Alan Paton said:
“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist; you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa”
“There is a lovely road than runs from Somerset West along the coast. The mountains are craggy and majestic, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road winds for 55 miles between their slopes and the cobalt blue sea, to De Kelders; and from there, if there is no mist, you look out across one of the fairest coastlines of Africa.”
The road in question is the gorgeous R44 and I found myself on it recently as we were trying to escape the tangled, grumbling knot of traffic on the N2 on our way to Grootbos, a luxury private nature reserve nestled in the fynbos on the gentle slopes above above De Kelders. Owner Michael Lutzeyer was born in South Africa to German parent, spent 13 years living in Germany after leaving school but found himself drawn back to the open spaces and sunshine of South Africa. In 1991 he bought Grootbos, a farm near Gansbaai – a few dilapidated farmhouses on an agriculturally worthless piece of land surrounded by green fynbos bushes and old milkwood trees. In 1995 when visiting friends and family started outgrowing the house, he started building five guest cottages under the nearby milkwoods to provide additional accommodation. It took Michael a while to realise that the most unique and valuable asset he had bought was a little piece of the world-famous fynbos biome, one of the most diverse biomes on the planet. Michael and his family set about eradicating the alien vegetation on the land and building a massive natural fynbos garden, while preserving the ancient milkwoods and their unique ecosystem. In 2003, a second lodge (Forest Lodge) and 11 freestanding suites were built on a north-facing slope in the reserve, opposite the original Garden Lodge, but the new lodge together with three suites were destroyed in a devastating veld fire in 2006. But just 8 months later in October 2006, Forest Lodge had been rebuilt and reopened, now with 16 suites to add to the 11 suites at the Garden Lodge.
And it was in the Forest Lodge that we stayed on our recent visit to Grootbos. Stepping out of the car at Grootbos, you can almost feel the weight of your everyday life slipping from your shoulders. The building itself is soothing on the eyes, made from (or at least clad in) a variety of natural materials and facing the sea with its single pitch roof pulled down low over the windows, like a cap. Guests warmly greeted at Reception before being settled into the lounge/bar area with a welcome drink (mine was a delightful long cocktail packed with citrus flavours) to contemplate the view and take a breather after the drive to get there. Once we had filled in the check-in forms, we were escorted to our suite. The free-standing suites (which look like mini versions of the main lodge) stretch away from the main lodge in a lazy zig zag and sit roughly with their front in the fynbos and their back in the milkwood forest, meaning that you meander along a charming, secluded “lovers’ lane” under the ancient trees to reach your private suite. And once the front door swings open, you start to realise that you might actually have arrived in paradise and will never want to leave.
Each suite has its a spacious, high-ceilinged lounge with a small coffee station & fridge by the front door. Off the lounge is a guest bathroom which also contains a shower (useful if you have 2 kids sleeping on the sofabed in the lounge). There is also a wood-burning stove which wasn’t of much use during our hot visit, but would be invaluable in the winter. Glass sliding doors lead from the lounge onto the private deck which is surprisingly secluded and not really overlooked even by the nearest neighbouring suite. It’s a fantastic place to enjoy the abundant birdlife , to relax on the sun-loungers, or to enjoy an outdoor shower. Both the deck and the lounge also provide access to the bedroom – surely one of the loveliest I have stayed in, with its four-poster bed draped in mosquito netting, its satin-soft linen, and its unobstructed views of the reserve and the coastline. But my favourite room of all was the bathroom which was the size of my lounge with a double height ceiling, and filled with lovely things like a huge double shower, two basins, fluffy towels and robes, luxury Charlotte Rhys toiletries, and a bath surrounded by the view on three sides – the most utterly perfect place to relax with a glass of bubbly and watch the sun sink into the ocean.
On our first night at Grootbos, we managed to do very little other than sit on the deck sipping gin & tonic and watching the sun setting. And although there are plenty of activities on offer at Grootbos, I can assure you that this is a perfectly valid way to while away a few hours. You may want to bring a camera…
The next morning, we were up surprisingly bright and early – well, you’d also be if you had the kind of view we had from our bed! After breakfast, we had signed up to take part in some of the activities offered at Grootbos. You can choose from free ativities that are included in the price of your room (horse riding, fynbos flower safaris, land-based whale watching, beach picnics/sundowners, birding excursions, visiting prehistoric beach cave dwellings, and guided milkwood forest walks) or you can choose to pay for some premium activities (boat-based whale watching, shark cage diving, scenic flights, wine tours of the nearby Walker Bay region, or treatments in the gorgeous Forest Spa in the milkwood forest). We opted for the fynbos safari and in the morning, followed by a visit to the nearby Klipgat beach caves in the afternoon. After breakfast, we joined our guide Calla and a few other guests on a 4×4 to explore the vast area of the reserve and to learn more about fynbos. Grootbos falls within the UNESCO-recognised Cape Floristic Region, one of the richest areas for plant diversity in the world. It represents less than 0.5% of the area of Africa but is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora. The majority of this diversity is made up of fynbos – evergreen shrubs that can grow in relatively poor, sandy soil. Within the Region’s area of just 90 000 square km there are some 9250 species of flowering fynbos plants, about 70% of which are found nowhere else in the world. Calla would frequently stop, pick some flowers or leaves and give an impromptu (often humorous) talk on whatever plant this happened to be, from the grass-like restios, to the honey-scented cauliflower bush, to the extravagantly orange wild dagga, to the spectacular candelabra flowers and king proteas. After bumping along increasingly steep uphill tracks, we eventually stopped on a ridge overlooking the entire area and enjoyed some drinks and snacks served on the bonnet of the 4×4 while drinking in the spectacular view.
After a light lunch back at the lodge, we had a couple of hours until our next activity – so what better way to spend it than down by the pool? The sparkling blue pool is perched on the edge of the main lodge and when you are lying in a deckchair beside it, the water of the pool and the Indian Ocean seem to melt effortlessly into one. It’s hard to tear yourself away, but Calla was waiting and we had a beach cave to explore. The Klipgat caves just outside De Kelders are a series of window-like openings in the limestone rock of the coastline and archaeological research has indicated that humans were living there 70 to 80,000 years ago. Much has been learnt about their lifestyle, diet and society by investigating the detritus that they left behind and that gradually disappeared underfoot. Digging down through the layers of sand is literally like peeling back the years to reveal the past. And of course, after you’ve visited the cave, leave a little time for the beach – whether to swim, walk, or just admire the view.
Although the Lutzeyers have created a world-class luxury lodge in a tranquil and unspoilt environment, their dream was never to create a bubble of luxury isolated from the context of the surrounding area. In 2003, the Grootbos team established the Green Futures College on the reserve, a non-profit organisation to train unskilled and unemployed people from the local communities in fynbos landscaping, horticulture and ecotourism with a view to their establishing their own businesses or obtaining employment in these fields – a first in South Africa. The college generates funds through plant sales at its own indigenous plant nursery, as well as a fynbos landscaping business. Through sales achieved over the year, students generate funds to finance the college next year, making the operation self-sustainable. During the first two years all 23 students who started the course successfully completed and graduated, and most have found employment or started their own enterprises within plant-based industries. Following on the success of the Green Futures programme, Grootbos have now also launched a second programme called Growing the Future which will train 8 women each year in the growing of vegetables and fruit, beekeeping and the principles of successful animal husbandry. The aim is also to teach the women the principles behind successful business, so business principles form a large part of the life skills component of the course(which also includes computer literacy, health education, numeracy and English). Students are fully subsidised while on the course – they receive transport, tools, uniforms and all their study materials, as well as a weekly stipend to cover their living costs. Although partly subsidised by the Grootbos Foundation, the project is also part-funded by the sale of produce from a shop on the reserve, adding a further practical dimension to the students’ education. As a guest at Grootbos, you can visit both the Green Futures and Growing the Futures projects or buy plants and produce from them. Sadly, there is only so much you can do in two days, so we ran out of time to visit these… and besides, our deck was calling! For our last sunset on our deck, we pulled out something a little special – a bottle of the spectacular 2008 vintage Graham Beck Brut Blanc de Blancs that we’d been saving – and let me assure you, it is drinking absolutely beautifully now, like a biscuitty French Champagne but with a shade more aromatic fruitiness. I can think of nothing better to drink while watching a spectacular African sunset to the sound of birdsong and the scent of the fynbos.
I loved the fact that, even though you are provided with all the accoutrements of luxury living, everything about the resort encourages you to look beyond them and experience the beauty of your surroundings – from the massive windows to let in the view, to the meandering walk through the milkwood forest to get to your suite, to the fantastic outdoor shower practically in the fynbos. In addition to a spectacular location, glorious surroundings and covetable luxury suites, the service levels at Grootbos are also outstanding. All the staff members were friendly, engaging and enthusiastic about the reserve, and nothing was too much trouble. Our towels were replaced and our robes re-hung every time we left the suite (or so it seemed!). When we came back from dinner, the fire in out woodstove had been lit, the bed turned down, and a little bottle of water had appeared on each bed side table. Little things maybe, but things that count. I was well and truly smitten. Of course, living like a king does not come cheap. Rates start at about R1,600 per person per night in low season, rising to over R2,900 per person per night in high season – but remember that these prices include a welcome drink upon arrival, luxury accommodation, breakfast (continental and hot), a light lunch, a five course dinner menu every night, and the activities I specified previously as being free. Drinks, spa treatments and premium activities cost extra. But the good news is that Grootbos often run specials (like their Month of Love promotion in February) or last-minute deals where you can get 50% off their room rates if you call 48 hours or less before arrival to reserve your room. And stay tuned for next time, when I will be telling you all about the food at Grootbos!
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed my stay as a guest of Grootbos but received no other remuneration to write this post and all opinions are my own.