Schoone Oordt, Swellendam: Attentive, relaxed luxury

I am not someone who grew up with luxury hotel holidays. No, we trailed the old caravan over the mountains from Oudtshoorn to Mossel Bay, took hours to level it and then struggled to zip in its heavy tent in the blustering on-shore wind, often with tempers flying as the tent pens resisted the tough terrain. But once the hard work was done, we could spend the rest of the summer vacation running wild between the plots, making new friends and getting as much sand between our toes and sun on our bodies as possible. It was the feeling of freedom.

It was therefore with some apprehension that I arrived at Schoone Oordt Country House in Swellendam for what would become my first overnight experience of a five star establishment. Would I be able to kick off my shoes here and have a really good time?

I don’t know what I was worried about. The warm and attentive hosts, George Irwin and Renee Buffet, go out of their way to show you that your needs and comfort really are their top priority. As I checked in quite late in the day and did not know the restaurants in Swellendam very well, I was grateful that George took the liberty of making a dinner reservation at nearby Sabine’s on my behalf. “And at what time did you think would I be hungry, George?” “Well, at about 7:30, I thought.” “That sounds just perfect.”

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It was only the next morning over the fresh fruit and white wine and vanilla poached peach breakfast in the sunny conservatory, however, that I got an opportunity to witness George’s organisational skills in all its glory. During a time span of about 20 minutes, he convinced an upmarket restaurant in a neighbouring town to bend their no-children policy for a couple travelling with their (exceptionally well behaved) 3-year old daughter, booked a game drive at a nearby game park for the same family, helped them decide which restaurants to try out once they arrive in Cape Town, served me breakfast, helped another table to settle their bill, attended to a plumbing hiccup and organised for someone to wash my trusted, but very dusty Clio while I was enjoying another cup of good plunger coffee. (Apparently a car wash is complimentary for all guests staying at Schoone Oordt.) Management certainly is the essence of the client experience at this country house.

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Not that the manor house is not entirely charming in itself. Diligent but discreet housekeeping keep the beautiful rooms in a pristine state during your stay (my tea cup got washed as if by the garden fairies), there is a very generous collection of Rain products in the bathroom, and oil burners keep the indoors smelling absolutely heavenly. Outdoors is even better with a 5000m2 perfectly kept garden, fruit-bearing lemon and olive trees and a secluded swimming pool. I felt completely comfortable exploring the terraces barefoot – Schoone Oordt is this relaxed.

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Schoone Oordt has just become my new stop-over oasis, perfectly located half-way between Cape Town and the Garden Route towns further along the N2: Mossel Bay, George and Knysna. This place is proof that tip-top attention and luxury need not be stuffy.

Reviewed by: Lizelle Steyn, independent traveller

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The Lofts Boutique Hotel, Knysna: For the love of bread

Winners of the 2010 Welcome Awards.
Voted one of the Sexiest Hotels in South Africa 2010.
AA Accommodation Highly Commended.

This all sounded promising, but the real reason I could not wait to arrive at The Lofts Boutique Hotel was the voucher included in the rate: Breakfast at the adjacent Ile de Pain, island café of 7th generation baker Markus Färbinger and his wife Liezie Mulder. Soon after immigrating to South Africa with his Pretoria sweetheart, Markus decided to build this country’s first artisan, wood-fired bread oven. Today, people regularly drive from as far as George and Plettenberg Bay to collect their daily bread at The Boatshed in Knysna. (My folks certainly do this when they stay at their week-end place in George.)

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Mireille Guiliano writes in a chapter on the French’s love for bread and chocolate, ‘The French say On ne badine pas avec l’amour (You don’t fool around with love). To us, the same goes for bread, an old flame we will never part with… Today (in France) tradition is safely entrusted to a new generation of devoted artisan bakers. They take pride not only in getting it right, but in making it better, recognizing that the reputation of the nation is at stake.’ Austrian-born Markus might just as well have been French.

It’s not only the smell of bread and croissants being baked throughout the afternoon and the night, that keeps guests returning to The Lofts (the guest book shows stays as long as 16 days). From the moment you check in and get not only a key to your room, but also to the front door and gate of the hotel, you feel that this is now your home. The entire sunset-on-the-lagoon facing lounge is an honesty zone (jot down what you use and settle the bill on departure). After 8pm reception leaves and guests have the hotel to themselves. So, slice some fresh lemon, make yourself a cocktail, and just watch the moon on the water, grab a magazine or log onto the internet and catch up with friends and loved ones far away. Or put on your walking shoes and step out to one of the wonderful restaurants on Knysna’s Thesen Island like Jamie Blue or Sirocco.

The rooms are spacious and crisp and several of them have a magnificent amount of natural light flooding in. Unfortunately, my room was one of the few that share a wall with Ile de Pain, which made it very difficult for me to sleep. Never knew that bakeries make so much noise! And Ile de Pain starts baking at 2am (now I understand why Markus and Liezie close their doors at 3pm in the afternoon – they’ve put in much more than a full day’s work by then.) So, make sure to book a room that lies on the lagoon side, not the bakery side of the hotel.

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I can recommend The Lofts to couples or solo travellers who want to feel  as if they own a loft apartment on Knysna’s historic Thesen Island, wander in and out of boutiques, linger at the Le Spa Tranquil or lounge around the lovely lagoon-facing swimming pool of the hotel.

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This is also a surprisingly affordable place to stay. And the smell of freshly baked bread is free.

Reviewed by: Lizelle Steyn, independent traveller

Buffelsdrift: All about the animals

Legend goes that Lion has not always been the king of the jungle. The Batswana remember a time when Ostrich ruled the animal kingdom. Until one night when Lion sneaked up to the sleeping sovereign and opened its beak, to discover that it has no teeth. (Lion did not know that Ostrich hid his teeth in his stomach.) So Lion overpowered Ostrich and became the new king.

The people of Oudtshoorn, however, have never forgotten the glory days of the ostrich and the wealth that its feathers brought the town around the turn of the previous century. They still proudly refer to their little Karoo town as the ostrich capital of the world, and restore and maintain the elegant sandstone feather palaces in and around town. For visitors wondering whether the ostrich is actually a bird or a reptile, there are a few ostrich show farms with very interesting tours. I recommend Safari where anyone weighing less than 80kg is allowed to ride an ostrich. (Do yourself a favour and have a look at the inspired result of Cape Town designer Tsai’s ostrich ride…)

During my Oudtshoorn visit I stayed in a free-standing luxury tent at the Buffelsdrift Game Lodge, regular winner of the PMR Golden Award as best Game Lodge in the Karoo. Coming from the city, what a pleasure to find no door, lock or burglar bars on my lodgings. Only views onto the curvy Karoo koppies stretching out around you, hippos plunging into the pan and a variety of birds swooping over the water. My highlight was unzipping the tent’s bathroom to step into the private outside shower – gazing up to beautiful blue skies specked with playful swallows.
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Although Oudtshoorn is a hot and arid place, Buffelsdrift is located in the Cango Valley, the town’s green belt. In this valley, the gathering of water among the mountains has created a lush desert oasis, all along the riverside up to the world famous, never fully knowable Cango Caves. A must-see. Also on the same road as the Caves and Buffelsdrift, you will find the Cango Wildlife Ranch – a sanctuary for mesmerising big cats like tigers and jaguars, crocodiles and many smaller animals.

Buffelsdrift is well-known for its restaurant with authentic South African food in generous portions. The sunsets from the veranda are simply spectacular. However, should you feel like exploring the town’s eateries, I can highly recommend Kalinka and The Colony at the Queens for dinner, and Café Brulé for breakfast or lunch. They all source most of their food locally and try and use what is in season. Chocolate lovers will delight in the creations of the charming, Belgian-trained chocolatier at Rococo, located close to the edge of the town, as you are about to leave for George. Walking distance from her establishment is award-winning Tantinki, where the self-effacing cheese maker can tell you many entertaining stories about how her cheeses got their names.

The most memorable part of my Oudtshoorn visit was the elephant experience at Buffelsdrift. Malaika, Bulelo and Jabari are 8-year old elephant orphans who lost their mother to poachers. They are incredibly intelligent, understand about 30 English words (only by listening to one’s voice) and are learning more. They are also natural cuddlers, trunks constantly looking for a human body to hug. According to their trainer, they are not aware yet that they are not also human, having been in human care since being bottle-fed.
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Buffelsdrift really lives up to their promise to deliver a unique bushveld experience in the heart of the Klein Karoo. I can recommend it to anyone wanting to kick off their shoes, re-connect with nature and experience something of our wild, African continent without leaving the Western Cape.

Review by: Lizelle Steyn, independent traveller

Old Mac Daddy: fresh and fun

I was still walking towards my car after check-out when the next-door guests sneaked over to my trailer to find out what the designer did with its unique theme. I prayed that they would not carry away the Victorian crystal, silver and hand-crocheted cotton napkins before management had a chance to check their inventory. But it is not that kind of trailer park. Die Antwoord would definitely not feel at home here.

Old Mac Daddy silver and crystal

Old Mac Daddy is the ingénue youngest sister of the suave, but playful Grand Daddy hotel on Long Street, Cape Town. The concept is the same: import several Airstream trailers and commission local artists and designers to each create an artwork in which guest will not only sleep, but which will surprise and delight them around every corner. Unlike its two sister hotels in Long Street, the Old Mac Daddy is nestled in the countryside, with a super spacious restaurant and bar area flowing onto a pool deck, and trailers overlooking Elgin’s apple orchards, water-lilied ponds and gigantic weeping willows.

Old Mac Daddy Life before colour

Since first stepping into Life before Colour during an open day, when the nearly completed trailers debuted to Capetonians before moving to their new home in Elgin, I knew that I wanted to stay in that specific Airstream. And so I booked their honeymoon suite by accident. To the credit of the Old Mac Daddy reception, they only asked once whether I was alone and appeared baffled at my answer for less than one second before carrying my luggage to this romantic boudoir in black, white, silver and light gold.

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Life before Colour is larger than the other trailers with themes like The Dirkie Sanchez suite, The Private Life of Plants and For Better or for Boerewors. But it does not have the lounge and bathroom glass-and-brick annex of the other trailers. Instead it hosts a large Victorian bath in the sleeping quarters (but a private W.C.)The attention to detail is something to explore for yourself and I will not spoil your fun.

I used the Saturday morning to taste wine at the two largest estates in the area, Oak Valley and Paul Cluver, before sampling the organic salads at Fresh, with most ingredients straight from the thriving fruit and vegetable garden surrounding this slow food restaurant. The nursery of Oak Valley, who is also the supplier of cut flowers to Woolworths, can be toured by prior arrangement.

A friend joined me during the run of the Saturday afternoon for a cabaret at the nearby Paul Cluver forest theatre. This is an experience in itself and I highly recommend planning your stay at the trailer park to coincide with one of the amphitheatre’s concerts. Just take care to drive back slowly, as you are bound to encounter a few frogs crossing the road on those perfect summer nights.

Old Mac Daddy pool area

Colleagues who had stayed at the Old Mac Daddy before warned me that there is not that much to do, but that they found it a great place to relax. I was not bored for one second. The Lebanon Mountain Bike trail runs right next to the trailer park and I explored parts of the route on foot. (There are mountain bikes to rent from the Old Mac Daddy or you can bring your own.) The colourful bee hives against a back-drop of tranquil farm dams below are picture perfect. And good news for the eco conscious: through the planting of 3,500 indigenous plants Old Mac Daddy is luring honey bees and birds back to the previously eroding pine slopes. There are plenty of places to swim, from the lodge’s own child-friendly pool to the large clay dam just down the road (reception will give you directions). The library is extensive, internet access free and the bar will serve you champagne late into the night.

The playfulness of this place really rejuvenates. I can especially recommend it to families with small children or someone who enjoys the quirky and unexpected.

Review by: Lizelle Steyn, independent traveller