Country House Hotels in South Africa

Country House Hotels in South Africa

Dook
Dook
Famous for its safari lodges, South Africa also has another breed of getaway: country-house hotels

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.

Plettenberg Park
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.


KurlandBR> When Peter Behr escaped the rat race in Johannesburg by returning to his family estate outside Plettenberg Bay, his wife, Dianne, a self-professed city girl, found the pace a bit slow. She livened things up by opening the homestead's eight suites to guests. Now, on an average day, a busy traveler puffs a cigar while pecking at a laptop on the veranda, a few polo players (attracted by the new 36-stall polo complex) mill about the lounge, and parents cool off under the trees while their children await their turns on a fat pony called Noodle.

The décor is relaxed, with Dianne's singular sense of style reminding guests that they're in a family's house rather than a formal hotel. Inherited antiques, Persian carpets, invitingly plump sofas, piles of books, and contemporary South African art combine to create a gentle country environment that you'll wish were your own.

Five of the bedrooms have four-poster beds and fireplaces, and all open onto a private patio with views of lush meadows and the Tsitsikamma mountain range. The rooms are spacious (six have loft bedrooms for children) and private (four have their own plunge pools). In the courtyard next to the fountain, contemporary Afrikaans breakfast and lunch dishes are served on a table blooming with bowls of fresh flowers plucked from Dianne's newly expanded rose garden. A children's pool keeps youthful exuberance away from resting adults, who can use the main pool, tennis court, gym, and spa at their leisure. The family-friendly atmosphere and welcoming attitude induce many guests to plan a return even before their stay is through.
Plettenberg Bay; 27-44/534-8082, fax 27-44/534-8699; doubles from $435, including meals.

Klippe Rivier Homestead
At Klippe Rivier, 2 1/2 hours east of Cape Town, drinks are served at 7:30 p.m. and visitors are instructed not to be late. They rarely are. After aperitifs are presented, chef and manager Joanne Dew emerges from the kitchen to tantalize guests with her daily menu. Choosing a dish is difficult, but Joanne's chilled cucumber soup, succulent beef fillet marinated in wine and balsamic vinegar, and poached pears are perfect on a warm November night. Klippe Rivier is a 170-year-old Cape Dutch estate on the outskirts of Swellendam, a country town surrounded by youngberry and citrus orchards, vineyards, and golden wheat fields. It's worth detouring off the freeway, past locals selling baseball-sized peaches at the side of the road, to spend the night.

"We are a country house, not a hotel," says Joanne. "There are no fridges or TV's in the six suites. Our guests appreciate the silence, and spend the evening on the stoop enjoying a nightcap and watching the moon."

By sunlight, guests amble around the lawn, visiting with the three resident eagle owls in the leafy old oak trees, or unwind on the veranda, with its view of the Overberg mountains. Each of the three downstairs rooms is decorated with Cape Dutch antiques and has its own walled-in herb garden. Throughout the thatched-roof house, the scent of basil perfumes the air.
Off R60, Swellendam; 27-28/514-3341, fax 27-28/514-3337; doubles from $172, including breakfast.

La CABRIére Country House
What makes a divorce lawyer and an optometrist leave their perfect life in Manhattan and set up a country-house hotel in the South African Winelands?For Gary Lazarus and Monte Levin it was finding a spot where vines shade the breakfast table and the mountains turn pink at sunset. "I had told Monte that this was by far the most beautiful country in the world," says Gary, "but that I would never live here again." However, when he returned to South Africa for a family gathering after an absence of 25 years, something clicked. To the amazement of their friends, Gary and Monte moved to Franschhoek, the food and wine capital of South Africa.

Distanced from the road to town by formal, indigenous gardens, the landmark 1870 Cape Victorian at La Cabrière backs onto a storybook farm and vineyard. "We presume that what we like, our guests will like," says Monte. Most guests love the wooden canopied bed in the African suite, as well as the fragrant lavender and rosebushes that surround the pool.

Breakfast- an informal and jovial affair- is cooked by Gary and served by Monte. In less than two years Gary and Monte already feel they are home, perhaps because they share theirs so willingly.
34 Cabrière Street, Franschhoek; 27-21/876-4780, fax 27-21/876-3852; doubles from $107, including breakfast.


Gillian Cullinan lives in Cape Town and has written for House and Leisure and South African Elle.

You Can Take it With You
Besides its highly regarded wine, the Garden Route has much more to offer visitors looking for trifles to take home. A delicate handblown glass bowl by David Reade can be had for $259 at Art Now (14 Hugenot Rd., Franschhoek; 27-21/876-3101). Pick up a canvas bush jacket, to look the part when heading out into the wild, for $45 from Groundcover (intersection of R45 and R310, Groot Drakenstein, Franschhoek; 27-21/874-1605). Home furnishings and Central African-inspired objects, like leather and mudcloth handbags ($80), are sold at La Grange (13 Daniel Hugo St., Franschhoek; 27-21/876-2155). Bikinis, bath treats, and assorted accessories fill the shelves at the Kurland Shop (Kurland; 27-44/534-8082). A three-piece silver-plated bachelor's tea set from Birmingham, England (circa 1911), goes for a song ($260) at Jill's Antiques (at Hunter's Country House; 27-44/532-7740).

The Facts Out and About Marine Safari From July to November, southern right whales swim up from the Antarctic to mate and calve. Spot them (and bottle-nosed dolphins) from the Robberg Peninsula in the Robberg Nature Reserve (signposted from Robberg Road; 27-44/533-2125; entrance $1.50), or take a whale-watching flight over the bay with African Ramble Air Charter (Plettenberg Bay Airport, 27-44/533-9006; $50 per person). To see the mammals face-to-face, try a close encounter cruise with Ocean Adventures (Shop 13, Yellowwood Centre, Main Rd.; 27-44/ 533-5083; $33 per person).

The View on Foot The Garden of Eden walk is an easy 30-minute introduction to the area's indigenous forests. Massive yellowwoods (some estimated at 800 years old), stinkwoods, and red alders form a canopy above thick undergrowth and crystal-clear streams (signposted next to the N2, between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay; 40 cents in high season).

Adrenaline Highs Rappel down a 200-foot waterfall with Abseil Africa (27-21/424-1580; $57 for an all-day trip), or tube down the rapids with Stormsriver Adventures (Darnell Street, Storms River Village; 27-42/541-1836; $43 for six-hour trip, including all safety gear, lunch, and transport).

Great Rides In winter, the world's top surfing pros converge on Jeffreys Bay to ride its famous right-hand waves. Rent a board for $9 a day from Billabong Surf Shop (Magnatubes Centre, DaGama Rd., Jeffreys Bay; 27-42/293-1101). The more sedate should catch the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, South Africa's last scheduled steam train, between Knysna and George (Knysna Station, Remembrance Ave., Knysna; 27-44/382-1361; $8 round-trip).

Gillian Cullinan lives in Cape Town and has written for House and Leisure and South African Elle.


The Facts
You Can Take it With You
Besides its highly regarded wine, the Garden Route has much more to offer visitors looking for trifles to take home. A delicate handblown glass bowl by David Reade can be had for $259 at Art Now (14 Hugenot Rd., Franschhoek; 27-21/876-3101). Pick up a canvas bush jacket, to look the part when heading out into the wild, for $45 from Groundcover (intersection of R45 and R310, Groot Drakenstein, Franschhoek; 27-21/874-1605). Home furnishings and Central African-inspired objects, like leather and mudcloth handbags ($80), are sold at La Grange (13 Daniel Hugo St., Franschhoek; 27-21/876-2155). Bikinis, bath treats, and assorted accessories fill the shelves at the Kurland Shop (Kurland; 27-44/534-8082). A three-piece silver-plated bachelor's tea set from Birmingham, England (circa 1911), goes for a song ($260) at Jill's Antiques (at Hunter's Country House; 27-44/532-7740).

Out and About
Marine Safari From July to November, southern right whales swim up from the Antarctic to mate and calve. Spot them (and bottle-nosed dolphins) from the Robberg Peninsula in the Robberg Nature Reserve (signposted from Robberg Road; 27-44/533-2125; entrance $1.50), or take a whale-watching flight over the bay with African Ramble Air Charter (Plettenberg Bay Airport, 27-44/533-9006; $50 per person). To see the mammals face-to-face, try a close encounter cruise with Ocean Adventures (Shop 13, Yellowwood Centre, Main Rd.; 27-44/ 533-5083; $33 per person).

The View on Foot
The Garden of Eden walk is an easy 30-minute introduction to the area's indigenous forests. Massive yellowwoods (some estimated at 800 years old), stinkwoods, and red alders form a canopy above thick undergrowth and crystal-clear streams (signposted next to the N2, between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay; 40 cents in high season).

Adrenaline Highs
Rappel down a 200-foot waterfall with Abseil Africa (27-21/424-1580; $57 for an all-day trip), or tube down the rapids with Stormsriver Adventures (Darnell Street, Storms River Village; 27-42/541-1836; $43 for six-hour trip, including all safety gear, lunch, and transport).

Great Rides
In winter, the world's top surfing pros converge on Jeffreys Bay to ride its famous right-hand waves. Rent a board for $9 a day from Billabong Surf Shop (Magnatubes Centre, DaGama Rd., Jeffreys Bay; 27-42/293-1101). The more sedate should catch the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, South Africa's last scheduled steam train, between Knysna and George (Knysna Station, Remembrance Ave., Knysna; 27-44/382-1361; $8 round-trip).

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