Hermanus and Hemel-en-Aarde
By Jamie Goode | 1st February 2024
In November, prompted by some very reasonable direct British Airway flight prices, a need for some sunshine, and the fact that my partner had never visited South Africa, I decided a holiday to the Cape was in order. Of course, for a wine journalist who’s a regular visitor with many friends and acquaintances in the area, there was a bit of wine involved, but I justified this by reasoning that most people who drink wine holidaying in the Cape will include at least a little wine tourism in their trip.
The truth is that South Africa’s wine industry is one of the globe’s most welcoming when it comes to tourism. Australia and New Zealand are also great for the casual wine enthusiast; sadly in California, and especially in Napa, hefty tasting fees are in place that make it near impossible to drop into a few wineries in an afternoon and taste through a few wines, filling up a case for drinking on the rest of the trip. And most European regions aren’t really set up for wine tourism at scale, with just a few exceptions.
We began and ended our trip in Hermanus, which is a place I have come to love. It is also the gateway to one of the most scenic and interesting wine regions of the Cape, Hemel-en-Aarde. And the drive there or back can take you through two other very interesting wine regions: Elgin and Bot River.
Hermanus is a small coastal town just over 100 km from Cape Town International Airport, a drive that will take around 90 minutes if you take the N2, which takes you through the middle of Elgin. Elgin is definitely a wine region that’s worth exploring, with perhaps a dozen very high-quality wineries who are set up to receive visitors. An apple growing area, this is effectively an elevated saucer surrounded by mountains, and has a pretty cool climate. To get in and out of Elgin you have to traverse mountain passes, and even if you don’t stop on the way, this is quite a scenic drive. After you leave Elgin, the route takes you through Bot River, which is a small wine region but boasts some excellent wineries, including Gabrielskloof and Beaumont. But if you want more of a scenic drive, and have an extra 40 minutes to spare, leave the N2 at Somerset West and take the R44. This coastal road is one of the world’s great drives, and there are lots of places on the route where you can stop and take in the view.
Back to Hermanus. It’s a town that’s closely associated with whales. In the past it used to be a whaling town; now one of its draws is that this is an excellent place to view whales even from the shore. Between June and November, Southern Right Whales make the Walker Bay their home and you can often see them breeching as you wander along the coastal path that runs through the town and then for a good distance either way. This coastal path is a gem. We caught the end of the whale season and saw a few. You can, of course, go out on one of the boat tours to get closer, but the view from the shore is pretty good.
Hermanus has a very relaxed feel to it. We stayed in the Harbour House Hotel, which has some sea views, its own pool, and nicely appointed rooms. It’s expensive by local standards, and was a bit of a treat, but because of the exchange rate of the Rand, feels like very good value. There are a lot of accommodation options in Hermanus, and because it’s quite a compact town, most of them are in walking distance of the action. There are also two excellent wine shops here. In the middle of town, there’s Wine & Company, and then a short drive away where the road to Hemel-en-Aarde begins, there’s Wine Village. There are lots of eating options in town, most of which aren’t fancy white tablecloth places but which serve good food, usually with a spectacular view. And talking of spectacular views, a restaurant down by the sea in the harbour called Perlemoen has the most remarkable table. It’s a two-top on a platform that literally juts into the sea: the ultimate ocean eating experience.
Aside from the charms of Hermanus, one of the reasons you come here is for the Hemel-en-Aarde wine region. This was first developed by the pioneers Hamilton Russell in the late 1970s, and for a long time this was the only winery here. Then Peter Finlayson, the Hamilton Russell winemaker started Bouchard Finlayson, and this began the momentum that has ended up with this super-scenic region becoming well known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (among other things), boasting some of the country’s top wineries, and offering some great hospitality. Most of the wineries welcome visitors, and some of the other star names are Restless River, Newton Johnson, Ataraxia and Creation. There are now three sub-regions as you head up the single road that connects everyone: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge.
We finished our trip with a special stay in one of these vineyards: Creation. Here they have a luxury architecht-designed home that is literally in their vineyard, set a discrete distance away from the winery called Voormanshuis. The accommodation is for a couple, and is on the first floor with stunning views across this beautiful estate. It’s remote, so in the evenings and early in the morning you are alone in the middle of some stunning natural beauty. It’s worth leaving the blinds open to catch the sunrise.
Creation have done a remarkable job with their hospitality operation, and the attention to detail here is astonishing. The staff are superb, and the kitchen is doing some amazing work, with special attention paid to those who want gluten-free or vegetarian options. They offer an a la carte menu, but also a thoughtfully created six course tasting menu, with the dishes paired to Creation wines. Breakfast, served until 11 am, is also highly recommended.
In all, we stayed four days in Hermanus, but we could have easily have stayed a lot longer. It’s truly one of the jewels of the Cape.