Tram-Way to Heaven in Franschhoek
We managed to leave Cape Town on time despite the burst water pipe in the bathroom. The mains stop cock closed, pipes drained and all mopped up; nothing was going to stop our weekend of wine fun in Franschhoek. We were 3 couples. Our first stop was the Wine Tram which we had booked for 11.30 am. The Saturday morning journey to Franschhoek seemed to take no time at all – little over an hour, even with a refuelling stop, for the 80 kilometres – and no doubt buoyed by our excitement. None of us had been on the tram before, while only a few had spent much time in Franschhoek. This was going to be a weekend to remember! We were blessed too by stunning sunny winter weather.
Centre Ville in the Centre of the Village
The swift journey gave us the time to book into our accommodation before heading to the tram. Our original plan was to stay in self-catering accommodation but this changed as our numbers increased. We chose the Centre Ville Guest House and could not have chosen better. It was easy to find. The French name was the perfect description as it was located on Dirkie Uys Street, just one street away and barely 100 metres from the shops and restaurants in Huguenot Road. It meant that once we had parked we were able to walk to all the places we wanted to and without having to drive – very handy for a wine-tasting weekend!
Centre Ville was not only in the best location but very comfortable too. We chose and booked our rooms separately which was easy to do using the comprehensive and user-friendly website. The 8 double rooms have sumptuous names that well describe the property – Ambience, Abundance, Explore, Splendour, Indulgent, Passion, Sensational and Comfort – with off season prices (May to September) ranging from R1,000 to R1,700 per room per night. The property is a classic Victorian house, white painted with pretty front bedding of roses, pansies and succulents, together with wrap around stoep covered by a catslide roof of corrugated iron.
Jaco met us on our arrival and we were able to check in without delay. He told us that he had owned the property for 11 years and spent considerable time upgrading it. It showed. The inside was full of character with plenty of pictures, artefacts and books to explore. Wooden floored throughout, the rooms were as well equipped as the website photos showed – better than – which is not always the case. The four poster bed was luxurious and the Victorian styled bathroom comfortable. Even though we spent precious little time in our rooms, we made full use of the tea and coffee-making facilities (complete with rusks and mini decanter of sherry), electric blanket, wall heater (aircon for summer), mini fridge, and bathroom with shampoo, shower gel, body lotion, shower cap, make-up pads, hair-dryer and more.
The Wine Tram
We headed to the Tram station that was 5 minutes walk away on Huguenot Road. The company operates 5 lines that link up 21 vineyards in the Franschhoek Wine Valley. The service operates in one direction with each line containing between 7 and 9 stops. The timetable has been cleverly written – well beyond my logistical capability – so that the tram or tram-bus passes each stop once an hour. Most of the tour was by tram-bus with only the final 2 stops on the tram. The tram runs on a branch line built in 1904 for steam trains that took over from the ox wagons that brought farmers’ goods to market between Franschhoek and Paarl. Diesel locomotives took over between the 1970s and 1990s. Thereafter, the line became disused until 2012 when it returned to service for the Wine Tram. The newly constructed tram, complete with clever tilting seats for forward facing travel in each direction, is modelled on an open-sided Brill Tram of the 1890s.
We had pre-booked on the Red Line (R220 per ticket) that stopped at Maison, Eikehof, Leopard’s Leap, Chamonix, Dieu Donne, Franschhoek Cellar, Rickety Bridge and Grande Provence wine farms before returning to the Ticket Office in the middle of the village. Last pick-up was at 5.44 pm which gave time for a maximum of 5 stops, with an hour at each for tasting. We agreed to stop at Maison (the first stop) and then Chamonix, Dieu Donne, Rickety Bridge and Grande Provence (final stop). The transport for all but the 2 last stops was by tram-bus. On our way round, we decided to miss out Dieu Donne to allow an extra hour for lunch at Chamonix.
The tram experience was excellent. Shinell was our ebullient hostess who added to the ‘party bus’ spirit that became progressively louder and more excitable throughout the day. The benefit of being able to drink without driving was immediately obvious – and far more obvious for some of our fellow travellers who clearly had made the most of their wine drinking rather than tasting! Neither the tram-bus nor tram was ever more than 2/3 full which made for comfortable travelling. I am sure the Lines get really busy at the height of the tourist season in summer when early booking must be essential.
I shall write in detail separately for every wine farm visited. As ever, each one was unique in character and experience. Maison was a boutique winery set in a small Victorian cottage overlooking vineyards at the rear. It has recently been extensively refurbished to give a modern interior feel. The wines were priced above their easy drinking quality but were pleasant enough. Chamonix, at the farthest point of our trip, was amongst trees in an intimate setting. Lunch in the restaurant at the rear of the Tasting Room in the original blacksmith cottage was painfully slow – and so it was just as well we omitted Dieu Donne to allow time to eat – but the wines were decent and priced to match.
Rickety Bridge was the favourite of all. We transferred from tram-bus to tram close to Franschhoek Cellar and made our way to and from the Rickety Bridge platform via tractor-drawn carriages. I liked the setting across the river with traditional Cape Dutch buildings beside the more functional Tasting Room building. We had least time here for tasting due to the tractor trips to/from the tram platform. I would have liked more time and could easily have stayed an extra hour. With hindsight, it might have been better to have had lunch here rather than at Chamonix. Though rushed, the winery had a relaxed feel and the wines were the best value for money, without sacrificing quality.
Time at the artistic Grande Provence, our final stop and last on the Red Line, was short due to another tractor-driven transfer to and from the tram within the allotted hour. Sensibly, Grande Provence offered a pre-set ‘Express Tasting’ of 2 white, 1 rosé and 2 red wines. This showcased well their wine range and took away the time needed for decision-making. Even so, we had to drink – or, rather, taste – quickly to make our departure time for the return.
The Wine Tram was excellent fun and a great way to travel between the different wine farms. The advantages are many. There is the obvious benefit of being able to drink while letting someone else drive. This was really useful for a group of wine friends as we could all drink without having a designated driver (staying overnight in Franschhoek of course also helped). I liked being able to concentrate on the spectacular scenery too as we travelled between the different wine farms. The Tram has several routes and more stops than one can manage on each route. This means that one can return many times without repeating the same experience, and even enjoy different wineries on the same route. I do not think I would have chosen the same vineyards to taste at had I been travelling by car. The central ticket office and start/end point in the village made the tram easy to use too. There was a heightened sense of fun in being with a group of strangers – even if some proved to be rather raucous and rowdy towards the end of the trip.
On the downside, to make best use of the tram, it makes for a rushed experience. We made the correct choice to make a 2 hour stop to be able to include lunch and tasting. It would not have made too early a start from Cape Town to have booked for the earliest tram (10.30 am) to have given more time. One hour was tight to allow time to arrive, choose wines, taste, buy, shop and settle a bill before leaving, and especially so with other people leaving to catch the same tram-bus or tram. This meant that we saw little else of each estate other than the Tasting Room when exploration of the grounds and surrounds would have been interesting. Departure announcements were clear whilst we were on the tram-bus but became confused and lost when we arrived at Rickety Bridge. Leaving times for the tractor transfer and for the tram from the platform were not the same. Last, Wine ‘Tram’ is something of a misnomer given that the tram runs only between the 2 stops at Rickety Bridge and Grande Provence (there’s no tram ride on the Purple Line at all). Whilst the tram-bus was comfortable, I was disappointed that more of the tour was not on the tram itself.
Dutch East, Elephants and Barrels in the Evening
Fully satisfied, we did not return to Centre Ville until 6.00 pm. This gave time briefly to relax and regain our thoughts before we walked to Dutch East, just beyond the tram ticket office, for dinner. The restaurant was pleasantly busy though not completely full. Nonetheless, it was good that we had booked to secure our table. The open room was well lit and warm (almost too warm) from the log-burning stove beside us. The restaurant serves food ‘where West meets East’ with a modest selection of snack, starter, main and dessert courses. The meat was not halaal and there were few vegetarian dishes on the menu. There was the option to choose either a Two Course or Three Course Set Menu from snacks, starters, mains and/or desserts from the á la carte selection (R275 or R375). We soon worked out that the price advantage (or not) depended on the items ordered. I chose a mozzarella arancini starter and sirloin steak and fries with a coffee after. The food was wholesome and tasty and the service good. I did not chose wine for obvious reasons though the wine list was comprehensive and, unsurprisingly, contained wines from the Valley. We consciously took time to relax and enjoy our meal which made a welcome contrast to the rapid hop-on and hop-off from the Wine Tram. I would certainly eat at the Dutch East again.
Our day ended with a night cap at the Elephant and Barrel Village Pub in one of the many small alleys off Huguenot Road. It claims to be the only English Pub in Franschhoek and serves over 30 traditional beers and cocktails. I am not so sure (as a Brit) whether it made the best advert for a traditional English pub. The sparse, dark wooden bar furniture nodded in that direction even if the beers were both local and national. Loud music made conversation typically difficult for late on a Friday night but watching the inebriated clientele dancing, some of whom had come straight to the Pub from our Wine Tram, made up for that.
The four poster bed back at Centre Ville made for a welcome sleep even though the room was semi-light from the street lights outside. I had no intention of having breakfast but the spread offered by Jaco and his smiling staff in the warm, cosy room was too tempting. Everything that I could possibly have wanted was provided: fresh fruit; yoghurt, cereal and muesli; toast, marmalade and jams; cooked English breakfast; tea, coffee and more. I enjoyed all and especially the cheese and mushroom omelette that was perfectly cooked.
Tuk Tuk to Boschendal
We checked out afterwards and spent an hour separately exploring the shops along the Huguenot Road. As it happened (!) we ended up beer tasting in the newly established Tuk Tuk Microbrewery at the Huguenot Monument end of the village. The Cape Brewing Company (CBC) was first opened at the Spice Route near Paarl in 2012 by a Swedish Brewer (Henrik Dune) and 2 beer enthusiasts. Tuk Tuk is owned by a consortium of 4 Franschhoek hotels and has been open for little over a year. The 250 litre copper microbrewery offers 4 craft beers together with a further 5 beers made at the Spice Route. The industrial-style décor has been well designed to show off the fermentation tanks and piping. I am sure other craft breweries will set up in the Wine Valley as hopster becomes hipster.
We chose a mix of the Any Three CBC, All Five CBC and All Four Tuk Tuk beers, all served in 100 ml glasses. They included Lager, Dunkel, Weissen, Pale Ale, Pilsner, Amber Weiss and Krystal Weiss, with mini fermentation and tasting notes provided for each. The tasting made a welcome change from wine albeit the beers were made in either American or German style. I would have liked to have seen at least one English-styled beer, preferably more, within the selection.
Our original plan was to visit the Franschhoek Motor Museum on our return route to Cape Town. We had booked but were advised on Friday that the museum was closed for the weekend due to possible protest action on the R45. We saw none. We decided instead to visit Boschendal. Surprisingly, we missed the signposts off the R45 and had to backtrack a little onto the A310. I shall write a full tasting report separately. It was great to visit this archetypical Cape Dutch wine farm at long last and Boschendal did not disappoint. We shared many wines from the Classic and Premium Tastings and were well hosted. The selection was broad and the wines generously priced for their quality. This is not always the case as I have found elsewhere – Vergelegen, for instance, comes to mind – as all-too-often the iconic estates apply premium pricing to their wines. We ate a leisurely bistro lunch after tasting before heading back to the Mother City via the airport for our Joburg friends.
Aftertaste and After Thoughts
I do not think we could have fitted more into the weekend in Franschhoek than we did. Besides a fun couple of days with friends, the plans and arrangements worked well. We were fortunate with excellent weather. Whilst the vines were bereft of leaves, I should imagine that making such a trip in December or January would be hectic and far less relaxing. It was quiet enough that we did not have to book every activity in advance and so had some flexibility on the day as to where and when to go and what to do. Some activities required advance booking – the Wine Tram and the Motor Museum – and it made sense to pre-book the accommodation and evening restaurant. Lunch was busy enough at Chamonix on Saturday and at Boschendal on Sunday but we managed without booking. I would readily stay at the Centre Ville Guest House in future and recommend it to others.
The Wine Tram was thoroughly enjoyable and I shall do it again. It made for a different wine-tasting experience. Only recently did I have friends visiting Cape Town from South Africa and abroad and I did not think of the Wine Tram when they were asking for things to do during their holiday. Tickets too will make nice birthday or Christmas presents for wine-loving friends.
I now need to revisit the wine farms I tasted at again to explore them further and fully to sample their wines …..