Where to stay: South Hill in the Elgin Valley, South Africa

Continuing on my series of lovely places to stay, today we’re deep in the Elgin Valley. It’s time to get away from it all.

Just over an hour’s drive from central Cape Town, yet feeling a long way from the bustle of the city, South Hill offers luxury accommodation in their modern five-bedroom guest house. Large en-suite rooms and a fabulous communal living area (both inside and out) offer all the comforts of home and more. There’s a 15m pool to cool off in the garden – and a pizza oven, too –  how’s that for a cooking dream come true (well, one of mine anyway).

And then there’s the Pumphouse, set overlooking row upon row of Shiraz vines, which is where we stayed. A self-contained little cottage, again with cooking facilities, a comfortable seating area and a sleeping area with expansive vineyard views and a large, comfy bed. Outside there’s a verandah and deck overlooking the lake, a jacuzzi and tempting hammock to while away the hours in.

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The peace and comfort of the Pumphouse beckons

South Hill is the perfect place to get away from life for a while. Here’s what I loved about it.

The total tranquility

Seriously, it doesn’t get more peaceful than this. A winding drive off the busy N2 motorway through apple trees and vineyards takes you deep into the valley where South Hill feels like it’s the only place for miles around. You’re surrounded by mountains, vineyards and wide open spaces and pretty much nothing else. Watch the stars light up the night sky (an unusual sight for a city dweller) and open your curtains to the rosy dawn across rows of vines groaning with luscious grapes.

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Vines as far as the eye can see from the Pumphouse bedroom

The views

There’s no doubt that life is better with a view, and there are plenty of stunning ones here.

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Blue skies and green vines viewed from The Gallery Restaurant

The wine

The first thing to do to get yourself into the South Hill state of mind is taste their wine. There are seven of them and they’re all delicious. Four of the reds are named after members of the King family who own the place – nice touch – I’d love to have a wine named after me.  Inevitably we left with a case tucked under our arm…there’s no escaping that.

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The Shiraz grapes look so good on the vine you can tell they’re going to make stunning wine

The food

The Gallery Restaurant at South Hill is open for breakfast and lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. The food is prepared from local, seasonal ingredients. We had a delicious, laid-back lunch which you can read about in a previous post by clicking here.

Beautiful olive bread got lunch off to a good start

Beautiful olive bread got lunch off to a good start

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My wonderful starter with a mouth-watering pea panna cotta

The restaurant is also a gallery showcasing the work of local artists. So great views both inside and out.

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The stylish light-filled restaurant

The activities

There’s plenty to do in the area if you’re feeling active like walking, mountain biking, kayaking or quad biking. Just don’t forget to take your camera as you’ll see endless photographic opportunities. Of course you could just curl up with a book and exercise your mind instead.

The farm stalls

Okay, this is an unusual one, but for me it’s part of the Elgin experience. I love a good farm stall and these are two of my favourites. Peregrine is fabulous, packed with freshly baked goods, preserves, fruit and veg, local produce galore. Also the perfect place to stop for breakfast or lunch – and their coffee is very good. Or just a bit further along the motorway you’ll find Houw Hoek whose pies are legendary.The restaurant at South Hill is only open for breakfast and lunch, so stock up on your way there and enjoy local delicacies in the comfort of your home away from home for dinner. And don’t forget to buy some apples – Elgin is apple country after all.

Try out the delicious local fruity preserves

Try out the delicious local fruity preserves

South Hill is at Valley Road, Elgin. Find out more at www.southhill.co.za

To the test: a yogurt maker for your home

I’m always keen to try out a new kitchen gadget. So when the Judge Yogurt Maker landed on my doorstep I couldn’t wait to start creating my own yogurt. I mean who doesn’t love a big bowl of fruit, yogurt and nuts – a wonderfully refreshing way to start the day. And health giving, too.

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A bowl of yogurt topped with tasty berries

The compact machine comes with seven 15oml jars with different coloured lids, which makes it look very pretty. All you need is a litre of milk and a pot of live yogurt to get started. Simply heat the milk, then let it cool and divide the yogurt and milk between the pots. You can add chopped fruit and honey, too, to create different flavours. Then turn on your machine and let it do its magic.

The process takes eight hours and you can hear the odd little click and whir emanating from the machine, though it’s generally a pretty silent operation. Switch it on before you go to bed and you’ll have your very own freshly-made yogurt waiting for you in the  morning.

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The yogurt maker doing its magic

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Pretty jars can be put straight into the fridge for storage

I also discovered this powder that you can buy from Holland & Barrett. Simply mix it with water and turn on the machine. The Peaches & Cream flavour was delicious as was the Greek Honey. I couldn’t quite believe that some powder and water would produce yummy yogurt…but it did. So simple.

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I’d recommend the Judge Yogurt Maker highly if you’re a family of dedicated yogurt eaters. Once you’ve made your first batch you can keep using it as the live yogurt to add to milk to make more, so you’ll be able to keep the family in supply for ever, in theory.

And if you’re not a dedicated yogurt eater, maybe it’s time to start. It has a raft of health benefits: the probiotics in it help to increase the good bacteria in your system which adds with digestion and your immune system. It’s also a good source of Vitamin B, Calcium, Potassium and Magnesium which means it’s good for your bones.

As well as being the ideal breakfast food, yogurt is also great in marinades as it tenderises meat and it’s a useful baking ingredient to have at hand.

And now you can have the satisfaction of making your very own. Why wouldn’t you?

The Judge Yogurt Maker is £34.94 on amazon.co.uk

The Blue Train: A window to the soul of South Africa

The Blue Train takes you through 1,600kms of South Africa’s stunning and varied scenery, giving you a feel for the vastness and contrasts this beautiful country offers. Look through your picture window, take in the splendid views in your own haven of comfort and indulgence and reflect. Welcome to your window to the soul of South Africa

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The train departs Cape Town station at 8.30am after refreshments in the departure lounge.

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Blue Train Suite 40 here I come

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Perfectly on time your journey begins and the legendary train wends it way past the magnificence of Table Mountain, heading through the stunning Cape Winelands.

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Chuffing peacefully into the Winelands

Towering mountain ranges, farmland and vineyards greet you as you journey through the Wineland towns of Worcester and Wellington.

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All at peace with the mountains and vineyards

For several peaceful hours you take in the stunning sweeping views. It’s amazing how long the mountainous terrain goes on for, culminating in the amazing pass through the Tulbagh Valley and three tunnels. When you emerge your world has changed dramatically. You’re in the Karoo and it’s time for an off-train expedition.

The tiny town of Matjiesfontein is known as the Jewel of the Karoo. Founded in 1884 by an enterprising Scot, James Logan, who bought a Karoo farm and also developed the town as a Victorian spa and health resort and refreshment stop for hungry and thirsty travellers. It soon became a popular spot with the cream of Cape society and attracted people like Cecil John Rhodes, Sir Randolph Churchill and the Sultan of Zanzibar.

The town’s most famous resident was writer and feminist Olive Schreiner whose first novel The Story of an African Farm was set in the Karoo. She said: “I love the Karoo. The effect of this scenery is to make me so silent and self-contained. And it is all so bare, the rocks, and the bushes, each bush standing separate from the others, along by itself.”

Hard to imagine so much happened in this sleepy little oasis all that time ago! Now there’s a collection of Victorian buildings and a tour on a red London bus which takes about 10 minutes – known as the shortest tour in South Africa! Visiting the bar for a sing song and a glass of sherry before meandering along the dusty streets, it’s like you’ve stepped back into a colonial time warp. A charming interlude.

And then it’s time to climb back into the comfort of your Blue Train home which attracts a lot of attention when it arrives in this sleepy little place.

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Our beautiful train waits while we explore Matjiesfontein

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Time to sing along in Matjiesfontein

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The charm of the Lord Milner Hotel

Back onboard and it’s time for a refreshing gin & tonic in the Observation Car.

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The Karoo is so vast, here’s a picture taken from my suite looking out towards the front of the train. The Blue Train is a long train, but set in the Karoo landscape it all looks pretty insignificant!

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Blue_Train_in_Karoo.sizedReaching more agricultural regions, there was soon a panorama of maize fields – in all directions as far as the eye could see. Having grown up on a mealie (as we called them) farm, it made me feel very nostalgic.

And no, I am not driving the train, this is again taken from the Observation Car.

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Looking back over a landscape of maize fields

As you approach Pretoria, the landscape gets more urban and again it feels like you’ve entered a different world. Which I guess you have, the Blue Train really is a window on the South African world.

You can read about my onboard experiences by clicking here.

Next up…the delicious dishes I devoured on my Blue Train journey.

Find out more about The Blue Train at www.bluetrain.co.za

 

 

 

The Blue Train: It’s magic in motion

Today I’m embarking on one of the Great Train Journeys – a trip on The Blue Train through the heart of South Africa. I love train travel and this is no ordinary train so my expectations and excitement were high.

I travelled northbound, starting in the Mother City of Cape Town and heading up through the Winelands and the vast Karoo to Pretoria. More of the scenery in pictures on my next blog post – here’s the route marked in solid red that I took. The journey takes 27 hours – 27 hours of the ultimate in relaxation that I really did not want to end.

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You know you’re in for a wonderful experience as soon as you arrive at the departure lounge. It seems like in an instant you’ve been checked in, your luggage has been whisked away and you’re sitting comfortably with a welcome pot of tea in front of you and your journey to ponder.

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You’ll find a warm welcome waiting in the departure lounge

Soon it’s time to embark (not a moment too soon for me, I practically ran onboard)!  Your butler shows you to your suite and explains how everything works. The suites offer a feel of days gone by with their sleek walnut panelling and also all the modern comforts. Gotta love the modern comforts.

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The cosy suites are wonderfully welcome with huge picture windows

Like the ensuite bathroom (not even the Orient Express has these) – cleverly designed to fit the shower, basin and toilet into the smallest of spaces, complete with Italian marble, loads of fluffy towels and remote control blinds.

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The joys of your ensuite bathroom

When you head off for dinner (more about the fabulous food coming later in another post), your butler magically transforms your comfortable seating area into a bedroom, the bed made up with luxury duvets and linen, making it so easy to snuggle down.

While your entertainment is endless – all you need to do is look out the window – the suites also offer radio and movie channels. The perfect indulgence – anyone for the whole series of Grey’s Anatomy? Tempting as that might be, there’s no time for that yet – there’s the rest of the train to explore.

At the front of the train, the Club Car is the perfect place to relax after dinner and the only place where you can smoke. Cuban cigars are included in your price – I almost turned into a cigar smoker for the day…just because.

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Comfortable and relaxing: the Club Car

The dining car sits in the centre of the train and is the scene of absolute delight for the three meals on the journey (more of them later). This was my table where I happily devoured delicious dishes, drank in the view and several different wines from their extensive list.

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Eating with a view…a constantly changing one

At the very back of the train is the Observation Car. A huge picture window means you can look back down the tracks taking in the scenery

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The Observation Car offers the best views from all angles

The Lounge Car is the perfect place to settle down on a comfy sofa and ponder life.

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Feel at home in Africa with the views and the decor

It’s also where High Tea is served…don’t cucumber sandwiches and Champagne go perfectly together?

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High Tea anyone? What a treat

What a train…what an experience! To summarise, here’s what I loved about it.

The service

It’s friendly, efficient and all-encompassing without being claustrophobic or overpowering. Your every need is met in a gentle, welcoming way. I felt immediately at home and found every member of staff helpful, friendly and knowledgeable.

The magic

Okay this is a bit of an intangible one, but it’s there. From the moment I stepped onboard it all felt like a bit of a dream, I even texted one of my friends saying “I feel like I’m in a movie”! Plus a vaguely Hercule-Poirot-looking fellow traveller made me keep my eyes out for any signs of murderous behaviour (of which there was none of course).

The views

Stunning, stunning, stunning and constantly changing. The contrast is huge, too, from the moment you wave goodbye to majestic Table Mountain towering over the Mother City, through vineyards, orchards, farmlands and mountains in the Winelands, the magnificent pass through the Tulbagh Valley and on through the desolation and vastness of the Karoo, there’s something wonderful to behold. Even the [slightly] more urban landscape as you approach Johannesburg has its charm. A humbling experience that puts the vastness of this beautiful country into a clearer perspective. More pictures coming in a later blog post.

The food

This was so amazing I have to blog about it separately (of course)! Safe to say it was magnificent, watch this space to find out more.

The clever effects with space and light

The train can take around 80 guests (plus staff) but it never seems like there’s anywhere near that many onboard. It’s an intimate experience that seems like your own personal journey. Comfort is at a premium, decor is stylish and subtly African and the different carriages provide several separate places for relaxation. Plus the huge picture windows throughout mean the light’s constantly changing with the scenery. Sunset was quite spectacular and it was lovely when I opened my blinds early in the morning. Nothing like harnessing natural light and landscape to enhance the atmosphere.

The attention to detail

So much! Vibrantly colourful fruit platters and flower arrangements everywhere, the box of chocolates on your pillow when you go to bed (yes, a box), top quality duvets and linen, fluffy towels, your butler who’s constantly transforming your suite into a different version of itself, the amazingly relaxing check-in service.

Clearly all this is not going to come cheaply. But the good news is that if you include The Blue Train as part of a package to South Africa from the UK it becomes incredibly good value. For example, African Pride are offering an 8-night Classic South Africa package from just £2,999 per person which includes all flights, taxes, transfers, 1 night in Pretoria, 1 night on the Blue Train, 4 nights at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel on Cape Town’s Waterfront and 2 nights on safari at Motswari Private Game Reserve. Plus a lot of the meals are included. You can find out more by clicking here.

The Blue Train is one of those uniquely magical experiences, the memory will stay with me forever, now all I have to do is ride the train all over again..but this time the other way around.

Watch this space for more about the amazing scenery you’ll encounter and the totally delectable food you’ll consume. The Blue Train rocks!

 

 

Sunday funday at Fourways Farmers Market

I do love a food market so I was excited on a recent visit to Johannesburg when my friend Sharon (a local Joburger) suggested we spent Sunday morning/lunchtime at the Fourways Farmers market.

This beautiful market is set under the trees with plenty of fantastic stalls offering local and home-made produce. Plus there’s breakfast and lunch choices and plenty of drinks to sample. It’s beautifully peaceful and hard to believe you’re pretty much in the middle of a large city. The perfect escape.

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The welcoming sign leads you into the market

One of my favourites was this spicy selection. Pretty much every spice you could imagine, beautifully laid out and tempting you as you inhale their wonderful aromas.

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Let’s get spicy…there’s so much choice

An amazing array of chilli sauces and relishes, with heat to suit all tastes. Simply Wild also has a range of mayos, including delicious garlic and wasabi.

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Time to stock up on chilli flavours

These fried chicken wraps were very much in demand and smelled delectable.

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Lunchtime…tuck into a tasty chicken wrap

There’s no shortage of sweet choices, either. From fudge in myriad flavours, wonderful Turkish Delight, macaroons and plenty of cakes and tarts.

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Something sweet to snack on

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All roads lead to good things

It’s hard to resist lamb on the spit. This flavoursome meat was stuffed into pittas with tatziki for our satisfying lunch choice. A piece of advice: make sure you sweep the whole market before you decide what you’re going to eat! There’s a large selection, after all it’s always a good thing to know exactly what’s on offer before you commit.

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Succulent lamb to savour

The leafy market was buzzing with people enjoying a sunny Sunday, good food and an amazing atmosphere. There’s also live music to enjoy as you picnic under the trees sipping on a glass of local bubbles.

I’d definitely be a regular if I lived in Joburg – and no doubt would be filling up my cupboards with new delicacies to try. And it’s a great place to absorb some of that friendly “Joburg vibe”…they really do make everyone feel right at home. Thank you Sharon for the local knowledge!

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Dogs are welcome at the market

Fourways Farmers Market is at the Earth Outdoor Nursery, Corner of Monte Casino Boulevard and William Nicol Road, Fourways, Johannesburg.

It’s open from 10am to 3pm on Sundays. Click here to find out more.

Viandas Salamanca: a Proper Spanish deli in The Strand

Living in London is wonderful, there’s always something new to discover. And I can’t tell you how excited I felt when I spotted this place. I visit Spain a lot and love the country, its people and the food. And now there’s a little touch of authentic Spain in, guess where, Covent Garden! Hooray.

Viandas Salamanca sells foodie delights from the Salamanca (north west) area of Spain. The first thing you notice when you walk in is the aroma of ham and cheese filling the air, inhale it and enjoy. One wall is covered with hanging jamons in all their glory, there are fridges full of different meaty delicacies in vacuum packs and cheeses from the region.

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A wall full of jamon…paradise

You can also ask for your jamon to be freshly carved for you off one of the legs that sits temptingly on the counter. Impossible for me to resist!

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Cheese glorious cheese

And then there’s the sandwiches – large baguettes packed full of Spanish jamon – well, overflowing with it really as you can see from the picture below! When you order one you’re given the choice of adding tomato, which is in the form of a little sachet of the tomato concotion that is used on pan con tomate. Lunch really doesn’t get much better than this!

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Looking into the Spanish treasure trove from the street, check out the amazing baguettes

This sort of produce is not cheap, but that’s no surprise as it is of the highest quality and takes a lot of time and love to produce. So go on, treat yourself. I know I did!

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The special pigs are acorn-fed to produce the delectable jamon

Viandas Salamanca is at 99 Strand, London WC2