The tiny Karoo town of Prince Albert (a five-hour drive from Cape Town) is one of my favorite country destinations in South Africa: it has bucketloads of charm, gorgeous Victorian architecture, fabulous restaurants and fresh produce, eccentric and friendly locals and wonderful accommodation options, from stylish cottages to quirky guesthouses.
For a small place, there’s a surprising amount of things to do, from botany walks to ghost tours, cooking classes to wine tasting – you really are spoiled for choice.
Cooking course at African Relish
Taking a cooking course at Prince Albert’s famous cooking school, African Relish, is the reason many people visit the town. Throughout the year the school (located on the main road in town) offers a wide variety of courses lasting from an afternoon to several days. Many of the courses focus on food from the Karoo region, from tapas with a Karoo twist to classic Karoo cooking, while there are other courses on charcuterie, vegetarian cooking, Italian food and cooking with spices. Well-known chefs, such as British television chef Reza Mahammad (who I was lucky enough to do a wonderful Indian cooking weekend with) often headline the courses, which are all fun, hands-on and sociable. If you come for a weekend or longer, the school offers accommodation in one of its stylishly renovated Victorian cottages, spread throughout town.
For such a small town, Prince Albert certainly has a lot of ghosts and paranomal occurences. Set off at dusk to explore the town on foot with entertaining guide Ailsa Tudhope, who’ll lead you through graveyards and past haunted houses and bring the creepier side of Prince Albert’s history to life with her intriguing tales.
Eat your way through the Saturday food market
Every Saturday morning the town congregates at the lovely little market on the main road. It’s a great place to sample some traditional South Africa favorites (don’t come expecting kale juices and fusion street food). Chattering aunties make cinnamon-sugar pancakes, moer koffie (traditional farm coffee) and sell homemade jams, lamb soutertjies (savoury pies) and sweet baked treats, and you can buy boerewors rolls (thick sausage) and roosterkoek (bread cooked on a grill eating with butter, cheese and jam) straight off the braai (barbecue). There’s also loads of fresh produce, from the beautiful heirloom vegetables out of the local GP’s garden to boxes of fruit from neighboring farms. Go with an empty stomach and a big basket.
While the Karoo is not well known for its wine farms, Prince Albert has two vineyards that are well worth a tasting visit.
The second smallest wine estate in the country, SoetKaroo has just one hectare of vines, right in the center of town where retired couple Susan and Herman Perold make a couple of thousand bottles of delicious dessert wine each year. The Red Muscat d’Alexandrie is their flagship wine, while their other varietals sell out before they’ve even produced them. When you visit, Susan or Herman will take you through the whole production cycle. Just don’t leave without buying a few bottles!
A few miles outside of town, Bergwater is the largest winery in the Great Karoo region and produces a range of award-winning wines, from Sauvignon Blanc and rosé to Merlot and sparkling wine. If you swallow rather than spit out your wine at the tasting, you could always spend a night in one of the two guesthouses on the property.
Find out about the fascinating plant life of the Karoo on a walk through Wolwekraal Nature Reserve (a few miles outside of town) with Sue Milton-Dean, a highly respected botanist and with a special interest in Karoo biome botany. Sue will give you a new perspective on a landscape that might appear barren, but is full of amazing plants that have adapted to the harsh arid climate. You’ll learn about edible plants such as the skaapbossie (which is eaten by sheep and gives Karoo lamb its distinctive flavor) and about the relationship between the Karoo’s plants, insects and animals.
The Badenhorst family own and run Prince Albert Olives, which has more than 70 000 olive trees and beautiful orchards outside of town. They produce an extra virgin olive oil, which has won numerous awards – the distinctive retro-style yellow tins can be spotted on the shelves of gourmet kitchens all over the country. Do a tour of the small factory, and a tasting of their olives and oil, and buy some cans to take home for drizzling on everything
Eat, drink and be merry
Prince Albert has no shortage of fantastic restaurants, including unpretentious cafés to a fine dining eatery – you’re never far from a good meal.
If you don’t take a cooking course at African Relish, be sure to have a meal in their restaurant: delicious Karoo-inspired dishes feature seasonal ingredients and interesting combinations (such as watermelon and calamari salad). The Gallery Café, a small restaurant upstairs from an art gallery, serves up gourmet dishes (think baked figs and gorgonzola; duck, port and cherry pie; chocolate fondant dessert with fig ice cream) in an elegant setting.
Karoo Kombuis is one of the more eccentric options: it’s a homely bistro run by three friends in a small house, so you feel like you’re eating in a home rather than a restaurant. Food is the same traditional hearty South African fare they’ve been cooking for over a decade: lamb and mint pie, Karoo lamb shank and bobotie (a curried meat bake) (tel +27 23 541 1110).
It’s hard to get a reservation at the Olive Branch, but if you can you’re in for a treat. Legendary local character Bokkie Botha only opens up his tiny restaurant when he feels like it, which is not very often. If you’re lucky enough to be in town when Bokkie’s open, expect a gourmet set three-course meal of Mediterranean flavors and Karoo specialities (tel +27 23 541 1821).
Mountain biking and hiking
Prince Albert is renowned for its rugged but scenic mountain biking routes, such as the steep and tough route up the rocky and dramatic Swartberg Pass (not for the beginner mountain biker). You can hire mountain bikes from Dennehof guesthouse.
If you’re not into cycling but want to get some exercising in (especially after all that wining and dining), there are wonderful hiking trails in the area, in the Swartberg Nature Reserve (book your permit in advance from www.capenature.co.za), on local farmland (such as Kredouw Farm) and in Bushman Valley. For more information on hikes, you can contact Prince Albert Tourism.
Where to stay in Prince Albert
Dennehof offers cozy Victorian-inspired rooms in a 19th century farmhouse on the edge of town, filled with art, quirky décor and tasteful furniture. There’s a deep veranda for drinking cocktails on and wonderful breakfasts served outside on a shady deck.
Elegant and stylish, De Bergkant Lodge has spacious rooms in a lovingly restored two-hundred-year-old Cape Dutch house of wooden floors and high ceilings. The peaceful gardens are a treat, and the two swimming pools offer much-need refreshment from the Karoo heat.