A quick three hours away from the din of Johannesburg, Clarens comes into view. It is a short drive, but Clarens is a world away. As we enter the valley, amazing sunset colors of golden ochre and orange reflect from the deeply eroded sandstone cliffs softly hugging the town. The vivid display seems unreal. It is easy to see why Clarens has become an artists’ Mecca, the setting inspires and attracts creative souls from around the world.
We arrive at the lodge, somewhat unassuming from the outside. I make my way up the staircase into my large room. There is a broad window overlooking a peaceful pond, where ducks and geese merrily paddle around and donkeys softly graze on green grass. The view from my window, past the pond, continues with more watercolor sunset hues.
Tom Cruise once stayed in this room. I am not a big fan, but I chuckle that I have now slept in the same bed as he. Of more interest to me, I notice a large sunken tub in the bathroom, and, since it is winter, I excitedly plan a warm soak before bedtime.
The town of Clarens, although small and sleepy, is hardly dull. It has a plethora of cool restaurants and bars, unique for such a small town. We settle on the highly-recommended Clementines (www.clementines.co.za) because of a huge menu with seasonal specials. We enter the restaurant happy to find large roaring fireplaces, a perfect complement to fine food and drink on a cold winter’s night. Prices are, by American standards, unbelievable.
The next morning at dawn, I peek out of the window to see my enthusiastic brother already bundled up and ready for our pre-scheduled morning run. We run with the rising sun, watching as the day’s colors are added to the sandstone rocks. The town is quiet and peaceful and still asleep. It’s a sight to behold and a great reward for braving the early chilled morning air.
We stroll through galleries and shops highlighting local foods, crafts and art. Clarens is an artist’s haven with many well-known artists either living in or frequenting the village. Boasting over 20 galleries, visitors can enjoy the Art Route or simply stroll from gallery to gallery to enjoy the wide variety of artwork on offer.
Besides the vast array of original paintings, we see amazing original craft work which included leather work, hand-made knives, glass work and soft furnishings. Part of the fun is meeting and speaking to many of the artists themselves. There is a story behind every creation and having that experience just adds to the enjoyment of the art that you may bring home.
Clarens doesn’t stop at visual art, we find amazing cider and gin distilleries and of course locally-brewed craft beer. South Africa invented Pinotage wine, and here in Clarens they celebrate the amazing unique blend with an annual wine festival in the Spring. Pinotage is a gutsy cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (originally called Hermitage in South Africa), rarely found anywhere else in the world. Clarens’ annual event, "Pinotage On Tap", has arguably become one of the best wine events in the world.
This one-day festival allows you to indulge in tremendous wine, delicious food, top-notch live music entertainment and amazing company! What more could one possibly ask for? Entry to ‘Pinotage On Tap’ costs R295 per person (about $21, yes you are reading that correctly) and includes a surprise gift on arrival, a wine glass, and endless Pinotage, literally flowing from the barrel taps – and hence the name! If you are unable to make the date for this limited event, not to worry, Clarens’ restaurants serve up similar experiences every day!
We take a break from the day’s action at a local sidewalk café and order a cheese platter and a locally made cider. The enthusiastic young waiter proudly lets us know that we can taste-test all of the cider we want. We took that as a challenge and tasted and created all sorts of combinations. The meat & cheese platter done in true South African style was amazing!
Clarens has much more going on than shopping, eating and drinking. Although we have found that fine food and drinks tend to complement all sorts of outdoor and active pursuits!
Here are some of our favorites which Close Encounters can arrange according to your tastes.
Clarens is home to some amazing horse farms that provide horse riding activities for all abilities. Experience the thrill of clean air in your face as you gallop in the open landscapes and mountains. Hiking is enjoyable on the sandstone hills surround the town, at Swartland or close by at Golden Gate Highlands National Park. For those interested in more adrenaline, you can hike up the back side of a 50-meter sandstone rock cliff overlooking the town and abseil (rappel) down the vertical front face fitted into a rock-climbing harness.
ATV rides are a great way to get out and enjoy more local scenery, ziplining experiences allow you to sail through the trees all year round, and grade 3 and 4 white water rafting in the crystal clear waters of the Ash River is popular. Go up, up and away for a bird’s eye view in a hot air balloon at Hot Air Ballooning SA. A cultural village awaits you and plenty of mind-blowing scenic drives and hiking through Golden Gate National Park. A visit to the “vulture restaurant” cannot be missed.
Our lodge has an outside patio perfect for unwinding with a traditional South African style sundowner drink. The sun retreats behind the sandstone hills, the water on the pond becomes still and we listen to the happy ducks and donkeys prepare themselves for the night in beautiful Clarens.
After a long day of exploring in this interesting and inspiring town, my brother and I find ourselves sipping wine and sherry in the cool air. We excitedly discuss our travel plans and reflect back on our days experiencing this hidden treasure. The memories are unique and personal.
It is a great little town, unvisited by most tours, and it was quickly included in our “African Soul" itinerary because of the meaningful experiences and activities it adds to your South African Safari.