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Touring the Town of Oaks: a place of rich culture and vibrant character
Just like bread goes with butter, Stellenbosch has been tightly coupled with the concept of wine – the region’s vineyard route is renowned worldwide as the source of superb reds and whites, and few would dare visit this destination without making a stop at several of the over 200 farms that sprawl across the valley. But the truth is, this kinship between the area and vino has, in fact, done the district a grave injustice, not least because the town’s grand status as the place to sip and swirl has masked the fact that there’s worlds more to this charming dorp than Shiraz and Chenin Blanc.
It’s a place of romance, of culture, of soul and character, of friendly faces and warm smiles, and as the second oldest settlement in South Africa, it’s also a place of significant history. The village has a heritage that reaches all the way back to 1679 when Simon van der Stel, the governor of the Cape Colony, first set up camp on the banks of the Eerste River, and despite several major fires that wiped out much of the hamlet in the 18th and 19th centuries, it still remains one of the most well-preserved examples of yesteryear that the nation has.
Stellenbosch is home to the oldest inn (Oude Werf), the second oldest pub (De Akker) and the oldest existing urban house in the country, and it’s base to the republic’s only remaining weaponry collection from the Dutch East India Company era. The borough’s storied past is also visible in the Cape Dutch-, Georgian- and Victorian-style architecture of the sturdy, white buildings that line the roads and in the tall ancient oak trees that arc lazily over the streets (hence the nickname ‘Town of Oaks’). Plus, it lives on in the multiple museums – they’re well worth a visit – that take guests straight back to the time of bonnets, horse-drawn carriages and candlesticks.
And yet despite the sense of nostalgia that seeps out of every pavement crack and dances around every gabled facade, the town is abuzz with a contemporary living culture. An aura of innovation and progress is palpable in the air, largely thanks to the hundreds of students that flock to learn at the renowned Stellenbosch University, bringing with them the vigour of youth, and also due to the thriving tech and business industry that’s taken hold of the dorp in recent years.
Not to mention, there’s a distinct creative energy here that’s reflected in the myriad of modern art galleries that populate the urban centre (there’s now even a defined art route), the various striking public sculptures, the assortment of upscale design boutiques and the collection of theatres that regularly put on top-notch shows and productions.
And then there’s also the area’s dynamic, fast-developing culinary scene. A kaleidoscope of acclaimed eateries have popped up on surrounding wine farms in the past decade, and the town centre itself is a food lover’s dream, with delightful coffee shops, cosy bistros and contemporary fine dining restaurants on almost every corner (read more about eating out in Stellenbosch). Similarly, on weekends various vibrant markets lend the dorp a festive buzz and give locals and day-trippers the opportunity to sample home-cooked eats and purchase plump, fresh produce.
Somehow though, in spite of the way in which Stellenbosch has transformed into a bustling, modern hub, it still manages to retain a laidback small-town feel – residents typically favour walking or cycling places – and a deep connection to its natural surrounds. Accordingly, just beyond the heart of the village, visitors can completely immerse themselves in the tranquillity of the countryside while participating in a number of outdoor activities, like hiking or mountain biking in the nearby Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, 4x4ing through mountains and valleys or horse riding amongst wild game.
Alternatively, non-adventurous types can busy themselves with something a little more low-key, such as golf, picnicking, wine tasting, brandy sampling or strawberry picking (in season), or they can spend several hours exploring the neighbouring township of Kayamandi and chatting to all the colourful residents – this lively suburb is as well worth a visit as the leafy core of the town. There’s even plenty for children and families to get involved in, including paintball, a permanent kiddies’ play carnival and a wildlife awareness centre (see our comprehensive overview of things to do in Stellenbosch for both youngsters and grown-ups).
Something decidedly more adult-orientated, though, is Stellenbosch’s animated nightlife scene, which, contrary to the cliché, isn’t just a mishmash of debauchery-filled student clubs and bars. There’s a vibey café culture that sees the streets come alive with clinking glasses and chit-chat post-sunset, and many pubs and eateries host live music gigs, movie screenings, pub quizzes, demo cooking sessions and more. Not to mention, the courageous can even embark on an eerie ghost tour of the town – after all, when a place has this much history, it’s bound to be home to a few dark, haunted corners.
Naturally, to get a proper feel for the after-dark landscape, it’s advisable to stay over an evening or two, and conveniently, the region does lay claim to a multitude of handsome accommodation options, from luxury lodges to budget B&Bs. In fact, this one-of-a-kind destination is deeply deserving of more than just a day trip, and really, you’ll want to take the time to soak up the spirit of Stellenbosch, get to know her lovely people, hear their heart-warming stories and discover for yourself why this whimsical town is about much more than wine tasting.
By Dayle Kavonic
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