The drive alone is worth the four-hour trip from Cape Town to Prince Albert, and that was only the start of a weekend break that more than met expectations. First off, let me emphasise that Prince Albert, which lies at the foot of the Swartberg Mountains that forms the border between the Little and the Great Karoo, really is one of the best kept secrets of wintering in the Western Cape, and I write with more than a little reservation, so all who read this are sworn to secrecy!
I will not beat around the bush about the Karoo being cold during winter – it was icy – and snow-capped mountains formed the background to much of our trip. But the days were blue, the scenery close to tear-jerking and the derth of visitors to the small Karoo town meant that we could only guess …
by the number of guest houses, restaurants and coffee shops that Prince Albert has been ‘discovered’ and is popular during the summer months, and rub our hands in glee at practically having the place to ourselves!
The drive through the Hex River Valley along the N1 in early winter is a tapestry of burned amber, red, browns and yellows as grapevines lose their leaves, and mountains, topped with snow, may bring with them icy evenings, but a log fire and electric blankets soon put paid to any of the lesser evils of winter.
There is little chance of missing the turn-off to Prince Albert after Laingsburg – the R407 is well sign-posted, and the road one of those less travelled, so lingering glances across the valley are permitted.
The somewhat sleepy town might initially appear rural, and it is. Its main street is lined with tinned roof Karoo cottages, beautifully maintained Victorian homes and national monuments, and its one of a handful of towns where farms are literally part of the town, not on the outskirts.
Possibly the main reason for this is one of the idiosyncracies of Prince Albert. Despite lying in the midst of the Karoo, a sizeable constantly-flowing stream supplies the town with water all year round. And the town is built to take advantage of the fact. Every property built on the channeled stream has a viaduct that allows residents access to an allocated number of litres per month to water their fruit trees, glorious gardens and vegetable plots.
Incredibly, Prince Albert has a sub-tropical climate where frosts are rare and bananas, pawpaws, and bougainvillaeas grow alongside an enviable natural vegetation, succulents and fynbos.
There’s a long history to the town well outlined by the Tourist Office, that includes the discovery of gold, ostrich feathers, mohair and the Gamkaskloof, but the gems of Prince Albert are without doubt the hospitable townfolk, the incredible bird life, the stars, and the peace and stillness largely due to the quiet of the main road.
We weren’t there for long, and our main objective was to relax, but we managed to pack in a walk in Bushman’s Valley, a couple of visits to the Lazy Lizard – a wonderful cafe, coffee shop/restaurant with a down-to-earth menu, prices to match and a play area for children -, the Lah-di-dah ‘fency padstal’ and a trip to Gay’s dairy – where her cows are raised the way you wish all cows could be raised, and her cheeses, milk and yoghurts taste of sunshine and fields of lucerne.
Our stay, right on the edge of town in a neck of Prince Albert where farms and little homes fit snugly side-by-side, in no way intruding on one another, was one reason to go back. But regardless of your choice of accommodation in Prince Albert, the little Karoo town necessitates a return visit.
If you’ve a 4×4 vehicle, make time to drive over the Swartberg Pass that links Prince Albert with Oudtshoorn, where residents venture forth on monthly forays for staple goods – the town’s OK store doesn’t quite measure up to expectations, which is all part of the charm and necessitates visits to the local dairy and small holdings for vegetables and fruit – what are small towns for, hey?