Cape Town and the Garden Route

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 10th May 2006.

First hop on a night flight to Cape Town. Supper on the plane, a film, a night’s sleep – or as much as you can manage – breakfast before landing when breakfast is supposed to be (there’s only a two hour time difference) and we reach our city hotel in time for a long morning by the pool.

If ever a city was chilled, it’s Cape Town, wrapped tightly round enthralling Table Mountain. Along with cool restaurants and bars, it’s made a speciality of appealing guesthouses and boutique hotels, and eighteen month-old Alta Bay is a model of the breed. Set high on the slopes of the slab-topped mountain in leafy, upmarket Higgovale, it combines the qualities of a seriously glamourous hotel (six luxurious, beautifully designed bedrooms and bathrooms; lunch and dinner menus; complementary bar; spa treatments; free internet access; waiter service) with the small-scale intimacy of a superbly run private guesthouse. The elegant modern property descends the hill in flights of steps and leafy walkways, from which are glimpsed little patios and cool grey walls, a courtyard with fountain, a hammock strung across a shady deck, a wide balcony with show-stopping views of the city and its shining, ship-spattered bay spread far below. Finally comes an airy sitting room with a row of shuttered doors opening on to a terrace and a little pool surrounded by greenery.

Time to explore. Portuguese/Polish Ariel Glownia, sometime London investment banker turned Cape Town convert, is the creator of Alta Bay and the reason why his guests need no guidebook and no plans. While his broadly smiling staff serve us with sushi and chilled white wine (the food, except the excellent breakfast, is provided by an outside caterer) Ariel describes the options for a perfect stay on the Cape, discusses our preferences and disappears to make the arrangements.

A few days later we have to be peeled away from Alta Bay. We’ve done our fair share of absolutely nothing on towelling covered sun loungers, and treated ourselves to massages in our rooms picked from the hotel’s spa menu, but we’ve also watched whales from the deck of a pleasure yacht, chartered for a few hours, off Camps Bay and Clifton Beaches; explored the rolling Winelands and their picturesque Cape Dutch towns, tasting wine and lunching by the pool on a wine estate; taken the twisting coast road to Chapman’s Peak; and nipped to the top of Table Mountain at sunset (the cablecar is just minutes by taxi from the hotel).

Not to mention shopping at the V&A Waterfront, browsing in the Sunday market at Green Point, and dining at two fine restaurants, Manolo’s (chic, buzzy, good food) and Cape Grace (amusing ‘playful’ cuisine). All arranged by Ariel and his assistant Veeona, and all great fun. The man has a knack: the little place he suggested for after-dinner drinks produced Leonardo di Caprio propping up the bar.

Being fans of two-centre holidays, we’ve opted to split our week between Cape Town and the Garden Route, the band of forests, rivers and valleys stretching for 140 miles along the south Cape coast. By car it would have been a five-hour drive or more to our resort hotel, but time being short, we fly to George and are then transferred by car to Knysna, ‘the jewel of the Garden Route’.

Knysna attracts retirement couples and families looking for a better quality of life as well as artists, a community of Rastafarians and swarms of tourists in high season. Two thickly wooded sandstone cliffs, one a nature reserve, stand sentinel on either side of a channel that connects the Indian Ocean with a huge protected lagoon, famed for its oysters and the endangered Knysna Seahorse. The town clusters at the lagoon’s edge; above it on a huge, high tract of indigenous forest stretching back along the coast, stands Pezula.

If Alta Bay and Pezula have something in common, it’s the men behind them, both new to hotel keeping, both with a fresh approach and an instinct for hiring the right people. In other respects they are very different: Pezula, the brainchild of Keith Stewart, has 78 suites, a golf course, a spa, a natural arena for sports called the Field of Dreams, stables, river and beach, not to mention the 250 private houses being built amongst the fynbos landscape further along the ridge. Sportsmen Roger Federer, Jonas Bjorkman, Nick Price and Graeme Smith are amongst those who have already bought plots of land with views across the rocky surf-swept coast.

Stewart, a softly spoken, down-to-earth Zimbabwean who made his fortune in America, is intent on removing a million alien plants from his 1,500 acre site, on conserving and introducing wildlife, and on promoting local employment. Perhaps it’s because every new employee, from chef to laundry maid, is invited to dine in the hotel’s restaurant, and to spend the night in a suite, that Pezula, despite a corporate feel in places, has such unexpected heart, and maintains such high standards.

The decoration is ‘contemporary African’, employing stone, teak and ethnic art, all sourced from the continent. The suites, some reached by golf buggy, are huge and beautifully equipped, each with log fire and underfloor heating for cooler days. As for the award-winning spa, it has the longest menu of treatments I’ve ever seen, including 13 different types of massage (it’s advisable to book in advance).

We don’t play golf (the course snakes around the hotel) but we do play tennis and go riding, we do take a helicopter ‘flip’ with pilot Fani Jordan, one of Africa’s best, and we do hike and canoe with the resort’s resident wildlife expert, emerging at wild and beautiful Noetzie Beach, where a gourmet picnic awaits us. The beach (it’s not private, though difficult to reach and so little used by the public) is lined by several copycat houses in the style of castles: two are soon to be a presidential and a honeymoon suite, another the hotel’s new Beach Club.

Back at Pezula, dinner in Zachary’s each night (American chef Geoffrey Murray formerly ran Boom in New York and North Island in the Seychelles) is faultless, with local produce to the fore.

We return on the night flight from Cape Town to London, waking to breakfast when breakfast is supposed to be. At least for us, the remedy worked.

Essentials

Luxury tour operator, Latitude offers a 7 night holiday to Alta Bay in Cape Town and Pezula in Knysna from £1,738 per person.

The price includes 4 nights at Alta Bay in a suite and 3 nights at Pezula in a studio suite on a bed & breakfast basis to include international flights and luxury car hire. World Traveller Plus prices start from £2,273 per person and Club World prices from £3,473 per person.

Hotel only prices at Alta Bay start from £55 per person per night, and at Pezula from £157 per person per night. Prices are based on departures 1st May 2006 - 24th August 2006. For more information or to speak to a Latitude personal travel advisor please call 0870 443 4483 or visit www.latitude-online.co.uk.

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