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Wine, whales and wildebeest.

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If I weighed in at 60 tonnes I could manage little more than a lie on the sofa in front of daytime TV. But for the gigantic Southern Right whales off the coast of Cape Town, weighing the same as seven double-decker buses is no reason to avoid a spot of acrobatics.Utterly unconcerned by the boatload of spectators kitted out in fetching orange oilskins, one repeatedly dived in and out of the water as another playfully balanced a piece of kelp on his nose.

Nearby a family of penguins swam nonchalantly past through the surf, apparently unflustered by the prospect of one of the world's largest populations of Great White sharks lurking beneath the water's surface.Gripping onto the safety rail of our boat, I felt like I had turned up in a National Geographic documentary. But after just three days in South Africa I was getting used to nature showing off.For all the pain of its recent history, this is an area blessed by beauty - from the dramatic backdrop of Table Mountain looming over Cape Town to the jagged peaks and rolling landscape of the winelands just inland. It was the latter that I had really come to see.In the years since the collapse of apartheid signalled the end of international economic isolation, South Africa's wine industry has taken off.The country is already the world's eighth largest producer becoming a bigger and bigger presence with each passing year.Not that I could claim any expertise in the subject. My golden rule with buying wine has always been to go for the second cheapest bottle in the shop. But there couldn't be better places to have a crash course in the subject than unpretentious South Africa.Centred on a series of former Dutch colonial estates, complete with picture-postcard 17th century whitewashed buildings; the country's vineyards have as much of the Old World as the New about them.The winelands' rich history is very much on show in towns like Stellenbosch or Franschhoek - Afrikaans for French corner - which takes its name from the Huguenot refugees who settled there 300 years ago, fleeing religious persecution in their own homeland.Like New Orleans, Franschhoek is something of an architectural tribute to old France, with pretty wrought-iron balconies and wooden shutters everywhere. And just as in France, good food is a serious business here.The town has earned a reputation as South Africa's undisputed gastronomic capital. Every other building on the pretty main street seems to be a restaurant - but I don't suppose there could be too many places in France where wildebeest or impala are regular items on the menu.For little more than the price of a meal for two at a pizza joint, I was able to eat at what is officially one of the world's best restaurants, Le Quartier Francais in the centre of town.It is rightly famed for its Tasting Room, where customers can opt for four, six or eight small courses - with dishes ranging from lamb cooked for 36 hours, to gourmet takes on unique local ingredients.Tucking into a warthog roulade, I discovered that this was the only eatery in the whole of Africa or the Middle East to make it onto the world's top 50 list. By my calculations, that made it the best restaurant for 5,000 miles.But it's certainly not the only good restaurant in Franschhoek, with the Grande Provence Estate just outside town - popular with guests such as Jude Law and Prince Andrew - or trendy Bouillabaisse and Reubens in the centre.In danger of weighing the same as a Southern Right whale ourselves, we went off in search of the great outdoors.A night at Jan Harmsgat guesthouse in Robertson, a beautifully restored Dutch farmhouse, gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs with a morning hike in the hills.Arriving breathless at the top, we couldn't help noticing a bizarre grunting noise getting louder and louder.In the distance a line of distinctly nonplussed wildebeest were warning us off their territory. I thought it best not to mention what we had eaten the night before.Nearby we stopped on a local farm to try out cross-country quad biking. As we sped across one field, we again realised we had company, as a group of ostriches dashed past us. A scenic drive around Cape Point took us to the stunning Grootbos nature reserve, where guests stay in immaculate individual hillside lodges with dramatic sweeping views down to where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.Situated in a mixture of ancient milkwood forest and 'fynbos' heathland, the main building was completely destroyed in a fire last year. The accommodation is now fully rebuilt and conservationists have since discovered a handful of new plant species growing as the land regenerated itself after the blaze. It was from here that we set off for our whale-watching expedition.Less well-known than their larger neighbour Hermanus, the villages of Kleinbaai and De Kelders, near Grootbos, are considered by many to be good spots. For those with nerves of hardened steel, there are also opportunities to go cage diving with Great White Sharks.I soon also learnt that the dramatic natural surroundings of the Cape are also the key to its wine. Although the climate is best described as Mediterranean, there are stark variations between what can be grown on cool mountain slopes, hotter valleys and coastal areas exposed to the ocean.The country's main wine region also sits in an area of internationally-recognised environmental importance. And a relatively small zone around the Cape is home to more species of flower than the entire northern hemisphere I was told.Efforts to preserve indigenous plants, while still producing wine are being spearheaded by the Lourensford estate near the town of Somerset West.More than 400 hectares of land - including forest, which is home to porcupine and lynx - have been set aside as part of a scheme to preserve native species.Stopping on a tour of the winery to allow us to sample the local Sauvignon Blanc, our guide Stephan Birch stooped down to examine a small orchid. Despite having worked on the estate for 30 years, coming across new plants is incredibly still a relatively common occurrence. As we drove back down the mountain slope to continue our tour guide stopped again and disappeared, returning a few moments later with a collection of stone-age implements he had found.On land continuously occupied by man for millions and millions of years, perhaps it is strange that we call this the 'New World'.

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Publication:7 Days (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Jul 18, 2008
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