Tram takes tourists through South Africa's top wine district by rail
System uses century-old narrow gauge originally built for farms
Getting to any vineyard is normally a car, bus or, if you’re feeling particularly extravagant, limo affair.
But one tour operator has come up with a novel way of getting connoisseurs around 14 estates that make up part of Franschhoek (French Corner) in South Africa’s Cape province – one of South Africa’s premier wine regions.
Visitors can leave the car keys at home and tour the wineries on a tram.
Using a narrow gauge rail track built more than 100 years ago, the Wine Tram was the brainchild of avid railway fan David Blyth who modeled his green bio-diesel-fueled tram on the open-sided trams of the 1890s.
Seating 32 passengers comfortably, the tram has flip-over tram-style benches so visitors can enjoy the views in both directions.
“We started the tram on the dormant narrow-gauge line of a railway dating from 1904 that used to transport fruit from farms,” says Blyth, who was born in Zimbabwe but hails from solid Scottish stock.
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On the right track
“There was a lot of initial skepticism, but the tram captured people’s imagination and customers piled in through word of mouth.”
“More and more estates asked to be included and we added five buses to connect with the tram.”
“The big advantage is that passengers don’t have to drink and drive. Americans and Europeans are very conscious of that.”
Originally established by French Huguenot colonists who fled persecution in 1688, the region – rich in viticulture history and producing some of South Africa’s classic vintages – is now a staple of world wine tours, offering fine wines and world-class cuisine amid spectacular scenery.
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Today I’m standing in the town’s central square, ready for this marathon wine tasting experience with a difference.
Although wine tours are part and parcel of the area’s DNA, the Wine Tram I’m about to board, looking much like a San Francisco streetcar, has completely changed the tourist landscape.
So what’s the deal?
The tram and its five connecting buses offer a daily hop-on hop-off service to 14 estates via four differently colored routes.
Each route makes nine scheduled stops that include two complimentary tastings but, allowing for one hour per estate, you can realistically visit a maximum of six.
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Today is a lazy Monday, yet the tram is full: there are Chinese tourists, English wine buffs and large South African families of all ages.
When the tram starts we quickly find out that cars have priority, and we must stop at each junction, while the conductor runs off to warn traffic with a red flag.
We also get to see Franschhoek, a town proud of its Gallic tradition, sporting a spectacular monument to the Huguenot pioneers and where French names outnumber English ones in the road and shop signs.
We first stop at Rickety Bridge station where we board a rickety wagon that takes us on a dusty track to the – you guessed it – Rickety Bridge estate.
This venerable winery dates from 1797 when it was granted to Paulina de Villiers, one of the first women landowners in South Africa.
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I decide to try its aptly named Sinful range of ice creams: a local confectioner buys the wine and then mixes it with ice cream corresponding to white, rosé and red wine.
I try the red and can certainly taste the alcohol, but I’d be sick of the ice cream long before I’d get drowsy.
Our second stop is at the 300-year-old Grande Provence, which is much more than a vineyard, as the sculpture garden and helipad signs proclaim.
Here romantic Cape Dutch architecture blends easily with modern design under the jagged edges of the Drakenstein mountain range: no wonder Grande Provence doubles as a popular wedding venue.
Tasting the wine, I’m pleasantly surprised by its Pinot Noir, a grape difficult to grow in Franschhoek, as it needs cooler slopes – and yet the taste is immaculate.
Everyone has a favorite estate, and mine is La Bourgogne, which we reach after lunch at Holden-Manz, a revitalized vineyard only 10 years old that offers al fresco dining.
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Passion for wine
Our vigneron at La Bourgogne is Loesja Kock, one of a new breed of South Africans passionate about winemaking.
“The tram was a blessing for us smaller farms,” she says. “We get a constant wave of visitors. Plus I’ve met clients and made friends on the basis of a tasting.”
We sip her renowned Sémillon in a big garden under the shade of 100-year-old oaks, our tranquility disturbed only by a St Bernard dog chasing African ibises.
“We have the perfect soil for Sémillon: on the slopes of the river, rich in iron,” she says and of course she’s right.
Next comes La Couronne, a farm named after the passenger ship that transported the first Huguenots.
It serves a unique tasting with selected wines that match chocolates: Sauvignon and white chocolate with lemon filling; rosé with a strawberry praline; Portside Red (a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Merlot and Petit Verdot) with peanut butter choc fudge; and finally a full-bodied Pinotage with a rich truffle.
Jenny and Patrick, a couple from Kent, England, explain to me why the Wine Tram is so popular while we’re going through the chocolates.
“Normally, wine tours rush you off after each tasting; here you have to wait for an hour for the tram or bus to arrive, so you can take it easy and socialize.”
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Tram terminates here
Our final stop is at Mont Rochelle, a vineyard belonging to Virgin tycoon Richard Branson.
It has fantastic views over the Franschhoek valley, a Mediterranean restaurant, art deco wine cellars and two signature wines: a Cabernet matured for at least two years and a spicy, stylish Shiraz that has taken well to the hot climate.
Blyth, meanwhile, has ambitious plans to extend the Wine Tram network.
“We’re now expanding our operation to include a second tram that will run from Boschendal to Vrede en Lust. Even then we’ll only be using less than half of the full track.”
This customer is sure to make a return visit for that.
Franschhoek is one hour’s drive from Cape Town, a city served by many international airlines.
An international operator like Expert Africa can organize your trip to Franschhoek, a ticket for the Wine Tram, as well as book four-star accommodation.
The Wine Tram sells out quickly, so reserve ahead.
John Malathronas is a London-based travel writer and photographer. He has written or co-written 15 books, including “Rainbow Diary: A Journey in the New South Africa.”