I have a confession to make; South Africans are selfish. We might have shared Cape Town and the winelands with you. We might even have let you know about the multitude of beautiful safari lodges where you can spot the Big Five or sip on a drink as you listen to lions roar at night. Durban’s Golden Mile is no longer a South African-only spot. And lately, we’ve even gone as far as to let word slip about certain areas of the Garden Route; like Knysna. Years ago, South Africa was largely undiscovered by the international market, but now it’s developed a well-trodden tourist track.
But don’t let that fool you. In a country boasting eleven official languages and a culture so rich and vibrant that they say it permeates into your blood when you set foot on our soil and in a land of contrasts, a rainbow nation full of wonders, there are definitely some local gems that we’ve been hiding.
Nestled in amongst our 3000 kilometres of coastline, mountain ranges, deserts, expansive winelands, cosmopolitan cities and small farming villages, there’s a handful of towns that the locals keep to themselves, away from the prying eyes of international tourists.
Nestled at the foot of the Maluti mountains in the Eastern Free State, Clarens is a buzzing, arty little town known fondly as the jewel of the free state. About four hours’ drive from Johannesburg you’ll find yourself in a hipster heaven complete with a multitude of boutique art galleries and an atmospheric town square with a brewery where you can sample the local hazelnut ale or cherry cider. Nature-lovers are well catered for too as Clarens is the gateway to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, where after a long hike you can settle down and bask in the golden rays of the afternoon sun as they illuminate the sandstone cliffs and rocky outcrops.
Nottingham Road is a gorgeous, quaint, colonial-style town situated in the picturesque Midlands Meander. Rolling hills and farmland, trout-stocked dams, horses grazing in knee-high grass and countryside that could fool you into thinking you were wandering in the Cotswolds – but with South African sun.
Nottingham Road is famed for its hospitality, and those who take the time to explore what it has to offer will be treated to a plethora of delights including gourmet cuisine, arts and crafts and outdoor pursuits like horse riding and hiking.
Everything about the town and its surroundings ooze country charm, you won’t be able to leave without several artisanal cheeses, homemade preserves, local art or jewellery, and a vow to return to Nottingham Road.
The Cape Winelands are renowned for their natural beauty and see flocks of tourists heading their way each year to indulge in wine tasting, fine food and glorious architecture. Luckily, Tulbagh is still largely undiscovered and sees nothing like the kind of activity that it’s more popular neighbours Franschhoek and Stellenbosch do.
The Swartland town of Tulbagh is certainly not lacking any charm, with whitewashed Cape Dutch buildings and rolling vineyards on offer at every turn. It’s bordered by mountains on three sides and visitors to this historical town can take part in scenic walks, cycles and even horse rides through the mountains in between feasting on the typical wineland’s spoils of olive oil, chocolates and of course, wine. The best ones? Saronsberg, Krone, and Montpellier.
If you’re aching for something a little more educational, take a wander through Church street to marvel at the carefully restored buildings – every one of them declared a national monument following their restoration after a devastating earthquake in 1969.
South Africa’s West Coast villages are known by locals as some of the most beautiful and relaxing in the country. They can be found an hour to four hours from Cape Town and hark back to a bygone era where life was less complicated. Arniston lies two and a half hours outside of Cape Town and when you set your eyes upon its thatched fisherman cottages, you’ll be hard-pressed to shake off the feeling that time has stood still here for the last few decades. Named after one of the many ships that would wash up on the beach having fallen victim to the area’s deadly waters, Arniston is a place for relaxation and reconnecting with nature. Fishermen still go quietly about their business, while visitors can spot the brightly coloured wooden boots coming in at the harbour, wander one of the hiking trails, watch the world go by as you thumb through a good book or simply admire the endless sand dunes and deep blue seas that make this one of the most magical places on the West Coast. If you get peckish, there’s a few local restaurants which serve up seafood of the best quality. Don’t expect fine dining, but do expect simply prepared, freshly caught seafood with a side order of West Coast hospitality. To make the most of Arniston, bring walking shoes and get the lay of the land on foot.
These are the towns dotted around our rainbow nation that we are bursting to share with you, but that we also simultaneously want to enjoy a little longer, just to ourselves.
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Want to learn more about South Africa? Check out this article on South Africa’s Paleoanthropology!