After a scenic and easy drive from the Mother City (Cape Town) we arrived in Paarl, also known as the “Pearl of the Cape.” Our immediate destination in town was the Paarl Tourism Office, where we stopped to pick-up some brochures and received a few recommendations from one of the ladies. The temperatures during the month of December (Summer time in the Southern Hemisphere) are typically in the high 20’s (Celsius), but on this hot December day, the temperature was right at 41 °C, and we felt it as soon as we stepped out of our air-conditioned vehicle.
Paarl is one of the oldest European settlements in South Africa and it is truly a culturally diverse community. The people of Paarl can trace their ancestors to Eastern slaves, Dutch, French Huguenots, Eastern European Jews, Italian POW’s, and of course, the local people from this part of Africa, the Khoisan and the San.
The Dutch were the first to settle in Cape Town around the early 1600’s when the Dutch East India Company stopped in what is known today as Cape Town to replenish their fresh food and water supplies. The Dutch were immediately taken with the Mediterranean-like climate that reminded them of the Rhône Valley in the south of France. They knew right away the climate of the region was perfect for farming, and as a result, the early settlers set out to plant orchards, vegetable gardens and vines.
In the late 1680’s, the French Huguenots arrived in the Cape as they were escaping religious persecusion in their homeland, and most were given land in the Paarl region. With their rich knowledge of wine-growing and wine-making, they planted the vines that today produce some of the finest Shiraz wines in the world.
In most recent history, specifically on February 11, 1990, the global broadcasting networks put Paarl on the map when they announced that Nelson Mandela had been released from Victor Vester Prison, a local prison, and marched “the long walk to freedom” leading the transition towards multi-racial democracy in South Africa.
The Language of South Africa – Afrikaans
Afrikaans is known as “the world’s youngest language,” and it is 300-years old! Afrikaans evolved in Paarl, resulting from a mixture of idiomatic Dutch spoken among the frontier people and the slaves of mixed indigenous backgrounds and Malay descent.
As a tribute, the Afrikaans Language Monument is found in Paarl and is the world’s only monument dedicated to the makings of a language.
Adults may find it exciting that Paarl is home to several well-known wine estates, complete with stunning white washed Cape Dutch manor homes, such as those found in Rhebokskloof, Vendôme, Laborie, Nederberg, and Nelson’s Creek estates. Many of these wineries are open to the public for wine-tasting and tours of their manor houses. We visited two wineries whose manor houses have been elevated to the status of “national monuments:”
Laborie Wine Estate
Located on Main Street with its unique “vineyard-in-town” atmosphere, offers beautiful gardens to meander in, a beautiful picturesque tasting room, and a wonderful restaurant where you can experience delicious culinary fares paired up with some of their best wines.
We enjoyed a fantastic lunch at Laborie, and after that, we proceeded to their tasting rooms on another part of the estate. On a cooler day, I can see myself walking around the beautiful grounds. All their wines are reasonably priced, and if you have room in your suitcase, it’s almost impossible not to take a couple of bottles home, as we did!
Nederburg Homestead and Winery
Truly elegant with fort-like walls, high ceilings and airy rooms, this is perhaps one of the finest examples of Cape Dutch architecture in the Western Cape. Completed in 1800, this home does not fail to impress, from the flagstone floor tiles shipped from Europe, to the classic furniture and art collected over the decades. Having arrived almost at 4:30 pm, we missed the tour of the manor house, but we were still able to join the last cellar tour, along with some wine-tasting. Impressive place!
Attractions for the Young and Old
If you are traveling with kids, visiting too many wineries may not be the thing to do (although, you can at least enjoy gourmet meals at the many wineries). Below is a list of a few attractions that the young and old may find entertaining. Opportunities to view wildlife in a safe environment are plentiful. Located no more than five miles from the center of town you’ll find:
~ Butterfly World
~ Die Vonds Snake Park
~ Drakenstein Lion Park
~ Le Bonheur Crocodile Farm
~ Paarl Bird Sanctuary
~ Wiesenhof Game Park
Butterfly World is special because you’ll experience free flying butterflies in a huge, tropical garden enclosure. The butterfly exhibits do a good job at explaining the life cycles of the humble butterfly; it is highly educational. There is a pretty little café on the grounds, as well as a beautiful garden complete with an aviary. You’ll see a fanciful collection of chickens (all colors and shapes), geese and free range ducks. For the big and little kids with a penchant for bugs, this attraction does not disappoint. Highly recommended!
Main Street Paarl
Drive along the twelve-kilometer Main Street, which used to be the old wagon route to the North, it is the only High Street flanked by historic farms and Cape Dutch homesteads of the French Huguenots. Feast your eyes on the many beautiful estates.
There are also many art galleries, quaint shops and boutiques where you can spend the hours just window-shopping or shopping to your heart’s content; sadly, most stores do close early (6:00 pm), so do your shopping during the early part of the day!
Paarl has an extensive collection of accommodations raging from no stars to 5 stars. Most of the guest houses are clustered around the charming village, or are located in the many gracious old farms that dot the countryside.
Paarl’s proximity to the rest of the wine region, such as Stellenbosch and Franschhoek makes it an ideal location for a one or several-nights stay. Although in the end we chose to stay in nearby Franschhoek (a twenty-minute drive), after having spent a delightful day in Paarl, for future trips, we would not hesitate to consider a stay in this lovely town.
Fine dining and affordable dining do not typically go hand-in-hand, but there are so many culinary options from Haute Cuisine to Afro-continental, to Mediterranean to suit every taste and budget. With a favorable exchange of the South African Rand to the US Dollar and other major currencies, gourmet dining in Paarl is very affordable.
Paarl is about history and nature in all its scenic splendor. There are so many ways to enjoy Paarl, whether it’s through its attractions, the great outdoors, or the many vineyards that abound in this fertile land where plump-little grapes become award-winning wines. There is something for everyone in Paarl!