South Africa's sleepy secret: The recent election shock highlighted this quiet and beautiful village in wine country

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  • Riebeek-Kasteel, an hour’s drive from Cape Town, is ‘firmly on the map again’
  • It was where two former white South African prime ministers were born 
  • The town is set against the backdrop of the Kasteelberg mountain range
  • READ MORE: The 28 best and worst value destinations ranked by Brits 

The little town of Riebeek-Kasteel – deep in beautiful wine-making country 50 miles north-east of Cape Town – played a key part in apartheid.

It was where two former – and controversial – white South African prime ministers were born: D.F. Malan and Jan Smuts. 

Which makes it an intriguing place to visit so soon after last week’s election that saw the African National Congress lose its majority for the first time since the end of apartheid 30 years ago in 1994.

This is especially so because Riebeek-Kasteel is a significant enclave of the centre-right Democratic Alliance, which garnered 22 per cent of the vote compared with the ANC’s 40 per cent. 

Suddenly, this tiny settlement (population 1,200) is firmly on the map again – and for all the right reasons.

Graham Boynton says South Africa's recent political shift has put the town of Riebeek-Kasteel 'firmly on the map again - and for all the right reasons'

Graham Boynton says South Africa’s recent political shift has put the town of Riebeek-Kasteel ‘firmly on the map again – and for all the right reasons’

Simply divine: The town is located deep in wine-making country, 50 miles north-east of Cape Town

Simply divine: The town is located deep in wine-making country, 50 miles north-east of Cape Town

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Set against a spectacular backdrop of rolling farmlands and the Kasteelberg mountain range, the centre of town is a retreat of artists, boutique owners, winemakers and old hippies. It’s an hour’s drive from Cape Town.

At its centre is the Royal Hotel, famous for having the longest stoep (veranda) south of the Limpopo River, and also for raucous evenings at its 150-year-old bar. It makes a great first port of call to get a sense of Riebeek-Kasteel’s rich history. 

The town was opened to Western settlement in 1661, when an expedition sent from Cape Town by Jan van Riebeeck, founder of the Cape colony, crested the pass and looked down on this verdant valley. The name Riebeek’s Castle (Kasteel) was in honour of their commander.

In the 400 years since, many have been lured by the town’s remote beauty, including a Dutchman named Robert Brendel, who happened upon Riebeek in 2004, and fell in love with it – so much that he bought the Royal Hotel.

The Royal Hotel, located in the centre of town, is famous for 'raucous evenings at its 150-year-old bar' and the longest stoep (veranda) south of the Limpopo River

The Royal Hotel, located in the centre of town, is famous for ‘raucous evenings at its 150-year-old bar’ and the longest stoep (veranda) south of the Limpopo River

One of Riebeek-Kasteel's attractions is its wine, reveals Graham (stock image)

One of Riebeek-Kasteel’s attractions is its wine, reveals Graham (stock image)

‘It felt like David Livingstone had just left the building,’ says Brendel. ‘And it’s the only town I know where you have the school, the church and the hotel next to one another – education, salvation and damnation on the same street.’

Riebeek-Kasteel is also a destination for foodies. Tourists come from across the country to eat at Au Bouchon Rouge, the Marseille-style restaurant attached to the Royal Hotel.

Another attraction is its wine, partly thanks to the Swartland Revolution launched in 2010: a wine-making insurgency representing around 12 wineries whose creators met and hammered out a plan for an annual festival of food and wine.

Twenty minutes away from the town’s centre is Roundstone Farm, home of the Mullineux wine-making family. Chris and his wife, Andrea, consistently win international awards for their Swartland wines.

At the end of my visit, Chris looks up at the Kasteelberg mountain and says: ‘This place makes you feel elated. It is remote, beautiful, strange. I just hope it doesn’t change.’

Au Bouchon Rouge, the Marseille-style restaurant attached to the Royal Hotel

 Au Bouchon Rouge, the Marseille-style restaurant attached to the Royal Hotel 

TRAVEL FACTS 

The Ultimate Travel Company (theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) offers packages to Cape Town in peak season (December-February) from £2,740pp for 10 days including economy air fares from the UK. Avis charges from £35 a day for car hire (avis.co.uk). Suites at The Royal Hotel (royalinriebeek.com) cost from £86 B&B.