Friday, 31 March 2017

The Tulbagh Boutique Heritage Hotel

Celebrating the best of local produce
What could be a lovelier way to spend a few days than in the historic mountain village of Tulbagh? Thoroughly South African, Tulbagh is a beautiful little town with old Cape Dutch whitewashed and thatched buildings, quiet streets and the friendliest people.

Unlike some of the bigger tourist towns, which now seem to stock anything from every country at exhorbitant prices, this town celebrates all that is local. I spend a happy day olive tasting at nearby Oakhurst. The olive oil they describe as 'intense' pops tiny, peppery fireworks in my mouth when they teach me to suck in as I taste. I am now thoroughly enjoying my mission of sampling local wares and I move on to wine tasting at Saronsberg. I am given a local cheese platter which makes the wine perform a symphony in my mouth. I happily totter through fields of art sculptures, clutching two bottles of the superb Voignier under arm. Just outside town on a quiet little road, I am able to wend my unsteady way back to the hotel in Tulbagh without endangering myself or anyone else.

And what a gem is this tasteful South African haven of the Tulbagh Boutique Heritage Hotel! With rooms named after various protea and other favourite regional flowers, the decor manages to be both elegant and bold. Vibrant pinks are muted against peaceful ash velvet and crisp white cotton. The deep, modern, white baths and generous basins contrast the olde worlde charm perfectly. Fynbos soaps and bath products fill the suite with even more local flavour. The turndown service gifts South African chocolate coated nougar, once again perfectly complementary to the fragrances which already fill the room.

I would love to come back to this hotel in winter. My suite has both airconditioner and fireplace and I pray for a cold snap so I may watch the fire from bed. It is 32 degrees today and an unlikely request.

What I especially love about the hotel is the creative art which catches one by surprise at every corner. A fountain pours out of a kettle below an open-faced clock on your way to the sparkly pool. 

A pair of meercat are up to their usual mischief at the open fire area. Hand-painted protea and mountain scenes line the walls. There are varied seating areas and multiple decks looking out towards the mountains which surround the village.

The Olive Terrace Bistro and Lounge restaurant is an outdoor deck under dappled shade, looking out onto the main street in town. Specialising in local, seasonal produce, the menu includes descriptions of cheese from Druk my Niet farm and free range eggs from De Heuvel, while the fruit is from the surrounding valley estates. The vegetables and herbs are from Dream Tulbagh Community Garden just down the street. I choose a Snoek pate as starter and Cape Malay lamb curry as a main, which complement the setting well, especially paired with more local wine.

The breakfast is another experience in fresh local produce, and you can taste the lack of food-miles in every mouthful. The marmalade is the best I have ever tasted and the jams are tart, not over-sugared.

The hotel is well staffed with said friendliest of locals, equally enthusiastic in the advice of where best to sample the fine local produce for which the area is famed.

There is so much to see and do in this vibrant yet gentle part of the country. Art galleries, famous restaurants, a cafe called the Reading Room, chocolate dipping, tractor rides and Cederberg canopy zipline adventures. 

Finally, car filled with all the local produce that I sampled, I reluctantly make my way back to Cape Town via the spectacular Bain's Kloof Pass, a narrow winding road through a river gorge with views to rival any mountain pass. 

I feel somehow that I have imbibed the innocence of a heritage setting and am well pleased that places like this still exist where we have the privilege of traveling back to a simpler time, uncontaminated and vibrant in its essential purity and intense flavour.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Val du Charron, Wellington

Understanding fine tastes

From every aspect of this spacious guesthouse you look out onto 180 degree views of mountains, intense blue skies, ochre fields, bright green grass and vineyards. A working wine estate, Val du Charron understands fine tastes. 

A clear love of outdoor dining, open decks stretch out into the view and it is marvellous entertainment to watch each arriving guest gasp, whip out their cameras and twitter as the sun creates spectacular displays of light on the vineyards and mountains beyond.

The bedroom interiors are modern, with every possible traveller convenience. The plush carpeted rooms have been thoughtfully crafted, with built-in, stylish tea and coffee facilities, a bar fridge, airconditioning, and hairdryer. The ensuite bathroom has smooth creamy tiles and complements the room well.

An exclusive Coach House is available for small parties choosing the privacy of their own walled, well-established palm- and oak-treed setting, with a private pool. They share the same spectacular views onto the valley, mountains and big skies.

Accommodation experience
Despite the modern interiors, with no busy road or traffic rushing by, no modern houses spoiling the view, it is easy to settle quickly into an older rhythm here. On the morning of my stay I lie in bed late, guiltily listening to the gentle yoga class on the sunlit, expansive lawn below the lodge. I am sure that I am absorbing their healthy way vicariously and I feel quite cleansed and worthy by the end of our session.

Breakfast is served on a deck overlooking the pool and valley below. I choose the healthiest options, newly inspired by my yoga twisting friends. I end with freshly squeezed strawberry juice, ready for the fun day ahead.

The activities on offer are plentiful, including a raised, glass-fronted spa (once again making the most of those amazing views), wine tasting, mountain bike riding, walking and touring. But I am on a mission to find an ostrich feather lamp and head into the nearby village of Wellington for some tourist fun. White fluffy lamp under arm, well pleased with myself, I head back to the calm lodge for some much needed respite at the pale blue pool. I feel it is my duty to sample a local Chenin, super chilled and crisp.

Dinner is a vibrant affair and I choose to eat at the stylish grill. The decor is superb, artfully balancing modern, earthy and traditional.

Specialising in what South Africa does so brilliantly, red meat and wine, I select a grass fed rump and locally produced red. Locally made bread dipped into a speciality spice rub complete the experience. The waitrons are particularly good at their jobs, entertaining, full of humour, caring and efficient.

I have spent the last few work days with colleagues who are burnt out. They are pressed down, cynical, snide and their words and thoughts control them, not the other way around. They are busy, busy, busy, always frantic to snatch extra pieces of time here and there. They seem to have lost perspective on what is important, yet, more dangerously perhaps, they feel that of others and make you feel bad for your living thoughts and clear breaths. It is with a lift that I realise I am no longer in that space.

I remember this person. This version of myself now, who is not negative, harsh, despairing and always on the verge of a meltdown. Who has an actual sense of humour, great kindness and a lightness in step. Who loves the play of light and catching nature in the act of being herself. Who can make herself so light she drops through a portal of mindful presence into untapped wells of joy and wonder.

As I marvel over this realisation, the mountains and skies in this spacious place once again collude to put on a touching display of pink, blue and green. I realise in this place of open skies and beauty, I am always only a weekend away from a saner, serene, connected version of myself and vow to return to this feast for the senses sooner than later.

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.