Johannesburg - When you mix the stress of living in Joburg with the hardened cynicism of the journalist, you get a crusty shell which is going to take some breaking down. So, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting miracles when my wife and I headed to the Mount Grace Country House and Spa. The place has a reputation as one of the best to go to if you’re under stress or for a special couple’s getaway.
Now the city stress part is obvious: potholes, elections, load shedding. Who wouldn’t want to escape from that? But can you truly leave it behind?
It is also a reality that, as a couple, you need to get away regularly – from the family, from the house, from the grinding minutiae of day-to-day living – to reconnect with each other. But could a supposed getaway less than an hour from northern Joburg fulfil that mission?
The drive out to Magaliesberg (Mount Grace is just outside the little village) was not promising. South African drivers are not renowned for their courtesy or intelligence and my wife tried (unsuccessfully) to stop me swearing as a man in a double-cab bakkie overtook on a hill across a solid white line. The entrance to Mount Grace – on a sharp, fast corner – is also an exercise in hold-your-breath-and-hope…
My stress levels did decline slightly after arrival, when the efficient friendly staff checked us in and we were whisked up to our villa on a golf cart. The villas are the top level of accommodation and include a luxurious bathroom with bath and shower, as well as a lounge and deck with a warm jacuzzi. However, the other rooms on the property also offer luxurious appointments, including satellite TV (with a limited range of channels) and free wi-fi, as well as tea and coffee facilities.
As the sun sank on the Magaliesburg, we enjoyed a glass of white wine and the stress levels sank lower. That was after a wander through the beautiful gardens, which have a peaceful air.
Dinner that evening was in the Rambling Vine, Mount Grace’s award-winning fine dining restaurant. It didn’t take long to see why the place had won accolades.
Sitting in plush chairs reminiscent of an elegant drawing room, with crisp white linen and quality cutlery and glasses, you are enveloped by an air of quiet excellence. This shows in the attentive, but at the same time unobtrusive, service. But the star of Rambling Vine’s show is the food.
Each course was presented in an attractive way – and the dishes on the menu were intriguing. A highlight for me was a warm beetroot soup accompanied by raspberry sorbet and savoury chocolate cake. It sounded strange, but was a perfect combination of textures and flavours. My wife loved her starter and vegetarian main course and she managed to squeeze in a creme brulee accompanied by stewed fruit ice cream which, given her expression, was fashioned somewhere in heaven…
Around us the conversation never rose much above a murmur – the other tables were occupied by couples and, clearly, re-connecting and enjoying each other’s company was the priority. You can’t do that in a noisy atmosphere.
By that stage, I was almost completely won over to the idea that Mount Grace is the place for couples. That impression was cemented the following morning over an excellent breakfast in Twist, the other restaurant on the property. The buffet offering included all the normal suspects (and excellent hash browns), as well as waffles with cream and any number of choices. Service was excellent, too.
Lunch time saw us at the Spa, indulging in a couple’s massage which, though I am normally way too uptight to be a fan of someone else putting their hands on me, was brilliant. Then we chilled at the spa’s cafe and ordered a light lunch, which was, again, well up to the food standards of the Rambling Vine from the night before. I had little quiche tartlets and my wife’s smoked chicken and brie salad was one of the best we’ve yet had.
Outside, the weather was looking like the next person over the horizon would be called Noah, so we settled in with books and tea and coffee. No point in heading anywhere – switching off was the objective, after all.
By the time we ambled down to supper on the second evening, we were well relaxed and looking forward to another great meal. Which is why we were disappointed by the service in the Twist restaurant.
The night crew were not nearly as good as the day staff. Firstly, the restaurant manager had no idea that the person from Room 215 was a journalist. Now I don’t expect special treatment, but you would have thought everything possible would have been done to convey the best impression of the establishment.
As it was, we were seated in the middle of a group of tables of four or more people – despite the fact there were plenty of empty two-seaters elsewhere in the restaurant. Perhaps this was because we didn’t book – but we were told this was not necessary for Twist. The tables around us were loud (families and locals out for a night out) and that spoiled what could, and should, have been, a romantic ambience.
Then, to cap it all, we had one of the doziest waitresses: it took 25 minutes for our wine to arrive and, even then, she only got the order right on the third try. (Other tables had similarly irritating waits for their drinks.) When asked for the bill, she disappeared from more than ten minutes.
The interesting thing was that the experience really made us angry, because it was in such contrast to the excellent service everywhere else. But once we had checked out, I realised I was chilled, and had de-stressed to the extent that the woes of the city seemed a lot further than 70km away.
After that, the question has to be: Would I recommend the Mount Grace Country House and Spa as a place for a couple’s getaway weekend? Without hesitation. It is beautiful; it is relaxed; the food is good and the service (pay attention management) is generally very good.
But, and this would be the deal clincher for me, they are having an exclusive “Couple’s Retreat” special offer, which runs until December 15 – R1 900 each per person sharing for two nights, including dinner and breakfast. R950 per person per night – that’s a bargain. - Brendan Seery, Saturday Star