Situated in the green and fertile valleys formed by the splendid mountain ranges of the Western Cape, the historic towns of the Boland seem to be outside Africa. With gracious homesteads as well as orchards and vineyards heavy with fruit, this loosely defined region is also referred to as the winelands.
It comprises mainly of the middle reaches of the Berg and Breë River valleys - from Tulbagh in the north to Worcester, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch in the south.
Although it has a winter rainfall, the region's beauty is not confined to these months. Every season offers its best with flowers in spring, the fruits in summer, coloured leaves in autumn and the greenery and freshness of the rainy winter.
The Boland, more specifically the Great Drakenstein valley, is the cradle of the South African fruit and wine industries. This was the first country area to be settled by the white colonists, who grew vines in the fertile river valleys.
With the arrival of a small group of French Huguenots, the industry was turned into an immediate success. Today, after more than three centuries, the original Huguenot farms are still producing some of the world's finest wines, which can be tasted on any of the wine routes which is a must when visiting the area.
Architecturally, the Boland is a large living museum with fine specimens of Cape Dutch tradition found in every town. Many of the buildings are still serving their original purpose, while others have been conversed into museums or even restaurants.
The three most prominent towns in the region are Paarl (60 km from Cape Town), Stellenbosch (41 km from Cape Town) and Franschhoek (57 km from Cape Town). These towns can be reached by following the main routes or, for the more adventurous, by taking the mountain passes running through some of the most rugged and beautiful mountain regions of the Cape.
Paarl can easily enough be reached from Cape Town by taking the N1. It is the main town of the Berg Valley and one of the oldest towns in South Africa. Among the town's claims to notability are its unusually long main street (about 10 km), which is shaded with long oak and jacaranda trees. It is also here that a new language, Afrikaans, was born.
The Afrikaans Language Monument, situated on Paarl Mountain, commemorates the origin and growth of Afrikaans. The mountain itself, with its distinctive granite outcrop summit, has been declared a national monument in 1963.
The town also has many buildings of distinctive style and aspect along the main road and side streets. These include the Afrikaans Language Museum, the Oude Pastorie Museum and the Huguenot Church, also known as the Strooidakkerk ("thatched roof church"), which is the oldest extant church in the country after the Groote Kerk in Cape Town. The KWV, which headquarters are in Paarl, is the largest co-operative winery in the world.
The 11 km Jan Phillips drive takes visitors on an extended tour of Paarlberg, including the Mill Stream Wild Flower Garden with its many indigenous trees.
There are numerous wine farms and estates in the area, many which are on the Paarl wine route. Among them is the Paarl Rock Brandy Cellar, the only one of its kind in the world where visitors can view the entire brandy-production flow line.
The town of Franschhoek lies on the river with the same name, about 25 km south-east of Paarl. Apart from the many magnificent wine estates in the district and the Franschhoek Vineyards Co-operative, the town is noted for two important monuments, the Huguenot Memorial and Museum.
The town itself is quite small and very charming. It is a popular tourist destination because of its many coffee shops and restaurants which offer a splendid variety of South African dishes. There are also many curio shops and art galleries with works of South African artists.
Stellenbosch lies on the banks of the Eerste ("first") River where Governor Simon van der Stel established South Africa's first town after Cape Town. The town is just as charming as its setting, with oak trees and furrows, dating back to the 19th century, lining the streets. The houses built in Van der Stel's time has been well preserved. One can see it best along Dorp Street, which has the longest row of historic buildings in the country.
Stellenbosch University is one of the largest residential universities in the country. The Ou Hoofgebou ("old main building") dating from the1880's is still in use and was proclaimed a national monument in 1973. The university also runs two art museums and a botanical garden.
Stellenbosch boasts a number of fine old churches and religious institutions. Among these are the first Dutch Reformed Church, St Mary's Anglican Church (built in 1852), the old Lutheran church in Dorp Street and the Rhenish Mission church on the Braak, dating back to 1823.
The town is scattered with small coffee and other interesting shops, selling unique and truly South African products, like Oom Samie se Winkel, the oldest of Stellenbosch's shops.
Just outside the town one finds some of the most attractive vineyards, estates and homesteads of the Western Cape, more than 20 of them along the Stellenbosch wine route. Each is worth a visit for its cellar tours and wine tastings; for the sustaining lunches provided by many of them, and for the beauty of the surrounding countryside.
The beauty and splendour of the winelands can be explored in a day, or a beguiling holiday can be spent, covering the area one section at a time. Whatever the choice, one can be assured of an unforgettable experience.