Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review

Birkenhead House

South Africa

A Mediterranean-Cape-Ocean vibe with a hint of Tuscany and an indigenous charm

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Birkenhead House
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Birkenhead House


Hermanus, Walker Bay Nature Reserve, South Atlantic Coast

Travel Information

1.5 hour drive from Cape Town International Airport

Top Tips

Wander through award winning wineries in the picturesque Hemel-en-Aarde area

5-Star X-Factors

Whale-watching from the fabulous infinity pool

Birkenhead House, Hermanus

We arrived at Birkenhead House a little before lunch to a sky turning Atlantic-navy with wispy cirrus streaking the endless ocean's horizon. No sooner had we turned-off our David Gray soundtrack than our car's doors were courteously opened,  setting the scene for outstanding service at the most stylish petit-luxe coastal hotel in Southern Africa.

Hermanus capitalises, understandably, on its amazing magnetic attraction with the whales, especially the playful Southern Right. You WILL see several of these glorious mammals between June and December when they parade, almost within touching distance from the shore, while for the rest of the year they feed peacefully in the Antarctic. Having one of the greatest gifts of all - unadulterated nature - on its doorstep, Hermanus is privileged. What is more, it's only 90 minutes from Cape Town.

So, already advantaged with nature's gems, and in a setting quite divine, Birkenhead House could have rested on these laurels alone. Instead, they have pulled out all the stops on luxury, creating the cushion-cut jewel in Africa's Atlantic crown. The 'wow' factors here are impressive: a Provençal- Mediterranean-Cape-Ocean vibe with a hint of Tuscany, ubiquitously stamped by the wand of Liz Biden, originator and owner of the Royal Portfolio. The 'family' of staff behind this multi-talented couture-escape-visionary have been cherry-picked with outstanding service results.


There is an unfettered charm at Birkenhead, spearheaded by the groovy linen-clad-cool manager, Shane. The casual atmosphere oozes from a sensuous blend of details together with the knock-out fixtures and fittings; bold African portraits, enormous plump white sofas, half-filled decanters languishing on side-tables, antique French-dressers, chandeliers, planters of olives trees, sculptures, the soothing balm from the ocean's breeze and a glass frontage exposing the achingly beautiful panorama of sea-meets-sky. In mid-summer the terrace and infinite pool are apparently surrounded by candles and loved up couples. This was my sister's third visit and I brought the hair-wrecking south-westerly.

After our welcome flutes of pink bubbles we chose a table in the glamorous central courtyard for lunch. The wind dictated to an extent, but the courtyard's tiered turquoise swimming pool beckoned with sparkling summer promise. The chef came out to discuss her 'choices for the day': parma ham with melon, fresh grilled prawns on a bed of rocket, country cheeses and a variety of naughty puddings. However, you could ask for almost anything. At one point over lunch this uncannily dramatic mountain seemed to appear out of nowhere, in striking proximity, while the sky had been tweaked to a startling cobalt blue. It is just so beautiful here.

I had hoped that, with so much natural beauty, I might go easy on the plastic. Not a chance in one of the Royal Portfolio's (Birkenhead House, La Residence and Royal Malewane) boutiques. Every item, sarong, sandal, charm necklace, bracelet, clutch bag, beaded-feathered-and-bejewelled wrap or sofa throw, is wickedly covetable.

Stunning rooms

We stayed in the newly refurbished and recently acquired Birkenhead Villa, next door to Birkenhead House, which has a more contemporary fine-line feel, and for some is perhaps more private. Though, during the school holidays, it is at the Villa that families can enjoy some great Cape escape. I have to say my preference would most likely be the 'House' as I was instantly spellbound. Nonetheless, we had a stunning room, with a phenomenal sea view; our sumptuous white beds were decorated with a display of colourful fresh pansies, the champagne was on ice - we felt special.

Our previous wind-swept days had wreaked havoc with our heads and with little skill in self-styling we called on the mercy of the now, Birkenhead 'family'. Within minutes gorgeous Gordon arrived, blowing up wonders. Looking good we went for a drink at the exclusive Marine Hotel in the centre of Hermanus. It didn't take long before we started pining for a return to Birkenhead as we missed the upbeat tempo of the haute Cape-to-Saint Tropez pulse. However, setting convention aside, and as though on cue, we were soon distracted by the arrival of a pod of whales frolicking and playing with kelp, in clear view from the bar which, I have to say, concocted a mean Bloody Mary.

Where you dine in the evening at Birkenhead depends on the weather so, with the wind frustratingly blustery, we dined inside on fresh catch-of-the-day, yellowtail, together with a superb choice of Viognier. Breakfast in our room was absolutely sensational; homemade crunchy muesli, fresh berries and mango, pressed orange nectar, perfect cappuccinos and free-range poached eggs on muffins. Sitting in satin-coated thick white gowns, our appetite for the next stop in this prize royal collection, La Residence, was well and truly ignited.

One night here is most definitely not enough, besides, there is so much that one can do from here if you don't enjoy being perfectly pampered 24/7: boat trips to Dyer Island, beaching-it, walking, flying, wine tours and if you want - hours in the spa with the wonderful Karien.

Leaving felt heavy on the heart as the entire 'family' waved a fond farewell, having packed our bags plus purchases into the shrinking boot while placing two bags of road-nosh onto the back seat. We drove up into the mountains behind, to the home and estate of Hamilton Russell Vineyards, in a setting of such charm that it's worth visiting, even if you don't imbibe.

Some of South Africa's finest wines

Only twenty minutes away, still in Walker Bay, and you're sipping some of South Africa's finest with, if arranged by the 'family' above, the strapping son and heir, Anthony. Without prompting he gave us a brief overview of their history, the terroir and unique style, in the quaint, white and thatched, vintage Cape Dutch lake-side 'tasting' cottage. Between sensational sips and nose-dips I glanced through the windows at the mesmerising expanse of bottle-green water outside, gracefully fringed by aged willows beneath grassy banks and scented cedars. Not a lot more you could add to this postcard, plus there were ducks, geese and nesting weavers. The wines here are some of the finest in Africa, with awards brandishing for their Burgundian-style Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Their olive oil is also incredible - full bodied and peppery.

With a heavier car, we sump-bumped our way to Bouchard Finlayson, where David Finlayson treated us to some superb balloon-glass sips of Pinot Noir (Tête de Cuvée and Galpin Peak, both 2005), Sauvignon, and some staggering Chardonnay. The modesty of this talented winemaker is surprising. Working on the Burgundian principle of high-density plantings, his style is almost unique in the Cape, culminating in a vat-load of awards and, like Hamilton Russell above, they produce some of Africa's most elite.

With the car now a different shape we drove the exquisite drive to our next destination, La Residence: a place where we discovered luxury is redefined.

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant

Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer