, explored the monument.
This time, most of my experiences were on the “other” side of Paarl - the Agter Paarl - and outside the city, where I discovered some well-established attractions as well as some new ones.
Cheetah Experience Ashia, for example, has been open for only a few months. The sanctuary is on a small working farm (which has brand new accommodation suites) and continues the conservation and environmental education programmes of its parent venture in the Free State.
As a sanctuary, Ashia, an African name meaning “life and hope”, offers a facility for hand-raised ambassador cheetahs and a safe sanctuary for retired animals or those that need special care. During the tour of the enclosures, I learnt that a single cub is a rare occurrence and will most likely not survive in the wild; it’s animals like these that are taken in and looked after, as well as those with injuries or birth defects.
My guest house, Mountain Shadows, is another newcomer. Well, not the manor house - which dates to 1823 - but it’s been under new ownership since late last year and has undergone a major facelift. It, too, is on a small working farm, with a beautiful dam (that has fish), so you can take yourself on a lovely little walk around the property. Some of the several on-site dogs will be happy to accompany you.
Comfortable rooms are in old buildings which have been renovated and, if you’re inclined to adopt a more relaxed position, there’s a glittering pool alongside which you can recline.
Another new kid on the block is the Soul Barrel Brewing Company, which sits on the border of Paarl and Simondium. It’s owned and run by Nick Smith who came from New Orleans to Cape Town for the love of a woman. In the tiny brewery which used to be a wine cellar, he makes just four delicious ales which he explains are Belgian-inspired and “yeast-forward”.
Smith does duty behind the small bar, pulling pints and chatting with customers, and will give you a tour of the pocket-size brewery if you ask nicely. These beers are best enjoyed fresh so if you can commit to drinking them within a few days, they can be taken away in 1.5litre “growlers”, which can be refilled on your next visit.
The “older” places I visited included Landskroon Wines, [email protected], DV Chocolates and Bertus Basson At Spice Route.
At Landskroon, Bevena Stoffels introduced me to the wines of Paul and Hugo de Villiers with a heritage pairing which matches five wines with locally sourced produce including two cheeses, olives, dry wors and Turkish delight. There are some great wines available at great prices in the tasting room.
Simonsvlei also has a range of very affordable, easy drinking wines and they’re available at cellar-door prices in the [email protected] restaurant, which is run by Rob and Nicky Hahn - she is front of house, he rules the kitchen.
Food is unfussy and wholesome with the focus on simple, flavourful ingredients. Wood-fired pizzas are a speciality, and you can order a picnic basket to enjoy alfresco.
A family-friendly environment, there is loads of space for children to play safely.
Fairview and Spice Route are two big drawcards on the Suid-Agter Paarl Road. It was my first time at the latter, where I visited DV Chocolate for a tasting of the new single-origin range which expands the bean-to-bar offering to plantations in Uganda, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Peru and Panama. This happens right next to the small glassed-off factory where all DV’s delicious chocolate treats are made.
Last but not least, was a traditional Sunday lunch at Bertus Basson At Spice Route - to give this award-winning chef’s restaurant its full name.
The set menu is a feast of dishes reminiscent of Ouma’s kombuis but with Basson’s modern twist for which he's famous, beginning with vetkoek with biltong, butter and smoked snoek * âté, and ending with Tannie Hetta’s apple pie with custard and vanilla ice cream.
In between, enjoy the pickled fish with peaches, memorable lamb riblets, spice-rubbed sirloin, sticky barbecue chicken and pumpkin pie.
It was a fitting finale to a weekend which combined the sense of history Paarl evokes, with a good helping of the new and modern.
* Paarl Tourism, 216 Main Road
Call: 021 872 4842
E-mail: [email protected]
The Saturday Star