Battle for your Tourism Spend in the Cape Winelands – Stellenbosch vs Franschhoek

Hotels in Stellenbosch and FranschhoekIt is always  little dangerous to openly compare two towns in terms of their appeal to the visitor – I may have furious hoteliers claiming that I have been biased against their town. But this post compares Stellenbosch and Franshhoek in the Cape Winelands.

Where I come from (many years ago) – the Cotswolds in England – there is what we call a “show village”, Bourton on the Water. It is immensely picturesque with a babbling brook running through it, charming little shops and art galleries and a wide village green bordered by handsome golden-stoned Cotswold cottages (which would be considered large houses anywhere else in the country). Its obvious appeal has led  to coach loads of tourists wanting to spend their money and of course lovely little expensive shops sprang up. happy to lighten the weight of their wallets. There is nothing wrong with Bourton on the Water, it’s just that it is somewhat unreal. Real villages don’t look like that.

To my mind, there is something of the Bourtons about Franschhoek… Yes it is a pretty little town in a gorgeous valley with a central street crammed with chi-chi shops and art galleries. There are no end of little places to eat and so I can see its obvious appeal to the visitor. But is it real? (Does that matter you ask?…)

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is South Africa’s second oldest town, and probably the most beautiful. Governor Simon van der Stel visited the Eerste River Valley in 1679 and decided this was the perfect place to establish farms to feed the growing restocking port of Cape Town. This charming town was established in 1685 and offers an array of oak-lined streets with picturesque Cape Dutch houses (with their characteristic white limestone walls) and ancient water furrows lining the streets. It is home to some of the best restaurants in the country with four restaurants currently in SA’s top ten (Terroir, Rust en Vrede, Jordan and Overture) , as well as the finest wine estates in the Cape Winelands and the popular Stellenbosch University.

Pros
• A patchwork of charming oak-lined streets brimmed with shops, bistros and yes, art galleries. But given that the town is not fed by only tourists, the range and prices are wider and more eclectic. Restaurants are not just for tourists but for the locals and the students.

• The only University town in South Africa (perhaps alongside Grahamstown) and the sizeable student population lends a vibrancy and carefree air

• Loads of history dating back to the 17th century with some interesting museums to visit such as the Village Museum and the Stellenryk Wine Museum.

• Being larger, there is plenty of offer in addition to wine and food-tasting. The Rupert Museum contains one of the finest collections of South African art as well as a motor museum, the Eagles Encounter and Giraffe House area great wildlife awareness centres and Jonkershoek Nature Reserve is ideal for walking.

• Stellenbosch is more central than Franschhoek so every part of the Cape Winelands is within a 30 minute drive, whereas it would take you well over an hour to visit some areas from Franschhoek

• Similarly you have a vast array of wine estates in all directions (over 100 at the last count), many of which have excellent restaurants for lunchtime stops. Its probably fair to say that most of the best wine estates in South Africa are in the Stellenbosch valley with its slightly milder climate – think Thelema, Kanonkop, Rustenberg… The Van Ryn brandy distillery is also well worth a tour and tasting.

Cons
• This is a town, rather than a large village, so there is traffic and there is an industrial area on the northern side of the town. Depending on the route into the town, you may not immediately be captivated by the outskirts of Stellenbosch. The easy analogy here is Oxford in England.

• It’s very vibrancy also means that parking is an issue. No more so than in many touristy towns in Europe but to struggle to find parking in South Africa is a rarity!

Hotels in Stellenbosch

Hotels in StellenboschAs with its shops, Stellenbosch has a wider array of places to stay. If you are on a budget, Stellenbosch will offer options that Franschhoek can’t match. Some of our favourites include River Manor, Majeka House & Spa (see my review below), Oude Werf Hotel, Rusthuiz Guesthouse and Lanzerac Hote & Spa. Some – River Manor, Oude Werf & Rusthuiz – are in the town centre or easy walking distance away. Others are on the edge of town so that you would need to use your rental car or have a private guide.

 

 

Franschhoek

The origins of this charming and beautifully situated village date back to 1688 when some of the French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in Europe settled in the valley, then known as Elephants Corner. As the settlers increased the elephants ceased their annual migration to the valley, which gradually became known as French Corner, or ‘Franschhoek’ in Afrikaans. The French influence is evident today in the names of the surrounding wine estates and the number of excellent restaurants.

Pros
• It is very easy to get around. Franschhoek is basically one long main street with secondary streets in a grid fashion. There are no real issues with parking though you might need to park one street back from the main road.

• It’s very pretty as it is smaller than Stellenbosch and dominated by its mountain backdrop. There are lovely street cafes and bistros where you can sit out and relax in the sunshine.

• As well as the wine estates to visit, there’s also the Franschhoek Motor Museum and a new addition is the Franschhoek Wine Tram which departs from the town centre and visits several wine estates before returning so that you don’t have to worry about wine-tasting whilst driving.

• Though Stellenbosch perhaps has the edge in fine dining, these are mainly based on the surrounding wine estates. Franschhoek excels with its array on in-village options.

Cons
• Franschhoek is unashamedly a tourist town. Even more so than the rest of the Cape Winelands, everything is orientated around either wine-tasting or eating and drinking. This is not necessarily a bad thing but if you also enjoy architecture, history, museums, exploring little alleyways then Stellenbosch might be a better bet.

• As it is orientated around tourist visitors, everything is pretty expensive in the shops and galleries. (On the other hand, they are geared towards visitors so it’s all pretty slick.)

• Franschhoek is in the north-eastern part of the Cape Winelands so it is not central. This is not a major part unless you are catching a morning flight from the airport as you would save yourselves an extra 45 minutes in bed if you base yourself in Stellenbosch.

Hotels in Franschhoek

Again a wealth of places to stay but mostly in the middle to upper to extremely expensive. We like Franschhoek Country House, Rusthof Guesthouse, Le Quartier and if you want to push the boat out, La Residence. As with Stellenbosch, only some of these (Rusthof and Le Quartier) are within walking distance of the shops etc

Other Options in the Cape Winelands

Of course these are not the only towns in the Winelands. Paarl is the largest town and well worth a visit if you have a few days but here the commercial part of the town has dwarfed the old historic area – unlike in Stellenbosch. Somerset West is also very popular but it is somewhat sleepy for me. The big plus of staying there is that it is close to the beaches of the Southern Coast and also to Hermanus so that it makes a great base for an extended stay of 5-6 nights. We always recommend visitors to Vergelegen Homestead and Wine Estate and to nearby Lourensford estate for its wine and chocolate pairing.

You can also opt to reject staying in any town and go for a country-based hotel. Here it is best if you have your own rental car or a private guide for touring during the day. We highly recommend Babylonstoren, Hawksmoor House and Clouds Estate

Conclusion
There is no set answer. As with Cape Town, where you stay in the Cape Winelands is a matter of your own personal preference in terms of what you like to do. As you can see, I love Stellenbosch and hate to think that Franschhoek is being chosen just because it is better marketed (as indeed it is). Hopefully this post will give some insight into the nature of the two towns.

 

Addendum: Recent Stay at Majeka House in Stellenbosch

I recently stayed at Majeka House, a lovely 5 star boutique hotel with 22 rooms on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. This hotel comes highly recommended by Cedarberg Africa with well-appointed spacious rooms, an excellent Foodie restaurant (Macaron), which is one of the top restaurants in the Cape Winelands, as well as a good-sized spa with indoor pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room. Our dinner was delicious with suggested wines to go with each course, interesting complimentary introductory dishes and some quite far out options to test your taste buds as well as some more conventional choices. Definitely fine dining. The immediate area is very tranquil with a suggested jogging/walking route around the hotel.

Contact us if you want further information or bookings for the Cape Winelands…

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Kate Bergh is co-founder of Cedarberg African Travel, a specialist tour operator for Southern and East Africa.

She heads up the South African office, having lived in South Africa since 1993. Her home looks up to the Cedarberg Mountains, where she enjoys hiking and cycling, when she’s not out discovering new places to visit, with her three children in tow. Kate has travelled extensively throughout the region to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as most areas of South Africa. She also loves history, meeting people and a good thriller...

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