Garden Route, South Africa
In South Africa, the phrase “private nature reserve” usually implies big game. At Grootbos, however, the botanical world is the object of quest and curiosity. The southwestern part of South Africa encompasses the so-called “Cape Floral Region,” with 9,250 plant species, 70 percent of which are endemic to the region. Located on a hillside 23 miles southeast of Hermanus, Grootbos comprises two lodges with 27 accommodations, as well as a six-bedroom villa with its own pool and staff. The more traditional Garden Lodge is dedicated to families, while the contemporary Forest Lodge is reserved for adults.
A handsome structure of local wood and stone, the main building has an exceptionally striking interior. A sweep of floor-to-ceiling windows reveals a breathtaking view culminating in the massive white sand dunes of Walker Bay. The property’s 16 suites are really cottages, with full living rooms and small kitchenettes. Large bedrooms provide four-poster beds, walk-in closets and spacious baths. The overall aesthetic is of contemporary comfort. Bedrooms are air-conditioned, but living rooms are not.
The food is exceptional: Preparations are not elaborate, nor need they be, with such fresh ingredients. A 4WD tour of the reserve turned out to be utterly fascinating, and we spent three hours exploring the remarkable landscape in the company of an exceptional guide. Horseback riding is available, as are escorted beach walks, aerial tours of Walker Bay, and boat tours to view penguins, dolphins and, in season, whales. Grootbos is well worth a trip from Cape Town and should be part of any Garden Route itinerary.
Near Port Alfred, South Africa
Located 100 miles east of Port Elizabeth, Oceana Beach & Wildlife Reserve overlooks the Indian Ocean and a magnificent stretch of golden sand. This unusual property is the realization of a dream held by Texan owner Rip Miller. At reception, I was immediately impressed by the attractive blend of stonework, stucco, wooden decking and undulating gray thatch, as well as by the way the various structures merged harmoniously with the landscape.
Our Ocean Suite was a further pleasant surprise. Beneath a soaring thatched roof, we found a four-poster bed, a spacious sitting area and two full baths. Everywhere, the attention to detail was commendable: The writing desk came with a full complement of plugs and connections, and an array of lighting controls greatly helped to enhance the room’s aesthetics. Intersecting walls of sliding glass doors opened onto a large deck that provided panoramic views of the beach and the ocean.
After relaxing with a glass of wine, we enjoyed an excellent dinner. I opted for a Thai green curry soup with mussels, followed by braised oxtail served with vanilla-and-chive mashed potatoes, cumin-spiced carrots and a rosemary-red wine jus. The dining room staff were well-trained and exceptionally polite.
The Oceana reserve, while large, is not big enough to sustain a complete ecosystem of animals. Hence, there are no predators or elephants. However, our numerous sightings included white rhino, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and a variety of antelope. In addition to safari drives, you can hike along four miles of private shoreline, or just luxuriate in the spa. Oceana provides a memorable and distinctive experience in a singularly beautiful setting.
The Winelands, South Africa
The chief wine-producing area of the Cape, centered on the towns of Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, lies less than an hour by car east of Cape Town. These are among the most beautiful winelands in the world, backed by jagged mountains and, from November to March, reliably bathed in sunshine. Babylonstoren opened in 2011 and is set midway between Stellenbosch and Paarl. Having turned off the highway, we drove through vineyards, above which rose the white curved gables characteristic of Cape Dutch architecture. The estate dates to the late 1600s, and Babylonstoren is one of the best-preserved 17th-century houses in the country. In 2009, it was purchased by media magnate Koos Bekker and his wife, Karen Roos, former editor of Elle Decoration. Their intention was to make it a personal retreat, but they soon decided to create a hotel instead.
Guests stay in 14 Cape Dutch cottages arrayed along an allée of pepper trees that runs through an eight-acre garden containing more than 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Our cottage, once the farm’s laundry, had white walls, creamy fabrics, a honey-hued wood floor, a woodburning fireplace and a dramatic raftered ceiling. The large marble bath came with a walk-in shower and an extraordinary tub in the form of a watering trough with a gently curved wooden backrest. The Babylonstoren gardens draw visitors from far and wide. (They are a re-creation of the so-called “Company’s Garden,” established by the Dutch to provide fresh produce for sailing ships plying the route between Europe and the Spice Islands.) And their fruits and vegetables fill the larder of Babel, the resort’s bright and airy restaurant.
Aerial photographs often show the 20-room Saffire Freycinet resort as a dramatic silver stingray nestled in eucalyptus forest. At ground level, however, it is more low-key, with a style reminiscent of Northern California. The main lodge is a three-story building with floor-to-ceiling windows that afford magnificent and ever-changing views of The Hazards mountains across the bay.
Having been escorted from reception via a covered boardwalk, we were immediately impressed by the comfort and beauty of our remarkably well-equipped and handsome suite. With an appealingly spare décor that recalled Scandinavian country hotels and Japanese ryokans, the split-level space came with eucalyptus floors, a cantilevered timber ceiling, and a spacious bath lined in gray stone.
It did not take long for us to settle into a daily rhythm. After breakfast we would participate in one of the organized activities. We especially enjoyed a visit to the oyster-growing Freycinet Marine Farm, where we donned waders and strode into the sea. Other highlights included a tasting at Freycinet Vineyard and a bird-watching trip to Pelican Bay.
The food was consistently excellent. Executive Chef Hugh Whitehouse has worked in no fewer than three Harper-recommended properties. In his Palate restaurant, Whitehouse employs the finest local ingredients in a menu that changes daily. For example, lunch was usually a buffet featuring freshly shucked oysters, roasted vegetables and a variety of imaginative salads, followed by dishes such as barbecued barramundi with herb butter.
Saffire Freycinet is a superb hotel in a glorious setting, a destination resort that warrants a journey halfway round the world.