The Cape’s first farm might have had humble beginnings, but this historic property – now a national monument – is a gem of rare value.
Catherina Ustings Ras was born in 1641 in Lubeck, Eastern Holstein, Germany and arrived in the Cape of Good Hope after six months at sea as a stowaway dressed as a man aboard the ship Hoff van Zealandt on 25 July 1662. Tryn Ras, as she was known until her death, was a free spirit who persuaded Governor Simon van der Stel to grant her 25 morgen of land at the foot of the Steenberg Mountains. In 1682 she established the first homestead in Constantia with her fifth husband, Matthys Michelse and nostalgically named the farm Swaaneweide.
Catherina pioneered land ownership in South Africa in an era when women had no legal standing. There were rumours that Governor van der Stel was her lover, which may have explained why he presented the land to her as a gift. Swaaneweide, the feeding place of swans, became the first registered farm in South Africa. Today it is an enchanting place, where you can still feel Catherina’s spirit moving among the vineyards and majestic old buildings. Spur-winged geese still roam the farm along with spirits from the past who don’t want to leave this paradise. We fell in love with this magnificent farm almost twenty years ago and like most of their patrons, we continue to return to its spellbinding charm.
Unsurprisingly this beautiful wine farm has had only five owners since 1682. Steenberg embarked on its hospitality voyage on a grand scale from 1741 when the Dutch East Company decreed that from May to August every year, Simon’s Bay would be the official winter port due to the destructive North-West winds in Table Bay. Being exactly in the middle of these two ports made Steenberg a highly profitable, perfectly positioned overnight destination.
Heading to our absolute favourite national monument with a Lexus IS 200 E, we enjoyed brisk performance from the lively turbocharged 2,0-litre engine which complements the car’s smooth transmission. Refinement on every level is what Lexus is all about and achieving such a luxurious blend of silent performance with a 4-cylinder engine is an exceptional accomplishment. A superb suspension on the charming winding roads in Cape Town encouraged us to explore the harmony between dynamic capability and virtually no body roll in a serene cabin. Steering wheel paddles encourages more interactive driving, but left to its own devices the eight-speed transmission remains effortlessly within the power band. It takes a while to get used to the silent cabin and a tall eight-gear ratio also ensures remarkable economy due to the much lower engine speeds in cruise mode. Seat heating and ventilation, electric front seats, PDC, satellite navigation, and a 7-inch colour display are some of the many standard features that make driving this car a thrilling experience. An electrically adjustable steering column retracts automatically when you turn the engine off, which eases getting in and out of the Lexus. Heading along Constantia’s beautiful tree-lined roads to one of the most spectacular destinations truly ticks all the boxes for an unforgettable trip.
Being only about twenty minutes from the city and close to Hout Bay and False Bay, Steenberg is close to all the action, but visitors to the farm will be forgiven if they think they are miles from civilisation. There is birdsong in the air, geese and hadedas are ever-present and squirrels can be seen busily going about their business in the oak trees. The buildings of the original farmstead date back to 1682 and staying at Steenberg offers a glimpse into the past. Antique pieces of furniture and paintings pair beautifully with modern furnishings to impart a modern aesthetic that is firmly rooted in history. It is obvious that the people who work here love the farm, as is evident in the warm smiles greeting you wherever you go.
After a gracious welcome, we were shown to our suite. The Cape Colonial Heritage Suite is situated in a building that has been standing on the farm for centuries. Downstairs generously proportioned rooms with high wooden beams lead onto a veranda and a pool (which it shares with the neighbouring Dutch East India Suite). An open plan kitchen, dining room and intimate lounge and study area comprise the largest space, while across the hall a generous lounge with antique Cape stinkwood and English walnut furniture and two sleeper couches invite guests to linger a while. On chilly winter nights, the huge fireplace provides extra warmth. Upstairs a generously proportioned bedroom decorated in cream and pale beige overlooks the vineyards and in the distance, the Hottentot Holland Mountains.
Steenberg is an epicurean’s delight and there are two restaurants to choose from. At Catharina’s guests enjoy sumptuous breakfasts, relaxed lunches under the oak trees, or exquisite dinners. A flock of white origami swans wing their way just below the ceiling. A single black bird stands out among its fellows as homage to the great lady herself. She was by all accounts, quite a colourful character. Catharina’s has been awarded the American Express Platinum Award for Fine Dining 2005-2015, and the Diner’s Club Winelist Award – Diamond Awards 2009-2011.
The tasting room flows onto the bistro and here visitors can sample the farm’s heavenly wines. Steenberg produces some of the finest Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa, along with several other celebrated varietals. We highly recommend starting off here and moving next door for tapas. Bistro Sixteen82 is the farm’s piece de resistance. Situated adjacent to the stunning winery, it serves incredible tapas and bistro fare in a modern, airy space. Here patrons can sample the estate’s sublime wines, of which our favourite is undoubtedly the Black Swan – the name being yet another homage to Catharina. The seasonal food served by Executive Chef, Kerry Kilpin, is simply exquisite and is perfect for sharing. Inspiration is truly international, but Kerry’s love of Thai cuisine shines through. For price-conscious South Africans, this is one of the few top-notch eateries in Cape Town where you won’t need a second bond. If you haven’t been to Steenberg, do plan a visit to Bistro Sixteen82. You won’t be disappointed. Internationally, Bistro Sixteen82 has been recognised in the list of 20 of the World’s Best Winery Restaurants by Canada’s renowned Wine Access magazine. Locally, listings include prominent mentions in Fleur du Cap’s Top 100 Places; Eat in Cape Town; and Eat Out’s Best Bistros list.
Naturally we were keen to enjoy a spa treatment and were surprised with a divine massage. The ritual starts with the lighting of a beautifully fragranced Africology soy candle, whose wax is also used in the massage, leaving your skin smooth, hydrated and gently fragranced. Oud is the fragrant sap of the tropical agar tree and it is sublime. The ninety-minute treatment concludes with a refreshing cup of tea. After the treatment, the candle is yours to take home and enjoy. With our olfactory sense so closely linked to our brain’s memory centres, the smell immediately transports you back to the relaxing mood of the treatment. Luckily our suite was just a short walk away as I’m sure we were a tad too blissed out should we have had to drive!
An eighteen-hole golf course provides an added attraction, but needless to say, we are sure our readers would be more interested in food and wine! Stay for a night or two and use Steenberg as your base from which to explore Cape Town, or pop in to sample the wine, food and spa. You’ll fall in love with this historic farm. That is inevitable.