Sixteen towns in one month! This was a rare opportunity to compare towns and discover what makes each one special. It started on September 19 in Mokopane, Limpopo, and ended in Cape Town on October 18.
The whole journey started four years ago – inspired by John Steinbeck's classic, Travels with Charley - In search of America. But while Charley was Steinbeck's poodle, our travels were with Akela the wolf and Kenya the staffie.
SA Destination Awards – the winners!
A town and a village, both established in 1857, with 2001 census populations of 10,273 and 3,455, in the Overberg and Winelands regions of the Western Cape have won the SA Destination Awards – Montagu as Best Town Destination and Stanford as Best Village Destination.
It's always revealing to see who decides to make a town their new home. In the case of Montagu, it's noteworthy that Neil Fraser, someone we've held in high respect for over 30 years, moved there after an illustrious career in the construction industry followed by taking up the challenge of stemming the decline of Johannesburg's CBD, where he achieved huge successes. It bodes well for Montagu that Neil has decided to play an active role in the town's affairs.
We discovered another old friend had made Stanford his home. Bernie Oberholzer is a Landscape & Environmental Planner who has made an indelible mark on Cape Town. (And his weekend neighbour is Felix Unite.)
When towns attract people of this calibre, and when they play a role in the town's affairs, it's a foregone conclusion that these towns will prosper. When one starts comparing towns, two things are more important than anything else – people and projects as catalysts.
And then, mindful of Hugh von Zahn's maxim to "Boost your Best", great destinations should have at least one "Best" that makes visitors go the extra mile. In this respect, Mariana's Bistro & Deli in Stanford stands out... it's repeatedly among SA's top restaurants.
CapeInfo will be promoting both these towns over the next year and we'll do everything to help them achieve their goals.
In Stanford we've already identified four catalysts:
We'd like to thank all participants. It wasn't an easy competition to enter because it did require thought and hard work. The programme reinforced the fact that most tourist info offices are ill-equipped to tackle the challenge of growing tourism. Even having the best info office doesn't mean it can grow tourism! The whole brief for these offices needs to be rethought.
But back to Travels with Akela...
There are more photos on CapeInfo's Facebook page and many more will be added to the website shortly.
Bloemfontein – what a surprise!
Driving through three provinces in one day, one realises how little destination marketing provinces actually do. As you move from one to another, you'll see a sign put up by the roads department but certainly nothing to enthuse or inform you about the province just entered. I keep thinking about driving through the USA and France, where almost every town has an info office on the outskirts where you can can collect local maps and points of interest... there's nothing like that in SA.
Bloemfontein itself was a revelation - clean, well-maintained and a sense of vibrancy - and I started to wonder if this proved the pundits who claim that the ANC can't run a city wrong. That lasted until I got to the old CBD which has seen happier days. And then I learnt that a previous mayor or municipal manager is in jail for malpractices.
Entering Bloemfontein from the N1 on the West, one passes through the university precinct, and I think it's the university that is Bloemfontein's saviour. Without this academic and intellectual population, Bloem could so easily have stagnated.
The highlight of the visit was meeting Rose Willis in person for the first time. One of the first people to understand destination marketing properly, she put the Karoo on the map many years ago. Read her blog, Karoo Rose.
We stayed at B&B@Bloem, very comfortable, well-located and professionaly run. It's easy to recommend.
Driving south from Bloemfontein, one also leaves that most iniquitous form of highway robbery, toll roads! But then you have the trucks... what are they doing on the roads they damage when rail is an underutilised alternative. It seems the solutions in the May 2010 interview with Alan Winde are no closer to reality.
Prince Albert has the worst tourism info office I've encountered in a long time. I asked my standard question: "I'm in town for an afternoon. What should I see or do?" The woman got up with a sigh, walked to a rack and handed me a brochure. "Read that," she said. "Can you make some suggestions?" I asked. "No, I'm not allowed to make recommendations," was the answer. So why have a staffed office? She is probably an intern who's been badly trained.
Visiting Prince Albert also means seeing Elaine Hurford again and I stayed in her charming Koppie House (shown right). And Akela loved it there. Elaine recalls, "Akela was in great shape when she was here - alert, beautiful, eating well, very much the wolf going to sit up at the high spot at the dam." She also has The Olive House - both are Karoo Style at its best!
I arrived to blue skies and a pristine town filled with activity, bearing good wishes from Rose and Elaine for Gert Lubbe, the gentle giant who owns the splendid Montagu Country Hotel. (On a subsequent visit, I carried good wishes from Mario at Decameron and Marinda Holtzhausen in Stellenbosch. Gert must be one of the most-loved people in the Western Cape's hospitality industry!) He was also the instigator of Route 62 as a tourist route.
I'd arrived on the weekend of the Montagu Makiti and a kids festival, there was the weekly Saturday market, and Akela took part in a mutts' meander in the delightful botanical garden.
Montagu is a pretty town but it's those mountains that just takes one's breath away. And they provide the adrenalin that those seeking action breaks look for.
But Montagu's real strength is that it's on Route 62 which, while well-known, doesn't have a clear brand proposition. Change that, and tourism to the area will change dramatically.
And Montagu does have the best tourism info office I've encountered anywhere!
I spent time in Stanford 10 years ago and have some good friends there. The town hasn't changed that much but the resident population has grown – the proportion of permanent residents to weekenders is much higher. What I learnt on this visit is that there's far more to Stanford that meets the eye.
Many visitors are unaware of amenity the Klein River, which meanders alongside the town, offers. It's a bird-watchers delight.
The biggest surprise was driving down to Wortelgat, to see just what the Spookhuis (Ghost house) at Mosaic Private Sanctuary really is. It blew me away! Who could anticipate this interior at the end of a remote dirt road? And you must click on the link above to see Lagoon Lodge.
It was 10 years since my last visit and I was astounded at how Napier has changed. It's much more funky, much busier. There are more places to eat, drink and stay. There are more artists. But it has retained its unpretentious rural charm.
I was delighted to find that nothing had changed at Ilze Vos' Napier Farm Stall. It's one of those places that people detoured to visit and stopped others who would otherwise have just sped through the town.
I spent a night at Taim-go-loer self-catering cottage on Ilze's farm. If you're looking for a place to relax and recharge, this is the place to go!
If you went to school or university here and haven't been back for 15 years, you're in for a shock... but a pleasant shock. It's grown beyond belief but it's grown with great care and attention to detail. Bad detail is largely the exception here.
For me, the biggest surprise was seeing Papegaaiberg without its forest!
If you want to know why it's unique in the world, you'll have to click the link above.
What epitomises Stellenbosch though, is the new Food Lovers Market - an upmarket spin-off of Fruit & Veg City. Everything about Stellenbosch spells Quality!
And with 250 eateries and coffee shops, it must be the pavement cafe capital of South Africa!
It's still sublimely beautiful and spectacular, but the town itself somehow disappoints. Yes, it is a great destination but it seems to have lost its Cape roots... it feels more like an elite Johannesburg suburb.
Outside the town, you'll find some of the most compelling destinations in the Western Cape. Two worth mentioning are Solms-Delta and Babylonstoren.
Babylonstoren (below) is just mind-blowing, and a tribute to what lots of money and impeccable taste can achieve. The garden must not be missed!
See all Franschhoek accommodation.
Best-known for the 1969 earthquake that devastated the town but focused attention of its built heritage. Today it has the largest concentration of National Monuments in a single street in South Africa. Every historic home in Church Street was painstakingly restored after the 1969 earthquake and these 32 homes recreate a bygone era. It is, however, also known for fine wines.
Romantic Winelands Spring Special
Save 50% when you pay R1950 for either two or three nights accommodation at the historic Cape Dutch Quarters in Tulbagh.
Including full breakfast every morning, one 3-course dinner for two, two Body Massages at the day spa, one Sparkling romantic turndown.
Stays which include a Saturday night have a surplus charge of an additional R300pp. Valid to the 15th December 2012
If ever there's a town that demonstrates the power of a catalyst, it's Darling. Put firmly on the map by Pieter-Dirk Uys & Evita Buizenhout's Evita se Perron, it's attracted new creative people, more restaurants, more places to stay and... the Darling Foundation. We'll have more to say on that on CapeInfo soon, but the Foundation is making sure that Darling is an inclusive town for all residents.
The Museum/Nauseum at Evita se Perron in Darling is a museum to the insanity of SA's history. How did those leaders get away with it? But then we can ask ourselves the same about today's leaders.
Is this the most racially-integrated town in South Africa? Long-time resident fisherfolk have their houses interspersed among multi-million rand houses of permanent residents and visitors. And without this, much of Paternoster's charm would be lost.
It's also spectacularly beautiful and the West Coast is high on our agenda for further exploration.