Every summer when I was a child, my parents would pile us into the car and head up South Africa's Garden Route. From our home in Cape Town to Storms River, we'd stop to sail on the glistening lagoons, hike through tangled indigenous forests, and search endless golden beaches for Plettenberg Bay's famous "pansy shell" (sand dollar). Home for the week was a rustic house reserved for families who'd happily track sand into the hall after an active day on the beach. Twenty years on, those shores still call to me. This spring, I loaded my beach gear into the SUV and headed east, searching for a flash of those vivid childhood memories and some welcoming B&B's. What I found was a different kind of homestay.
Some are old, some new, but all of the country-house hotels in the Winelands and along the Garden Route have one aim: to make guests feel as if they're members of the family-without having to help with the dishes or write a thank-you note when they get home. Beyond their hospitality, the inns offer style, casual comfort, understated luxury, and Cordon Bleu-quality cooking thrown in for good measure. They're the ultimate diversion from the rugged South African safari, and just the thing to revive those youthful visions of summer.
Many of these places sit near Plettenberg Bay, off Highway N2, which makes it the obvious base for exploring the most interesting stretch of the Garden Route, the 100 miles from George to Storms River Mouth. In the warm months (November through March), the vineyards are ripe, the forests are thick, and the doors of these inns are always open.
Hunter's Country House
Visit Hunter's and you'll know why this region is called the Garden Route. Shaded by oaks, palms, and yellowwoods, the Hunter's century-old house is surrounded by ferns, hydrangeas, and agapanthus blooming with abandon. Paths twist past birdbaths, under trellised arches and rose-covered pergolas, around sky-high hibiscus plants to thatched suites with private gardens.
Twenty-two years ago, manager Ian Hunter's parents bought the property as a hobby farm; they proved such excellent hosts that complete strangers asked to stay. Ten years after the family transformed their house into a lodge, Hunter's is now a member of the exclusive Relais & Châteaux group. "It's a professional extension of the hospitality that has always existed here," says Ian.
His mother, Jill, is passionate about antiques, which explains the style-English country, with dark wooden furniture, gold fleur-de-lis stencils on the walls, and sideboards set with gleaming silver and crystal. Swiss-trained chef Walter Butti's gazpacho with oven-roasted langoustines, grilled jumbo prawns marinated in lime juice, and blackberry soup scented with plum brandy will leave you longing for another night and another dinner.
Plettenberg Bay; 27-44/532-7818, fax 27-44/532-7878; doubles from $212, including breakfast.
Just past Plettenberg Bay's Robberg Beach, through a lone gate in the coastal fynbos (the region's unique shrubland), a narrow road leads through a private nature reserve. At its end, a spare, rectangular white building sits cliffside, teetering above the Indian Ocean. What was once Clare Stevens's family retreat is now Plettenberg Park, a four-bedroom inn where the draw for guests, simply stated, is nothing. There's no reception, no formality, not even a key to one's bedroom door. The minimalist, open-plan house is decorated in Afro-colonial style: a bleached antelope skull hangs above the fireplace, textured wooden bowls hold woven fishing buoys, wooden lattices shade floor-to-ceiling sliding windows. "Anything's possible," says Clare, "from kayaking to private diving instruction. But the sound of the sea is instantly relaxing." Barefoot guests occasionally pad down the cliff path to the private beach and tidal pool. But for most, there's little reason to quit the wooden deck facing the endless horizon. Gulls riding the thermals and waves crashing on the sand lull guests into a blissful standstill. They only stir when the chef tempts them with dishes like kudu carpaccio under shavings of Parmesan, and a light watermelon glacé dotted with cream.
Robberg Rd., Plettenberg Bay; 27-44/533-9067, fax 27-44/533-9092; doubles from $186, including all meals.