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By J.F. Kloppers

Where can you go to see and smell conching, cheer on a chukka, stomp the divots, drink a blonde, buy gorgeous underwear, enjoy white Pinotage, hold a crocodile (if you want to) and marvel at a mega-pluton created 548 million years ago? There is only one place. Paarl. Winner of the Kwêla Western Cape Town of the Year 2013.

But while some destination dorps can be summed up in a phrase like ‘food or wine capital’, it’s not that easy to define Paarl. Like Russian dolls within a doll, it’s more like a series of destinations inside a larger whole.

Curious to find the magic ingredients behind that win, we set off for the town and discover very quickly that Paarl can most certainly have a tick in its scenery box. Gracious old farmsteads are well settled among vineyards running up the mountain crowned by the iconic Paarl (pearl) that gleams on one side of the Berg River. On the other side are the Klein Drakenstein’s dramatic peaks.

Considering Paarl’s location, location, location and, at just 40 minutes from Cape Town, you couldn’t do better. And then there’s the town’s intriguing mix of innovation and tradition, which includes a fine legacy of historic buildings in keeping with its status as the Cape’s third oldest town.

‘Unique’ is a claim that keeps cropping up when locals here describe the area’s attractions, and we make a series of random stops to put this to the test. There could hardly be anything more traditional than KWV, backbone of the wine industry for decades, but their gracious Main Street headquarters offers an experience that is certainly, well, unique. At the KWV Sensorium is an exhibition of wine and art pairings.

Bubbly hostess Bianca Daniels explains that, for each season, four of KWV’s collections of South African paintings are selected to be paired with a wine, an experience visitors are increasingly intrigued with. Recently, Sensorium was also the scene of an ice cream and wine pairing event, (think Shiraz with a mushroom-infused ice cream), and a colourful knit-a-thon.

Just across the road from KWV is Frater Square, another marriage of tradition and new ideas. On the site of the original farm Hou Med, the 1845 building has been developed as a lifestyle and living complex by husband and wife team Gerard (a sixth-generation Paarlite) and Yvette Frater.

Inside you’ll find 50 shades of designer lingerie and swimwear at G.R.E.Y, the cutest babywear at Lullaby, the Deli at the Square, a Primi restaurant with views of the vineyards and Paarl Mountain, and Blanc de Blanc decor emporium. “People want to be entertained,” says Gerard of the way Paarl is changing. “We have seen a transition, with new blood coming in and streams of people arriving to live here from Gauteng.” The Fraters’s next move is a vegetable garden beside the centre for the freshest of supplies for the restaurants.

At Mellasat Vineyards, a sign with the beetling brows of Huguenot Kop proclaims, ‘Home of white Pinotage’. “It’s a unique wine. You have to do something different when you have a small vineyard,” says Stephen Richardson, Mellsat owner and chairman of the Paarl Wine Route, as he explains how the wine is made (whole bunch pressed, skins removed right away, barrel fermented for up to 11 months).

There are 35 members of the Paarl Wine Route, which is ingeniously divided into colour-coded sub-routes, each consisting of a cluster with a mix of large and small wineries and a restaurant or two. “People like to make a day of it and visit three or four wineries,” says Stephen. Also unique are Stephen’s cellar cemetery of forgotten wines, and the vino therapy foot massage with fermented grape skins, which you can enjoy, of course, with glass in hand at the harvest festival.

It’s a very exciting town, one that gets even more so when we visit Val de Vie, a stylish lifestyle estate centred around the glamorous Polo Club, just the kind of place where you might expect to see Prince Harry playing, and where you can stomp the divots in between watching chukkas four times a week. The Polo Club restaurant and bar that overlooks the playing field, and the bi-monthly Sunday market on the estate, are open to non-residents.

On the Paarl Wine Route, the wondrous Spice Route is a unique destination on the slopes of Paarl Mountain, where a collaboration of artisans showcase their wares. See if you can resist the enticing aromas emanating from De Villiers Artisan Chocolate. We can’t.

“We are bean to bar, and there are only two of us in South Africa,” says chocolate maker and electronic engineer Pieter de Villiers, who runs the business with his wife Cornell. Passionate about chocolate, which equates with wine in tasting terms and in terroirs, Pieter began making chocolate as a hobby. Cacao beans for his 70 per cent cacao single origin chocolate are sourced from six different locations – two in Venezuela and one each in Trinidad, Madagascar, Uganda and São Tomé, each with their distinctive taste, (Madagascar for instance is citrusy, with hints of raisin and vanilla).

De Villiers’ stone ground chocolate contains only cacao beans, cane sugar and cocoa butter. In the final stage, the ingredients are conched, (heated, mixed and agitated ) for up to 78 hours to give a velvety texture. “If you start early and begin eating chocolate at age 13 you can live to 150,” claims Pieter. “And it will put a smile on your face, too. Chocolate is full of serotonin.”

One could get equally happy on the whiff of hops and barley and beer tasting next door at the Cape Brewing Company (CBC’s brand new brewery is the largest craft brewery in South Africa). Master brewer Wolfgang Koedel, with 30 years’ experience in the brewing industry, is responsible for three brews amounting to 3 000 litres – every day. Among the seven beers on tap, and available in the Barley and Biltong beer garden next door, are lager, pilsner and pale (that’s the aforementioned blonde) as well as amber ales. And the innovation? That will be Wolfang’s chocolate stout made with chocolate nibs from his neighbour De Villiers.

The Spice Route also showcases Grappa making, wine tasting, glass blowing and a pizzeria, and is the kind of place where you can spend all day. At the Spice Route Restaurant, where Malabar-braised springbok rump potjie with almonds, cumin-glazed carrots and chutney, and CBC’s Amber Weiss-braised, cured Chalmar beef fillet are on the menu, we hear about a further innovation from chef Marion Kumpf – they will introduce North African cuisine to the menu in October.

Last on the day’s outing (leaving much to still be visited), is a visit to Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve to get close to the iconic rocks, those giant, granite blisters that bubbled up from earth’s magma core. The only puzzling thing about this stunning granite intrusion or pluton – the second-largest in the world – is that it doesn’t enjoy the same visitor celebrity as Table Mountain. Maybe it just gets take for granted… or should that be granited?

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