One for the road

Lucy Gillmore gets her kicks on Route 62 - a spectacular journey through South Africa's main wine-producing region

"No longer getting your 'Kicks on Route 66'?" asks the blurb on the glossy map. Its solution: head down to Route 62. Or rather head down to the Southern Hemisphere and hang a left over the Atlantic. Because if you're looking at the map, you'll have figured out that Route 62 isn't even in the same country as the legendary US road trip. But why quibble over a few geographical liberties? Route 62 is a spectacular, unspoilt stretch of road between the Langeberg and Outeniqua mountain ranges in South Africa, slicing through the less-explored region of the Western Cape. The map, designed by the local tourist board, isn't really trying to compete with the original American road trip of course; the aim is to entice tourists to veer off the traditional, and increasingly overcrowded, Garden Route and swing inland to discover the Klein Karoo's dusty hinterland.

"No longer getting your 'Kicks on Route 66'?" asks the blurb on the glossy map. Its solution: head down to Route 62. Or rather head down to the Southern Hemisphere and hang a left over the Atlantic. Because if you're looking at the map, you'll have figured out that Route 62 isn't even in the same country as the legendary US road trip. But why quibble over a few geographical liberties? Route 62 is a spectacular, unspoilt stretch of road between the Langeberg and Outeniqua mountain ranges in South Africa, slicing through the less-explored region of the Western Cape. The map, designed by the local tourist board, isn't really trying to compete with the original American road trip of course; the aim is to entice tourists to veer off the traditional, and increasingly overcrowded, Garden Route and swing inland to discover the Klein Karoo's dusty hinterland.

For most holidaymakers, the archetypal South African experience is Cape Town followed by the Garden Route (nominally the area from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, although in reality it's the stretch of the N2 between Storm's River Mouth and Mossel Bay). The combination of cosmopolitan city and spectacular coastline backed by mountains and forests serves up what many believe is the ideal vacation. But Route 62, touted as the world's longest wine route, also has one or two things in its favour, including brandy and port production, ostrich farming, quirky guesthouses, vertigo-inducing mountain passes and sleepy little towns. And, at the moment, not that many tourists.

So does it live up to the hype? Heading inland from George and driving up to Oudtshoorn, the landscape changes dramatically. The Klein Karoo over the mountains from the coast is an area of scrubby semi-desert that covers one third of South Africa's surface. It is totally different from seaboard, with its Mediterranean-style vegetation and wet weather. For centuries the area was virtually impassable, hemmed in by the mountains. Then in the 19th century the British constructed a series of dramatic passes, 34 of which were engineered by Andrew Geddes Bain and his son Thomas. The result is perfect road-trip country.

Oudtshoorn, plugged as the "ostrich capital of the world", is a sprawling town with shops selling ostrich-related tourist tat. Ostriches are native to Africa and by 1860 were being raised in the valley. Conditions (loamy soil and warm climate) were perfect for growing alfalfa, the clover-like plant that constitutes their favourite diet. The ostrich industry was spawned by a 19th-century fashion craze; the Victorians had developed a passion for the large feathers, and by the early 20th century ostentatious feather palaces had been constructed in the area by the now wealthy entrepreneurs. Today, ostriches are still farmed but mainly for their meat, which is low in cholesterol.

Not fancying a ride on an ostrich, another more recent but strangely unappealing offshoot of the industry, we left the day-trippers from the Garden Route behind and continued on towards the less touristy town of Calitzdorp, 50km down the road. This picturesque little settlement, all low-slung houses painted cheery colours, is the centre of port wine production in the area. Most of the guesthouses leave a full decanter of the regional speciality in the rooms - a welcoming, if slightly dangerous, touch.

We were heading further off the beaten track - 20km down a dirt road, past derelict Cape Dutch farmsteads, burbling brooks and fields of ostriches - to the Retreat at Groenfontein. Grant and Marie Burton, a rugged, outdoor couple, used to run a wilderness lodge in Namibia. Returning to South Africa to set up their own guesthouse, they stumbled upon an old Victorian farmhouse in the Groenfontein valley. This beautiful whitewashed house with shutters and verandah, vines creeping up the walls and rambling gardens stocked with overblown roses is set beneath the stunning Swartberg mountains. Rooms are homey but elegant, and there are log fires in the lounge and dining room. Dinner, Marie's hearty home cooking, is served with the other guests around a huge table, while Grant introduces you to a few of the areas vintages.

Waking early the next day we found them cleaning all the guests' cars; another nice touch. Breakfast on the verandah features milk fresh from their Jersey cow and water from the river - they had it tested and it's officially as pure as rainwater. Afterwards we pulled on our walking boots and took to the hills. Grant and Marie have cut hiking trails into the surrounding mountains; the one-and-a-half-hour green lizard trail or a two- to three-hour tramp They'll even lend you their dog, Donna the Staffordshire bull terrier. The area is a twitcher's paradise, home to around 150 types of birds.

Heading back to the main road we made the obligatory stop at one of the town's vineyards, the Die Krans cellar. Dating back to 1890, it has a string of awards to its name, and although producing top-quality wines it's unsurprisingly famous for its port.

With 200km to cover to our next guesthouse we were back on the road before lunch, a hot wind whipping through the car. The scenery flashed by in a series of hair-raising switchbacks, the landscape had a raw energy, vivid red-rock formations pockmarked with green bushes.

Along a broad sweep of empty road Ronnie's Sex Shop materialised on the edge of the tarmac, just before Barrydale. Originally, the story goes, it was Ronnie's Shop - but nobody ever stopped so he added ex- to the sign. Ronnie's ex-shop was turned into sex shop by a local wag. And suddenly motorists started pulling over. Now it's a pub.

Gradually the landscape started to flatten out. The craggy mountains softened into the rolling green hills of the Breede River Valley - all whitewashed fruit farms and vine-clad slopes. Our next stop was Swellandam and the Jan Harmsgat Country House owned by Brin and Judi Rebstein. Another old farm, this time dating back to 1723, it's completely different in style from the Retreat, yet just as welcoming. Huddled beneath the towering Langeberg mountains, its sleek design belies its humble origins.

The four guest rooms are in the old converted slave quarters, the thick stone walls and small shuttered windows keeping them cool in summer and cosy in winter. All polished concrete floors scattered with Persian rugs, ceilings of beam and bamboo, and carefully chosen antiques and paintings, it's more designer B&B thank rustic guesthouse. The feel is solid yet stylish, a mix of traditional and contemporary. A living-room up in the eaves has stacks of magazines, while a hatstand provides umbrellas and panamas for guests.

At dinner Brin serves a velvety red fittingly called R62. The 680-hectare farm is still very much in operation - he took us up into the hills in his 4WD and to watch the cheese being churned - and guests are free to explore the grounds or laze by the lavender-rimmed pool.

Historic Swellandam nearby is also worth a detour. Judi set up an award-winning community project here, turning part of the old jail, alongside the atmospheric museum, into a coffee shop. The project trains women from disadvantaged communities and then gives them a stake in the café, which serves delicious regional specialities in an old courtyard, such as traditional breads (roosterkoek) baked over coals, and local cheeses and springbok carpaccio.

In addition to certain geographical liberties, the tourist board has also granted itself a degree of artistic licence regarding Route 62 itself. On the map it includes stretches of the R60, R43 and R44, and incorporates the "official" Winelands region - the vineyards of Paarl, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek (the gourmet capital of the Cape), Wellington, and Robertson, as well as the Klein Karoo winelands.

Winding up in Paarl, just half an hour from Cape Town, the new Winelands Hotel whose spa offers the only vinotherapy treatments outside Bordeaux, seemed the perfect place to end a road trip along what claims to be the longest wine route in the world. Situated on a 65-hectare working wine estate, overlooking a lake against the backdrop of the picturesque Franschhoek Valley, the setting again is sublime. As is the spa.

Taking the "Grape Cure", I road-tested the benefits of crushed grape seeds, grape seed oil and grape products applied in massage, body scrubs and hydrotherapy baths. The Shiraz body scrub was followed by the Chardonnay Cocoon wrap and then, the moment I had been waiting for, the Cabernet Sauvignon casket bath. Only it wasn't of course. My fantasy of reclining like a tipsy Cleopatra in a tub of wine was unfulfilled; the bath was filled with water and grape extract. More artistic licence. Savouring the real thing beside the pool, however, surrounded by rows of manicured vines, more than made up for the disappointment.

And the verdict? Route 66 might be the original road trip and the Garden Route South Africa's most popular, but Route 62 offers an intriguing alternative. From port wineries to (almost) bathing in a vat of Cabernet Sauvignon, Route 62 may not be the longest wine route in the world but it's certainly one of the most intoxicating.

GUIDE

GETTING THERE

H'row to Cape Town on BA (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), S.African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com) or Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com).

STAYING THERE

The Retreat at Groenfontein (00 27 44 213 3880).

Jan Harmsgat Country House (00 27 23 616 3407; www.jhghouse.com).

Winelands Hotel and Wellness Centre (00 27 21 875 8100; www.southernsun.com).

INFORMATION

S. African Tourism (0870 155 0044; www.southafrica.net).

Route 62 Tourism Bureau (00 27 23 347 6411).

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