From Wine to Wildlife, Gardens to Gastronomy

From Wine to Wildlife, Gardens to Gastronomy

African adventure beckons for Jennifer Ford from The Portfolio Suite as she visits the southernmost tip of the Dark Continent as a guest of Africa Collection, checking out some stunning hotels and picking up insightful advice for travelers who have The Garden Route of South Africa in their sights.

The first thing to think about in planning your South African adventure is timing, for the seasons are quite different from her own. Spring is September through to November; Summer runs from November to February; Autumn from March to May and June through August is their Winter.

We flew via London with South African Airlines which has just recently introduced a new A330 aircraft on the Heathrow to Johannesburg route. The configuration in business class (always a great start to a holiday!) was 1, 2, 1 with all seats forward facing and convertible into fully flat beds. South African Airlines has no dedicated business class lounge at Heathrow but offers a choice of three partner lounges Air Canada, United Airlines, or Singapore.

It is worth noting that on arrival in Johannesburg you have to clear customs, collect your bag from the carousel, and bag drop at the check in desk for the onward flight. It is possible to pre-book a ‘meet & assist’ and this is a service I would highly recommend this as the queue to clear customs can be very long and ‘meet & assist’ allows you to jump to the top of the queue, saving a lot of time and hassle and getting you where you need to be for any connecting flight. Otherwise you should allow a minimum of 3 hours to transit. The service cost £70 regardless of how many in your family. No landing cards required for South Africa.

South Africa is just an hour ahead of us time-wise, so no jet lag which is great, and they drive on the left making driving super-easy! If you choose to drive, possibly along the amazing Route 62, lined with wineries, do be careful to adhere to speed limits, for there are hidden speed cameras everywhere and you WILL be fined. It should go without saying that stopping off at wineries is wonderful, but sampling is a no-no if you’re the designated driver!

My first ‘port of call’ was Cape Town where everyone I met warned me that weather here changes dramatically and quickly. For that reasons it is a good tip to advise your clients to visit the iconic Table Mountain on arrival if the weather is good with good visibility, for you can’t be sure that will continue. A trip to the summit in the revolving cableway is a must.

Wonderful hotels abound in South Africa, as I was fortunate enough to experience with Africa Collection. Service is outstanding and the hotels I checked out all offered superb dining, complimented by (of course) those fantastic South African wines. I would suggest that, while it is tempting always to press on and see more, it is worth staying two nights rather than just one in any location – an overnight just gives you a taste while two nights allows you to savour your surroundings.

Here are just a few of the hotels which could make your South African trip extra-special …

The Table Bay Hotel, Cape Town. This award-winning five star hotel is part of the Sun International Group and was opened in May 1997 by former South African President, Nelson Mandela. It has a fabulous location, within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants and offering direct access to Cape Town’s renowned shopping district, the V&A Waterfront. It has beautiful views of the working harbour and Table Mountain or, from another perspective, across the Atlantic Ocean to Robben Island. Complimentary for in-house guests is a hop-on hop-off luxury shuttle service to and from Table Mountain, while guests can avail of a tailor-made tours service at The Table Bay’s Travel desk. As if all that (and wonderful rooms and ambiance too!) weren’t enough, it has what must surely be the best breakfast buffet in Cape Town!

Tintswalo Atlantic, just 45 minutes’ from the central V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, is the only lodge located in the Table Mountain National Park. This is a truly wonderful property, often described as ‘the most dramatic and romantic destination in Southern Africa’, the perfect place to rejuvenate and get away from the stresses and hustle and bustle of everyday life. Sitting at the foot of Chapman’s Peak, the lodge is perched on a pebble beach, and enjoys panoramic views of the dramatic Sentinel Mountain peaks, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The views from the wooden decks are truly memorable. The property has ten one-bedroom suites, all named after islands, and one two-bedroom villa. The board basis is bed and breakfast with lunch and dinner available. Widely known as Cape Town’s ‘hidden gem’, the hotel offers hiking trails and a variety of exciting excursions. It may not be for first-time visitors to Cape Town who will inevitably be intent on seeing as much as possible within their holiday time-frame, but for those who have perhaps been before and want to enjoy the stunning views and tranquillity this is an amazing choice.

The Robertson Small Hotel, two hours’ drive time from Cape Town underwent major renovation in 2016. The five star hotel has ten rooms, restaurant and bar, two pool areas, beautiful gardens, marvellous artwork throughout … and its very own cactus area! Accommodation options include four particularly lovely Pool Suites, with direct access to the pool. Décor is elegant and refined and worth highlighting is the EM Bar which serves a small range of tempting cocktails alongside a selection of local spirits and the valley’s finest wine from a custom bar in blue and white porcelain by artist Michael Chandler. It’s a destination best suits to adults and would be wonderful for honeymooners.

The Schoone Oordt at Swellendam (three hours’ from Cape Town and one hour from Robertson) is a charming country house hotel. Its ten bedrooms (sweetly quaint with half doors and cheerful long burning fires when you need them) are separate from the Manor House, all set in beautiful gardens, with saltwater swimming pool, and stunning conservatory restaurant. The emphasis here is on elegance and under-stated luxury, with every comfort considered – on arrival, for example guests are greeted with afternoon tea and freshly baked scones. Dining here was delightful, with the option to eat in the beautifully appointed dining room or outdoors on the patio.

La Plume at Oudtshoorn is a boutique guest house on a working ostrich, alfalfa and cattle farm. Its owners are very much hands-on and offer fascinating farm tours, making this a wonderfully family-friendly destination. A warm welcome awaits you at this charming 1902 Victorian homestead whose guest house has twenty beautifully appointed rooms and beautiful surroundings. The owners provide breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even picnic baskets which is a nice touch for those who choose to explore the area with its many attractions. The nearest airport, for those who want to start their trip in the middle of The Garden Route is George which is 50 minutes’ away.

Fancourt is a major and wonderfully family-friendly leisure resort situated in the heart of the Garden Route, 7 km from George Airport. Superbly landscaped on 613 hectares of lush countryside with the majestic Outeniqua Mountains as the perfect backdrop, the hotel has 115 rooms and its extensive leisure activities on the resort include a Spa with an indoor heated Roman Bath as well as a leisure centre which is home to the Kids Club. There is a teen lounge, gymnasium, cinema, indoor heated and outdoor swimming pool while outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy tennis, running/walking trails, bird watching and fishing and have a choice of three Gary Player designed golf courses all ranked in the Top 15 in South Africa as well as a Golf Academy. If you can tear yourself away, there are countless sightseeing excursions to the picturesque coastal towns of Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Mossel Bay as well as the historic town of Oudtshoorn.

Off again and, further along The Garden Route, we drove through the charming town of Knysna which is enormously popular with people from the interior of South Africa who flock here for their holiday. The leisure isle area is a haven for watersports and there is lots of really good accommodation to choose from.

The visitor is well catered for right along Route 62. We stopped off for example to enjoy lunch at The Lookout at Plettenberg Bay, justly popular with locals and visitors alike. The Lookout Deck offers uninterrupted views of the Indian Ocean and Plett’s famous sunsets, making this a must for any visit to Plettenberg. Lovely relaxed atmosphere with great food – try the fresh oysters or go for a seafood platter! It was lovely to walk down steps from the Lookout and go for a walk along the stunning beach.

The Kurland Hotel is a boutique luxury hotel, set in a vast 700 hectare private estate. Family owned and operated, it is also very family friendly with just twelve super-comfortable suites. The open wood-burning fireplaces in all the guest rooms, restaurant, library, reception areas seal the deal on perfect warm welcomes, as does the Afternoon Tea & Cake on arrival. This is a great property for those interested in horse riding and a great place from which to explore.

We broke our hour drive from the gorgeous Kurland Hotel en route to Graaf Reinet with a lunch stop at the wondrously quirky Sophie’s Choice at Willowmore – another great example of the high quality hospitality trade which underpins the region’s tourism sector. Incredibly welcoming with yummy lunch and snack choices, this is a fab treasure trove of a place … a stopover here is like stepping back in time, for it is as much museum as restaurant with costumes adorning the walls, cabinets full of dolls, hats, and hat pins! Anybody visiting this area should surely stop for lunch.

The Drostdy Hotel is an iconic building in the impossibly pretty Graaff Reinet, one of the oldest towns in South Africa. A Cape Dutch building, originally built in 1806 as the local seat of government, this much acclaimed hotel has recently been refurbished to award-winning standard. It has just forty-eight rooms and is well known for its De Camdeboo Restaurant which serves a wide selection of delicious Eastern Cape fare and is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The hotel also has a world class ‘Africology Spa’, a choice of three pools set in immaculately manicured gardens, state of the art gym, and is home to The Imibala Art Gallery.

Nearby attractions make this a great place to spend a number of days … visit the Valley of Desolation in Camdeboo National Park whose national beauties virtually surround the town of Graaff Reinet … experience life as it was in the 1800’s with a tour of the historical Reinet House, Old Residency Museum, Urquhart House and the Military Museum … or simply take time to admire he architecture of the Dutch Reformed Church here, the Groote Kerk. The town contains over 220 heritage sites – more than any other town in South Africa.

Never having done a safari before I was beyond excited at the prospect of staying at The Samara Private Game Reserve … and it more than lived up to my expectations! Located 20 km southeast of Graaff-Reinet in the Camdeboo region of the Eastern Cape, the reserve stretches from the top of the Karoo Mountain Complex, down into the extensive plains characteristic of the area. Samara Private Game Reserve is a luxury safari destination, family owned, with great emphasis on conservation and making all guests part of the Samara family. Children are very welcome and receive a welcome pack on arrival, but this is a destination that made children of us all as we spotted giraffe, vervet monkeys, springbuck, kudu, oryx, cheetah, yellow mongoose, warthog to name but a few. Our excitement was off the scale!

Since it was winter the game drives were chilly, but the lodge provided hot water bottles, blankets, and capes to keep us warm and somehow that all added to the fun and enjoyment of the trip. I was really surprised at how comfortable the landrover was and really enjoyed driving around looking at the amazing scenery and mountain backdrop, never mind the game.I would describe this as a safari on a small scale and its intimacy really appealed to me.

We had rooms in The Lodge which was really nice and convenient when going for breakfast and dinner while some other guests from the group I travelled with were accommodate in the Karoo with stunning views overlooking a watering hole. I would recommend three nights – two nights is too short and four nights is possibly too long. Expect the experience of a lifetime.

Hacklewood House Hotel in Port Elizabeth, was a four hour drive further along the Route – a pretty and relaxing boutique style hotel with nice gardens and swimming pool, located away from the waterfront beach area. Pleasant and easy-going with good service, it was a good choice at the end of the trip.

I would suggest that Kenton-on-Sea, more commonly known as Kenton, the small coastal town on the Sunshine Coast, in the Eastern Cape might also be a good spot in which to wind down at the end of a driving holiday, re-charging before the flight home.

South Africa truly is a ‘world in one country’ from cosmopolitan Cape Town to the magic of the African bush, offering hotel hospitality and service which, to my mind, is second to none, particularly when you travel in the company of renowned specialists, Africa Collection. My advice, if you are thinking about it as a destination, is to stop thinking and start packing! Give me a call to find out more and plan your own drive along the wonderful Garden Route.