There’s gold in ‘em hills!

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iol travel nov 7 Mount Grace Country House & Spa - Outside Manor House (low res)

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Outside the manor house

Johannesburg - I don't know if it’s from reading too many Stephen King novels or my own weird experiences that every time I hear the words “country retreat”, my brain automatically does a double take and I picture some isolated hotel on a hillside like the one from The Shining with Jack Nicholson wielding an axe and a crazy look in his eye, smirking “here's Johnny!”

Or maybe it's the fact that once we stayed at a “country retreat” on the Garden Route that mainly comprised a cabin in the woods surrounded by electrical fencing. I should have seen the signs when waking up that night in a cold sweat, shaking the hubby and whispering “the hills have eyes”, only to have him give me a puzzled look before dozing off again, leaving me alone with my thoughts in the dark.

In the countryside no one can hear your screams....

Only this time my screams or rather bursts of relaxed laughter had me in no-kid-and-hubby mode for the entire weekend. My home away from home was the exclusive mountain hideaway Mount Grace Country Hotel in the Magaliesberg. With a breathtaking view and that fresh country air smell greeting me every morning, there was nothing of The Shining variety in sight.

A virgin being schooled in the wonders of this majestic mountain kingdom, I learned that this part of the country could yield much natural beauty just a few kilometres away from the busy concrete jungle of Jozi.

To set the scene for you: perched on a hilly outcrop of the mountain, the Mount Grace is definitely a jewel that sparkles in Gauteng’s crown. Understated, yet with a grandeur of old world charm, the hotel itself is kind of an institution in these parts. With a colourful history, ranging from housing women of a certain repute to a nunnery, it forms part of the Grace Collection trio, including the Cape Grace in Cape Town and Joburg’s The Grace.

iol travel nov 7 Mount Grace Country House & Spa - Lux Room (High Res)

Luxury room

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The hotel and spa is built on a slope among the indigenous landscape, so getting around is kind of tricky, especially if trekking from your room to the reception area or restaurant, which is why they’ve come up with the ingenious idea of carting guests around in golf cart buggies. Luckily my room was just a stone’s throw away from the spa.

The spa offers the best views of the Magaliesberg and its surrounds, and this is where I spent the better half of my first day getting pampered with the signature poultice treatment. Basically it’s a combination of deep tissue massage and exfoliation. The poultice itself is used as type of massage tool which is a muslin sac filled with specially selected herbs said to calm and relax. Apparently the therapeutic benefits include soothing aching muscles, fatigue and sinusitis.

I ended my R&R session with a dip in the flotation pool feeling thoughougly relaxed, unsure of what the next day held.

The Magaliesberg region is a paradise for adventure seekers but my idea of fun isn’t exactly standing in the blazing heat on a sunny afternoon waiting for the fish to bite.

The minute I heard about fly-fishing, my daydreams conjured up Brad Pitt, half naked, standing in a gushing stream in A River Runs Through It. Fly fishing is nothing like that. At 10am the next morning I was shaken from my reverie by learning the ins and outs of how to hold a fishing rod and casting that first line. Despite my reservations, the experience was an enjoyable one, of course at the expense of our instructor from Sundowner Adventures who painstakingly taught six females how to catch fish the Brad Pitt way. We settled into a little routine around a manmade lake filled with fresh water bass that works on a catch and release system. You’d think that with more than enough fish to go around, at least one of us would strike it lucky. It just wasn’t our day with those nasty buggers taunting us, swimming just below the surface waiting for a hook to come bobbing around, lulling us into a false sense of hope and expectation and then... nothing.

Feeling thoughrouly ravenous, we headed back to the hotel and were escorted to the garden area where a feast of epic proportions awaited us. The spread, including calorific treats, would definitely even put Nigella to shame. The gourmet summer picnic is a fairly new introduction at Mount Grace and is sure to be a winner with foodies who prefer their picnic hampers filled with a little more than screw-top wine and sloppy sarmies. From smoked trout bruschetta to double chocolate fudge cakes, it’s a tempting feast for the eyes and your tastebuds. A word of warning though - leave your calorie counter at home for this one.

Talking about food, the Rambling Vine Restaurant is top drawer winning and dinning offering contemporary cuisine. Word has it that patrons come from far reaches of the province to sample the menu. The restaurant was packed to capacity and some were even turned away after failing to make reservations. Able to seat up to fifty diners, the restaurant provides an intimate setting, but I did spot a few hiccups. Maybe it was due to understaffing or some other factor, but I got the distinct feeling that some waiters were in over their heads. Orders were brought in too late while others just got them wrong - an issue that easily spoils any diner’s evening.

On a lighter and delicious note, the food was exquisitely prepared, with attention to detail, providing a visual feast for the senses. The highlight of my meal was the smoked duck breast salad which was just the right combination of tender duck and organic flavours.

Other eateries on the estate are Twist which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and The Spa Cafe for when you’re feeling the need to detox after a hard day’s slogging. Another gourmet treat to look out for is the Fine Produce Farmer’s Market which will be held Saturday, November 10. Expect to sample fresh produce, ranging from just-harvested asparagus to craft beers.

My last night at Mount Grace was a bittersweet affair, sitting on my quiet balcony in the dead of night savouring the nurturing sounds of nature while anticipating rejoining the rat race. Sprawled out in my comfy king-size bed, I dreamt of twinkling lights, mountain dew and hills, oh those damn hills...

* Marchelle Abrahams was a guest of Mount Grace Country Hotel & Spa

If You Go...

Mount Grace exclusive offer: one night’s stay in a garden room and R500 spa voucher R1 499 per person sharing, including breakfast

Tickets to the Mount Grace Fine Produce Farmer’s Market cost R100 per person, R250 for packed picnic option.

The spa also has tailormade packages: contact spa@mountgrace.co.za for more details

Fly fishing at Sundowner Adventures email: sundown@iafrica.com

Central reservations for Mount Grace: 0861 50 50 50 or +27 21 430 5302, email: reservations@africanpridehotels.com - IOL

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