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South Africa

Leeu Collection to open first London property

Leeu Collection to open first London property in 2019

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Leeu Collection has acquired its first London property, due to open in 2019.

The company now owns 55 Newman Street, Fitzrovia which is a former office building. Leeu will be transforming the offices into a 100-room luxury hotel.

Carrie Wicks, CEO of Leeu Collection, said: “The purchase of a London property is a very exciting development for [us], as it marks the first acquisition for the group in a major city, but it will certainly not be the last.

“Leeu Collection continues to seek hotel opportunities in key locations around the world that reflect the Leeu ethos of creating unrivalled escapes for discerning guests.”

Leeu Collection owns three five-star boutique accommodations in South Africa and the firm’s first addition outside of South Africa was the 30-room Linthwaite House in the Lake District. The second was Leeu Villa Querce in Florence, Italy, a 70-plus room luxury hotel and gardens due to open in 2021.

Belmond Mount Nelson

The Belmond Mount Nelson reveals its guestroom redesign

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Inge Moore and her London-based design team have completed the refurbishment of 48 guestrooms and suites in one of the world’s most iconic hotels – Cape Town’s Belmond Mount Nelson. The design intent was to recreate the original spirt of the grand old hotel, which opened in 1899 and was said at the time to be as elegant as any fine London hotel, while updating it in such a way to engage today’s connoisseur travellers and lovers of exceptional hotels.

Inspired by Heritage
Capetonian heritage and influences were therefore the foundation to the designers’ thinking and this was a narrative that proved to open up layers of design opportunity. Once, seafarers from around the globe discovered the Cape and made it home, embracing what she had to offer and combining this with what they had brought from their previous lives. Local materials, rustic timbers, beads and clay brought together with sparkling crystal, silver cutlery and fine bone china created a new vernacular that uniquely belonged in the Cape. It was this mixing of the old and the new, the refined and the artisanal that Inge has translated into the refurbished guestrooms. Importantly, just as the “Nellie” has always been, the redesigned rooms are comfortably residential in feel. For the many loyal guests who return year-after-year, the ambience of their room will be reassuringly familiar while there will be much to discover that is new and enchanting.

The Belmond Mount Nelson reveals its guestroom redesign

“The Mount Nelson is one of a small handful of hotels that epitomise the inheritance and soul of their location, so they must be subtly moved on within the continuum of their beloved personality,” says Inge.

Connected with Nature
The gardens, lovingly tended and matured over the decades since the hotel first opened, as well as the breath-taking view of Table Mountain mean that Mount Nelson Hotel is the place to contemplate both the majesty of untamed nature and the beauty of man’s work with nature. The redesign celebrates both. Windows and casings have been restored and painted white, while the new drapery pelmets are smaller than before, effectively opening up the windows and framing the views. Guests can now better connect with what is outside and take the emotion with them as they relax inside. The bed is the centrepiece of each room, focused on the view and, at the foot of each bed, there is a local ‘riempies bank’ – the bench introduced to the Cape by the early settlers and locally made. Each room has a “chair to dream in”, a deeply comfortable armchair placed at a vantage point to soak up the panorama and allow the guest a place to slow down and feel what is important to them, be it to think, read or just to be.

Other heirloom furniture includes dark timber tables and cabinets with brass and leather detailing, while some furniture has been specially designed as a modern take on traditional pieces. There are idiosyncratic pieces, such as a beaded mirror, introduced to balance the collection and ensure the rooms retain an air of light hearted residential randomness. In re-planning the rooms, wardrobe space has become as generous as each room allows to meet the needs of the many guests who stay for a week or more.

The Belmond Mount Nelson reveals its guestroom redesign

All materials are classic, timeless and locally sourced. Originally, the hotel had timber flooring. Now, new oak flooring has been introduced into some suites, scattered with rugs crafted by local carpet weavers. Natural leather and linen abounds and antiqued and bevelled mirror reflects the sparkle of crystal and the sunshine dancing through the room. Drapery is soft and calming in tone, locally embroidered with a flower motif to bring a biophilic context – a love of life and things natural and hand-made – to the design. The guestrooms are light and airy on sunny days but they will also be cosy and cocooning when the sea mists and rain roll in. “They are rooms for slow living, a place to nest and connect with one’s emotions,” says Stan Chan, a senior member of the design team.

Telling the Story through Art
Artwork is a major part of the experience and the rooms have been lovingly accessorised with collections of objects and over-scaled paintings curated by Janine Bath in collaboration with Inge. All of the art is by local artists, some is contemporary and some depicts the beautiful landscapes of this part of the world in a new way.

“I think that art in hotels is either just decorative or it has real meaning – there is nothing in-between,” says Inge. “When we have the opportunity to develop art with local artists, it creates the meaning of the project and sets the tone. For Mount Nelson, I wanted to celebrate the amazing Cape and bring this into the hotel.”

The Belmond Mount Nelson reveals its guestroom redesign

The new artworks have joined many fine existing pieces which have been re-framed in a contemporary manner, complimenting the traditionally classic images of landscapes and flowers. Guestroom corridors have been transformed with new art offering a journey through the work of some of Cape Town’s most interesting established and budding artists, combined with the existing collection. The introduction of additional chandeliers and crystal wall lights provides new sparkle as well as more light, the tones of paint replicate heritage colours favoured in domestic settings in the late 19th century and a new sisal-inspired carpet hints at the hard-wearing floor coverings of the turn of the century.

“I want guests to feel like they are walking through the corridors of a beloved aunt’s amazing home,” concludes Inge.

All photography: Micky Hoyle

belmond.com/mount-nelson-hotel-cape-town/

Park Inn by Radisson, the colourful and dynamic mid-market brand, has announced the opening of its first property in Polokwane

Park Inn by Radisson opens its fourth hotel in South Africa – in Polokwane

555 322 Daniel Fountain

Park Inn by Radisson, the colourful and dynamic mid-market brand, has announced the opening of its first property in Polokwane. The Park Inn by Radisson Polokwane is the ninth hotel in South Africa by The Rezidor Hotel Group, one of the fastest growing hotel companies in the world.

Located in Limpopo, the country’s northernmost province, the hotel’s proximity to the neighbouring countries of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland, as well as a convenient distance from Kruger National Park, make it the ideal regional gateway to South Africa.

The hotel has 160 rooms with full-length windows to let in plenty of natural light and views to serene gardens. Park Inn by Radisson is only 9km from Polokwane International Airport and 3km from city centre of the Limpopo capital. Other facilities include a bespoke Smart Meetings & Events concept in three versatile event rooms that can seat up to 100 delegates. Park Inn by Radisson offers free high-speed WiFi access throughout the hotel.

The new hotel’s all-day dining Live-Inn Room Restaurant provides a lively, welcoming experience to relish multicultural cuisine, incorporating the brand’s international flair with a unique African twist. In addition, the hotel also features an open plan bar that leads to the terrace and outdoor pool.

Nisha MacDougall, General Manager of Park Inn by Radisson Polokwane, said, “My team and I are proud to bring Park Inn by Radisson – a brand that adds color to life – to Polokwane. We are looking forward to delivering a fresh, energetic and vibrant hospitality experience to our guests. We welcome the world to Polokwane to enjoy colorful moments and enjoy the best of South Africa.”

The Robertson Small Hotel

Big things happening at Robertson Small Hotel, South Africa…

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The Robertson Small Hotel is excited to announce that it has recently undergone a complete redesign.

The hotel’s relationship with their collaborators and contributors has been a unique feature of the renovation. Curated by Studio Ashby of London, the redesign saw local designers and collaborators tasked with creating bespoke items to form part of a brand new look while enhancing the award-winning facilities.

The Robertson Small Hotel

The Victorian Manor House rooms as well as the Stable and Poolside Suites, the ample gardens and Wellness Room were all set upon by designers and artists including Alexis Barrel, Michael Chandler, Renee Rossouw, House of Gozdawa, Lisa Firer, Rene Botes, Bonfred Furniture among others.

Fashion designer and textile artist Alexis Barrell drew inspiration from local flora and fauna to design a range of textile works using techniques such as hand block printing and intricate and laborious process of carving sketches into wood and printing on cotton with natural dyes by hand.

The Robertson Small Hotel

The Small Restaurant received a new menu courtesy of Rose Ashby of Spring Restaurant at Somerset House in London, with the focus on seasonal produce sourced in the Robertson area Ashby worked alongside head chef Tiaan van Greunen.

The EM BAR, a custom designed bar in blue and white porcelain by artist Michael Chandler, offers a selection of the area’s finest wines and a small range of cocktails.

therobertsonsmallhotel.com

Leeu Estates

Leeu Estates, Franschhoek opens its doors

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The five-star Leeu Estates has opened its doors in Franschhoek, South Africa.

Numerous designers worked on the property’s architecture, interiors and gardens, including Spanish architect Tomeu Esteva, South African firm Graham Goosen and Johan Malherbe of Malherbe Rust Architects. Cape Town-based studio Beverley Boswell Designs focused on the interiors, while landscape designer Franchesca Watson crafted the gardens.

The 17-room boutique property is located on more than 168 acres of working vineyards. The renovated 19th-century Manor House has contemporary and classic detailing in its guestrooms and suites. Custom architecture and a relaxed colour scheme define the rooms, which also has curated artwork and sculptures from across the globe. Most rooms have terraces and fireplaces.

Leeu Estates

Named after the Afrikaans word for ‘small buck’, the Bokkie Garden has grasses and hedges typically found in the animal’s diet. There is also a bronze and granite sculpture by South African artist Angus Taylor. The property’s signature Leeu Spa houses a gym with mountain views, a nearly 50-foot-long infinity pool, and various wellness offerings.

Other amenities at the property include the garden terrace, which offers al fresco dining for up to 40 guests, and a reading room with a fireplace and views of the vineyards and gardens.

leeucollection.com/leeu-estates

Ellerman House, Cape Town

Ellerman House, Cape Town launches art space ‘The Collection’

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As a private & exclusive luxury hotel in Bantry Bay, Ellerman House is one of Cape Town’s finest accommodations for the discerning traveller.

With Cape Town being one of the world’s top destinations and known for fast growing design and art, the development of The Studio was a natural progression for Ellerman House. The aim was to create a space on the property where guests will be able to purchase high-end products that are unique to South Africa.

Guests will have access to a uniquely curated collection of creative products and art such as diamonds by Benguela, bags by Missibaba, jewellery by Pichulik and many more loved local designers, manufacturers and artists.

The products that form part of The Collection are seasonally refreshed and will ensure that only the best and most up to date products are available to the luxury travel market at Ellerman House. Some of the designers and brands the hotel has partnered with include De Wieff, Mungo and Julie de Pao.

Linthwaite House - now part of Leeu Collection

South African boutique firm Leeu Collection acquires UK property

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Leeu Collection has acquired its first UK property, the acclaimed Lake District hotel, Linthwaite House.

It is Leeu Collection’s first property outside of South Africa, where the group currently operates two hotels (Leeu House and Le Quartier Francais), with a third – Leeu Estates – due to open in June 2016.

Linthwaite House is a celebrated, four-AA Red Star Hotel located in the South Lake District (South Lakes). Originally built as a country house in 1901, this boutique hotel has been independently owned for 25 years. Situated in 14 acres of landscaped gardens, the property offers complete privacy and spectacular panoramic views across Lake Windermere and the surrounding fells. Accommodation is offered in 30 en-suite bedrooms and the hotel also has a 3 AA Rosette restaurant.

Renowned for its homely comforts and for being a haven of tranquillity, Linthwaite House personifies the best of traditional British hospitality. Garnering a Best Service honour from Conde Nast Johansens 2016 UK & Ireland Awards for Excellence, as well as the Good Hotel Guide’s, Editor’s Choice 2016 award in the Romantic Hotel category, this acquisition echoes Leeu Collection’s founder, Indian industrialist Analjit Singh’s vision of creating unrivalled escapes and offering visitors extraordinary experiences.

Leeu Collection comprises four properties, three in South Africa and now one in Britain. Leeu is the Afrikaans word for lion, as is Singh in Sanskrit.

All three of the Leeu Collection’s South Africa properties are located in the Western Cape’s wineland town of Franschhoek just under an hour’s drive from Cape Town and its International Airport.

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa (Patrick Goff)

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Going green means many things to many people, from adding solar power panels to a roof to a through total reworking of energy use. In our sophisticated cities, going green generally has to be driven by financial return, and the effort involved focusses on energy use. Premier Inn are an excellent example of a group trying to build carbon neutral hotels at no higher cost than any other new build, and who look for a return on investment of around the 7% mark — something that could not be achieved in early years of solar panels, hence many of their properties only now have them added, whilst recycling of heat, and other energy saving measure had previously been adopted.

In some cases however a totally different approach is taken. In Namibia the Damaraland Lodge impressed me by the use of local materials and the ability to remove the hotel, leaving virtually no trace, if the market no longer supported it. In part this was driven by the location in a wilderness where there were no mains services. I was told the only delivery to site was 30,000 empty sand bags, everything else in construction being generated locally. Where the attraction for tourists is the environment, then it makes sense for the hotel operator to tread softly upon the earth or risk damaging that which attracts the guest in the first place. As wilderness decreases so preserving it for tourism becomes an issue.

Teniqua Treetops falls into the category of an environmentally sensitive property focused on sustainability whilst bringing the guest into the wildlife environment too, but here the mix is complicated by the owner’s self-build approach. With just 8 suites built in the treetops of native forest in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains, these rooms are the ultimate in recycling, with, for example, many of the windows and doors being recycled from salvage yards. This ecologically sensitive approach provides comfortable suites providing self-catering hideaways just off the popular Garden Route in South Africa.

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa
In truth this kind of hospitality resort has laid the foundation of what has become known in the UK as ‘glamping’ – glamour camping. Not quite tents these rooms none-the-less make good use of camping antecedents. Built on the steeply raking slopes of the Karatara river valley these rooms are isolated from each other, and but for the car port outside, could almost be isolated from the 21st century too, except that despite their self-build nature the solar power and water heating panels are sophisticated enough to cater for most of the needs of guest. Air conditioning and heating is however driven off a backup mains electricity supply so creature comfort is catered for in a way any other form of ‘glamping’ would not be able to do.

Creature comforts are catered for in other ways that mark this as an hotel — for example rooms are serviced daily by housekeepers who access on four wheel drive bikes. The environmentally friendly nature is essential given the build is on the edge of the river valley and away from traditional mains services such as water and sewerage. Water is supplied from rainwater capture, and this is one of the areas of the world with the cleanest air, so the rainwater is drinkable, although most guests bring their drinking water in bottle form.

The hot water supply is adequately supplied in this environment by the solar panels but just in case there is a bottle gas back up, which also provides the gas for the kitchen area. If there is a downside here it is the non flushing soil toilets. A strong arm is needed to work the levers that expel the ordure, and the lack of smell is proof of their functional effectiveness. The mix is allowed to age and emptied to be returned to the land as fertiliser, but despite this there is still an initial ‘yuk’ factor.

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa

All these practical considerations fade into the background when standing looking out at the view. The ‘old mans’ beard’ fronds of lichen Usnea on the trees is very sensitive to pollution and here grows to metres long showing how pure the air is. The forest below the rooms is one of the last remnants of native South African fynbos forest. This is one of the first hotels where there is a list of reasons not to come on the booking site, starting with the observation: * If you are someone who has phobias about flora or fauna: trees, plants, birds, wild animals, insects, snakes, butterflies, moths, tame animals…don’t come.
* We won’t, don’t, can’t fumigate the forest…so, if you would rather be in a sterile environment…don’t come.

In the past guest have also left because of the lack of means for obscuring the views from the bathrooms. As there is no way anyone can look in not reflections in glass, no passers-by in streets, none except possibly a passing sea bird to see you shower this is an hotel where you can revel in the freedom an individually isolated room can provide. During our stay the only intrusive strangers were the occasional spider, the proximity of bird life and the inquisitiveness of the hotel cat (Marlene), who insisted on accompanying walks through the forest.

The bedrooms are secure, with the additional safety of insect nets and inner canvas liners that can be zipped closed at night. During the day the large balconies allow many hours of sun drenched contemplation of the treetops, bird watching and listening to the animal noises from the forest below, tuning in to the natural world. This form of retreat is rare and to be treasured. Yet there is also a social area to this property, complete with a small conference facility, and a pool area for those for whom company of a significant other is not enough. Imaginative recycling throughout the property is marked by the outdoor furniture (one of the owners is an engineer)and the creation of play areas provides and energy consuming area for offspring.

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa
There is a communal braaii area for those who want to indulge the manic obsession South Africans have with burning everything over wood fires, or as a relief from self catering in the individual kitchens within each room. There is a small shop on site but it is an easy drive over deserted roads to go shopping for those gorgeous and cheap South African wines if you didn’t bring along enough in the first place. With any installation in the treetops the problems of how to supply water and take away waste are major concerns. Electricity whether generated via solar or the national grid is relatively simple via a thin(ish) cable. Water and sewage pipes tend to be both bulky and need long trenches to make the provision.

here rainwater provides a large part of the answer and notices in the bathroom, which despite the limitations boast both shower and bath tub, push the lesson home saying showers are for one, baths for two (and may be helps with the popularity with honeymooners…). Guest are invited every time they turn on a tap to choose between the solar heated and gas heated water. At no stage did the hot water supply seem inadequate even on dull days, when the solar heating was selected.

Occasionally the water colour will be somewhat ‘cola-coloured’ as the hotel describes it, because of the tanin that comes in water supply from the forest area, as water or bathing is pumped up from the river below. Rainwater however is very pure and quite drinkable.Both river and rain water have been tested and are potable. The brown colour could be removed from the river water with flocculation (chemicals) and lots of energy and waste (completed flocculent). The operation knows this would not be environmentally justifiable…

Teniqua Treetops, South Africa

Sewerage is a less tractable problem and here the latest dry toilet systems are used to safely and efficiently process human waste without threatening the sensitive Karatara catchment area; septic tanks are used to avoid damage to the underlying root bed of the forest floor and avoid polluting a water course. This means each time the toilet is used, a scattering of forest leaf fall is added and the lid lifted and dropped to power a spiral screw which removes the waste into the septic tank. This is not a silent forest, the sound of birds and wildlife ample tribute to the care and concern the owners have taken to protect what is, after all, their major asset. Here walks may give sightings of caracal (a form of wild cat) or even possibly leopard, Small buck and monkeys and copious bird-life provide a nature lovers idyll.

This is not a destination for those who love cities and night-life epitomised by the pub and nightclub. This is somewhere to feel the soul of the earth, to sit in contemplation watching a sunset, to be at one with the world. Such places are rare, and need to be treasured.

© Words and Pictures Patrick Goff. From a visit in March 2014

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Pretoria is the administrative capital of South Africa, Every morning commuter trains bring civil servants in to work, in a town with tree shaded streets and plenty of historically interesting buildings, including the home of Paul Kruger, once one of the leaders of the Boer tribe. Indeed Boer history has been surprisingly allowed to remain as a dominant tourist feature in this town with the monument to the Boer trekkers towering above the city on one side, whilst the Union Buildings (parliament building) dominates the central area.

Herbert Baker is one of those streets seen in many capital cities, where large mansions sit in their own grounds isolated from the daily hubbub of the city. As usual in South Africa each is surrounded by an electric fence on top of a high wall. In these exclusive grounds now nestles one of a number of small boutique properties supplementing the limited hotel offerings in Pretoria from the likes of Sheraton.

In bustling South Africa the absence of the chain hotel groups so common throughout the rest of the world is noticeable. One has to question why these predominantly European or US led chains are so blind to markets such as this, with growth economically over 7% and tourism growth higher. Tourism growth is at 17% in neighbouring Tanzania for example, where ministers have aggressively sold their countries offering in particular to the US market.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
The news that Marriott are buying South African operator Protea, who have over 100 properties throughout Africa is good news for the continent and for the Protea Group home market of South Africa in particular (the protea being south Africa’s national flower). Hopefully I will be able to report on a Protea in South Africa later in the year. After Hilton taking over the Hilton Cape Town last year this news is an injection of quality that the mass market needs throughout the continent. Whilst there are plenty of home grown quality hotels such as the Cape Grace or Bushmans Kloof for example the lack of depth a major chain would bring is noticeable, especially in the burgeoning budget sector.

Much of the gap in quality in mid-level hotels has been filled by high end boutique B&B’s or small boutique hotels style properties like the Robertson Small Hotel. Set in a large garden on the border of a reserve on the edge of Pretoria, the desire of the owners of 131 Herbet Baker for this to be seen as a five star operation is torpedoed by poor management exemplified by a casual attitude to serving what is on the menu. Unannounced ingredients on a plate may surprise but do not allow for allergies, likes or dislikes on the part of the guest, they just make life easy for the kitchen. Menus are typed on the computer so it is easy to present them to show what has been bought fresh from the market that day – advertising dishes that are no longer available is unforgiveable.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
Management has been successful in building a local following for the property, a difficult task in South Africa despite the growth of local internal tourism and business markets. Building relationships across social divides that still exist like chasms in South Africa is difficult. This has been managed and achieved successfully by the owners, but service standards also need the same focus along with training.

The hotel interiors are stylish, let down by a little over elaboration in the decor, sometimes less can truly be more. However the results are comfortable, and the hotel makes the most of a difficult plan. The original layout of the dining room cut across a bedroom access route, and the revised positioning gives it the benefit of the views across Pretoria. The difficulty of the new arrangement is the waiting staff then have a flight of stairs and reception to navigate between diners and kitchen.

A sharp maitre d’ would benefit service levels, perhaps something that could be doubled up with the bar and wine service. The dining space shares the room with the bar, both treading an uneasy line as the property with only 8 rooms and an apartment doesn’t fill the spaces busily – difficult to see a ‘passing trade’ although there were some outside diners during our stay. There could perhaps be more definition between the two areas, perhaps even a physical redefinition, making more of the fireplace to create a snug bar feel at one end. Enclosing the space for dining, and narrowing space between the dining tables would make it feel a little busier, more intimate.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
The large space with windows opening to an outside dining terrace (down more steps) may be delightfully cool in the hot summer months but feels a little bleak in the winter, a common problem in properties optimised for the hot climate that prevails for many months.On the other hand adding floor to ceiling window doors with a balcony would considerably enhance the space in both seasons. Originally the dining room had the colonnaded terrace as part of the dining experience and having dined on the similar pool terrace at Bushmans Kloof it is possible to see how attractive this could be. In summer I would imagine this space is used for table and chairs off what is now the the lounge making the pool area a more social space.

Even in the winter this area is a sun trap and more could be made of it, as it is attractive and secluded.

All these spaces are a good size for the nature of the property and the number of bedrooms. They are supplemented by the large outside garden terrace area with its extensive view across Pretoria, enabling small functions to be accommodated too. The luxury of having outside terraces and large spaces is a major advantage to the hotel, and carries through into the bedrooms too.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
There is also a room available for private functions and meetings with its own sheltered courtyard suitable for coffee breaks etc. Taken with the terrace this enables the property to host small receptions or weddings etc. The bedrooms are large and luxuriously fitted out, and the bathrooms too are generously sized with soaking tubs and walk in showers, all fitted with a local stone. Some bedrooms have their own terraces looking across the skyline of Pretoria, whilst others open on to the internal quadrangle housing the pool.

Bedroom design has been thoughtful with socket plates carrying different types of plugs (US, European, South Arican & British) making keeping equipment charged easy. The is free WiFi too, bottled water and a humidifier alongside the airconditioning. French windows give onto terraces in most bedrooms, and the styling is typically European in feel.

131 Herbert Baker, Pretoria
Rooms have individual air conditioning and bathroom have the luxury of underfloor heating. Humidifiers are added for additional guest comfort.
131 Herbet Baker is a very attractive boutique that has considerable potential to offer more. The major issue is the restaurant layout which has been changed but still needs tweaking to provide maximum benefit. The kitchen offering also needs resolving – mainly simply through much sharper management.

Almost a ‘country house’ property within Pretoria the owners have worked hard to create their boutique. If you are planning a stay in the Johannesburg area then this property may fit your needs. For those who worry about their safety in South Africa, I believe after my numerous visits that for someone who lived in Camberwell the dangers here are no greater than in many big cities like London, New York,or the banlieues of Paris. Be streetwise and take advice from your hosts and you will be rewarded with a sense of history, stunning landscapes and fantastic bird and wildlife in what is becoming one of the world’s best tourist destinations.

©Words and pictures Patrick Goff 2014. From a visit in May 2013

The Blue Train, South Africa

The Blue Train, South Africa (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Last time I rode a luxury train it was the Orient Express UK end, steam pulled from London to Kidderminster, and not the blue of Mallard or Sir Nigel Gresley either. Intended to be a celebration for designers of some good years when planned, the Lawson-induced crash turned it into a wake — grown men crying as they realised the Tory party had bankrupted them in the search for parity with the new Euro, much as many grown men cried in 2010 as they realised bankers had shafted them in this latest crash.

The decision to take the African equivalent of the Orient Express, was one haunted by my 1992 ghosts, but the Blue Train provided an effective exorcist. The train runs a regular luxurious service between Pretoria and Cape Town, timetabled as 27 hours. It harks back to a more graceful era of travel, and is all the better for that.

Relaxed journeys are for those who enjoy travelling as much as arriving, essential here as much of the line is single track. Delays are almost inevitable as we waited for mile long freight trains full of South African minerals to trundle past on the sections of loop track where this was possible. The train describes itself as a window into the soul of Africa, and it does a pretty good job of giving a privileged window into South Africa as it travels the 1000 miles through informal settlements, townships, small towns and farming communities, through a wide variety of land and townscapes.

The Blue Train, South Africa

We started in Tshwane, the administrative capital of South Africa that used to be better known as the capital of Afrikanerdom under the name Pretoria. Surprisingly the Voortrekker monument to the brutal Dutch pioneers still stands high on its dominating hill above the city. Almost a suburb of Johannesburg now, Tshwane is a busy city dominated by the civil servants that run government and the Blue Train starts its journey in the main station, still labelled Pretoria, amongst the busy commuter trains, including the new high speed ‘Gautrain’, standard Metro trains and dedicated Metro Business expresses.

Standing on its own dedicated platform the Blue Train waits the passengers who check in to their own comfortable lounge, where the crew serve welcome drinks and are introduced to their charges. When all guests are assembled they are called off by suite number, baggage loaded in the baggage car and mealtime preferences registered.

The Blue Train, South Africa
The superb dining car can seat half the train at a time, and early brunch can be chosen along with the early dinner, but the guests first have time to settle into the marvellous cabins before they start to eat. Entrance onto the train itself is a piece of theatre and the wood panelled and brass railed corridors barely prepare the guest for the richness of the design of the classical interiors, full of gleaming brass and glowing timber marquetry.

I have stayed in some pod hotels, and some so called 5-star hotels with tiny bedrooms that cannot compare with the luxury achieved in these railway carriages. My cabin had a comfortable lounge with a huge picture window and its own gold tapped en-suite marble bathroom. The choices of cabin include a special provision for the less able and larger luxury cabins with more floor space. Twin or doubles, bath or shower complete the choice. Unlike most hotels the choice is offered on booking, too. Would that hotels that offer shower only bathrooms gave the guest the choice of shower or bath on booking — giving them the choice of going elsewhere if shower only is not acceptable. Research has shown that shower only is unacceptable to over 30% of all guests and less acceptable still to the wealthy older cohort. That they have the choice on a train is a delight.

The Blue Train, South Africa
Unlike many hotels the train is able to offer a smoking lounge, up front, behind the engines, but this is the only area of the train where smoking is permitted — and the Chinese tourists took advantage of it, booking the closest cabins. The restaurant car was in the centre of the train, and immediately behind it was another, non-smoking saloon bar. After more cabins the last carriage was an observation car offering 360o views of the landscape traversed.

The advantage of train over plane or auto is of course the size of the windows. In the cabin each passenger could enjoy the view in comfort, many passengers locking open the carriage doors too, so that they could see clearly out of both side of the train. Riding gently in air-conditioned comfort in complete privacy enabled conversation about the passing views, face to face or side by side, interrupted only by the occasional service from the cabin butler or the call to eat and drink in the comfortable restaurant or bar car. Yet it was possible to go out and walk the train, to stretch and converse with other passengers, to be social in a way not possible in a plane or auto.

The gentle ride at a stately 55kph carried the rhythmic clunk over rail joints. Missing in rail traffic in Europe where tracks are welded rather than jointed, the rhythm was the only sound track as travel rolled the landscapes past gently. Many passengers had cameras permanently ready, and the television in each cabin, which could be used to watch videos or TV could also be tuned to an engine mounted camera to watch the track ahead.
Although the cabins were small at the evening meal the time was used to turn down and transform the cabin into a double bedroom – this functional change in effect doubling the cabin into a suite. The reverse process was achieved whilst breakfasting the following morning.

The Blue Train, South Africa
Sleeping on the train was far more comfortable than on a ship. It lacked that thumping juddering crash experienced when a ship hits a large wave, nor was it possible to hear the engines. The only sound was the rhythmic, gently soporific noise of iron on iron, the steady clunk setting a rhythm that lulled to a sleep only broken when silence came if the train stopped in one of the rail loops to allow for passing freight. Insulation was very good, so no sound from outside the cabin apart from the wheels on the rails, and the tv could be used to watch movies or, if one preferred, the view from the front of the train.

The restaurant car , beautifully appointed with marquetry and murals, brass and the gleam of polish, glistened with white linen and fine china. Service matched a good five star and the fare included all the food and drink one could hold. Yet still there were the views. Occasionally the disparity between the wealth in the train and the poverty still there in some townships would become evident as a signal caused an stop where passengers looking out became like zoo exhibits as people waiting on an adjacent platform looked in, but generally a smile and wave was the response from outside to a lifted glass within.

The train showcases views of the mountains, the Klein Karoo and the veldt, and stops to provide a view of one of the world’s largest holes, the diamond mine at Kimberly. No samples alas but for those with the money and needing the gleam , there is an exclusive shop on the train where diamonds and jewellery can be bought through personal appointment.

The Blue Train, South Africa

South Africa is changing, slowly, noticeable and with increasing momentum as education (sorely neglected by the arrogant and frequently corrupt ANC leaders) and economic growth improve the lot of the majority. I think South Africa is reasonably safe for tourism – take advice before you go. There are areas I avoid, and I get good local advice, but it is a good buy for Europeans and needs your tourist money to help the rainbow nation truly flower.

The beauty of the country is showcased through the windows of this train, as are the local standards of service through the charm and courtesy of the staff. Design harks back to an age when grace and pleasure in travel were key ingredients of the experience, when comfort was more important than style alone, and when customer experience ruled over the bean counters. Using the Blue Train really does show how it can be better to travel than to arrive.

© Words and pictures by Patrick Goff. From a journey in May 2013

The Plettenberg, South Africa (Patrick Goff)

1000 667 Daniel Fountain

Seaside towns have a look about them. The ocean close by obviously, but the kind of shops they have – a strange mix of sunhats surfboards and post cards mixed with high end retail to capture the spending of the wealthy second homers. So it is too with seaside accommodation, a mix of jolly B&B’s, engaging boutique style operations, the family resort hotels full of kids, sand and entertainment. Occasional the five stars hotels try to stand above the hubbub and offer a premium experience with high achieving restaurants and urban levels of service.

Plettenberg has all these ingredients complicated by the fact that some 80% of the houses are second homes. This means population can increase tenfold at a weekend, but the hotels bring a steady footfall of visitors all the year around. It has the range, the B&B’s resort hotel on the beach, the boutiques such as the Grand Café with Rooms, and the five star rated Plettenberg.

Main street Plettenberg sits just back from the top of the cliffs and the Plettenberg, the town’s main five star offering, sits off this main drag in a stunning cliff top location.The hotel has glorious unobstructed views across Plettenberg Bay. Like the location of the Marine in Hermanus, on Walker Bay, it offer the opportunity for whale watching (at the right time of year) from your hotel room.

The Plettenberg, South Africa
Plettenberg is often regarded as the whale watching capital of the world. It is claimed as such on the South African Tourism website. Certainly this coast is the breeding ground for whales as I found on my visit to McGrath’s sister hotel, and both are on the Garden Route drive along the coast so offer more than this anxiety inducing binocular exercise. Although the whales when they are abundant come right under your bedroom window, timing is all, leaving those whose timing is wrong in desparate search of a plume like whalers of old.

The hotel is actually several buildings, the two main bocks facing each other across the end of the cul-de-sac that ends in the scrub on the cliff top. Both sides have pools, one side being suites the other containing the bars restaurants and bedrooms. The reception desk is immediately inside the door but the lobby is ‘see through’ so the arriving guest, welcomed by a porter, gets an eyeful not just of bar and restaurant but also the vista stretching around the bay beyond.

The Plettenberg, South Africa
In 2011 the Western Cape had a poor tourist year. The previous year had been dominated by the World Cup but 2011 saw the region catching the backlash from the European and US recessions. the normal numbers of tourists from the UK diminished as did the flow, previously growing, of visitors from the USA. Overall numbers were down by over 40%. Recovery is underway, but the knock to the cash-flow had put back the refurbishment of the bedrooms that I had hoped to see. So how did this third McGrath hotel measure up against my high expectations, expectations created by the high quality of the Marine and that other gem, the Cellars Hohenort in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia?

The public areas mostly matched those expectations, and whilst they exceeded them in some areas, some were laden with tradition to the point of extinction. The bedrooms, whilst becoming dated, are still stylish and very comfortable. As with many hotels these days though the overuse of scented cleaning materials causes problems for those sensitive to artificial odours. This is not the first hotel, and I’m sure won’t be the last, where here appears to be a misguided belief that using heavily scented items enhances the offering. In a seaside hotel it is the scent of the sea the guest wants, surely? Leaving aside the grumble, the bedrooms are chic – not shabby, but with an old fashioned charm.

Like all McGraths hotels they are beautifully finished and as sophisticated as one would expect from one of the premier Relais & Chateau operators in South Africa. There are two bedroom buildings plus a house that is a fully serviced holiday apartment with its own pool.

The Plettenberg, South Africa
There is a small Spa area beneath it with a thriving local trade in several treatment and beauty rooms. The main block of bedrooms are above the main dining area and infinity pool, whilst the second block, on the opposite side of the road, holds the suites with their own infinity pool and sun lounge.
The views from the second building are if anything more stunning than those from the first as it has views both ways along the coast. It has its own grand entrance and entrance staircase, coolly stylish, whilst the sun lounge provides a quiet retreat both for those wanting separation from the main hotels and for those from the pool to retire to, escaping perhaps from the wind and the occasional squall.

Differentiation between the suites and the standard rooms is difficult as both have separate living room areas. The suites are much larger, but both are large by European standards anyway, certainly comparable in scale to the rooms in the Rocco Forte Charles in Munich, which average 42m² compared to a typical UK five star of 33m². It is the style of the case goods as much as anything which dates these rooms, fabrics and soft furnishing generally looking fresh and quite contemporary.

Having seen the newer contemporary rooms installed at the Cellars Hohenort, McGrath’s hotel in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia, I know the design potentials of this group, so just maybe I have an excuse to come back another time.

You see my expectations may have been high but this hotel more than met them. The quality of the service and the design of the public areas was again superb. Agreed there are some parts of the public areas that like the bedrooms are a little dated but the design of the bar and restaurant show what can be achieved. Elements of the bar echo those deployed at the Marine in Hermanus, but a house look is no bad thing if it is stylish and temporised by location, as this one is.

The Plettenberg, South Africa
You see my expectations may have been high but this hotel more than met them. The quality of the service and the design of the public areas was again superb. Agreed there are some parts of the public areas that like the bedrooms are a little dated but the design of the bar and restaurant show what can be achieved. Elements of the bar echo those deployed at the Marine in Hermanus, but a house look is no bad thing if it is stylish and temporized by location, as this one is. The bar is front lit and whilst it is visible from the reception desk it has private areas for drinkers as well as a large lounge in front. It is adjacent to the restaurant so allows wine service from the bar station and ready access to the cellar. It is also then easy to maintain a drinks service to the terrace all day, including of course a champagne breakfast if required.

The adjacent restaurant is a modern glass cube built into an angle of the building leaving a wide terrace to the infinity pool for diners. As an addition its not problem free, and steps down from the lounge can take an unwary guest into the edge of umbrellas. It is inevitable that there will be areas where old and new don’t quite mesh perfectly, but here as at the other two McGrath hotels the addition is generally managed well by the in-house design team.

Across the group there is a mix of styles in bedrooms with the best being at what I regard as the flagship property, the Cellars Hohenort. Here bedrooms were scheduled to start their refurbishment programme in May 2012, shortly after my visit. However old the schemes may be much of what is there is more than just acceptable. Rooms are large and intelligent design at the outset has given them a longevity not matched by other hotels. However they will need to stretch to match the new rooms coming on stream at hotels such as the Twelve Apostles or POD in Camps Bay both of which are seaside hotels, although without the commanding position of the Plettenberg, both recently refurbished or newly built.

The Plettenberg, South Africa

Bathrooms have baths and showers in most, and again are large, so these are less evidently dated than the bedrooms are. They set a standard that is evidently five star, and one which many European hotels flinch from. Despite the operator identifying the need to upgrade the hotel remains very popular because no-one needs to upgrade its strongest selling point, which is its position. Few other hotels have a view of the sea, whether full of whales or not, like the Plettenberg, and the best of these is probably the previously mentioned McGrath hotel, the Marine in Hermanus.

For many years under Liz McGrath’s leadership these Relais & Chateau branded hotels have provided a benchmark for other hotels in the Republic to measure themselves against. The current world slump has held back the refurbishment programmes that would help to keep them there in the increasingly competitive South African market. Despite this, sun sea and whales which have given Plettenberg its existence, will continue to provide a raison d’etre, and reason for the group to continue the investment it has made over the years

I look forward to returning in the future to see the new rooms, and to update you, kind reader…

Owner developer: Liz McGrath. Design leadership rests with Mrs. McGrath, but as with other strong leaders she has an equally strong team in her interior designers, who are Dawn Dickerson and Carmel Naude of Hotcocoa in Johannesburg. ©Words and Pictures Patrick Goff. From a visit in March 2012.

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa

Chapman’s Peak, South Africa (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Whilst football is often said to be a game of two halves, Chapmans Peak hotel, known popularly locally simply as ‘Chappies’, is a hotel of two halves. On the left is the original pub much changed since it was built in 1903, whilst on the right is the new four star bedroom extension complete with suites, balconied bedrooms and the most amazing views across Hout Bay. When in Cape Town I stay in Hout Bay and it was then I was taken to the Chapmans Peak hotel as the best place to eat in the area.

My companions were being guided to their table on the large and busy outdoor terrace dining area when I spied a bright red spot of colour inside the hotel. “Aha!” I thought, “someone with a sense of style” and wandered off to look (always curious you see).

A single flower on a table in the centre of a space reminded me in a way of the entrance to the Hempel in London where the same flower was used in serried ranks to create impact. Here simplicity won the eye, and sparked further my curiosity. It was a good half hour later that I rejoined my hosts at their table. Ooops!

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa
From there I became involved, gave advice and tracked the development of the hotel over the following couple of years. Chapmans has been in the same family for years, along with a neighbouring wine distribution service. It is a popular bistro/pub with a menu focussed on local, especially seafood, products. In an elevated position it has a spectacular view across Hout Bay, and stands at the bottom of the road that clings to the cliffs as it winds away around the end of Africa towards the Simonstown naval base.

Originally built in 1903, some of the original building remains evident in fireplaces and lounges – fireplaces that are necessary in the South African winter months when rain clouds can hug the coast – apparently Cape Town only has 60 days a year without a sea mist or cloud cover for some of the time. Hout Bay is a corruption of Houtbaaii, meaning ‘bay of wood’ as in the 18th century this is where much shipbuilding took place using local timber.
A new entrance and underground secure car parking were created as a part of the new construction, organised and overseen by the owner. The rock face against which the hotel sits was incorporated into the new entrance lobby with the front a simple glass screen cut into the rock wall. With two levels coming into the lobby from the garage and the street entrance along with the linking to the previously existing building this is a complex space well handled by the architects. Lit with locally manufactured chandeliers it is contemporary but not in conflict with the previous reception lobby.

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa

The transition from modern to antique is accomplished smoothly, in part eased by the different dates of the various parts of the previously existing 10 bedrooms and meeting rooms. The addition of the two suites and 22 new luxurious and spacious new bedrooms, all with balconies, has transformed the pub into an hotel. The owners recognise this and will continue to refurbish the dining areas, which currently seat over a hundred comfortably, on a large covered terrace in the summer or in front of open fires in winter.

Like the Alma in Wandsworth this transition is based on a very healthy income from the food and beverage operation, making the economics of expansion relatively straightforward to calculate. In expanding the bedroom operation, again similar to the Alma, the standard of the whole operation has lifted. The friendliness and welcome, previously a recognised part of the operation, hasn’t changed though and the staff obviously enjoy the new range of facilities and guests but continue to work with personality and enthusiasm. Some have been at the hotel for many years and plainly feel they ‘belong’.

The style of the restaurant and bars is traditional with white linen and china providing a sparkling contrast to timber. For ten months of the year diners will prefer the outside terrace with its views over the bay, but in the winter mornings breakfast is served in front of open fires in the restaurant. In winter months dinner too is a candle lit convivial affair in front of open fires.

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa
The old main entrance to the hotel has become a restaurant and bar entrance with the new reception having an off road pull-in. Parking was always a problem at Chappies, and the new provision is welcome. The old bedrooms have their own charm as does their balcony but the new rooms and suites are a huge step forward for the hotel. The two rooftop suites have deep private balconies with external showers, lounges with their own fireplaces etc.

The new bedrooms all have balconies, with those on the back of the hotel looking out onto the overgrown cliff face. Those at the front have the beach views but also the road, so the guest can balance quietness versus the view. Most rooms have luxury bathrooms with double wash hand basins, walk in showers as well as soaking tubs. The old rooms have a character and charm that comes with age, but all have en suite bath or shower rooms. The new rooms are larger. They have the classic arrangement with the bathroom helping to insulate the room aurally from the corridor. The lobby has the wardrobe in and in this sense the rooms are completely conventional. However they are longer than usual, giving room for the bathrooms to be large, with separate toilet, walk-in shower and bathtubs. In some rooms the tubs are enclose by shutters that can be opened so that it is possible to lounge in a bath whilst watching the sunset over the bay.

Chapman's Peak Hotel. South Africa
Lounge areas are generous and expanded by the practical balconies which also have their own table and chairs from which to enjoy a view that can encompass seals, a pod of porpoises and the boat traffic into the fishing harbour and marina on the other side of the bay.

Hard flooring and airconditioning make the rooms cool and the glazed end wall leaves the views can be enjoyed unobstructed. Furnishing is styllish and teh use of natural timber finishes chimes with the older parts of the hotel as well as the local styles

Whilst a 15 minute drive from central Cape Town, Chapmans Peak Hotel offers a unique blend of history, style and location that offer an informal alternative to the likes of the 12 Apostles or even the lovely Cellars Hohenort.

Words and Pictures © Patrick Goff July 2011

Twelve Apostles, Cape Town (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means its seasons are the reverse of those in the Northern Hemisphere – as upside down as the constellations at night. Thus June, July and August are winter months – and of course the time when many visitors from the Northern Hemisphere arrive. It can be very cold in the Cape – indeed the 2010 World Cup has been described as one of the coldest ever, with snow fall on Table Mountain.

For 12 Apostles the variability of the Cape weather and location on the Atlantic (colder) side of the Cape Peninsula ensures that they are frequently inside a cloud mix of salt spray off the sea and mist off the mountains behind the hotel. The hotel is in a narrow band of fynbos (aromatic herbal scrub) between the 12 Apostle mountain range, after which the hotel is named, and the main coast road around the Cape. Whilst it photographs beautifully from around the bay the hotel is isolated by the main road from the shore line which at this point is high surf and large boulders – indeed the hotel carries relics on its terrace from shipwrecks on the point below the hotel.

The hotel is part of Red Carnation group who also operate the wonderful Bushmans Kloof, and whilst the service and staff are excellent (and probably the reason for those awards) the location here is not a patch on Bushmans, despite being in a reserve. Here Cape wildlife may be caught on hotel CCTV cameras at night but there are no conducted forays into the finebos, the emphasis being on the sybaritic, the quality of the bars and restaurant and an award winning Spa. During the day the proximity of the road means wildlife is rarely seen, so this is an urban hotel in a park setting.

Twelve Apostles, Cape Town

During my visit the hotel was undergoing a refurbishment. I had resisted the temptation of visiting the hotel in previous trips to Cape Town so perhaps I have only myself to blame for such a poor sense of timing which meant they had a temporary kitchen, the bistro was out of action and the builders, whilst well managed and discreet, were still evident. So, rain and builders, not a good combination for any hotel wishing to show off its fine qualities. For 12A, as it is known locally, this was not a problem as staff obviously went out of their way to make sure all guests were as unaware as possible of the changes going on. Only because I am a nosy designer was I able to poke my way into the refurbishment and get a sight of the new rooms as they developed.

The weather? Well this is Cape Town, and there are only supposed to be 60 days a year here when there is no mist or cloud because of the two oceans, Atlantic and Indian, that meet just a few miles away.

So what was the refurbishment like? If the old schemes were voluptuous ‘old English’ style of somewhat decadent luxury,belonging to another age the new are a very contemporary reinterpretation of the seaside hotel, bringing a life and vitality into the buildings the old scheme did not quite achieve.
The layout of the hotel helps with refurbishment as it is a collection of connected but independent blocks, allowing refurbishment to be phased a block at a time so guests are not involved. The new schemes bring primary colour stripes to the carpets in the public areas, with signage mixing images of the sea with a tactile quality, a kind of flotsam and jetsam feel, to the images and graphics.

Twelve Apostles, Cape Town

There is a delightful freshness about the corridor schemes that is carried through in the freshness of the bedrooms, with good use of mirror and a baseline green that pulls in the landscape. The whole has a youthful vitality but still has the luxury finishes to be expected. Sophisticated use of upholstered walls carries through into huge upholstered bedheads. The wall coverings are of fabric so there may be a question mark over their longevity, but they bring a sense of luxury sophistication to the rooms.
Whilst very different to the same designer’s schemes at Bushmans Kloof, there is a sense of humour at work in both that enlivens the design. The feel that this is a tongue in cheek rework of a seaside hotel, the stripe in the carpet so obviously visually referencing deck chair canvas (consciously or unconsciouly)makes me smile with pleasure.

Lighting is well handled and whilst most of the guests are leisure, there is a substantial desk for those who need to work, as well a comprehensively equipped business centre for those who need printers, fax machines etc.

The bar also carries through the sense of fun seen in the corridors, with its focus on Africa rather than seaside. In common with the Restaurant that sits on a floor below, it has ocean views and a terrace for smokers, although smoking is not yet outlawed in internal spaces in South Africa in the way it is now in Europe.

Twelve Apostles, Cape Town

There is a successful mix of comfort and design, with the sense of humour engaging though the banana leaf wallpaper that works here very successfully. Images are of Africa with an exceptional collection of original drawings and prints of big cats. The bar is large and comfortable as is the rest of the room, and it is here that the likeness comes closest to Bushmans Kloof, the handwriting of the designer being the same.

The whole is almost from another era in the way the barman remembers names, the easy informality yet superb service in a room that is clubbish homely and stylish all at the same time. This is the same successful blend of Africa and Europe, or modern and traditional that makes the other hotels operated by the group so successful. The restaurant is stylish and very popular. Design again is modern and comfortable, considerably expanded in warmer months by the use of the large terrace. Despite being full the area worked well and the room had the bustle and smiles, chatter and absorption in the food that characterises most succesful restaurants.

In the absence of the bistro, food service from a temporary kitchen into the restaurant and the bar areas was terrific,and the food quality excellent, approved of by another SA hotel manager with whom we dined.

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Many Cape-tonians know 12A well, using its very popular Spa, but it also has a small cinema which is used for previews and small business presentations. In addition there is a marquee style funtion suite.
Twelve Apostles is one of the pre-eminent Spas in Cape Town, winning many awards. The spa is almost carved out of the living rock under the hotel itself. There is an external pool with ocean views but there are also pools within the spa itself.

Treatment rooms are neatly designed and there are also treatment rooms in the fynbos outside, mimicking the installations at Busmans Kloof. In the summer these could be opened up to the sound of the surf beyond the road. Excavating the living rock must have been an enormous challenge. There are two entrances to the Spa, one from the hotel and the other from adjacent to the Reception entrance, with its own reception desk and lounge area. The route into the Spa from its own front reception is over an underlit glass bridge, a device that is used elsewhere to introduce more light into the grotto of the interior.

This leaves a guest coming through from the hotel slightly undecided as to where to go on arrival although staff are usually on hand to greet new arrivals. Carving out the spaces has obviously resulted in some compromises as space is very limited. The spa is stylish and the treatments are expert, but there are areas of constriction. The relaxation zone is small and the male changing facilities are almost a vestigial afterthought.

12A 063_DxO
The popularity of spa treatments with men (apparently more men then women use them in many countries now) may well have changed the user profile for many spa operators. Here male changing would struggle with more than two guests at a time. Visiting during refurbishment showed how well the hotel is being updated with a fresh stylish contemporary interior. The corridors are hugely improved, whilst the styling of the bar and restaurant is timeless. The new bedrooms will be welcomed as a change from the somewhat old fashioned, stuffy, schemes that they replace.

On a future visit of Cape Town I will have a look at their new bistro. The award winning Chef (his underchef is now chef at the Cape Grace in Cape Town)proudly showed me his new kitchens, not quite ready to be brought into service on my visit but no doubt being worked hard by the time you read this.
With a refurbished Cape Grace, the new One & Only Cape Town, and other new Cape Town hotels under way including a Missoni, competition for the 12A is increasing. Its popularity with local clientele and its views along the coast will give it an edge.

Its biggest asset though is its operator, Red Carnation. With Bushmans Kloof its country cousin now recognised globally as one of the world’s great hotels,and the reopening of the refurbished Oyster Box in Umhlanga the ability to offer the leisure traveller a number and choice of destinations will continue to help this hotel remain full.

©Words and Images Copyright Patrick Goff

Marine, Hermanus (Patrick Goff)

1000 666 Daniel Fountain

Take a rundown neglected old hotel in an underexposed seaside resort, inject a soupçon of good design and watch it flower again. The Liz McGrath collection is achieving fabled status in South Africa by using good design to raise hotels into the first rank of global competition. Their Cellars Hohenort in Constantia Cape Town has been one of the city’s leading hotels for many years, and I kept hearing from South African friends that the Marine was special, both in its location and in the quality of the interiors. So, climbing into a borrowed truck, I set out to see if it Liz McGrath’s design group could have done it again.

Hermanus is a small seaside resort on Walker Bay, off the famous garden route that runs from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. One pleasant surprise from the start was an almost total absence of the electrified barbed wire which usually guarded gated estates. Neat housing developments have almost removed the ‘camps’ that so characterise areas like Hout Bay in Cape Town. Indeed driving into the town was a little like driving into some English seaside towns – a long road lined with housing, garages,churches, supermarkets and schools turning into narrow streets lined with fishmongers, restaurants, and all the typical small souvenir shops that characterise seaside resorts the world over.

The Marine, Hermanus

Bedroom at the Marine, Hermanus

The hotel sits in a prime location on the cliff top overlooking the bay where it was built in the 1920s. It looked very cool, its white exterior reflecting sunlight set against the greyblue stormy sky on the rainy winter day I arrived. The hotel gardens are actually a public space through which meanders the cliff walk, where people strolled with their binoculars, whale spotting and taking the air. An odd note was struck by the sight of a brown mongoose running along the path and the bay was flecked with whitecaps and sprays of flume as whales vented.

Entrance to the hotel was through a classical portico immediately inside which was the popular fish restaurant, the speciality restaurant of the hotel. To the right was the bar and lounge with whale bones on the wall as a reminder that Hermanus and this area have a long history supporting the fishing and whaling fleets going back into the 19th century. Huge windows overlooked the sea, and the building has had some major remodelling to open up the internal ground floor area to the narrow terrace and the views of the bay beyond the gardens.

The protea is the national flower of South Africa and was abundantly present in the public areas, providing a dramatic display at the end of the reception corridor as a visual ‘stop’.

Check in was smilingly efficient and we were taken to our room overlooking the bay. Almost immediately we saw a set of tail flukes flash, and realised that whale watching could comfortably be done from the bedroom window.

Comfort was the key note. The refurbishment of the hotel, which has taken in the ground floor areas first, is being steadily rolled out through the bedrooms. On my visit over half had been finished.

Housekeeping is excellent, and every hotelier knows that good housekeeping can extend the time between refurbishments by keeping an older scheme looking good for longer, and that is the case here. Where the rooms are new, this quality of care is maintaining a crispness to the furnishings which helps the stylish understated schemes impress.

Rooms are good sized and have large en-suite bathrooms with walk-in showers and large soaking tubs. With the rooms at the front looking over the bay it would be easy to say these were the best rooms and indeed a number of suites are on the front of the building. The view from the front looks out into the bay, down onto the water barely 100 metres in front of the hotel, a whale main road.

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Rooms at the inland side of the central corridor spine look onto the pool and give a more resort feel to the hotel – and where there is no pool to see, frequently the view is into gardens with weavers’ nests in the trees.

Many of the rooms around the pool share a large terrace which runs around the building at first floor level and is large enough for generous tables and umbrellas to be used – when the weather suits. Even in the winter, as it was on my visit, the sun is hot and blue skies materialise with impressive speed, making the pool area attractive.

Restaurant dining also spills onto a lower pool terrace and there is a single storey spa building to the rear. On one side of the pool is a function room – a very large boardroom style area for private dining, meetings and functions. These areas all make the pool their focus.

The spa has a separate entrance which allows for a robust local business to grow. Under refurbishment on my visit, it is taking its design cues from other group spa’s and claiming the same spare elegance that drives the aesthetic in the bedrooms that have been refurbished. It is easy to see the growing family likeness with the newer bedrooms at Cellars Hohenort. Treatment rooms are quiet and restrained, lit by diffused sunlight through the blind-shaded windows giving a soft warm light.

The main restaurant which also has a terrace area onto the pool, together with its own pre-dinner drinks bar, is striking in its simple elegance, with clever lighting again echoing that used so successfully elsewhere in the group. The qualities of the menu and service set this apart from most seaside hotel experiences and its quality would embarrass many European hotels that should share this level of sophistication, but frequently fall short. Staff take pride in their skills and have an awareness of them that mixes easily with South African informality to give an impressive level of service.

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With lighting cleverly allowing the candlelight to play its part the evening ambience is in keeping, whilst the alternative speciality restaurant offering is more bistro in style. In the mornings the huge picture windows of the main restaurant change the feel, flooding it with light.

This use of light and balance with candlelight is seen in the bar and its lounge. By day a typical seaside bar area with its terrace overlooking the sea, at night it transofrms into the sophisticated heart of a sophisticated restaurant and hotel operation.

By night the lighting transforms the look of the spaces, the cleverly lit bar appearing almost to take its cues from the famous Blue Bar in the MayFair in London’s fashionable West End, unexpected in a small seaside resort.The saloon owes no part of its comfortable sophistication to elsewhere though, the open fire and strong use of imagery through to the colour of fabrics being a Liz McGrath hallmark design, with the focus very much on creating a comfortable guest environment.

“local knowledge and designers will certainly make it difficult for the chain hotels to compete”

The Liz McGrath Collection is one of the premier hotel groupings in South Africa, and have led the development of the tourism industry at a five star level for many years.

Most of the staff area recruited and trained locally, given the opportunity to rise in the company and become leaders in the South African hospitality world. Using local and in house designers is also making the group a leader in design terms, something that has been recgnised by a steady stream of awards over the years.

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Whilst major brands develop their presence in South Africa, local businesses are showing that they can compete not only at a local level, but win accolades on the global stage too as Liz McGraths Collection has done. This is true also of Red Carnation in Bushmans Kloof (despite its London Head Office the origins of the company are in South Africa)and Wilderness Hotels through their 60+ operations across the south of the continent, including Damaraland in Namibia, all of which work closely with local communities and locations.

With regional tourism growing at 8 – 10 per cent a year (Tanzania in 2008 for example grew by 17+ per cent)the local knowledge and designers will certainly make it difficult for the chain hotels to compete on quality for a share of the market. On quality they will need to look hard at their self proclaimed standards against true five star service such as that epitomised by the Marine Hermanus

Owner developer: Liz McGrath.
Design leadership rests with Mrs. McGrath, but as with other strong leaders she has an equally strong team in her interior designers, who are Dawn Dickerson and Carmel Naude of Hotcocoa in Johannesburg.

Words and Pictures ©Patrick Goff