Durban - Kenneth, our private game drive guide, described the zebras we had just seen as donkeys in pyjamas.
They were just a small taste of the wildlife we saw on the expansive 3 500 hectare Karkloof Safari Spa, Wellness and Wildlife Retreat, 30km from Pietermaritzburg.
This is the first destination on the African continent to boast a seven-star rating from the American-based Seven Stars and Stripes tourism authority, which rates the planet’s special resorts including the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. The owner tends to be more modest though, marketing it as a five-star resort, which is the grading it enjoys from South Africa’s Tourism Grading Council.
After spending a weekend at the resort I can understand why five stars don’t quite capture its offering. It’s not just about fancy lodgings and a luxurious spa; there’s a unique and very personalised culture at Karkloof.
The balance between relaxation and nature is special, with a game reserve at your disposal which plays host to three of the Big Five, over 300 different species of birdlife, and the second-highest waterfall in the province.
Visitors get a private vehicle with a qualified game ranger and in the lush landscape are likely to see black and white rhino, buffalo, hippos, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests and a multitude of antelope, warthogs and monkeys. The sanctuary is free from large predators, meaning visitors can jump off the vehicles for a walk or photo.
A drive to the private falls with a picnic lunch is highly recommended. It offers a safe wooden boardwalk commissioned by Karkloof for its guests, for most of the 1km trek, with the falls quite spectacular to see. Bass fishing in one of the many dams is also on offer. Not to mention cycling, hiking or yoga sessions.
The focus of Karkloof is you, and the approach is quite different to any other five-star place I’ve visited. There are no limits or time restraints on anything, from the time you park your car till you drive out of the gates.
Kenneth was on standby at all times for a game drive, your appetite can work around your stomach and not restaurant hours, spa treatments are unlimited, and just about everything, including the finest whiskies and cognacs, is free to guests (French Champagne is for your account though).
In terms of the personal touch the staff memorise your name, and almost challenge you to unhinge them with a request. I had a newspaper specially brought in from the nearest town daily, our villa was set up to fine-dining standards for an in-room dinner on one of the nights, and a golf cart was always a stone’s-throw away for a shuttle to the spa.
But the kicker is the check-in and out times. You can arrive before breakfast and leave on your last day after dinner, without saying a word or raising an eyebrow. This means you can effectively plan an extra day of pampering and meals at no additional cost; Karkloof will only release your room to the next guest the day after you’ve left.
You get that “visiting family” feeling here – nobody is rushing you to leave, or ever rushing you for that matter.
The spa, which is the highlight of the property, is mindblowing. Unlike big hotels, where the spas tend to have a clinical and industrial feel, the Nyala grazing between treatment rooms set the earthy tone of the facility. And it has the silverware to prove it, having being recognised as the best luxury destination spa in Africa by The World Spa Awards in 2012.
Plan it properly and you can squeeze up to 11 hours of spa treatments and hydrotherapy into a day, but with the relaxed check-out arrangement, I think you’ll have more than enough time to spoil yourself.
Karkloof employs only internationally trained Thai therapists flown in specially to work at the spa. The owner, Fred Wörner, feels they’re the best for the job, and after two days in the spa I find it hard to disagree. The Thai therapists also have a very warm and inviting nature, which adds a different flavour to the experience.
There are pages of treatments to choose from – which can be roughly grouped as: facials; scrubs and polishes; body wraps; hair, hand and foot treatments; special treatments; and massages. On arrival at the spa you get a questionnaire which highlights your preferences, and you discuss what you’d like with the spa manager.
I reckon around six treatments a day are more than sufficient, which then get time-mapped for you and assigned to your therapist. Some of my favourites included: the dark, salt-pool floatation room; the Asian hand and foot ritual; the Lanna hot oil hair and scalp treatment; the Rassoul chamber with its mud, steam and rain forest-like rain; the Thai melon and honey facial; and the detox herbal bath.
These were like starters to the more intense scrubs and massages. I sampled the Maldivian black pepper scrub, and the green tea, ginger and lemongrass wrap. The highlights on the menu are the 90-minute massages, of which I tried the Aroma Thai, Thai Poultice, and a third one designed specifically for stress. And there are the hot and cold pools, and the various saunas and steam rooms.
I reckon you’d be hard-pressed to find a spa offering more indulgence, it’s certainly a one-of-a-kind facility on the continent.
As you’d expect, the main lodge and the villas are world-class.
The restaurant, bar and balconies are fit for royalty (did I mention that Prince Albert and Princess Charlene were guests a few weeks earlier?), offering mains like lightly smoked fillet of Drakensberg trout, and desserts like chilled vanilla bean and coconut rice pudding.
All food is organic, with even a gourmet raw food menu on offer.
Villas are set on stilts in the bush and offer every modern convenience you’d expect.
Amenities like aircon and underfloor heating, minibars stocked to your requirement, a Nespresso corner, unlimited snacks and beverages, laundry, wi-fi, and even your own butler, are all the order of the day. Spend a few days and you can request a customised detox and wellness programme too.
Obviously all this doesn’t come cheap. But before you gawk at the R20 000 bill per couple per night, factor in the cost of all those treatments, the lavish food and beverages, the various excursions, and the fact that you can get a full two days out of a single night – and I think there’s value here.
There are day packages, which are more affordable – but this is a once-in-a-lifetime treat that I think you would want to do properly. - Sunday Tribune