It’s no secret that Hermanus is home to what is arguably the world’s best land- and boat-based whale watching. Every year, thousands flock to this picturesque town lying on Walker Bay (about 90 minutes’ drive from Cape Town) to be enthralled by the mating and calving antics of southern right whales as they arrive on their annual migration from the icy Southern Ocean to the balmy shores of South Africa's Garden Route.
And while the whales are no secret, Hermanus does have hidden gems to delight those who stumble upon it: a gorgeous wine route that runs parallel to the sea, dotted with laid-back vineyards and estates offering extremely quaffable vintages.
While the more famous wine-producing areas of the Cape, like Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Constantia, take the lion's share of the limelight, the Hermanus wine Route has been slowly gaining ground since about the late-80s. Back then, Hermanus was little more than a classic one-horse country town popular with retired folk. One of the viticultural pioneers was Anthony Hamilton Russell who took over the land from his dad in the early 90s and set about planting vineyards for pinot noir and chardonnay. Today, he oversees not only the successful Hamilton Russell Vineyards – where guests can enjoy dinner in the atmospheric cellar (by special arrangement) or sit out on the lake and watch black-necked herons glide by – but also neighbouring estate, Southern Right, aptly named for the whales that put Hermanus on the tourism map. Southern Right is known not only for its zingy pinotage and smooth chenin but also for delicious fynbos honey and a roaming herd of Nguni cattle, the mottled, speckled and multi-coloured cows and oxen that are so synonymous with Southern Africa.
Southern Right and Hamilton Russell Vineyards lie near the start of the Hermanus Wine Route, which is five minutes’ drive from the centre of Hermanus and threads its way along the R320 in the aptly named Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (Heaven-and-Earth Valley). The valley is protected from the sea breezes but benefits from the moist air and plentiful sunshine, making it seem like a little slice of ‘heaven’. There are 15 wine farms, starting with Hermanuspietersfontein, wending past top-rated Bouchard Finlayson and ending in a cluster that includes Ataraxia, Creation Wines and Domaine des Dieux, where you can toast your holiday with a flute of methode cap classique (MCC) – South Africa’s champagne-style sparkling wine, a legacy of the French Hugenot settlers who arrive in 1688-89.
The first thing to do, if you’ve driven up from Cape Town, is to choose a designated driver. The legal limit in South Africa is a breath-alcohol content of 0.24mg per 1 000ml or a blood-alcohol limit of 0.05g per 100ml. This equates to 75ml of red or white wine per hour with an alcohol content of 12 to 14 percent. So... unless there is a teetotaller in your group who is happy not to sample any wine, it’s definitely worth asking your African Safari Expert to organise a private shuttle to ferry you around. Not only will you have complete safety and privacy, but the driver knows the area and will happily collect you from your hotel in a spotless, comfortable minibus, returning you safely at the end of a day's wine safari. Bear in mind, too, that the legal drinking age in South Africa is 18, meaning you may like to bend the rules a little and allow the under-21s but over-18s a special vacation treat of tasting with the family. It’s a great way to begin educating their palates although many youngsters swear off wine ‘for life’ the first time they taste it!
The great thing about the Hermanus Wine Route is its close proximity to the town. If the weather turns and the whales decide to lay low (like more marine creatures, they’re most active in windless, sunny conditions), then it’s easy enough to take a spontaneous tour through the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
Some estates arrange superb food-and-wine pairings, where you can explore how different flavours enhance each other. Creation Wines really push the boat out when it comes to pairings: their chocolate and wine pairing – two flavours traditionally thought to clash – is sought-after by foodies, but they’re also known for their ‘vineyard safari’ where you can wander the vines in search of fynbos flowers and birds before sitting down to a sumptuous picnic. For non-drinkers, Creation Wines put on a tea-and-canapé pairing while the rest play at being alchemists to create their own personal vintages and learn the art of wine blending.
At Ataraxia, the tastings take place in an idyllic chapel perched on a mountain-top; even if you aren’t a wine aficionado, it’s worth the drive just to see the breath-taking views. In fact, the views are pretty spectacular all-round: from Hamilton Russell Vineyards, follow the dirt road up to the ridge and there you will see Hermanus laid out before you, with the ocean sparkling beyond. It’s a tranquil spot enlivened by birds fesating on the nectar of colourful spring flowers and – if you’re lucky – small mammals like hyraxes (known locally as ‘dassies’, pronounced ‘dussies’) and mongooses scurrying in the undergrowth.
As a child of the 1980s, the Hermanus Wine Route lacks some of the historical ‘grandeur’ of its big cousins in Stellenbosch, Constantia and Franschhoek which can, after all, trace their origins back to the 1600s, the Whale Coast route is fun, unpretentious and welcoming. It’s an easy day or two out and the best thing is that you can return with a bottle of your new favourite tipple to enjoy on your hotel balcony while you scan the horizon for a breaching whale. Cheers!
Where to stay if you're travelling as a family
The Marine is an upscale but cosy hotel within very easy walking distance of the town's centre with sweeping views of Walker Bay from its manicured lawn. It is a Relais & Chateaux property with a spa and excellent dining options, while the whole family can enjoy spotting whales from the seaside path that runs the length of the protea-filled garden.
Where to stay if you're travelling as honeymooners
For a once-in-a-lifetime treat, check into Birkenhead House. An eclectic riot of antiques and curiosities from all over the world merge splendidly with the expansive ocean views. Indulge in outdoor fine-dining and petal-strewn bubble baths after a sunset stroll on nearby Grotto Beach...