This month we take in the Overberg region, mountains, country rivers and vast tracks of open space, a little west from Cape Town then onward onto the Garden Route culminating with a private wildlife reserve 80 kilometers inland from Port Elizabeth. As we strive to bring you updated and useful properties of exceptional added value and beauty, we close off this months reviews in the heart of our culinary & wine offerings, Franschhoek.
Colin compiled this seven night itinerary for a return English client traveling with her American travel companion Penny. Camilla has visited southern Africa five times through Centre Stage Travel over the last nine years and this time asked if Colin was able to accompany her along with Penny. In true " yes " style, Colin agreed on the basis of being the unofficial chauffeur and wine taster for dinner. Armed with a group B Budget hire car, loads of luggage, cordial banter and a warm African sun overhead, they set off.
Over to you Colin: Cape Town is as much a cosmopolitan city as the majority worldwide. However once outside the city limits, passed Cape Town International airport heading east, the vista is transformed into regal mountains, world class roads and coastal beauty. Our route took on the coastal road through Gordons Bay, Pringle Bay passed the Harold Porter Botanical Reserve and onward for lunch at the Arabella Western Cape Hotel & Spa. Positioned overlooking the largest inland lagoon in Africa and in the Kogelberg Nature Reserve, it offers impeccable service, huge inviting lounge sofas combined with a vista and calm enhanced a lunch of beautifully presented rare roast beef sandwiches and percolated coffee.
Our destination this evening was Blue Gum Country Estate outside Stanford. Country style living, vast expanses of space and true country hospitality awaited our arrival. Andrew and his two Labradors Odi & Herbanna, fresh from their afternoon run across the vlei & local dam, greeted us with gusto. An excellent choice for either overnighting en route to the Garden Route or to use as a base for discovering the Overberg, Blue Gum Country Estate combines their surrounding elements so well. Mountain bikes are available & I did attempt this art of mobility but after 4 kilometers reverted to Hobson's Choice.
Deep in the countryside, surrounded by 130 acres of wheat fields, vineyards and pastures - far from roads and highways - it's hard to believe that we were close to 20 nature reserves and botanical gardens, 16 museums, 20 art shops and galleries, 24 beaches and over 100 restaurants.
We took pre dinner drinks with our hosts on their viewing deck and meandered into the dining room. Dinner was a lazy affair under the watchful eye of Renny & Cynthia our waitrons. In true country style, the portions were quite adequate, presentation quite superb and for our two clients, our wine selection was well received. As we went our separate ways, the night sky was alive with constellations, shooting stars amidst our better known stars.
Moving further along the N2, we traveled close to Mossel Bay, drove passed the historical and golf famous George to our next stop over at Point Lodge in the heart of our Garden Route, Knysna. Ryk & Amanda have owned & run this well positioned bed & breakfast for eight years now. On the lagoon overlooking the Knysna Heads and only two kilometers for the town centre, their inimitable style of hospitality is well recognised through their many repeat clients from around the globe. The weather was being a little hard on us with a grey canopy overhead and strong winds, we however toured the town centre taking in some of the eclectic art shops along the main street.
The following day saw our African sun back with a vengeance. Penny & I decided to take a paddle cruise plying the lagoon offering great views of the Knysna Heads. Our captain today was none other than Mr. Knysna, William Smith. We chatted about some of the major developments coming through to Knysna and how the recent floods had effected the planning phases for property owners. The Paddle Cruiser caters for cruises on the lagoon as well as a great dinner venue. In fact Knysna has a very divergent offering to dinner goers. Along the Waterfront and Thesen's Island is an array of restaurants, cafes and eateries. Knysna is an excellent base from which to view some of the places of interest.
Onward now to the aptly named city of Port Elizabeth or to use today's correct name, Nelson Mandela Bay. This stop over was used to facilitate a coming together of family friends who are based here. Our accommodation was The Protea Hotel Edward in the centre of this bustling metropolitan city. She has seen better days and the general condition of the surrounding residential properties was in line with the overall degradation of the area. We would not recommend this hotel for a number of practical reasons.
Over dinner with friends, we talked about the following three days to be spent at Blaauwbosch Private Game Reserve. An African wildlife experience is very dependent on the ranger & tracker allocated to guests. Spending up to eight hours each day in their company, it is of paramount importance for these good folks to have the interpersonal, experience and knowledge skills to share Mother Nature with their guests.
We drove out from Port Elizabeth on excellent roads heading inland towards Graff Reinet. The scenery changed from industrial car assembly plants to much greener plants, trees and undulating mountains. One of the distinct advantages to staying at Blaauwbosch Private Game Reserve is the close proximity to their access tarred road. Visiting other game lodges can require long distances of gravel roads of varying condition. This visit for Penny was to be her highlight of her first trip to Africa, for Camilla simply an extension to many other quality lodges she has visited in South Africa & Zimbabwe. We arrived at Blaauwbosch Private Game Reserve to be greeted in the reception parking with a welcoming committee. Such a warm touch to be greeted by management and staff on entry.
With only seven luxuriously appointed chalets, each featuring all one would expect from a first rate property, our stay at Baauwbosch was destined to be a load of fun, educational and inspirational. We took lunch on the patio overlooking a vista of sheer magic. Distant mountains shimmering in the heat with an open valley in between. A simple lunch but beautifully presented with the staff making sure we received their full attention. An afternoon siesta is mandatory on safari. One of the key elements to taking in Mother Nature in the Eastern Cape is the fact that it is a malaria free area. It would remiss of me not to mention the topography at Blaauwbosch. Stark rocky mountains, deep walled valleys, open plains, dry river beds are all to be found here. Somewhat unique in my experience and made for some excellent driving by our ranger Siphwo who has been at Blaauwbosch since its inception some six years ago.
After an excellent afternoon tea of sweet and savory treats it was time to track wildlife. Imagine if you would a hot African afternoon moving into a cooler evening, shadows stretching longer, it is time for drinking, finding a place of shelter and for the predators, time to stretch their muscles for activities to come... We saw a varied amount of large & small game on our first outing and as we gently fell under the spell of silence, smell and solitude, we spotted them ! A female cheetah and her five young cubs! So special! She was completely relaxed with our presence not more than 80 meters away. Her brood ever inquisitive, acknowledged our presence, eventually reverting to their playful antics as if we did not exist. There are three females here, two with five cubs each and the third one a little chasten by the other females. Two male cheetahs were killed by the lions some time ago. This is normal in the perennial fight for space and dominance between the predator species.
Over the next three days we experienced lion sightings, elephants up close a remarkable scenario of a wet & bedraggled male white rhino seeking out his mate and a myriad of antelope species from kudu across to the smaller duiker. Penny and Camilla felt that their experience was optimal as I am sure the majority of first time visitors would. I however felt that Siphwo could have shared more of his knowledge on the flora ( flowers, plant life, trees ), topography and general information on the importance of the Karoo with his guests. There was a great deal of time where animal sightings were sparse and this transfer of knowledge would have been well received and would have brought greater understanding of the importance of balance between Mother Nature & mankind.
Our meals and co guest interaction were excellent. Our hosts had with sensitivity, facilitated tables together to match the vehicle complement. This allowed for stimulating dialogue over dinner and opened up a key part of human interaction, sharing our life's experience. On our second evening, we all sat around an open fire in their boma ( circular structure to offer protection from the elements and wild animals ). We absorbed the moment, drank in the night sky and for a few hours under a canopy of jet black velvet festooned with talking " eyes " we communed. Nothing of great significance was said, no, this is the beauty of Africa, it is not us humans that make the experience so meaningful, it is the serenity, largesse of unity and simply order that is to be found in our land, our sky and in her purpose.
We all flew back to Cape Town from a delightfully efficient and pretty Port Elizabeth airport. For my charges, it was time to close off this visit in Franschhoek. So named after being the " French Quarters " for the Huguenots, this village oozes charm, has more restaurants than churches and for the foodie in all of us, takes pole position. Our choice of accommodation is The Franschhoek. Part of the family run and managed The Last Word group of exquisite boutique styled retreats positioned at strategic venues throughout the Cape region. Our choice of The Franschhoek is based on the exclusivity of the property, close proximity of excellent restaurants and the centre of the Franschhoek village. Our host Sam effused a typical African welcome, took the ladies off to their room as I sat by the pool taking in the late afternoon rays along with a glass of excellent Sauvignon Blanc.
There is something a little different to be found within The Last Word properties. It may be the relaxed ambience, it could also be the quality and purpose of their furnishings, it is definitely their aim to be the best possible hosts though. This along with their extensive knowledge of all things local, ability to chauffeur their guests to local places of interest and provide the exclusivity we strive to offer our clients made these last few days a culmination of experiences, emotions and adventures for both Camilla & Penny. For those of you who have yet to experience an African safari, start planning now. Claire & I grow in our experiences in order to share these with you. Whether you come with family, friends or as a group, its time to come and share our Africa.
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