GOOD HOPE

For a guy whose favorite beverage is brewed in a distillery in Tennessee, waking up in a sunshine-flooded hotel room in the heart of South Africa’s wine country might be a bit out of character.

But here I was an hour east of Cape Town in Franschhoek, at the center of a verdant valley filled with vineyards and surrounded by spectacular craggy mountains. It made me think of Napa and Sedona, the main street lined with shops, bistros, courtyards and even some real stores, including a butchery selling jerked antelope and crocodile meat.

Besides jewelry stores, galleries and grape vines, the place is bursting with inns and B & Bs, but there isn’t much doubt in my mind that I got the pick of the crop when I checked into Le Quartier Français. Think Room Three, complete with fireplace (imagine an actual wood-burning fireplace in a hotel these days), hot water bottle under the covers at night and breakfast in bed in the morning.

But what had really drawn me to the hotel was the international reputation of its Tasting Room Restaurant, where one evening I began with a glass of bubbly and a plate of roasted kudu rump. A pretty good start, I thought, as I moved on to citrus-poached jumbo prawn. That was fine too, but I think I liked the pork belly with whole roasted stuffed onions best. Different wines with each dish, and because my knowledge of wine would not fill a thimble, I let the waiter handle the selection. Can’t imagine what they’d think of this at that distillery in Tennessee.

I finally tore myself away from this lap of comfort early one morning and headed south and west in my trusty silver Hertz Nissan. It wasn’t boutiques for which I’d come to South Africa, or wine, or even the animals of the game preserves. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by the early explorations of Europe’s seafarers attempting to round the Cape of Good Hope, men with names like Bartholomeu Dias and Vasco Da Gama, the early sojourners who sought the spice-rich Indies – it was their sails which had been off this coast, and my own goal was to stand at the Cape, to actually find myself there, on the shore of the fabled promontory.

On the way down to the Cape I passed the pristine beaches of False Bay, where the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean meet the chill of the South Atlantic. I stopped at Kalk Bay and walked down past its fishing boats to the daily fish market, and then paused at Simonstown, where they’ve left much of the older architecture even if it has been gussied up for today’s waves of tourists. I chewed on a hot sausage pie from a tiny bakery as I strolled the main street, looked into old pubs and then sat down to watch the sailing boats on the bay.

It was just south of Simonstown, approaching the Cape, when I saw my first African jackass penguins, although I shared that unique bird colony spread across the sand of a small cove with dozens of fellow viewers. A hundred yards off-shore a right whale breached as I passed, and dolphins and seals thronged the coves where turquoise and deep blue waters met to rush up over smooth boulders onto white sands.

As the road neared the Cape itself, my sense of excitement grew. This southwestern-most point of Africa, I told myself, was what those small, scurvy-ridden, poorly rigged boats had to round. This was the region the Dutch East India Company used as a stop from which to make its fortune; this was where Francis Drake passed offshore, and William Bligh, James Cook and Ferdinand Magellan.

On the green hillside a herd of springbok rested amongst clumps of wild calla lilies, and on the roadside a family of baboons nuzzled one another.

The waves streamed ceaselessly in from the sea, finishing their long roll from the Antarctic. I just stood there on the rocks at the edge of the ocean, taking it all in. There’s a certain grandeur, a sense of magnificence about it all, something which takes you back to the maritime greatness of earlier centuries. But on this day, an ostrich, its feathers ruffling in the wind, was standing near me on the edge of the ocean. The two of us just stood there, almost side by side, and stared out to sea.