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by Michael Algar

Paarl, S.A.: It really has it all, this region known simply as The Winelands, some 45 km east of Cape Town: an intriguing past, unmatched beauty, internationally acclaimed dining rooms and wine cellars, small communities that embrace us with inviting cafes and bistros, art studios and craft stores and a friendly welcome even when we are 'just looking'. All this and wineries too, some 14 in the Paarl district alone, where we are lodged for three blissful days - 150 en route from Cape Town..

Our tour out of Cape Town started with Constantia, the 17th century estate founded by the colony's first governor, Simon van der Stel. Here we learned that the country's winelands trace their history to the earliest European settlements around Cape Town. At that time the Dutch East India Company was doing some serious trading with the Spice Islands, but lost many of its ships' crew-members to scurvy. In consequence they sent physican Jan van Riebeeck here to establish an agricultural station, with the idea of replenishing those ships with fresh food. Although wine produced from van Riebeeck's few vines planted among the meadows and gardens yielded badly needed vitamins, it was pretty sour stuff. It improved vastly under the stewardship of Governor van der Stel, who established the first commercial vineyards in Constantia. By the early 19th century this estate was producing wines acclaimed by Europe's rulers. Now van der Stel's estate house is an important heritage site and museum, while a nearby winery offers tastings of the descendants of those first wines.

Although Constantia was a first-rate introduction to the country's winelands, it did nothing to prepare us for the scenic beauty we would encounter throughout the rich interior valleys where Dutch, German and French Huguenot immigrants followed van der Stel to plant their own vines. We drove through country roads practically devoid of traffic, past orchards and strawberry fields and school-children wearing immaculate uniforms but often no shoes. Roses and lavender scent the air. Roadside stands offer sweet strawberries and bottled preserves. And always those vines striping the lower slopes of mountains shielding the valleys like a long protective wall. Guest accommodation ranges from rooms in private homes and self-catering farm cottages to opulent winery hotels often converted from the original manor houses. Such is Paarl's Grande Roche, a five-star Relais & Chateaux property with guest suites in former slave quarters and warehouses, and public areas in the 18th century Manor House. Recipient of the coveted Relais & Chateaux Gourmand status, its dining room attracts Cape Towners at weekends for lunch and a stroll about the picture perfect grounds.

The Paarl region alone has 14 wineries, stacking up awards for their Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling. Dutch settlers harvested the first grapes here in 1659, yielding a modest 15 litres of French muscadet. Twenty years later 100,000 vines had been planted in this sunny valley along the Eerste River. Our first stop is KWV, a cooperative handling exports for small producers. Smart, efficient, friendly, it receives 50,000 visitors a year. Not the most picturesque winery of the day, it is interesting nonetheless. More than a hundred natural wines, and an impressive range of brandies are sent to international markets by KWV.

One day tours from Cape Town are popular, but provide little time to enjoy at leisure. Most include the Franschhoek Valley where vines covering the mountain slopes were started close to 350 years ago by Huguenot families. At the time this region was home to elephant herds and prowling lions. Now the age-old wine and food cultures of France are reflected in restaurants and auberges, bistros and art galleries. Another favorite is Stellenbosch, a town which has Cape Dutch architecture and the atmosphere of a small college community in America. The long-established University of Stellenbosch has approximately 12,000 students who add a youthful exuberence to this South Africa's oldest town.

The country's oldest running wine cellar is the 300 yrs old Spier Winery where every building is a national monument and expansive gardens are equipped for picnics. In fact most of the wineries open for tours and tastings have picnic facilities in their gardens. You can bring your own or buy one on site, with a bottle of cooled wine for a dollar or two. There are also restaurants, and often weekend concerts outdoors. Spier even has a theatre set in terraces with huge gilded statues of the Muses out front.

Our Winelands tour covered only a small part of Western Cape province, located in the country's south west corner and acknowledged as one of the world's beauty spots. After three days we hated to leave. It seemed that at every stop I would tell myself "it doesn't get better than this." And then it did.

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