By Dave Chambers
Cape Town - There’s a world out there that bears little resemblance to the one you and I occupy for most of our lives. It’s called Planet Five-Star, and it is usually inhabited only by mortals who exist on a higher financial plane.
Thanks to the economic crisis, though, and the way it has shredded the occupancy rates of so many hotels and lodges, more of us are suddenly able to find our way into this lap of luxury.
This is because accommodation establishments are having to become innovative to keep the wolf from their doors – and customers coming through them. One way they are doing this is by promoting special offers, directly or through group-selling websites.
Another way is by offering journalists “freebies”, in the hope that the consequent publicity will help to keep their tills jingling.
It was through a combination of these methods that my wife and I recently spent four successive weekends in four five-star establishments in the Western Cape, and this is what we found…
Weekend 1: Views Boutique Hotel and Spa, Wilderness
We were given one of the five honeymoon suites at Views, with (as the name suggests) views of the Indian Ocean. This is because Views is perched on the cliff edge at the top of the hill you climb as you drive out of Wilderness towards Knysna.
There is a long flight of steps to the beach, but we found it more relaxing to drive down into the village and walk along the sand from there.
Our room was stunning – bathed in light, with a sun-trap balcony, and carefully chosen decor which perfectly complemented the blue, blue outlook.
As we enjoyed a massage on side-by-side tables at the in-house spa, the rain lashed down outside the window, which only accentuated the sense of being pampered.
Breakfast was excellent, but during our stay Views was let down by the quality of the rest of the food in its restaurant, Sails.
Dinner on our first night was mediocre, and after being served what she regarded as inedible eggs the following lunchtime, my wife insisted that meals for the rest of our stay were taken in one of Wilderness’s several friendly family restaurants.
Weekend 2: Bartholomeus Klip Farmhouse, Wellington
Our teenage sons were invited to join us for this weekend, and we were given rooms across the corridor from each other in this Victorian farmstead that has made its name as a gourmet destination.
Bartholomeus Klip’s corner of Planet Five-Star is only 70 minutes’ drive from Cape Town, and what you should definitely not do is eat during the short drive – because you are going to be fed fairly non-stop after arriving. It starts with afternoon tea, taken in the parlour, and continues with pre-dinner snacks and the most gorgeous meal in the conservatory.
You can enjoy the food even if you’re not a guest (booking essential), and it’s common for Capetonians to make the trek just for dinner, a good indication of the restaurant’s quality. This is a working farm, and the farmstead is staffed by the wives and female family members of farm workers. The manager is a woman, as is the chef. Maybe that’s why guests feel so well looked-after.
Bartholomeus Klip has a game reserve, and we joined a Saturday afternoon game drive. Unfortunately the rain lashed down, so the chief entertainment involved watching each other grapple with the voluminous ponchos supplied to keep us warm and dry on the Land Rover.
Weekend 3: La Clé des Montagnes, Franschhoek
Another weekend with the kids, and why not, since we had a brand-new, four-bedroomed villa all to ourselves? And what a villa.
Ours (The Colonial) was one of the four houses available to rent at La Clé des Montagnes. Planning regulations dictated that it had to be constructed using the footprint of the pig shed that preceded it, but the outcome is just about as far from a farm building as you could imagine.
La Clé has been developed by a European businessman who, we were told, made his fortune recycling stainless steel. Perhaps he’s recycling it into gold or platinum, because the extent of the no-expense-spared approach to this property in the centre of Franschhoek has to be seen to be believed.
One example: I liked the kitchen towel holder, so I priced it on my return to Planet No-Star. It was R600.
Each house has its own swimming pool and the services of a butler, but that’s just the start of the pampering. And we were particularly impressed by the panache of the interior design, executed by Cape Town interior designer Sarah Ord.
You can stroll into the centre of Franschhoek from La Clé, but if the proximity of some of the country’s finest restaurants doesn’t tickle your palate, a gourmet chef can be brought into the kitchen of your villa to whip up a few morsels.
This was the most expensive of our destinations. If you want to fill the villa we stayed in for one night in high season, it will cost you R23 200 (before you start negotiating).
Divide that by four couples, though, and you might think Planet Five-Star has moved into your orbit.
Weekend 4: Mount Nelson, Cape Town
Before the other weekends came our way, I’d seen a winter special advertised at the Nellie and booked it to celebrate my wife’s birthday.
The kids stayed at home.
This was the deal: a room, a cocktail at the Planet bar, a six-course tasting menu in the Planet restaurant and breakfast, all for R3 000 for the two of us.
The hotel was virtually deserted, and we were privy to rumours of hitherto unheard-of occupancy rates during the winter. But all the more space for us to enjoy.
I think we may have been upgraded, since our room was in the centre of the first floor overlooking the garden, and seemed to be the only one with a huge bay window.
Here, it was the shaving mirror I liked, and I priced it on the internet (it was from Paris) later and found that it was several thousand rands’ worth. You get the picture.
The Journey (tasting) menu was a true voyage of epicurean discovery. And if it was good enough for Prue Leith (seated nearby), legendary British foodie and full-time resident of Planet Five-Star, it was definitely good enough for us.
They had the builders in while we were there, which presumably shows they’re confident of a recovery. In the meantime, I suggest you get your haggling shoes on and see what you can negotiate at these destinations and others like them.