Taste the fruit and wine. Listen to the sound of birdsong. Feel the hot water of a natural spring on your skin. Smell the fynbos as you hike among ancient rocks. See a star-dusted sky. These are just a few of the pleasures that await you a two-and-a-half-hour drive northeast of Cape Town. Here’s my pick of things to do in Montagu, South Africa.
The Klein Karoo town of Montagu lies near the wine farming areas of the Robertson Valley and Breede River Valley and forms the western starting point the engagingly eccentric Route 62. Drive through the rock tunnel at Cogmanskloof and you’ll find the town stretching out among the Langeberg mountains and between the Keisie and Kingna rivers. It was founded in 1851 and named after John Montagu, the colonial secretary of the Cape at the time.
It’s perhaps best known for the hugely popular Montagu hot springs, although the main economic activities are farming of fruit, wine and table grapes. Tourism has grown by leaps and bounds, with a wide range of activities that focus on the fun to be had from history, food and wine, and adventure sports. Here’s my pick of some of the vast raft of Montagu activities.
1. Drive the Cogmanskloof Pass
Pass through the oldest rock tunnel in South Africa then stop at one of the lay-byes to look back at the old English fort on top of the tunnel. It was built by the British in 1899 at the start of the Anglo Boer War and is now a national monument.
Look out for the concrete flood monument on the Montagu side of the tunnel, indicating the dramatic flood levels of 1981, 2003 and 2008.
2. Discover Montagu’s old buildings on foot
Another Montagu story I enjoyed was that of Poesieshoek in Mill Street. Built in 1886 in a Karoo Cape Georgian style, it was used as a temporary hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Afterwards, it stood empty for a long time, believed to be haunted by the many people who had died there. Then twin sisters moved in to run it as a brothel – hence the name (you have to understand Afrikaans or Dutch to appreciate it). Today it’s a private home painted an electric blue.
There are 26 buildings along the historic route. You’ll also see the Spanish Flu plaque that commemorates those who died in this pandemic between 1918 and 1920, Joubert House (see point 6), the large Dutch Reformed Church and tiny St Mildred’s Anglican church, designed by Sophy Gray, wife of the Bishop of Cape Town, and completed in 1871.
3. Enjoy a classic car experience
You can also book a wine tour in the area with American Dream Cars – a great way to have fun while not having to worry about drinking and driving.
4. Let your feet fly on an art bicycle
A third way to experience a town tour is to ride around on a Dutch-style bicycle with a single gear and back-pedal brake. Each bike is individually hand-painted with colourful art designs. Hire one to explore the town on your own, or join a historic town tour with Flying Feet to learn the stories that make up the town’s history.
Flying Feet also hires out e-bikes and mountain bikes (see point 15). Find them in the activity centre at the front of the Montagu Country Hotel.
5. Visit the Montagu Hot Springs
Multiple thermal springs were discovered at Montagu in the 1800s. They bubble up to the surface at temperatures of up to of 42 degrees Celsius and the mineral-rich water is thought to have healing properties. You can stay over or simply visit for the day. The springs, five swimming pools, a water slide, lush gardens and picnic areas are open seven days a week from 8:00 till 20:00. There are lots of other activities, like playing tennis or volleyball, renting a bike or letting the kids romp on the playgrounds.
6. Visit a museum
There’s a voorkamer with wide-planked wooden floors, furniture from the era and pictures of the Joubert family who lived here. There’s also a bedroom with a ghost story, and a kitchen and pantry with rietdak ceilings and peach-pip floors. I’m always fascinated by the gadgetry of old-fashioned kitchens. Riempie chairs, ceramic kitchen jars and old tins add to the mid-19th century ambiance.
Walk out the back door and wander around the indigenous medicinal plant garden. Read the info labels to find out which plants the Khoikhoi, San and settlers used for specific illnesses or conditions. There’s also a tiny square building called the Tronkie, which was used as the local jail.
A small fee gets you entrance to Joubert House as well as the Mission Church Museum just a short walk down Long Street, which depicts the history of the church and community.
7. Go wine tasting
Also remember that Montagu is only about 25km from a treasure-trove of Robertson wineries like Van Loveren, Weltevrede, Excelsior, Bon Courage and Springfield (the last one my absolute favourite both for its wines and its laid-back tasting deck overlooking a dam).
8. Browse the art galleries
If you prefer a guide and fancy the idea of exploring on two wheels, join Flying Feet on a bike tour of the town and its art, including local art galleries, the Francois Krige collection at the KWV Museum and a private tour of one of the resident artists’ studios.
9. Pop in at the Montagu Village Market
If you’re in town between 8:30 and 12:30 on a Saturday morning, pop in at the village market in Euvrard Park, Bath Street. You’ll find a good local vibe with stalls selling everything from fresh veg, breads, cakes, honey and preserves to toys, plants, bric a brac, jewellery, pottery and other crafts.
10. Stroll through a nature garden
There’s an almost negligible fee to enter, which you drop into the slot in the wall of the entryway. Take an energetic walk along one of the paths or relax on a bench and listen to the birds. The garden is open from 8:00 till 17:00 daily. You can enjoy tea and cake between 10:00 and 11:00 on Tuesday mornings between April and October.
11. Take a hike
For some fresh air, a smattering of birds and plants and great views, walk one of the trails in the mountains surrounding Montagu, such as the Bloupunt trail (15.6km, 5-9 hours), Cogmanskloof trail (12.1km, 4-6 hours) or the Aasvoëlkrans trail (3.2km, 90min). You need a permit, which you can get from the tourism office. Read more about the hiking trails here if you want to tackle them as self-guided trails. Just remember to take sunscreen, hats and lots of water in summer when it can be brain-meltingly hot.
If you’d prefer to go with a guide to ensure you have an informative and safe experience, book a hike with a local operator like Montagu Outdoor Adventures or Route 62 Mountain Adventures.
12. Pamper yourself with a spa treatment
Visit the Montagu Country Hotel Spa in Bath Street. Choose from a range of face or body treatments, mani-pedi, and Swedish, aromatherapy or hot stone massages. There’s also a sauna and a relaxing jacuzzi that makes use of mineral-rich thermal spring water from deep below ground. Make a booking beforehand.
13. Eat out at one of the Montagu restaurants
Montagu is also within about 25km of a slew of Robertson restaurants and winery eateries to the west, or Greenlands Farm Table on the R60 south of Montagu towards Bonnievale. Read more about our experience at the fabulous Greenlands Farm Table here.
14. Go bird watching
Spend some time in the bird hide at the leiwater dam on the corner of Barry and Bath streets. To be accurate, it’s less of a ‘hide’ than a small open deck overlooking the dam. This is home and breeding ground to nearly 20 bird species like sacred ibis, herons, egrets, weavers and cormorants. Some 50 species have been recorded visiting the dam. Birders will also enjoy time spent at the Montagu Nature Garden (see point 10).
15. Ride a mountain bike trail
Get into the saddle of your mountain bike to explore some of the non-technical or more technical routes in the area – depending on your level of expertise. Whether you’re using your own bike or need to hire one, you can join a ride with Route 62 Mountain Adventures, who know the routes well. You can also hire mountain bikes from Flying Feet. Ask the activity centre at the front of the Montagu Country Hotel for a free map and guide with descriptions of seven of the mtb trails varying from 18km to 53km. It’s put together by Montagu-Ashton Tourism, and describes the trails as ‘from flat and easy for families, to mountain goat heaven for hard-core masochists’.
16. Go rock climbing
17. Meet Montagu’s ghosts
Want to experience something different and maybe get a shiver down your spine at the same time? Join a ghost tour with Flying Feet to winkle out a few of the town’s characters and spooky stories. Some of the ghosts you meet might give you goosebumps, but most are simply up to a little harmless mischief like turning lights on and off to mess with your head. The tour starts in front of the Montagu Country Hotel at dusk and takes around 90 minutes.
18. Taste olives
19. Take a tractor ride to the top of a mountain
Kids of all ages (even those over 21!) will enjoy this Montagu tractor ride on a protea farm in the Koo Valley 29km outside town on the R318. Load yourselves into the trailer for a ride to the top of Arangieskop in the Langeberg mountains 1500m above sea level. From there, you can see the Breede and Keisie rivers, as well as look down into the Robertson Valley. Enjoy a glass of muscadel before starting the descent. The trips are scheduled for 10:00 on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but you need to book ahead because they need a minimum of 25 passengers. And of course it all depends on good weather. Groups of 30 or more are welcome to book ahead on any other day except Sunday. They also offer an optional three-course potjiekos lunch on the farm afterwards and you need to prebook this as well.
20. Munch on dried fruit
21. Go shopping
Apart from shopping for wine and dried fruit, you can indulge in some retail therapy at other places in Montagu too. You’ll find all the usual shops like supermarkets and pharmacies, where you can get anything you need for your stay. There are also some small gems like Montagu Local in Bath Street, which sells locally made cheese, cold meats, olive products, breads, veggies and herbs, and Fijn Botanicals’ aromatic toiletries and body products that you can buy from the Kogman & Keisie farm’s shop in Kloof Street. It’s also fun to browse an antique shop or bookshop, or visit one of the farm stalls in the area.
22. Stay in South Africa’s only Art Deco hotel
First opened in 1875, the original Victorian hotel burnt down and was replaced by the Art Deco building in the early 1930s. Now privately owned and part of the Cape Country Routes collection of quality hotels and experiences, it’s the only original Art Deco hotel in South Africa.
The muted facade doesn’t foretell the explosion of colour in the gardens behind, the exuberance of the Art Deco wallpapers, paintings and furniture. Explore the reception areas and rooms and you’ll see iconic echoes of the style in the veneered dressers, the chairs, streamlined tables and mirrors, the bold-coloured paintings, the sun ray motifs on wallpaper and door handles.
Our stay here filled me with nostalgia for hotel visits with my parents when I was a child, only this time there was a lot more class and none of the scruffiness. Relish it all safe in the knowledge that the hotel is a member of Fair Trade Tourism, which means that its policies and practices respect both human rights and the environment.
Note that this isn’t a full list of all there is to do in Montagu. Other activities include an alpaca farm, horse riding, a guano cave with a San rock painting, a private model Ferrari collection, a craft brewery, stargazing, golf, and so on. Two websites you’ll find useful for more info are https://www.montagu.org.za/ and https://www.montagu-ashton.info/.
Getting to Montagu
Drive along the N1 from Cape Town towards Worcester, then take the R60 to Robertson (about 160km). Continue along the R60 to Ashton (about 18km) and then turn onto the R62 to Montagu (about 14km).
Best time to visit Montagu
My favourite times to visit Montagu are in spring (September/October) or autumn (April/May) because I prefer to avoid cold winter nights and scorching summer days. Not everyone agrees, of course, and the hot summers are by far the most popular time for tourism in the town.
June and July are the coldest winter months, with temperatures ranging from around 0-5 degrees Celsius at night to 14 degrees at midday (good for visitors who love sharing a glass of wine or hot chocolate around a log fire). Some snow may fall on the high mountains in July and August. Average temperatures in summer are from the high 20s to mid 30s, with some days in January and February tipping over into the 40s.
Montagu doesn’t get loads of rain; it is, after all, part of the Klein Karoo. Rain falls mainly in May to August, with June being the wettest month. The driest months are from November to March, making these months popular with hikers and adventure sport enthusiasts.
When pushed for an opinion on the best month to visit Montagu, a local in the tourism business picked April (the start of autumn) because average temperatures hover around 25 degrees Celsius, there’s little wind, and it’s just after the busy summer season so a little more peaceful.
Places to visit and things to do near Montagu
- McGregor (50km south-west of Montagu)
- Swellendam (55km south-east of Montagu)
- Barrydale (62km south-east of Montagu along Route 62)
- Suurbraak and Tradouw Pass (84km south-east of Montagu)
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