Prince Albert is a Karoo town with a heart of gold. Alan Duggan finds out why the locals love living there, and why you should go.
The Insider: Retired journalist Kevin Jacobs believes his adopted town has something for everyone. He paints, enjoys good food, walks or cycles everywhere, and loves being part of a community. He cannot imagine living anywhere else.
My friend Kevin, a sceptic from birth, attributes the epiphany to a rich fantasy life and a bottle of Oude Werf 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, but I know better.
As we exit the restaurant on Prince Albert’s Church Street, careful to avoid tripping in the near-darkness (thanks, Eskom), I happen to look up… and whoa! Freed from the tyranny of street lamps and similar trappings of civilisation, a good number of the 100-billion-plus stars in our Milky Way galaxy – and yes, I have indeed counted them – make their appearance in an unimaginably huge arc overhead, reinforcing my long-held conviction that We Are Not Alone.
I don’t do spiritual, but my instincts put the accompanying frisson at around the 432 Hz level, reputedly the musical pitch of the universe, and for a few breathless seconds I consider saying something profound. (It later emerges that the buzz is a Whatsapp message from my wife, warning me to go easy with the red wine.)
A massive power outage earlier in the day – it’s restored only 33 hours later – may be inconvenient and bad for business, but as cosmic extravaganzas go, it’s rather special. The blackout also provides interesting lessons in community bonding, lateral thinking and the virtues of patience: Prince Albert’s restaurateurs quickly adjust their menus or redirect diners, guest house owners haul out the candles, and locals exchange unfounded rumours over coffee.
Prince Albert is a funny little town, and I like it very much. The locals are clever, quirky, entertaining and, above all, friendly. They enjoy talking (quite a lot, actually), entertaining visitors, sharing their local knowledge, eating good food and drinking all manner of fermented beverages. Feuds are relatively rare and mostly harmless, although some last for years and tend to influence everything from dinner-party guest lists to committee memberships. You know, normal small-town stuff.
A strong social conscience may not be their raison d’être, but it sometimes comes pretty close. Just about everyone I meet is involved in some or other community upliftment or animal welfare programme, including my hosts and long-time friends, former magazine editor Toni Young husband and her husband, Kevin Jacobs, a seasoned magazine journalist and one-time foreign correspondent with whom I’ve shared some memorable birthday parties.
Some years ago, they bought a house in Prince Albert, added a few more cats to their menagerie, and promptly grew very deep roots. Working closely with vets and other caring people, the couple have helped to rescue and treat literally hundreds of abused, abandoned and otherwise neglected animals. In fact, my family adopted two of these (kittens named Chloe and Amber) about 18 months ago. They have since grown up and enslaved us, the way cats do.
Kevin has become quite adept at answering questions on the lines of ‘So, what do you actually do here?’ (usually accompanied by a quizzically raised eyebrow). He spells it out: ‘We have a wonderful Art Deco theatre right here. Films, live music, even classical musicians … we get it all. And we have something just as valuable; we call it community.’
Probably the best way to explore Prince Albert is to take a leisurely walk along Church Street, the main thoroughfare. Be prepared to wave. A lot. You know that gold-plated Japanese maneki-neko (beckoning cat) that graces the top shelf of your local oriental takeaway? Well, it comes to mind here because your walk will take you past people you met at the restaurant the previous night (wave), the man who shared your table at the Saturday market (wave), and someone from the shop where you bought a can of olive oil just five minutes ago (wave).
If you time it right, you’ll enjoy a visit to The Real Food Company, where owner Jeremy Freemantle conjures up a variety of contemporary tapas-style dishes, sourcing most of his ingredients locally. On the night we visit, Jeremy is working in overdrive, slicing and dicing by the light of lamps and candles (the power is still out) while a steady stream of customers pours in and demands food. We order smoked salmon with ginger and spices, pulled pork and Thai beef salad. It’s all good.
A visit to the Saturday morning market is a ‘must do’ on any visitor’s itinerary, and it’s easy to see why. As Toni tells it, ‘The market is where I catch up with town gossip and news of my friends. It’s way better than any newspaper!’ She’s right. Within 20 minutes, I say hello to someone I last saw 35 years ago, share a coffee with guest house owner Elin Bardin, chat to someone with a close family connection, meet an old friend at the coffee stand, and pick up a hair-raising story about uninhibited revelry at AfrikaBurn.
Perhaps most satisfyingly, I get to shake hands with Caleb Swanepoel, a remarkably determined young man from Prince Albert who lost his right leg to a great white shark while surfing at Buffels Bay in June 2015. Now in his third year at the University of Cape Town, he spends a lot of time in the water (yes, including the sea), and his new passion is adaptive surfing – surfing for people with physical challenges. He smiles easily and is very polite.
Mayor Goliath Lottering, a former schoolteacher and active member of the Prince Albert Community Trust, is an easy-going man who does his best to balance the town’s disparate needs and challenges, reportedly with some success. ‘It’s a difficult balancing act,’ he concedes. ‘There’s still a lot of work to do, but I believe Prince Albert has a good heart.’ It’s worth mentioning that this man took away the fence in front of his house to make himself ‘more accessible’.
Hans Burger, a retired airline pilot who occasionally flies his own RV-8 kit plane to Stilbaai and other seaside spots, says the town meets his criteria for a permanent retirement location: easy access to a runway, clean water, a secure environment and air free of pollutants. Marina, his wife, adds: ‘What I love most about Prince Albert is the little acts of kindness… you see it happening all the time.’
How to sum up this beguiling Karoo town? Perhaps with a segue to the peach-coloured prison with its welcome sign (no, seriously) and a notice identifying it as a ‘place of new beginnings’. Spotting two smiling warders on the front stoep, I’m briefly tempted to inquire about guest accommodation, then decide not to be a smartass.
Thanks, Prince Albert. It’s been a gas.
Where do locals go?
Louis van Brakel, guest house owner
‘I love The Showroom. I see a movie there every Wednesday and attend every live performance.’
Hendry Olivier, chef at The Olive Branch
‘Prince Albert is a beautiful place to run. You can be out of town and in the mountains within minutes.’
Hélène Smit, Depth Leadership Trust
‘My favourite is to go a little way outside town and watch the beautiful Karoo sunsets, preferably with a glass of red.’
Hans Burger, retired airline pilot
‘We enjoy a movie at The Showroom theatre once a week without fail, and also we love going cycling in the clean air.’
Mariette Heskwa, de facto boss at The Sanctuary Restaurant
My two favourite places are the school, where I sometimes help teach, and my restaurant.’
Plan your trip to Prince Albert
From Cape Town, take the N1 past Matjiesfontein and Laingsburg, then turn right at Prince Albert Road on to the R407. From there, it’s an easy 43km drive. Allow about 41⁄2 hours.
Need to know
The folk at Prince Albert Tourism are super helpful. Give them a call or pop in. 42 Church Street. Tel 0235411366.
The French Cottage is meticulously decorated, has a verandah with comfortable couches, a superbly equipped kitchen, four-poster bed and a romantic atmosphere. R990 a night (sleeps two). 19 Deurdrift Street. Tel 0823429852.
Prince Albert Country Stay has a choice of rooms, all charmingly furnished. Honeymooners, opt for Lady Chatterley’s Chamber. My favourite is the Library, with its antique double bed and book-lined wall. From R520 per person sharing B&B. 46 Church Street.
Olienhof is an olive farm with three self-catering cottages with private braai areas and a neat campsite with electricity and ablutions. Cottages from R280 per person sharing, camping from R80 per person. Tel 0235411687.
Visit the Karoo Donkey Sanctuary, a haven for abandoned, neglected and abused donkeys and horses. Visits are carefully controlled – Friday, Saturday, Monday and Wednesday at 11:00 or 15:00. From R100 per person. Call 0829006103 to book. Two kilometres out of town on Christinade Witt Street.
Hire a mountain bike (or even an e-bike, if you like) from Arno Botha at Prince Albert Cycles. From R250 per day. 32 Church Street. Tel 0833959038
Drive Swartberg Pass. Unfortunately it was closed due to flooding when I visited and the municipality says it will be some months before it’s reopened. But if it’s open, it’s a must! Call 0235411320 for updates.
Browse the gifts at Lah-di-dah (a fancy farmstall, in colloquial parlance). It sells locally produced preserves, olives, soaps, jams and all manner of other things to eat, wear or carry. 1 Church Street. Tel 0235411846
Hunt for curios at Lazy Lizard. Hard to categorise but loads of fun; you can eat (quite well, in fact), have something printed, buy curios or enjoy an excellent coffee. 9 Church Street. Tel 0235411379
Visit Gay’s Guernsey Dairy and Deli. Products are made from raw, full-cream milk produced by ‘happy’ Guernsey cows, and the cheeses are especially delicious. You’ll also find great lamb, goat, venison, pork and beef. 4 Church Street. Tel 0235411274.
The Sanctuary makes an excellent farm breakfast (R60) but for R5 more order the rösti breakfast and skip lunch altogether. 4 De Beer Street. Tel 0235411114.
Camilla’s Kitchen does set evening meals that showcase the best local produce. Booking essential. 34 Church Street. Tel 0799042995.
Simply Saffron’s ‘owners and therapists’ Ridwaan Lockhart and Hermon Coleman seduce visitors with good food, healing massages and ‘saffron yoga’. Dinner on Friday and Saturday only. Booking essential. 10 Church Street. Tel 0235411040.
The Real Food Company is a ‘Karoo tapas’ and wine bar. Small-plate dinners from Wednesday to Saturday, lunch on Saturday only. 54 Church Street. Tel 0235411112.
This story first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our July issue features the best places to stay in the Midlands, budget family breaks in Durban, and the best (and mostly free) things you have to do in New York.