Holidaying ‘at home’ in South Africa

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Holidaying ‘at home’ in South Africa

From Hermanus to Cape Town via Franschoek - here's our pick of wonderful places to stay, plus a very special restaurant

Louisa Walters is Features Editor at the Jewish News and specialises in food and travel writing

La Residence, Franschoek
La Residence, Franschoek

I’ve often wondered whether people with holiday homes ever go to hotels as well? Liz and Phil Biden took this one stage further – they turned their holiday homes in South Africa into hotels. Many boutique hotels market themselves as ‘a home away from home’ but these ones actually are. From the cut-glass decanters of whisky and sherry on the sideboard in the lounge from which to help yourself, to the doors of unused rooms being left open so you can wander in, to the dining room only being available to residents, you very much get the sense of being hosted by the Bidens.

The lounge at Birkenhead House

Birkenhead House is their 11-bedroom beach house in Hermanus, a seaside town just over an hour’s drive from Cape Town. Famous as a destination for whale watching, it’s a bijou town with pretty shops and casual restaurants, but arguably its most notable attraction is the spectacular clifftop walk along the coastline. There are just under 50 Jewish residents, but when the holiday-home owners are in town for the chagim the numbers swell to 350. There has been a shul in the town since 1930 but eventually it fell into disrepair and a new building was consecrated in 2008.

After touring Johannesburg and doing safari we were ready to sink onto a sun lounger and do nothing. The supreme levels of comfort, the ‘can’t do enough for you’ staff and the ever-present possibility of seeing a whale meant that our needs were catered for with no chance of getting bored. Liz Biden styles her hotels herself, and minimalism does not factor in her vocabulary. Silk chairs and velvet headboards, gilt mirrors and crystal chandeliers, antique furniture and colourful paintings may not be the obvious choice for a beach house but they absolutely work here. Practicality is not a feature either. Lounge couches are white, staff are dressed head to toe in white, monogrammed bedding is linen, which is of course as cool as you can go, in both meanings of the word. “I don’t work to any rules and I never chase trends; my style is my own,” she says.

Bedroom at Birkenhead House

All meals are included and drinks are available all day, as much as you like. On warmer days, breakfast is served on the terrace looking out to sea. Lunch is by the pool and dinner is in the dining room. This is very special place; indeed leaving was only made bearable by checking in to another Biden home, La Residence in Franschoek.

La Residence Grand Hall

Where Birkenhead House was all fresh, natural beach house vibes, this features rich sumptuousness like a smooth, full-bodied wine. Where Birkenhead has whales, La Residence has peacocks. They strut about the property and regularly show their feathers, adding yet more colour and glamour to this opulent hotel, which CN Traveller once named the best in the world. It is certainly the most lavish and beautiful I have ever stayed at. The cathedral-like Great Hall with its grand fireplaces, gleaming chandeliers and black-and-white tiled floor leads out to the Persian Alley which runs the length of the main building and it is here where you sit for breakfast, a rustic yet extravagant buffet, looking onto the infinity pool and the estate beyond.

Bathroom at La Residence

The bedrooms are large and sumptuous – bathrooms even more so, and ours had a freestanding bath positioned in front of French doors so that I could gaze at the stunning views while cocooned in bubbles. And yet among all this opulence, it was the simple offer of a cup of tea and a just-baked cupcake on returning from a day out that made me fall deeply in love with this place.

Franschoek is not only the heart of the winelands but is also considered the culinary capital of South Africa. La Petite Colombe, sister restaurant to La Colombe in Cape Town and one of seven owned by chef-of-the moment Scot Kirton, is a large, airy Scandi-style restaurant with spectacular views. South Africa is not short of stunning landscapes and but this stands out among them. The beauty of the setting and the magnificence of the views are indescribable. Not only that, but the grounds are home to the most spectacular collection of sculptures imaginable, which we spent time wandering around both before and after lunch. If you go to the restaurant at night you miss all this. But at lunchtime we had it in all its glory, in the full spotlight of bright sunshine, and as the restaurant has floor-to-ceiling glass walls on two sides it provides the backdrop to your dining experience. So should you decide to go to La Petite Colombe, it is my very strong recommendation that you go for lunch.

Canapes at La Petite Colombe

At £45, the seven-course tasting menu is around a quarter of the cost of the equivalent excellence here in the UK. We enjoyed the prettiest canapés ever, including a beef and chipotle tartare was followed by bagels, but not as you know them, with a ‘smoked snoek’ take on salmon pate, duck liver with quince and chestnut on toast, poussin with a tom yum veloute and a hint of tandoori, lamb with celeriac purée and pickled Jerusalem artichoke. Each element was explained in detail, including the provenance of the ingredients and the story behind the dish’s concept. Pear with roiboos (tea) and dulche de lèche was the finale and then a trolley was wheeled over from which we could choose from a range of mousse-topped cones and a Tonka bar, which I took home.

Ellerman House

And so to another home, this one a hotel in Bantry Bay, Cape Town, owned by a Mr Paul Harris, who ostensibly bought it to house his private art collection. Built in 1906, Ellerman House is a colonial-style property with a deep verandah running the length of it, overlooking manicured gardens with a pool and possibly the most spectacular sea views I’ve seen.

Our bright, spacious bedroom, one of just 13, was decorated in muted shades of cream and palest pink was luxurious in a way that I’d love to have my bedroom at home, with deep-pile carpet, incredibly tasteful antique furniture, a pretty terrace, a huge bathroom and the most enormous picture window. There is an art gallery on site, and sculptures in the gardens, but it is the art within the house that is the most impressive, lining the walls of the halls and corridors, the lounges and in the bedrooms. Local art specialists come in to take guests round the collection – my tour took nearly two hours, which gives you a sense of how much there is to see.

Ellerman House is widely reported to be the best hotel in Cape Town. Could that be due to the walk-in ‘pantry’, stocked with treats, snacks and homemade cakes? Or the wine gallery, a work of art itself with temperature-controlled storage for 7,500 bottles, a terroir wall depicting the different types of soil from all over South Africa and the opportunity for wine tastings. Or the gin trolley by the pool with daily cocktail recipe and all the accoutrements to make it? For me it’s because of the sense of being at home.

Back at my real home in London I opened the Tonka bar. Inside was a ‘golden ticket’ offering 20 per cent off at another of Scot Kirton’s restaurants. As if I needed an excuse to go back to South Africa. rooms from R10,800 (approx £450) rooms from R15,800 (approx £665) rooms from R16,000 (approx £675) lunch menu from R1,065 (approx £45)

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