Sunday, 14 May 2017

Hawksmoor House, Stellenbosch

Extending time


This is my second stay at Hawksmoor House and I start to wonder how they organise such intensity of blue skies each time I visit. It is so blue it lifts the soul instantly. You would have to be a seriously miserable person to be unhappy here.

The artistically landscaped gardens offer many delights. Someone has considered the movement of light over the property and throughout the day there are back-lit gems of all colour and shape.

Within the historic homestead, artistic decor picks up on the rich blue skies, red vines, green-lit Oaks and purple lavender. Around every corner there is a surprise and one is drawn into fascinating spaces with each vibrant, sunlit wall and perfectly balanced piece of antique furniture. The choice of colour for each room becomes especially clear in the late afternoon when the slanting light reflected off the long koi pond creates a play of interconnecting hues.

No lazy, tourist-pleasing pseudo-African decorating here - this no faux wine estate or country fake new build. It is intensely local, a 300 year old Cape Dutch thatched grand house surrounded by rambling outbuildings. And being on a real working wine and fruit farm, you feel local and privileged to enter this space. 

I give a gasp as an enormous (and may I say very well endowed) bull walks right past my low window. I am relieved to see he is on the other side of a fence and we spend a good few minutes staring at one another in equal fascination. It seems he got as much of a fright seeing me as I him and despite his size and ferocious look, I gather he is a bit frightened of the wind and seeking company rather than trouble. I stop short of offering a cuddle.

One of the best value luxury stays South Africa has to offer, I recommend this place to everyone I can. It is perfectly placed to access the Cape Town International airport, the wine farms and restaurants of Paarl, Wellington, Stellenbosch, and even Franschhoek and Cape Town itself. If you can bear to leave that is - Hawksmoor specialises in deep, beautiful baths, quality white linen, antique furniture, dramatic decor and double French doors letting in a splay of golden light and leading onto characterful outdoor seating areas. Most surprisingly, all this comes without primp or petulance, with the hosts offering warm, genuinely friendly and helpful hospitality such that your stay here will simply never be long enough.

Accommodation experience
Indeed the days are too short here and I wish to apply for an official extension of time at the magical space that is Hawksmoor House. The weather puts on such a spectacular show that it takes me a while to settle. The sky turns even bluer now, almost purple in its insistence. Fortunately my camera battery dies and I am forced to spend a slow sunset simply sitting on my private balcony where this place does indeed perform its magic on me. I am able to extend my time here through a portal into presence, a different time dimension altogether. 

Here there are delicious moments which extend downwards, rather than horizontally, into infinite sensory experiences which stretch even to the future where I am able to access them as I write. The experience of the sun streaming into my room, the layering of a valley with trees and mist, the tinny call of a guinea fowl, a row of impossibly straight ducks flying slowly past my open doors, a hawk caught on an updraught, suspended in time like me. If I could stay in this state, here on this natural patch of earth, I am sure I could live forever.

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, d├ęcor, 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