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april 19th, 2004 -> Life at the Villa Cuore : south africa

South Africa is notable for its large number of excellent water-retaining structures. Its reservoirs, dams, and water and sewage treatment plants are of the highest quality, and unique innovations - such as the ‘floating roof’ - have ensured that the nation’s vital water resources are not squandered. All this I learned on the drive to Cape Hermanus, as Pat Hart – not-quite-retired civil engineer, Kilimanjaro climber, and noted curmudgeon – pointed out the reinforced concrete fruits of his labor.

Pat and Margaret Hart – the parents of my good friend Rob from Hong Kong – lived in a beautiful home on the flanks of Paarl Mountain. They had invited us to stay at their home and use Paarl as a base for exploring the surrounding wine country. After a few days in Cape Town, we caught a Greyhound bus for the 45-minute ride to Paarl. Pat was waiting for us at the station. It was nice to see the Autocrat again. We meet in odd places: Nepal, Tanzania, South Africa, and in a few months, Hong Kong (for Rob’s wedding). It was our first time meeting Marg – the quiet, sympathetic yin to Pat’s rather more aggressive yang - but her quintessential motherliness made us feel immediately comfortable. We later learned it was Pat’s 63 rd birthday; we were heading to their holiday flat on the coast to celebrate.

Cape Hermanus is famous for whale-watching. In June through December, huge pods of Southern Right Whales come here to mate and calve. It wasn’t the right time to see whales, but the coastal scenery was beautiful, even sans cetaceans. The Harts had a wonderful flat overlooking the sea. Massive cliffs of Cape sandstone rose above the long, gentle curve of Walker Bay. At night, the lighthouse on the opposite end of the bay seemed to twinkle miles offshore. On a warm, clear day, Pat took us on an exhilarating walk in the nearby Fernkloof Reserve. We trekked past an incredible variety of bushes, herbs and wildflowers. This was fynbos – a superdiverse floral ecosystem endemic to South Africa. The next morning, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at a seaside café. We were tempted to stay much longer at Hermanus, but the wine country called.

Though South African wines have only recently begun to gain international acclaim, Cape wine-making has a history nearly as long as the Colony itself. The first vines were planted in the late 1680’s by newly-arrived French Huguenots. Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschoek form a triangle at the heart of South Africa’s premier wine-making region. All are within an hour’s drive from Cape Town. In addition to being a wine-growing center, Stellenbosch is also the site of one of South Africa’s most-respected universities. In nearby Somerset West, we visited the beautiful Vergelegen wine estate (worth visiting if only to see the giant Japanese Camphor trees!) and toured their state-of-the-art winemaking facility. At Boschendal, a rambling estate between Stellenbosch and Paarl, we enjoyed a six-course, gourmet picnic lunch on the manor grounds.

The South Africa wine industry is best known for its unique grape varietals and its red blends. Pinotage, a hybrid of pinot noir and hermitage, quickly became our favorite. When a pinotage is good, it has the musty nose of a pinot noir, with a fuller taste. Chenin blanc is also a popular variety. Light, fruity and with a floral nose, it reminded us of a gewürztraminer. We were not big fans of the variety, but did find a tasty bottle which was a nice complement to spicy Thai food. Apparently, South African red blends have been rated highly in international wine competitions, but we preferred the simpler, single variety reds, particularly cabernet sauvignon. For the most part, the whites were lackluster. Australian chardonnay is a better bet, as is New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

We had a wonderful time at the Villa Cuore (a set of painted tiles at the entrance to their house proclaimed the abode “Home of the Hearts/Harts” in Italian.) For a week or so, we were their surrogate son and daughter-in-law-to-be. We ate wonderful meals, sat outside and watched the mountains ‘blush’ at dusk, and made a respectable dent in the Harts’ wine collection. On account of the rushed schedule of the past two months, Nori and I were very happy to just sit around and gab. “When Rob comes home,” Marg complained, “he’s always running around. We barely get a chance to talk.” Sounds like something my mother has said to me – many times. I tried to explain Rob’s job as a financial analyst, and Nori answered Marg’s questions about the cultural issues of being an Asian-American (Rob’s wife-to-be, Anna, is half-Chinese, half-Swedish). Pat told hilarious and poignant tales of the workplace and Marg enlightened us with her knowledge of South African history. It was like home with a different accent.