9 awesome things to do in charming Clarens
1. TAKE A HIKE
A network of conservancy trails leads out of the village. The longest is a 4.5km,
three-hour hike up the mountain; the shortest a 500m amble down the stream in the village. Visit clarensvillageconservancy.com
For something a bit more challenging, try the Boesmanskrans trail on the eponymous farm near Fouriesburg. The 10km trail, which leads up a spectacular, well-watered kloof, is billed as a day hike but you can extend into a second day of hiking. Call 012-803-9109
2. EAT OUT
Exploring the many restaurants in the village - and discovering your own favourites - is part of the fun, but here are some hints a local resident whispered in our ears:
- Clarens Brewery has 25 different beers, ciders, G+T pre-mixes and juices on tap and all visitors get free tastings of their most popular products. Line your stomach with their lunch menu, focused on German-style sausages and pickles.
- Eat Cheese Deli stocks local and imported cheeses, excellent charcuterie and magnificent lunch platters.
- Bon Appétit is a great choice for croissants; head there to enjoy a leisurely breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs in the garden.
- The Courtyard Bakery makes monster lemon meringue tarts, and delicious quiches and pies. Buy pillowy Portugese rolls and cold meat to take away or sit down for a snack and good coffee.
- The Purple Onion is packed to the roof with pickles and preserves. Taste the local speciality Nastergal jam or buy handmade chocolates.
3. GO WHITEWATER RAFTING
The Ash River is one of South Africa's unknown treasures. The cold, fast-flowing water - coming to you courtesy of the Katse Dam - flows out of the Trans Caledon Transfer Tunnel, which means two things: it's superbly clean and it runs year round.
This has opened the way for a niche but wildly exciting whitewater-rafting operation called Clarens Xtreme. It's safe and available for all ages, from children as young as six to centenarians. R450 per adult for a half day, R400 for kids aged 6-12.
4. SPOIL YOURSELF AT THE SPA
Relaxed as you will surely be in your surroundings, you can give that sensation a boost with a stress-banishing visit to the Clarens Wellness Day Spa. Treatment options include the usual range: wraps, facials, mani-pedis and massages.
One of their more unique offerings is the Intonga, a full-body, deep-tissue massage, performed with both hands and an African bamboo stick.
Sweetly, if you have young kids in tow, there's also a "Lil One Package" (for ages 4 - 12), which, among other treats, entails "a fairy stone massage" (R590).
5. ADMIRE SOME LIONS
A project of the international welfare organisation Four Paws, Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary - about an hour's drive from Clarens via Bethlehem - is a "forever home" to lions, tigers, cheetahs and other big cats rescued from zoos, circuses, canned-hunting industries and private "owners" all over the world.
Here they will not be sold and may not be bred or hunted. For visitors, there's also no cuddling cubs or walking with the lions.
You can, however, get a look at the cats from a respectful distance on one of the daily game drives (9am, 11am and 3pm). It's R250 per adult and R125 for kids aged 6-12, though it's cheaper if you book on the website. You can see the cats being fed on Tuesdays and Fridays, though the cost is a bit higher.
There's also a three-star lodge, and an à la carte restaurant on site.
6. SADDLE UP FOR A MOUNTAIN BIKE RIDE
Clarens has become a hotspot for mountain bikers. And why not? The scenery is spectacular, as is the mountain air, and the gangs of mamils (that's middle-aged men in Lycra) yelling "bike!" are notable for their absence.
The roads through Golden Gate National Park offer 50km of easy biking in beautiful surroundings, although this is not biking in its classic form. If it's gnarly single-track you want, the 12km Bokpoort trail awaits - expect lots of rock pools and waterfalls. Or head for Rebellie Game Farm outside town, which has numerous trails of varying difficulty. There is also an unusual 10km "slick-rock" route overlooking the town.
7. PLAY COWBOY/GIRL
Go play cowboy/girl at Bokpoort Cowboy Ranch; this family farm, 8km from Clarens on the Golden Gate Road, offers horseriding, shooting and camping under the stars.
With the horses, there are one- and two-hour rides (from R350 for adults, R300 for kids under 12), and an adults-only full-day outride (R900) - plus longer options.
The shooting - choose archery, .22 target shooting or clay pigeons - is about R100.
8. SEE SOME ROCK ART
This country has no shortage of superb San-rock-art sites but many of the best are in the caves and rock overhangs of the Free State's glorious sandstone buttresses.
Of these, the 2000-year-old paintings on Schaaplaats farm, 8km from Clarens may be one of the best in the land. The cave - a national rock-art monument - has 35 large paintings, including depictions of part-animal, part-human forms, which shamans painted when the artists were in states of trance. There's a R50 entrance fee and getting to the cave involves a 2.5km hike. Calling ahead is essential: 058-256-1176.
9. SHOP FOR ARTS AND CRAFTS
Quirky stores abound in Clarens but here's a selection of the best:
- The Blanket Shop started in 1946 as a general trading store, with the main focus being supplying blankets to the region's Sotho people. The store still does a roaring trade, though the clientele now includes lots of tourists.
- The House of Woven Art has a grand collection of oriental rugs "marketed" by Olivia the shop cat.
- The Jacket Shop at the entrance to the village is a treasure trove. You have to scratch but people have been known to find a second-hand Barbour or a Hugo Boss coat for R100.
- Bibliophile Bookshop owner Debra Stewart has a good eye for unusual books and is a fount of local history.