It is fairly difficult to pretend to be unbiased when putting together a list of favourite South African dorps. So, I haven’t even pretended to be (unbiased, that is) and thus most of them lie in the Western Cape. This is a list of my favourites. I’m sure you have yours. And I’m equally sure that I’ve skipped over at least five that belong here (okay, six, but that one didn’t quite pass the ‘serves coffee after 6pm’ test).
Below is a collection of dorps that are small, have aesthetic appeal (they look really ‘nice’), offer something different (there’s an ever-so-slightly quirky atmosphere), cater for visitors (they have places, restaurants and accommodation worth using), allow great photo opportunities, are home to eccentrics and everyday folk…
Places you can easily stay awhile … or even move to…
BARRYDALE (on Route 62)
Strictly speaking Barrydale is still in the Western Cape, but it also lies in the Overberg on the famous Route 62 between Montagu and Ladismith (we blogged about it here) just before you hit the Karoo. It’s filled with artists, shale walls, quirky homes, so many restaurants that you can eat out for at least a week without going to the same one twice, and the Karoo hotel, which is definitely worth a look-see.
Barrydale does not conform to any of the ‘small town’ standards and you will want to move here despite the fact that it doesn’t have its own doctor, vet, chemist or pharmacy and is miles from a local hospital. Make time: to buy a rug at Barrdale hand weavers, to drink a cup of coffee at Clarke of the Karoo and to walk the labyrinth at Lemoenshoek.
PRINCE ALBERT (off the N1)
Prince Albert lies someway off the N1 between Laingsburg and Leeu Gamka at the foot of the Swartberg Mountains that form the border between the Little and the Great Karoo (we blogged about it here). The Town is filled with quaint cottages and a viaduct along which water is channelled for use in everyone’s gardens – hence these are enviable and just about everyone grows their own food of some description (something to do with the sub-tropical climate).
The main street through town is lined with restaurants, boutiques and shops worth a visit, Gay’s dairy sells the most delicious milk and yoghurt (do not take your own as you’ll want to buy here and will no doubt end up taking some home too), there are wonderful walks, zany little avenues and cul de sacs and even farms right in town. It’s sublime.
VICTORIA WEST (heart of the Karoo)
Set in the heart of the Karoo and sort-of famous for its annual film festival and for the presence of the lots-more-famous rugby hero, Mannetjies Roux, the gorgeous little dorp (we blogged about it here) Victoria West, deserves a visit not least for the incredible architecture of the typical Cape cottages that line the R63 just as you hit town from the Loxton side.
Whilst there aren’t that many restaurants, there is a fair amount of accommodation, a few excellent antique shops and one or two churches that are simply beautiful. And if you can, time your visit for the film festival in September, which is regarded as South Africa’s answer to the Sundance Film Festival.
NIEU-BETHESDA (in die middel van nêrens)
Although I haven’t visited for a while, I was so taken with this little dorp when I did, that I’ve added it to the list. It’s little, famous for the Owl House, and given to the kind of hospitality rarely in practice even in small dorps these days. Nieu-Bethesda is also a typical little Karoo village with a sleepy main road, not many places to stay or eat, but a star-studded sky, a deathly quiet, untarred roads and a sense that you have escaped it all (we blogged about it here).
Helen Martins’ art in the Owl House continues to capture the hearts and minds of all who visit the museum – now a National Monument. The eccentric recluse produced a series of sculptures in glass and cement, with a particular focus on owls and camels, that has brought the village both fame and scepticism. Whatever your regard for her art, the town is worth a visit.
HOGSBACK (far in the Eastern Cape)
I exaggerate not when I describe this little town, perched high in the Amatola Mountains, as otherwordly. Aside from everyones’ obvious South African accents, you might be mistaken for thinking you had stepped into a little village in the English countryside (we blogged about it here), or certainly Hobbitville. And probably for this reason, the town has an association with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although locals dispute this.
You can effortlessly spend a week or two in Hogsback, as indeed you should for getting here is quite a trek. There are forests, hedges lined with little pink roses, artists’ hideaways by the dozen, eccentric individuals, and a feast of things to do that include a labyrinth, an eco shrine, a fairy realm, an arboretum, a number of restaurants and coffee shops, a waterfall or two and hikes a plenty.
ROSENDAL (in the Free State)
This is the new (ish) Gautengers playground, and whilst constantly compared with Clarens, is hard at work making sure that this comparison ends just there and does not become a reality. Rosendal (we blogged about it here) is a gorgeous little dorp just three hours’ from Jo’burg and hence quite the place for weekend breaks.
Aside from a theatre, where everyone from from Elsabe Zietsman to Karen Zoid has performed, the town has a number of wonderful character cottages, incredible views, a few antique shops, coffee shops and restaurants and one or two places to stay. Chances are you’ll want to move here.
PHILADALEPHIA (twenty minutes’ outside Cape Town)
The Western Cape is full to the brim of potential little dorps that belong on a favourites list – starting with Franschhoek and ending with Darling. However, name one that you haven’t heard of. Philadelphia (we blogged about it here) is one of those little villages about which not many Capetonians know, for a start, and which is really close to home – only 20 minutes drive, to be precise.
Philadelphia has the customary church square, is filled to the brim with character cottages, has at least two restaurants worth visiting – the Pepper Tree Art Stable and Coffee Shop, and Die Meul – a variety of little shops, and a feeling of complete escape from it all. And it has at least one eccentric – go see for yourselves.
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