In South Africa’s Winelands: Families welcomed to learn about biodiversity

By Eileen Ogintz

THE WINELANDS, near Cape Town, South Africa — The pigs are lolling in the mud at the edge of the forest. There are 1,000 chickens, cows, waddling Runnymede ducks and acres of organic vegetables, herbs and orchards.

A duck waddles through the organic farm at Boschendal
A duck waddles through the organic farm at Boschendal

 

Welcome to Boschendal, a historic winery in South Africa’s famous Winelands area less than an hour outside of Cape town that is embracing visiting families as well as couples and honeymooners.

There are some 40 cottages for guests, extensive mountain biking and hiking trails, and everything from fine dining at The Werf where the menu changes daily, to pizza  and picnics–all  made with ingredients from the farm.

In fact, at the fine dining restaurant, guests oversee the gardens “so they can see their food harvested,” explains Tracy Van Wijk, who has helped this program expand in the past five years, now employing 600 people. “Everything we use is made here,” she says proudly, digging her hands into “the happiest earth,” being fertilized with earthworms.

Now there is a new ambitious outdoor educational initiative—the Treehouse—to teach children where their food comes from and encourage them to get off their devices and get their hands dirty in the soil.

Tracy Van Wik explains an acorn pod that will hang from the trees at the Tree House
Tracy Van Wik explains an acorn pod that will hang from the trees at the Tree House

 

Van Wik said the program was developed after the farm overseer recognized the need to have programs for children as the family market was growing. On Friday nights, there is an artisanal market; there is a farm store selling everything from freshly harvested vegetables, cheeses and meats.

While parents are enjoying wine tasting or a fine meal (the menu changes daily based on what is being harvested), the kids might be gathering eggs, making a craft, harvesting vegetables, taking a nature walk or on a scavenger hunt. There is a new playground and mini adventure course now being completed and a center complete with kid-sized kitchen, crafts room and a big an outdoor fire pit where the kids—supervised, of course—will build a fire for their own memorable meal.

Most of the wineries here are family owned and our guide Josh explains, there is an effort “to include everyone,” as younger people “don’t wait to take bucket list trips and there is an emphasis on active experiences.”

Johan Asbroek explains the method champagne process he uses for sparking wines at My Wyn
Johan Asbroek explains the method champagne process he uses for sparking wines at My Wyn

 

At another smaller winery we visit, My Myn, owners Johan and Jacoline Asbroek welcome children less formally with their three friendly dogs, a frog pond (the kids can help one of the dogs in his never successful search for frogs) and the chance to take a hike to a waterfall with a guide like Josh Bent while the parents learn all about the growing sparkling wine industry here made with the methods as are champagne in France.

And at the Maison Estate, where we dine at the Chef’s Warehousewith its seasonal small plates menu—think oysters with pickled fennel, trout tartar, parsley and fennel risotto, roasted duck and wood fired venison loin. There is a kids’ menu (parmesan risotto and a fish of the day) and there is plenty of room for kids to run around in the garden, perhaps chasing the chickens.

Kids can decorate cookies at the Eikendale Estate after a walk around the gardens; At Warwick Estate there is a jungle gym and a kids’ pool while La Motte, there is a giant chessboard on the grass. Another farm—Vergenoedg Low Wine Estate–invites kids to join its weekly “March of the Ducks” as the 700 to 800 ducks waddle into the vines to eat insects.

“It used to be an emphasis on culture and history when people came to South Africa,” continued our guide Josh Bent. “Now tourists are seeking more active experiences and as a result guides like Josh and Jacquie are far younger—in their late 20s—rather than retirees.

Abercrombie & Kent has arranged a “tailor made” trip to South Africa for us as they do for a growing number of families. Here, where wine was first produced in 1659 thanks to the climate and the influx of Huguenot religious refugees from France.

The guides also aim to give the kids a quick introduction Kids also get an introduction to the Afrikaan language, the first language for many South Africans.

Berg means mountain; strand means beach; houzit means hello and bai danki (sounds like “buy a donkey”) means thank you very much, while totsiens mean “till I see you again.”

We pass through the towns of Stellenbosch, where the 25,000 students at the university outnumber locals, and Franschhoek that are reminiscent of Napa and Healdsburg in California with upscale shops and restaurants.

Monument to the French Huguenots who brought winemaking knowledge to South Africa
Monument to the French Huguenots who brought winemaking knowledge to South Africa

 

Today there are some 200 mostly family owned wine farms here. Most are recognizing they must cater to the burgeoning family market, explain our guides  Josh and Jaqui, who came equipped not only with snacks (everything from dried mango and beef jerky to brownies, nuts and  yogurt-covered sunflower seeds, rosemary chips. A rugby ball and cricket bat helps kids understand the local culture of South Africa.

Boschendal and its Tree House prove to be  a unique model for visiting families–not only to experience a new culture in a historic setting that dates back to the 17thCentury. Former slave quarters now are home to the bakery and farm shop.  The Werf restaurant is housed in the original wine cellar; the deli in an old coach house.

If not for those highly skilled slaves, notes Van Wijk. “We wouldn’t be here today.”

Today, as in historic times, everything is made—and used on the farm in a natural way. The pigs help till the soil; the cattle eat the grass; the ducks and chickens eat the insects.

“Absolutely we hope we are a model,” she says. “Kids need to know where there food comes from. We want to create a new mindfulness.”

And, of course, have lots of fun doing that.

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