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How Franschhoek became such a successful tourist town

Thirty years ago, Franschhoek was sleepy hollow personified, and very little had changed in the preceding 70 years.  It was a farming dorp which attracted a few city folk on a Sunday drive to escape the city and the only attractions were the Huguenot Museum (which was — unusually for a small country town — open on Sundays after church) and Swiss Farm Excelsior for tea and scones.

Very little of its French heritage remained, apart from place names.  In fact, the French influence of the Huguenot settlers had completed disappeared 100 years after they arrived in 1688.  Today, after a sustained marketing strategy, it’s French roots are inescapable.  Investment in the Valley has been phenomenal.  How did this all happen?  Arthur McWilliam Smith, who was close to the centre of events over the past 30 years, tells the story.

Arthur McWilliam Smith
Arthur McWilliam Smith, a former mayor and one Franschhoek’s primary gamechangers.

When he arrived, Franschhoek had three accommodation places; today it has over 150.  So, he points out right at the start of the interview, “the changes have seen a massive increase in employment.”  So Franschhoek is the model that every aspiring tourism town needs to examine very carefully.

The forerunner of change was the late Michael Trull, a Capetonian who had been an advertising executive in the UK, and erstwhile owner of La Bri Vineyards.  Capitalising on the introduction of the Wine House liquor licence that had been introduced, he opened the restaurant “1688”, taking its cue from opportunities for the town’s imminent tercentary date.  (He also founded Vignerons de Franschhoek at a time when there were very few wineries in the Valley.)

But he couldn’t make the restaurant work with a weekends-only clientele and sold it to Arthur, who bought it for his first wife.  (She was a real food lover and he had offered to buy her a restaurant in Johannesburg where they lived.  Her reply was “anywhere but Johannesburg!”)

So, they settled in Franschhoek with Arthur commuting to Johannesburg on the days he needed to be there.  He had been involved in local politics in Johannesburg so it was inevitable that he would participate fully in the Franschhoek community.

The first burning issue in the town he became involved in was when a proposal to build retirement homes — “like those you find in Hermanus today” — had been approved by the local Council.  (Franschhoek still had its own municipality then and there was no party politics in municipal government.)  It became a big election issue — with a 90% turnout (unheard of in those days) — and Arthur’s Johannesburg experience in local politics saw him being elected to the Council without too much difficulty.

That saw the establishment of an aesthetics committee at the municipality which, with the majority of councillors focused on carefully controlling the town’s development, placed aesthetic and environment issues centre stage.

Another mover in the town was Shirley Parkveldt at the Franschhoek Conservation Trust (who also planted the avenue of trees into the town).  In the late 1980s. with some council funding, Todeschini & Jaffe was appointed to prepare guidelines for conservation and development (which won a Cape Times Centenary Award) and was later extended to cover the whole valley with funding from the Regional Services Council.

Franschhoek - Alleys lead off the main street into leafy courtyards - one could be in the south of France.
Alleys lead off the main street into leafy courtyards – one could be in the south of France.

With aesthetics becoming the winner, the town started attracting people in search of a quality lifestyle.  It was becoming a very sophisticated country village.  Maybe encouraged by Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, a significant number of advertising executives moved to the town along with the beginning of real money, and lots of money.  Of course, this changed what the town had to offer because the demand was growing.

When Arthur sold his restaurant to Susan Huxter after the death of his wife, Le Quartier Francais became one of the places to eat.  It became a destination in its own right.  More and more people flocked to Franschhoek.

Franschhoek’s tourism very successful organisation focused on the valley’s French roots and an annual events calendar targeted a clearly defined audience.  One wonders what the original Huguenots would think of Bastille Day?  The storming of the Bastille in 1789 happened 101 years after they arrived in the Cape!

Part of the town’s charm stems from the fact that it is a narrow valley, and views of the mountains dominate wherever one looks.  The retail form of the main street, with its alleys and courtyards, happened by accident.  The main street was originally lined mainly by residential properties and those building footprints largely determined the retail spaces that followed.

The incorporation of Franschhoek into Stellenbosch Municipality saw the town lose its independence but it also meant more money for the town.  The two towns share similar philosophies, with the same focus on heritage issues and environmental quality, and both have very active (and vocal) citizens.  Franschhoek could have been far worse off.

What led to the success?  Arthur says “it was the right people at the right time… the right leaders.  The village was small enough to make a difference possible.  And there was luck.”

In conclusion, Franschhoek drove its success by focusing on quality — the aesthetics, the environment and the activities offered.  Success attracts further successes, or at least facilitates them.  One can’t overlook the glory that local-boy-turned-chef Reuben Riffel brought to the town with Reuben’s restaurant.  And after selling his restaurant, Arthur turned to accommodation, and Akademie Street Boutique Hotel was voted one of the best in SA.  (He has since sold it.)  The Rupert family, usually associated with Stellenbosch, almost has stronger ties to Franschhoek after the late Dr Anton Rupert bought the first of several farms in the valley in 1969 at L’Ormarins.  He was also the patron of the Franschhoek Conservation Trust.

And, unlike Stellenbosch and Robertson where tourism and wine run parallel marketing organisations, Franschhoek has a single organisation embracing everybody — arguably one of the best around.

Franschhoek - The mountains tower above everything else.
The mountains tower above everything else.  That’s Mont Rochelle at the bottom of the pic — Sir Richard Branson’s South African Hotel & Vineyard.

26 thoughts on “How Franschhoek became such a successful tourist town”

    1. Perhaps one needs a certain amount of bullying to get things moving. Maybe another reason why Franschhoek has been so successful?

    2. It is always revealing when the person levelling an accusation of bullying does so with absolutely no motivation of fact or reason. And especially so in the face of what is so undeniable a success story. In my experience such bluster and unfounded (at least in this forum) clamour is the first sign of a true bully… a glance in the mirror might perhaps be in order here?

  1. Barbara Louise Benjamin

    Just how I remember things as I saw them unfold, during the 15 years I lived in Franschhoek. Thank you Arthur Mc William-Smith.

  2. Thank you for this Arthur Mc William Smith… I am in Franschhoek for 23 years now and can not help to say, the only name that i don’t see in your article and would think it worth mentioning, is the name of Oom Jan Roux!

    1. This is not Arthur’s article but rather an interview I did with Arthur. Looking at my notes, I see that he did mention Jan Roux but I didn’t think it was central to the main story. If I was wrong, I apologise.

  3. I lived in Franschhoek for many years, and have to give credit as well to Sue Huxter who got Bridge House School off the ground. Families with children could then live in the Valley, and the dynamic changed hugely. Also Jack Clark who created the beautiful Domaine des Anges residential estate, one of the first estates built amongst vineyards

  4. Philippe Vinee MD,PhD

    I live in Alsace, one of the most beautiful provinces of France, since I was born. I bought a house in Franschhoek for my vacations and old days. The town and its surroundings are just wonderful. All the friends from all over the world I bring along share the same opinion.

  5. Its always a few passionate people who make things happen and have to drag a town with them to get it going and not worry about the criticism from those who sit on the side lines and moan…
    We have our fair share of all of the above in Tulbagh as well

  6. Great article which paraphrases the enormous effort Arthur devoted to the development of the town.It was his vision and drive which was behind the realisation of Franschoek as a prime tourist and retirement destination world wide.Well done Arthur and long may you reap the fruits of your endeavours.Rose and I enjoy visiting the town to relax in the cosmopolitan feeling right on our doorstep.

  7. Really enjoyed this article. It just goes to show what can be achieved. Credit to all those with the drive, passion and enthusiasm to make something like this happen. Franschhoek is one of our favourite places to visit. The trees, the little streets off the main high street, the cafes and restaurants and of course the mountains surrounding it. Thank you so much for enlightening us on the hard work that went in to making this a perfect spot.

  8. Born and bred in Franschhoek and proud to be called a true “Franschhoek’er”. My mom worked in Athur McWilliam’s restaurant back then, also when Susan Huxter took over. We’ve learned a lot from him and his late wife Adri and I am especially thankful to him for the opportunity he afforded my mother to broaden her horizons in terms of her cooking and baking skills. By employing her, he gave her a platform to expand and broaden her culinary skills and she became one of the best cooks in Franschhoek at the time. Much gratitude also to those people working so hard in the restaurant industry, on the farms, the local shops and just everywhere because without them, my town would not have been what it is today.

  9. Michael Trull came to Franschhoek to visit his cousin-in-law, Penny Gordon, who is, with her family, still a presence in Franschhoek. And the Gordons had come to visit us. They then moved from their journalist jobs in joburg, as we had done in 78, to come and live in the valley. We wrote the first Platter guide in our house there. It is now the admin block of Grande Provence. There was one restaurant, Chez Michel. Two cafes.

    1. Erica, I was feeling nostalgic tonight and googled Chez Michel in the hopes to find some information on the old restaurant I remember from my childhood visits to Franschhoek in the early 70s. I remember the smell and the tastes and the candle on the counter where you paid with its little wax ‘dress’ from all the candles dripping on it. The restaurant was always very dimly lit. I don’t remember the names of the owners but I remember the lady’s smile. Even for us as kids, she always had the most welcoming smile. There was a cafe further down towards the monument, just below the police station in Berg Street and another cafe further down towards Paarl in the main road. And the farmers coop and I think an OK Bazaars? Thank you for sharing your memories – what a lovely trip down memory lane for me.

  10. So wish we could turn Grabouw around. Such potential but so many issues and problems. Are we just lacking experts or do we need a magic wand. ?

    1. There is no such thing as a magic wand! Surely Grabouw has a leader who has insight and ability, and the drive to make it happen?

  11. I was fortunate to be part of the magical years of Arthur McWilliam Smith as Mayor and the Vignerons de Franshhoek. The only thing I feel needs correction in this article is that Arthur’s wife had an amazing ‘best in the country’ restaurant and the Huxter’s took it from there. It was before social media and before Franshhoek was really on the map, but every true gastronome/foodie in the country knew that Adri’s restaurant was the pinnacle in fine food, her love of haute cuisine inherited by her daughter Ann. Sue Huxter took it from there and she and her family also contributed hugely to the little town.

  12. I was fortunate to have spent some of my best years (1970-1978) at school in the sleepy old town, which it was at the time. With our bicycles we did the trip to the Swiss Farm Excelsior (Le Franschhoek), owned by the Muskes, for a swim in the only pool in the valley with an entrance fee of 5 cents. Ludwig Muske, who was in class with me in primary school, is today well known in the wine and cheese business in the Valley and beyond. We now live in Paarl down the road, but regularly visit the many wineries, restaurants and guesthouses. I have fond memories of the sleepy old town, but the town and the valley of today is simply world class! Well done to all who played a part and continue to play a part in looking after this magic town.

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