Saturday, 20 August 2016

Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge, Hluhluwe

Coming of Age
What sets this luxury lodge apart from all others is its spectacular location on the edge of a vast valley in Hluhluwe Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. The architecture makes the most of this setting, with a dramatic, full-height glass front and wooden deck which reaches out into the view. From this vantage point, you can watch the light change as the sun rises and sets, while witnessing animals move silently below, undisturbed and protected in a pristine natural habitat.
The main lodge is upmarket, with snazzy furnishings and tasteful local fabrics. Lighting has been used to great effect to showcase a wall-length mural of wildlife. Throughout the lodge, movement has been created by photographic wall murals and I have to remind myself to close my mouth as each turn reveals a new breath-taking scene. The long pool is framed on one side with bright aloes and on the other side with nothing but open valley views.

This new lodge represents a coming of age for South African hospitality. Offering the best that local architecture, photography, décor, food and natural wildlife, the lodge is a celebration of all that this unique corner of the globe offers its privileged guests. Community-owned, the professionalism, warmth and pride of the staff marks our point in history as we transform into a developed nation. Lodge manager Sphamandla Shabalala says “It is Isibindi’s commitment to staff development that attracted me to take up the position at this lodge. I love taking staff from a basic level and growing them into competent professionals” he explains. “It is so rewarding to see people grow – it’s such a sense of achievement.”

Accommodation experience:

Despite the many amazing features of this lodge, I am most excited about waking up to this gorgeous face – a giant photograph of a warthog. I set my alarm early, even earlier than necessary to catch the morning game drive. I smile as I wake and greet my newfound best bud. I sit in bed with my coffee and notice new modern features of my suite which I had not seen the night before. I marvel as the sky turns pink, then pale blue, then ochre and I feel intensely proud to be a South African on this gentle and beautiful dawn.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Beautiful Food at Thonga Beach Lodge, Mabibi, Northern KwaZulu-Natal

Insert Before and After Selfie Here

Look there’s no need to make a complete scene, but do allow yourself a silent little weep when you encounter the heavenly food at Thonga Beach Lodge, Northern KwaZulu-Natal. How often does one find food that is truly delicious at the same time as being wholeheartedly healthy? Here you can camp out at the lunchtime buffet table, come back again for the high tea, eat every course of the glamorous dinner and start all over again with a cooked breakfast – all without self-recrimination of any kind.

The Thonga open deck lunches have all the right colours – bright green salads, red and yellow roasted peppers, orange caramelized butternut, green-black pumpkin seeds and olive coloured … well olives. You will find creamy Gorgonzola, lemon glazed chicken, glossy asparagus and fresh muscles in white wine sauce.

Dinners have creative spicing on sustainable fish, plentiful pesto super-green sauces, tender ostrich fillets and succulent pork.

If the thought of too much health makes you lose the will to live, fear not – decadent puddings and teas elevate the meals from worthy to worshipful. I meet the friends-forever kind of drunken chocolate mousse and I take a defensive stance over the red velvet muffins at the tea table (they have the good icing over which many a war has started from Mabibi to Manchester). I have a fleeting image of finding squashed cupcakes in my luggage back home, shrug and take another.

Despite these delicacies, combined with the plentiful beach activities and visits to the serene spa, you will come out of this holiday looking the healthiest, happiest version of yourself. Take a ‘selfie’ before and after photo to show the change from pudgy, pasty, stressy old you to slim, smooth, toned, shiny, happy new you – with just a hint of cream cheese icing on your nose to authenticate the image.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

White Elephant Safari Lodge, Jozini

Life seems real

“It is essential to experience all the times and moods of this place.”
                                                                     Thomas Merton

Every moment at White Elephant Safari Lodge is an experience of the African bushveld of Northern KwaZulu-Natal.  From the sounds of the singing veld, to the views of the setting sun, to Bushbuck, warthog and giraffe wandering around the lodge, one feels immersed in this location and greatly privileged to be so closely connected to the land. The warm welcome by lodge hosts make one soon become an integrated local, learning the names and daily rhythms of the elephants and other family members. It is even possible to request an outing with an elephant behaviour researcher connected to the lodge and stationed at the Pongola Game Reserve.

The accommodation in authentic canvas safari tents further connects one to the African surrounds, though glamping this is for sure. The white linen is offset by rich oranges and red, softened again by a misty mosquito net. A glorious freestanding Victorian bath is set up against the back of the tent such that you may lift the sides to feel as if you are outdoors. If this is still not enough contact with African blue skies, an outdoor shower under a kindly Acacia tree will complete your fantasy.

Accommodation Experience
Having been to many game reserves and luxury lodges in Africa, I somehow still find myself captivated by this one. Perhaps it is the openness of this lodge which allows a free flow of animals, and that one is intimately connected to this environment by being in a tent. Or it may be the unique feature of this lodge that it overlooks the vast Jozini Dam and this combination of African bushveld next to a vast water source is an unusual and luxurious one. This allows one to choose between game drives, an outing with the elephant research station staff, water activities on the dam, or simply lazing in the lodge swimming pool while the animals move gently around you, all of which is perfect for this hot and sunny part of the world.

Gin and tonic in hand, I sigh with happiness as I sit on my deck appreciating the sun setting, creating pink light over the Jozini Dam. It is a hot day, the whole country being gripped in a heat wave. Nonetheless my hair is still damp from having just showered outdoors and I feel cooled simply being close to water. One quickly becomes integrated into the rhythms of this place, which mirror the movement of the fauna and flora of this environment. Above all, here there is a sense of great belonging, a oneness with the land and locals. I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton in his journal, written in a very different climate and time, yet reaching into this time and this sense of integration with a natural place and its natural daily rhythms:

“How full the days are, full of quiet, ordered, occupied (sawing wood, sweeping, reading, taking notes, meditating, praying, tending to the fire, or just looking at the valley). Only here do I feel fully human. And only what is authentically human is fit to be offered to God ... Life seems real.”                                                                                                                       Thomas Merton

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Wildspan Guest Farm, Campbell, Northern Cape

Release that Inner Cowgirl

Set free your inner cowgirl at this Kudu ranch in the middle of nowhere, complete with windmills, royal blue skies and golden grasses. Restless of spirit, I come across this place while traversing the Northern Cape one dark winter’s night.

We travel too late and feel unsettled to arrive in this unusual environment. The owner meets us on the road with a torch and points out the white stoney ground, which he says is lit up by a full moon such that you can see without torchlight. He says we need not lock doors and should not fear the sounds of hooves around the cottage as the Kudu roam freely about.

He leads us into the stone cottage, where a large open fireplace in the kitchen, cozy bedrooms and warm wooden furniture complement the ranch setting. We light the fire, make strong cups of tea and the cottage feels instantly our home even though the landscape is as different as one could imagine.

Accommodation Experience:
I sleep deeply and wake feeling unusually peaceful. It is quiet here, with a stillness that softens even my dragon-slaying edges. 

I head out in the chilly dawn, blanket wrapped, to take photographs of the windmill, cacti, Kudu horns and stone walls. The golden morning light is kindly and blesses my efforts. The sky paradoxically turns from bright blue to a pale powder light as the sun rises higher.

The urgent questions I came here with have fallen away and I even struggle to remember what they are. This otherworldly landscape has drawn me into its time warp and confuses my restlessness such that I may find myself staying, becoming ever more peaceful and restful until I relinquish my searching to find what I was looking for all along, right here and now.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Oysterbox Hotel, Umhlanga

Oceans of kindness and spaciousness

With summer arriving in full force in South Africa, I have a hankering to go down to the sea again – not as some distant blue blob on the horizon – I want to be right up against the sea, the sight, sound and smell of the surf hitting me as I wake and look up from my bed. And I know exactly where to find this along KwaZulu-Natal’s spectacular coastline – the Oysterbox Hotel, one of South Africa’s premier beachfront hotels.

Indeed, this beachfront cabana is the perfect place from which to appreciate the ocean. The double doors face full out onto the sea, and my cabana is right near the pathway leading down into the vast swimming beach. However, I plan to hardly leave my suite in order to fully experience this place, with its elegant plantation-style white shutters, cool, cream floors, a colonial-style paddle fan and airconditioning. There is a grand four-poster bed from which to appreciate the sounds of the sea and the thread count of the bed linen reaches new highs from which I suspect there is no return. I am temporarily distracted from the view by a careful search for the label on the linen, without mussing up the sleek bed. The deep bath in the marbled bathroom provides another temptation away from the view, as does the integrated lighting, such that even when you open the cupboards, recessed, soft downlights come on.

The hotel has multiple dining options which also make the most of the prime waterfront location. Timeless architecture of royalty, cool tiled floors connect the vast indoor and outdoor spaces and one feels like a princess of a bygone era wafting through the interesting spaces of the hotel.

Indeed the hotel has withstood the toughest test of time and I find here a kind of solemn elegance to the regal architecture and décor. There is no pandering to the latest trends of bling or brash and the hotel stands dignified, confident in its superior location, superb luxury, unruffled history and inimitable class.

Accommodation experience:
There are many reasons to stay at the Oysterbox Hotel – great access to the beautiful Umhlanga beach, Durban city and surrounds, plentiful hotel facilities to satisfy every whim, including a world class spa, and every luxury imaginable. My choice is perhaps more unusual – I wish for a quiet retreat as close as possible to the ocean, such that it may do its work on my psyche. My ‘meditation cave’ is rather more luxurious than the traditional hermitage, though there be plenty of white, dark and light inside. The privacy of the suite impresses me and I enjoy a private, low hedge-walled garden in which to escape from the world. Yet there will be no ascetic False Self boosting here and I fall upon the gifted pink macaroons, finally understanding what the fuss is all about as they simultaneously melt and explode with flavour in my mouth. My complimentary Umhlanga Schling cocktail is already telling me I am lovely and belong. I have a luxurious bath, don a red silk and toweling gown and sit up in the high bed to gaze upon the sea and wait.

It is dusk and the light turns blue, at first pale and haunting, deepening into a Prussian blue, purple then black. The lights are on in a ship far out on the horizon and I send out good thoughts to them from my position of great privilege and comfort, as I send out good thoughts to my friends who are struggling and also lost at sea, unable to have this type of luxurious respite which I am currently enjoying.

The sea is rough tonight and crashes into my room just as I had hoped, the bass notes reverberating in the headboard. I need the freshness of this ocean to buffet my mind and I am reminded of Jeff Foster’s sense of self and emotions joining into the vastness of a spacious ocean self.

There is a cleansing and calming which happens when we dare to take the time out in solitude and silence to reconnect with nature and ourselves in the present. Contemplative psychologist James Finley encourages us to “Become the kind of person who is not a stranger to reflecting in a quiet and open way on the infrastructure of our heart and relationships.” And somehow the solid elegance of this hotel, along with the delightful treats and luxuries make this a compassionate and beautiful place from which to do so right up against the ocean of kindness and spaciousness itself.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Loft, Old Oak Manor, above Café Felix, Riebeek-Kasteel

Escape Fantasy

This is the kind of place where you find yourself spending much of your time imagining some series of (un)fortunate events which of course leave nobody any worse off, but where you are somehow trapped here for days on end in this loveliest of spaces, unable to return to your everyday hectic life. In this very particular and unrealistic fantasy of ‘circumstances beyond your control’ you are nonetheless nourished throughout your stay by the delicious meals from Café Felix below.

This is The Loft, at The Old Oak Manor, above Café Felix in the small one-street South African town of Riebeek-Kasteel. It is a surprisingly stylish space in which to indulge your escape fantasies, well designed by a kindred spirit who appreciates good design and décor. An open plan suite, one enters through double French wooden doors into a spacious lounge with couch and wingback chairs. There are pale grey walls, French antiques and wooden furniture throughout. 

The lounge is divided from the bedroom by a creative screen of white painted window frames. On either side there are more seating and writing areas, with coffee and tea facilities and an antique desk. A wooden slipper single bed and another wrought iron bed with teddy are available could you bear to share this place with anyone else. The bathroom is ever-so-lovely, with a French style freestanding bath, painted wooden floors and louvre screens on wheels.

Accommodation Experience:

I have always wanted to sleep above a restaurant, the idea of having a fabulous meal and then simply walking upstairs to a silky white bed somehow capturing my imagination. I sit in a corner of the Loft, listening to the sounds of life and smelling the enticing aromas from the restaurant below, but feeling hidden away from the world. 

Instead of joining the warm buzz of the restaurant below, I decide to continue my solitude and order dinner at the deck of my pretty suite which overlooks an autumnal vine and mountain. The universe responds, sending a Prussian blue sky, full bright moon and softly hooting owl as accompaniment. As opera music and a sweet local port drifts up from the restaurant below I drink in this moment and am able to extend it, seemingly forever, with no-one else any the worse off, and myself completely fulfilled and restored.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Daberas Farm, Augrabies, Northern Cape


This is true luxury – a spacious desert wilderness alive with texture and colour and movement of creatures, without another human being in sound or sight. Photographer’s paradise, this is a place of Kokerboom trees, boulders of Rose Quartz strewn casually about, thick golden grasses and rust-coloured rock. 

Daberas Farm is a 10 000 hectare protected conservation area which borders on the Augrabies National Park. You may choose to stay in the campground, surrounded by Dassie-filled cliffs and remote from any other habitation. Accessible only with 4 X 4, the campsite is nevertheless well equipped with two full bathrooms, fire pits and a slatted roof dining area. There is no electricity at the campsite, which is part of the charm, though one may hire a portable trailer with gas and utensils, stretchers for sleeping outdoors, along with elegant wooden tables and chairs for alfresco dining.

The softer alternative is a traditional cottage with wrap-around verandah, set up against one of the most beautiful Kokerboom trees I have ever seen. A farm-style kitchen and lounge feels part of the setting, and the cottage has 3 bedrooms, a shower and toilet off the verandah. A large fire pit will still draw you outdoors into the spacious openness.

And this place is all about that great outdoors. Despite how much there is to do and see in this vast wilderness, we spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around this open fire, watching the colours of the dawn change in layers from black to purple to orange to pink to blue in the sky and again later gazing as the process reverses as the sun slowly sets.

Accommodation Experience:
While mindful of the local leopard which moves through the campground on its way to the watering hole, we decide to sleep out in the open so that we may look up into the stars. It is winter and we light a fire and sleep close to it, with the shared instruction that if anyone wakes up in the night, that person should reach over and toss a fresh log on the fire.

The night is crisp clear. I open my eyes soon after midnight to see the Southern Cross right above me and as I roll over I see Hair of Berenice with my naked eyes (a constellation named after another goddess, while my own hat-head hair is well concealed under a beanie). I feel happy – as happy as happy can be – happy as only a child can usually feel. And this moment of happiness seems to stretch to forever, such that I can even draw on it now as I sit here and write.

Mark Nepo proposes “The soul’s only interest is for us to be as alive as possible. The aliveness of our soul is our career.”

It is all I can do to plot my return to this spacious rocky desert of Kokerboom trees, boulders of Rose Quartz strewn casually about, thick golden grasses, rust-coloured rock and starry nights so clear your soul soars with the not-quite-forgotten happiness of a child.