Swellendam: Untapped & Overflowing

by Desiree Haakonsen on 4 June, 2014 · 10 comments

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I have a confession. I’ve driven the N2 past Swellendam more than once where my only desire to stop was determined by my either my petrol gauge or my bladder. Swellendam was little more than a “distance to” marker, a gaping hole on the map to holiday havens like Wilderness and Knysna. And as the N2 skirts the edge of town, it’s very easy to misjudge this little nook by its fleeting 80km/h cover.

Discovering Swellendam with #swellenblog

I was invited on behalf of TravelGround to explore the Greater Swellendam area as part of the #swellenblog online tourism campaign. After 5 days of hauling it from restaurant to attraction to adventure activity, my first impressions of this little Overberg dorpie have been completely shattered. Thanks to the efforts of Swellendam Tourism Brand Manager, Amanda Shackley, and the accommodations, restaurants, tour operators, wine estates, and other parties who all played their part to showcase the region, we have been given a taste of how much this untapped area is overflowing with beauty, history, adventure, and charm.

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Despite months of pre-planning on Amanda’s part, the #swellenblog hashtag was adopted after the inspirational #stellenblog media campaign proved to be such a roaring success for Stellenbosch tourism. It was pure irony that the towns shared similar names and in the good-natured eccentricity of Swellendam, we happily embraced being dubbed #stellenblog’s “ugly sister”, because every minute in this region of folded mountains and hypnotic clouds revealed just how wrong that idea is.

The Rebellious Republic

A brief look at the history of Swellendam gives us some idea of her rebellious, quirky nature. Founded in 1745, Swellendam is the third oldest town in South Africa after Cape Town and Stellenbosch. But unlike her older siblings, on 17 June 1795 (a mere 50 years after her founding) Swellendam residents declared themselves a Republic and expelled their Dutch East India Magistrate. Their independence was somewhat fleeting as they accepted British rule only 3 months later. In honour of their rebellious nature, Swellendammers once again declared themselves a Republic on 18 June 2011.

In the words of Johan Kriek, curator of the Drostdy Museum, the Greater Swellendam area is “A Republic of love, community, unity, art, music, good food, and beauty. A Republic in which people show that they care about the environment in which they live, that they treasure wildlife and nature, that they respect the history and heritage of each and every citizen, and they care about one another, a Republic which brings together the seven small towns of the Greater Swellendam area: Barrydale, Buffeljags, Cape Infanta, Malgas, Stormsvlei, Suurbraak, and Swellendam”.

What’s so swell?

Our jam-packed, sunrise-to-midnight itinerary barely made a scratch on the region’s to do list. It’s impossible to do justice to all of our activities in one blog post, so I will follow up with more juicy details. But if you understand how much these 5 days have inspired me to revisit Swellendam and other small towns I thought I knew, then that’s a great start. So what’s so swell about Swellendam?

  1. Food

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You won’t find a McDonalds or KFC in this town! The streets are lined with well-loved homesteads-turned-restaurants offering exceptional food– often outshining eateries in more popular destinations like Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, and Cape Town. Be prepared to stretch your stomach, because everyone caters to the massive appetites of local farmers and rugby jocks.

I’ll detail all the eateries we visited in another post, but I can’t resist sharing my insatiable love of the De Vagebond starter menu, the most melt-in-your-mouth meats at De Companjie, and exciting red velvet milkshakes at Diesel and Crème!

UPDATE: Check out where you can eat your heart happy in Swellendam!

  1. Wine

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While Swellendam isn’t a wine region in its own right, Malgas is home to Sijnn Wines (pronounced “sane”) and the exquisite Joubert-Tradauw wine estate can be found in Barrydale. For more wine tasting excursions, take the R60 to explore over 50 wine estates in The Robertson Wine Valley. I can’t wait to tell you more about our visit to Van Loveren and Zandvliet, and the great wines from Kranskop and Bon Courage.

  1. Adventure

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I finally fulfilled my dream of micro lighting thanks to Oom Kosie’s aeronautic abilities at Umshanti. This was shortly followed by a rather red in the cheeks fuffi-slide into the dam where my choice of attire wasn’t quite as up to the challenge as I was. Whether it be croc paddling down the Breede River at Stonehill River Lodge, horse riding with Two Feathers Horse Trails, or a fun combination of a berry maze, paintball, fuffi-slide (a land based one, thank goodness), and crazy speed quad-biking at Swellendam Getaway Adventure Farm, you’ll be spoilt for adrenaline-inducing activities.

UPDATE: Check out these 5 adventure attractions in Swellendam!

  1. Nature

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Nature is not only on your doorstep in Swellendam, it clings to the very door frame. The serenity and slow pace is what draws so many people to plant their roots here. Take a slow drive (don’t be shy to take the dirt roads), search for whales along the coastal trails at De Hoop, hike the fat folds of the mountains in Marloth Nature Reserve, spend hours getting “the perfect shot” in Bontebok National Park, swirl a glass of wine on the riverbank, and take the time to spot animals in the ever-changing clouds.

  1. Slow lane

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When you listen to the stories of Swellendammers, there’s a similar tale coming through. The majority of restaurant and accommodation owners we met have moved to Swellendam – dogs in tow – to escape the madness of life in bigger cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria, and as far as England and Germany. Swellendam is certainly not without its small town challenges, but life is slow and good, and if you stay long enough you may never want to leave.

  1. One of a kind

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Swellendam wears several unique and quirky hats. It is the Berry Capital of South Africa, the first town in South Africa to have a Rain Forest Spa, and you can cross the Breede River at Malgas on South Africa’s last hand drawn pont. You’ll even find a magical Faerie Sanctuary dedicated to the protection of these tiny winged creatures.

  1. History

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As the third oldest town in South Africa, Swellendam has all the intrigue and scandal of a soapie. If you book a guided tour with TradeRoutes & SwellenCab, make a special request for Simon to be your driver – he knows everything about everything! Visit the old Sugar Bridge, see the Free Masons plaque at La Belle Alliance restaurant, and search for Khoi-San rock art along Tradouw Pass.

 

Stay swell

We were blessed to stay at 3 vastly different accommodations and visit a handful more. There really is something for everyone. Luxury adventure seekers will love the riverside setting of Stonehill River Lodge, while more laid-back, fuss-free travellers will have a blast at Umshanti or Kam’Bati River Resort. Gaikou Lodge is ideal for honeymoons and conferences; De Hoop has everything from campsites to Manor Suites; Schoone Oordt is regally elegant in every way; Barrydale Karoo Hotel is a must for eclectic art lovers; couples will love the cosy setup at De Companjie; and Impangele is hard to beat if you enjoy a touch of wildlife-inspired whimsy.

 

Swellenbloggers

The #swellenblog journey would not have been what it is without these brilliant bloggers who so willingly shared their lives, knowledge, enthusiasm, and (most importantly) food:

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Lisa Huang of Food & Chatter: @bestcapetownSA

Ovidiu Pacuraru of Food & Chatter: @pacuraru

Jon Meinking of ishotimages: @ishotimagesza

Luke Bresler of The Curious Gastronomer and The Trip Fox: @curious_luke

Andrea Weiss of Flow: @redwingstarling

Thaya Bedford of Love Overberg: @VagabondScribe

Linda Markovina of Moving Sushi: @moving_sushi

If you missed out on the #swellenblog Twitter adventure, catch up on some of my highlights by following @deshaakonsen and @TravelGround.

 

Have you been guilty of passing by Swellendam or have you taken the time to explore this untapped destination?

 

Disclaimer: #swellenblog was a media bloggers trip organised by Swellendam Tourism Brand Manager, Amanda Shackley. I was there on behalf of TravelGround by invitation from Swellendam Tourism, but all thoughts and photos are my own, unless otherwise stated. Thank you to the following who made #swellenblog the incredible adventure that it was: TradeRoutes, Umshanti, Stonehill River Lodge, Gaikou Lodge, De Hoop Collection, Schoone Oordt, Barrydale Karoo Hotel, Tredici, De Vagebond, De Companjie, Old Gaol, Pennantwing, Diesel and Crème, Paradise Organic, Wildebraam Berry Estate, Sjinn Wines, Joubert-Tradauw, Zandvliet, Van Loveren, Kranskop, Bon Courage, Two Feathers Horse Trails, and Swellendam Getaway Adventure Farm (The Berry Farm).

Jenene June 4, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Lovely!!!

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Desiree Haakonsen June 5, 2014 at 8:30 am

Thanks Jenene :)
It was so lovely meeting you on our trip!

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Mandy Kriel June 5, 2014 at 3:31 pm

Thanks for this lovely article with some good ideas to try on our next visit. Places we have already greatly enjoyed in Swellendam which you have not mentioned here are Moonshadow Studio and Vegan Coffee Shop and Powell House Restaurant. Both have FB pages where you can see more about them.

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Desiree Haakonsen June 6, 2014 at 10:19 am

Hi Mandy
Thanks so much for the recommendations – I will definitely check them out. It’s hard to believe that after 5 days of hauling it through the Swellendam region, we didn’t even get around to Moonshadow, Vegan Coffee Shop, or Powell House. There is sooo much I’m looking forward to seeing and doing on my next visit to Swellendam.

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wynand June 6, 2014 at 9:11 am

I must confess, you and the rest of the bloggers change my perseption of foodbloggers! And yes Swellendam is a Lady in waiting…..she is waiting for you all to welcome you on her lap, to hug you with love, to whisper in your ear and send you home with tummies filled with awesome food!

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Desiree Haakonsen June 6, 2014 at 10:20 am

Haha. Thank you Wynand. You and Ilze were excellent hosts and we all had a fantastic evening at Old Gaol.
We bloggers are all missing the Swellendam food!!

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