Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review


South Africa

The 'luxury' is as much in the 'eco' as it is in the outstanding attention to authentic-lodge detail

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Walker Bay Nature Reserve, Gansbaai, Hermanus

Travel Information

2 hour drive from Cape Town International Airport

Top Tips

Between June and December head to the coast to witness nature's giants - whale watch from the bay, by boat or by helicopter

5-Star X-Factors

Complete immersion in the beyond-beautiful Cape Floral Kingdom

Grootbos Nature Reserve

The drive to Grootbos from the most spectacular coastal city in the world is awesome. Mountain ranges, lakes, organic farm-stalls, forests, sea-vistas and baboons are merely part of this journey. The overriding sensation is one of unparalleled enormity. This land appears so spectacularly heterogeneous, that you realise this may well be God's own country.

Grootbos, at the epicentre of the Cape's Unique Floral Kingdom, is two hours from Cape Town driving east through the lauded Western Cape. Turning right off the N2 along the winding road that leads to perhaps the most sincere luxury-eco-nature-reserve in Africa, the feeling of 'remote' is blissful. The 'luxury' is as much in the 'eco' as it is in the outstanding attention to authentic-lodge detail, maintaining a skilful harmony and stylish match with nature. However, the outstanding panoramic vista from the wall to ceiling glass that fronts the forest suites is priceless. Cumulus-coated mountains rise alongside the thrusting drama of an epic ocean, across acres of aromatic wild-flower-littered 'fynbos' (the indigenous vegetation). The gentle splashes of purples, white, pinks, oranges and green as well as banks of pale cream dunes in the distance triggers an instinctive desire to invest in serious art material.

Forest lodges

The Forest lodges want for nothing, though shy away from excess. A little Nordic in feel, they are slick and tastefully natural, creating cosseting comfort in suites that are the size of many homes. These are romantic dwellings, designed to maximise the impact of the external beauty while keeping the interiors stylishly contemporary. There was a sneaky cold front while I was there and the sunken wood-burning stove warmed the very soul, as did the bottle of bubbles and nougat alongside a bowl of velvet-soft pale jade-coloured protea. They are not about 'big brands' at Grootbos. It is not crystal and Christophle, though the result is world-class.

The bedrooms benefit from outsized wooden four posters with swathes of netting and extremely well chosen linen beneath heaps of down-filled pillows. The bathrooms are stunning, almost Aman in flavour, with two sides of the soul-surging view. The expanse of surrounding decked terrace, together with sun-loungers, umbrellas, and screens, provides total privacy from which to admire your private universe and identify the early bird that sings like a nightingale.

Nature rules

Arriving at the unassuming main lodge, which houses the reception, informal seating, bar, dining room, boutique, and conference room, belied its impact upon entering. That jaw-dropping panorama spanning from Cape Point to Danger Point is track stopping, framed by an endless expanse of glass. Nature really does rule here. The palette of protea-orange, fynbos-green with exposed wood, complements its regal host, which brags, quite openly, more species of wild flowers than almost any other 'floral kingdom' worldwide. There are over 700 species and growing, due to a remarkable act of nature - when fire is friend not foe. Eighteen months ago Grootbos was burnt to the ground, an unstoppable act of Nature that pursues a relentless course in order to continue the survival of the species, and in some cases, the arrival.

The result of this fire on the landscape today is quite remarkable, almost ethereal, in its vividly contrasting beauty. The blackened branches of trees that succumbed strike a formidable pose among the rising carpet of arum lilies, wild lobelia, protea, African daisies, geraniums, and a book-full of others. The surrounding forest of protected Grootbos Milkwood trees, many of which are hundreds of years old, resisted much of the fire, as it has time and time again. They tangle, twine and intertwine in exotic haphazard jungle fashion, creating dense canopied overhangs: a perfect environment for a thriving eco-system with an array of glorious bird and animal species. These include the barthroated apalis, the Cape batis and Rameron pigeon, bushbuck, porcupine, golden mole, and many, many more.

The Passion

We had the pleasure of an afternoon with one of the founders and owners who masterminded this eco-haven, Michael Lutzeyer. Michael has such unguarded enthusiasm alongside genuine passion that he could, and should, convert any city cynic. He supports the local community through employment and education on a level that deserves cosmic coverage. He has masterminded the build of four FIFA-sized stunning floodlit soccer pitches, in durable astro-turf, with a super-smart well-equipped pristine clubhouse, between the nearby town of Gaansbaai and the township Masakhane, as well as a horticultural and life skills training school, Green Futures, situated on the nature reserve. Doing the walk-and-talk with Michael he became Kevin Costner from Field of Dreams. This, for so many, is a dream fulfilled.

The college, Green Futures, trains staff and unemployed members of the local community leaving them expertly equipped in understanding the skills necessary for conservation. Many go on to become conservationists and horticulturalists, working on the reserve. The word 'sustainability' came up in most sentences. Many may have doubted the durability of such grand prospects, but Michael appears to be a true visionary, a dedicated philanthropist, someone who makes a marked difference, enhancing the livelihoods of many people while nurturing nature on a commendable scale. By staying at Grootbos you contribute directly to these outstanding projects.

We stayed in the Forest Lodge suited to two-by-two, though we did visit the 'family side' of the reserve, the Garden Lodge, which has my children's names all over it. There is an equine centre, a smallholding with pigs and poultry while the informed nature guides thrive on educating both young and old. This is a perfect juncture in your Cape Escape for those en famille, though they will catch the bush bug that could determine the future of your holidays.

Dining a la vista

The dining room is glorious. Feasting naturally goes beyond the plate and the choice from the kitchen is fresh, local and innovative. Line fish, caught daily, is a must here, and the chef is always willing to prepare it in accordance with your preference. The wines are wonderful: two of my favourite vineyards are nearby, Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson, both of which we visited, outstaying our welcome.

Marine marvels

So, not only do you have the reservoir of wonders in the nature reserve, you have an ocean that will blow you away. Whales, worshipped and protected, and as far away from the Pacific as possible are witnessed lob tailing (lifting the tail vertically out of the water), sailing, spy hopping (lifting the head vertically from the sea) and breaching (when contented whales do a 'wheelie'). This takes place only 30 meters from the shore between June and December with birthing peaking in August. This awesome display unfolds daily. Seals scoop and dive through waves while the much maligned, indisputably magnificent Great White shark, is in 'definite sighting' a short boat-ride away at Dyer Island.

There are numerous opportunities for nature lovers in and around Grootbos. All excursions are organised upon arrival or upon request and the A-team of staff will drop everything to ensure you fulfill your wishes, weather permitting.

On our second day we took to the sky in a four-seater from the reserve's private runway between acres of fynbos and cherished horses. Our pilot Wouter, who works with a company called CFA Air Charters, looked after us in first-class style. With a billowing westerly wind on our side we glided over at least fifty Southern Right whales, including two rare albino calves (only 4% of the population) swimming snug next to mum.

There are real opportunities here at Grootbos, real adventures with life enhancing ingredients, and what coats the experience in something far greater than the luxury, rest, relaxation, chill-out five star on offer, is the feeling of putting something back, of contributing to a land and a community that is well, well, worth staying for.

Positively enriched by our two days here and feeling somewhat evangelical we left for our stay at beachside Babylon, Birkenhead House.

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant

Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer