Free-range Living in the Fynbos: Guide to Stanford
Words Fred Hatman, pics Teagan Cunniffe
Locals warned him of Stanford’s pull, but it wasn’t until he made a right-turn to this Overberg village that Fred Hatman felt his resistance crumble.
Hermanus in the Overberg is marketed as ‘the whale-watching capital of the world’ and 50 kilometres along the R43 and up the Western Cape’s south coast lies Gansbaai, the ‘shark-cage diving epicentre’ of the universe. Roughly equidistant between these adrenaline-heightening conurbations, you will see, if you glance to your right, a row of rather unremarkable houses – squat brickwork with identikit tin roofs. So you will chug past, focused on the idea of staring into the dark and dangerous eye of a great white shark.
I understand. Because a great many are similarly misled. I have been one of the lucky ones. I made that right-turn into the genteel tranquillity of Stanford only because a friend of a friend had kindly committed to looking after my dogs while I ventured forth to the salubrious salons of Cape Town.
It was while I, gripped by big-city paranoia, knocked up a fence to contain the hounds that the friend of a friend emerged smiling from her house with a cup of tea… and I stopped to draw a humungous breath of air. The overwhelming scent of fynbos and jasmine made my legs sag.
The local fynbos more than holds its own in the Cape Floral Kingdom.
I was vulnerable. And the spirit of Stanford was standing over me, preparing to deliver the love. Janika said: ‘Y’know, there really is no need to build this fence. Stanford dogs, and our children, are free-range.’ I blinked. And then saw this for myself when we walked up to Queen Victoria Street, the main drag, for coffee and cake.
As we strolled past the mix of quaint Victorian houses and stooping Strandveld cottages, secreted away from those fixed steadfastly on Gansbaai, freedom’s children waved at Janika from speeding skateboards and pensioners wobbled in the slipstream of their Jack Russells.
I got talking to a friend of my new friend, this friend of an old friend, among the locals shoehorned on to the veranda of Graze Slow Food Café, host to good-coffee addicts and lovers of Tabby Robertshaw’s fine cooking. I was told that Stanford was believed to stand on no fewer than seven ley lines (but that nobody has been able to confirm this phenomenon) and, should I be feeling a permanent pull towards living here, that Stanford ‘had a habit of sucking people in and then, should they not quickly recognise the right of all residents to live in a state of uncompromised bliss, that it would spit them out again’. Many have gone this way, it was added… accompanied by the arch of a single eyebrow.
Not only a long-serving place of prayer, the Dutch Reformed Church hosts village fetes and the Sunset Market during the winter months.
I got it. I really got it. The bliss thing – this quite intangible Stanford thing that sucks you in. I saw it in the late-afternoon golden light softening up the stone Anglican Church that stands, sturdy in its faithfulness, as it has for 150 years, on the edge of the pristine village green. I saw it on the Klein River, as three cruise boats carried ‘outsiders’ through the orchestral chirping of a wealth of birdlife on the banks. I saw it in the satisfied smiles of wine-giggly tourists freshly feasted on the homegrown delights cooked at Mariana’s country kitchen where foreigners book six months in advance to ensure this meal can be firmly diarised for their holiday to South Africa.
I saw it in the proud labels plastered on bottles of wine made locally, in a region becoming increasingly recognised for producing varietals to please the oenophile. Raka, Stanford Hills, Springfontein, Sir Robert Stanford Estate, Brunia, Walker Bay, Vaalvlei – they are all here under the benevolent watch of the Klein River Mountains.
I saw it in Penny van den Berg’s now-famous vintage mannequins, ever-changing in their period costume in the large window of the Stanford Hotel. I saw it in the warm smiles of the ‘alternative’ folk, those artists, holistic therapists, musicians and poets who are inspired by life in the countryside. I saw it in the stoic smile of the bent old woman trolleying home her provisions from the Spar, the only retail franchise allowed in the village.
Stanford’s children delight in using the village roads as a giant play area.
I saw it on the Historical Route that draws you into the original farm homestead, now in the centre of the village, of Sir Robert Stanford, the landed gentry who lost his fortunes after trying to help a shipload of British prisoners who had docked in Cape Town but were sent packing to Australia by the colonial powers of the day. He was also sent packing for disobeying his majesty’s government.
I saw it winking seductively at me in the fast-rushing waters of the leiwater canals that still serve the gardens of villagers. But mostly I saw the Stanford bliss in the twinkling eyes of those ‘free-range’ children, skateboarding and biking and climbing the trees of neighbours to get at swollen, purple figs.
And when the Mother City called and I swung left to head towards her, I ruminated on this special place concealed on one side of the R43 and realised I could see it in me. Yes, I was spitting myself out. For now. But when the big city’s lights had flickered and lost their lustre, I would be back. To breathe in the free-spiritedness and warmth that had sucked me in.
Getting to Stanford
From Cape Town, head out on the N2 past the airport to Somerset West. It’s quicker ‘over the mountain’ (Sir Lowry’s Pass), past Grabouw and down Houwhoek Pass to take the Hermanus turn-off and follow the R43.
But, if you have time, veer off to the Strand and be mesmerised by Clarence Drive, surely one of the world’s most beautiful roads, circumnavigating False Bay as you pass through Gordon’s Bay, Rooi-Els, Pringle Bay, Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond to join up with the R43, heading to Hermanus. Just 23km further is the easy-to- but please-don’t-miss, right-turn into Stanford.
If travelling south on the N2 towards Cape Town, take the turn left to Stanford 10km on the R326 after Riviersonderend, ignore the right-turn to Caledon and the left to Napier and head straight through to Stanford.
Stanford River Lodge is the perfect spot from which to explore the local waterways.
Things to do in Stanford
1. Seek out the river that snakes around Stanford
The African Queen, River Rat and Platanna will all take you, depending on the level of the river, to the ‘lagoon’ which has for the past two years breached naturally into Walker Bay, making it an estuary once more.
Contact: [email protected]; riverratstanford.wordpress.com, platanna.com
There’s an abundance of birdlife including blue cranes, fish eagles and the garish purple gallinule. The hugely popular Stanford Bird Fair is a highlight on the village calendar.
3. Find the nearby secret beach
Stanfordians might not readily reveal this. You will need a 4×4, however. Travel along the delightfully named Wortelgat Road until you can go no further and go through the gate to Walker Bay Nature Reserve. A very bumpy track takes you through the dunes to Die Plaat, where you will probably have it all to yourself.
4. Eat cheese
The Klein River Cheese farm has won many awards for its cheeses. Klein River Cheese supplies Woolworths, and has won awards for its Gruyère. Riaan and Shelley Lourens make superb cheeses and you can have a basket packed with a selection of those, along with fine local wines, and head for the grassy riverbank for a picnic. Should you have children in tow, it is unlikely you will get the picnic started before the animal farm, complete with a black springbok and an array of ducks and pigs, has been gawped at.
Self-harvested honey lines the walls of Tabby Robertshaw and Alex Chouler’s Graze Slow Food Café.
Where to eat in Stanford
This restaurant at the nearby Stanford Hills Wine Estate has a marvellous view across the valley to add to a mouthwatering menu devised by talented chef Bridget Bartleman. A small dam, swings and a trampoline keep the small people entertained while you linger over a bottle of the estate’s Jacksons Pinotage, given a four-star rating by Platter’s South African Wines. If you have hit it lucky on a Friday night, there might be a ‘TGIF’ knees-up. Beware the locals – they like to let loose.
This restaurant has received many accolades as one of the Western Cape’s finest country kitchens and Peter, the front-of-house funny man and husband of Mariana, will have you guffawing over delicious dishes at your table next to the organic vegetable garden.
Contact: Tel 028 341 0272
This warm-spirited little restaurant in Queen Victoria Street is run by another husband-and-wife team, Alex Chouler and Tabby Robertshaw. Most of the food on your plate will have come from their smallholding and the fresh produce market on Wednesday mornings attracts a number of locals every week.
Insider tip: if you go for breakfast, do not miss out on the eggs Benedict on rosti. It is truly something.
Contact: Tel 076 243 1930
This restaurant, on the wine farm of the same name, is a short jaunt down Wortelgat Road and is the domain of Michelin-starred chef Jürgen Schneider. He is known to forage around the farm at first light for unknown flora which will contribute towards creating a unique and memorable meal.
5. Don Gelato
Situated in Queen Victoria Street, Don Gelato serves truly magnificent Italian ice cream (and Continental breakfasts) made on the premises by the truly Italian Giovannetti family, who take great pride in doing everything the truly authentic way. Sit in the quaint courtyard at the back and absorb all of the flavours of the village.
Contact: Tel 079 840 1084
You are strongly advised not to leave Stanford without tasting the authentic Italian ice cream at Don Gelato.
Where to stay in Stanford
Galashiels is run by the effervescent Jill and Brian Smith and is, as you might have already guessed, very Scottish in every way. And homely. And heartwarming when you are sat on a tartan sofa in front of a roaring fire with a wee dram in your hand, being regaled by stories of the ‘Auld Countrie’ by any one or all of the Smith family. From R450 per person per night, including breakfast.
Perched right on the river, just a little stretch down the Wortelgat Road, this is a perfect spot for kayaking enthusiasts in that owners John and Valda Finch grab every chance to go a-paddling … when they’re not riding their mountain bikes. From R750 per night for two people.
A short drive further down Wortelgat Road, this is a luxurious retreat where the concerns of urban life are quickly forgotten. Its Spookhuis Restaurant is charming and its history abounds with myth and folklore. From R1 960 per person per night.
Contact: Tel 028 313 2814, www.mosaicsouthafrica.com
Stanford Tourism can help with other accommodation options and bookings.
All prices were correct at time of publication, but are subject to change at the establishments’ discretion. Please take them as an indication only and check for latest prices before travelling.