Friends and wine inspire some of the best conversations, don’t they? When the term wanderlist wound its way into a recent travel-fuelled dinner debate, it, along with winederlust, became my new favourite words. A travel addict’s version of the ever talked about bucket list, most people’s wanderlists are as long as the ocean is wide. Mine certainly is.
So what’s on your wanderlist? Is it filled with lesser known destinations far from the madding crowd or do some of the world’s most famous and more frequented classics top your list? Are you a sun worshipper or a cold climate seeker? And a question that dominated our dinner debate, do you only ever travel to new destinations or do you revisit places that hold a special place in your heart?
I’m of the latter, so when I find a happy place that feeds my soul, I absolutely try and revisit. One such place for me is Cape Town, and if you have been, then you’ll get it. Situated just above the southernmost tip of the vast African continent, where two mighty oceans meet, South Africa’s Mother City is a feast for the eyes and a stealer of all hearts. Consider yourself warned.
Always take the scenic route
In 2017, Cape Town was my home base for the better part of nearly two years. Missing it terribly, I decided to take a timeout in late May to reconnect with my all-time favourite city and to explore the surrounding Cape on the most unforgettable little roadtrip.
My roadmap was simple: first, the luxurious lemonade-yellow Birkenhead House that dominates a cliff’s edge overlooking the (seasonally) whale-frequented waters of Hermanus; next, the idyllic and ridiculously scenic La Residence in the heart of the breathtaking and slow-paced Cape Winelands; and last, but certainly not least, a return to Cape Town’s ever popular waterfront for the most opulent stay at one of my most favourite hotels on the planet, The Silo.
Family homes away from home
This award-winning royal trilogy of exclusive boutique properties (plus a fourth, Royal Malewane, which is situated in the Greater Kruger National Park and remains on my wanderlist) is owned and operated by The Royal Portfolio, one of our trusted and preferred partners. It is a family-run and proudly South African business, owned by globally-renowned hoteliers Phil and Liz Biden.
Now, there’s a reason why each of these exquisite properties feels like a home away from home. That’s because they all (apart from The Silo) were once exactly just that. Clearly not one to slow down, Liz’s mere two-day ‘retirement’ from the fashion industry at age 50 quickly inspired her next brilliant brainchild: to transform the Biden’s magnificent family holiday homes into boutique properties that would showcase some of South Africa’s most iconic locations to the world.
And so, their tranquil bush homestead in the Kruger became Royal Malewane; the prettiest (not-so) little beach house by the sea became Birkenhead House; and the most scenically-situated smallholding in the midst of a fertile vineyard was transformed into La Residence. A royal threesome indeed. The Silo, a long-time dream of the Bidens, finally completed the Royal Portfolio’s enviable circuit in 2017.
Not surprisingly, upon completing three quarters of this royal circuit, I discovered that The Silo, Birkenhead House and Royal Malewane are among the first of only four hotels in South Africa to receive the Tourism Grading Council’s recently launched Five Star Premium Status. A significant and well deserved achievement.
The royal touch
Each of the three properties I visited has its own very distinct and timeless style that pays particular homage to its own unique surroundings and natural heritage. And even though they are dramatically different properties that celebrate dramatically different landscapes, there does remain one consistent and unified golden thread throughout, and that is the extraordinary talent and royal touch of Liz Biden herself.
From city to sea to vineyard (and indeed bushveld too), each property reveals its own undeniable sense of place. You will enjoy warm, local hospitality combined with unapologetically luxurious accommodation that is always comfortable, generously spacious and thoughtfully designed. And not only is every property different, but indeed every suite too.
Liz effortlessly combines vibrant splashes of happy, unexpected colours that one might not traditionally expect to see together, with classic, vintage ornaments alongside playful objets d’art. I’m talking Persian carpet, next to the most vibrant red velvet sofa with bright green ottoman, all framed overhead by a grand Baroque gilted mirror. Think zebra cube ottomans, colourful Sri Lankan bedframes, checkerboard floors and green rabbit desk lamps, suitably downplayed by classic standalone bathtubs, opulent chandeliers and remarkable works of art adorning every wall, each with its own story. Oh and let’s not forget the oh-so photogenic striped pool pillows, a Royal Portfolio signature.
Overall, the design is as elegant and serious as it is quirky and eye-catching. On paper, such deliberate contrasts may sound too daring and unusual, but in person, it all works. And it works beautifully.
You had me at yellow
A scenic 90-minute drive from Cape Town and I had already arrived at my first destination: the quaint seaside town of Hermanus on the famed Cape Whale Coast. I faced some unexpected afternoon traffic in the form of an enormous lone baboon that sauntered casually and somewhat defiantly in front of me. Welcome to Hermanus.
Tall glass doors lead down into Birkenhead House, the most elegant beach house turned boutique hotel that boasts a sweeping, 180° uninterrupted view of the ocean. My home for the next couple of days was Room 2, a pinch-me-pretty and delightfully spacious suite directly overlooking the ocean. Nerdy confession — I do all of my writing in the city with noise-cancelling earphones and either ocean or rain white noise to zone out — so to have real-life, 24-hour surround sound of the waves crashing below was pure bliss. I immediately felt at peace.
Hermanus is hailed as the best place in the world for land-based whale watching. Sadly I was just a week or two too early, but during the height of the whale season (typically June to November) you don’t even have to leave the property to do some whale watching. If you’re lucky, you can often spot southern right and humpback whales breaching from the comfort of the resplendent dining room, lounge, outdoor veranda and infinity pool, and indeed your own suite if you’re in an ocean-facing room.
I was up for every sunrise and back for every sunset. I delighted in long sunny walks with my camera. The winding, tree-lined path on either side of Birkenhead House will either take you along the rocky cliffside and down to the Grotto and Voëlklip beaches (to the left) or all the way down the rugged coastline to the quaint cafés, restaurants and shops in the centre of Hermanus (to the right). And if you’re tired, a shuttle will come to Hermanus and pick you up for the 5 km return to paradise.
Birkenhead House is a chic and ultra-luxurious coastal experience and you can be as active or as idle as you please. You can laze by the pool(s), walk on the beach, take a long bubblebath, spoil yourself at the spa, linger slowly on mouth-watering meals, pop open some bubbly or just read a book on your veranda. Alternatively, you can take to the water for an invigorating swim or surf, hop in a boat for some whale watching, boost your adrenaline with some shark cage diving or take to the sky on a scenic flight. There’s also golf, yoga, cycling, hiking, horseback riding, and more. Disconnect and take it at your own pace.
Reluctant to leave my little slice of beach paradise, deep down I knew there was more beauty of a different kind in store. Another scenic 90-minute drive took me through the rolling hills and warm fall colours of the Cape Winelands to my next luxurious home away from home: La Residence.
La Res, as it is affectionately called, is a breathtaking 12-hectare (30-acre) private wine estate cradled in a fertile mountainous valley in Franschhoek (meaning French corner), which is without a doubt the culinary (and winemaking) capital of South Africa.
La Res just oozes classic French charm that is fit for royalty. It’s no secret that Sir Elton John has stayed here, in the Maharani Suite, his personal favourite. I was in the palatial, white and gold Frangipani Suite, which overlooks the vineyard and mountains and boasts the most incredible pastel pink sunrises. The lavish bathroom puts the oh-so dreamy “sigh” in Versailles with its white marble, grand mirrors and twinkling chandelier, not to mention the glorious underfloor heating, romantic freestanding bathtub just begging to be used and French doors that open out onto a private sitting area, rose garden and the surrounding natural (and dramatically colourful) beauty.
In fact, what I loved most about La Res (besides the remarkably delicious food and wine) were the constantly changing colours as the light continued to magically transform each part of the day. You’re surrounded by a cotton candy morning glow that quickly turns sky blue, dusky bluish mountains, rich russet soil, thriving green vegetable gardens, crimson and auburn autumn leaves, bountiful fruit and olive orchards, canary yellow pool umbrellas and those signature striped pillows, and rows upon rows of violet coloured salvias. Adding to that royal and somewhat exotic feel, are the wild peacocks that are so vibrant in colour you’ll do a double take. One even strutted right into my bathroom one morning, a surprise encounter I won’t soon forget.
You can walk aimlessly or cycle energetically around the property, being sure to stop and say howzit to Tango and Twist, the caramel-coloured miniature horses with the cutest school-girl (or should I say boy) fringes. Take them some apples, they’ll love you for it. And just like Birkenhead House, you can lounge by the pool, hit the spa, burn off some steam in the gym or just relax in the countless cosy nooks and crannies. Or you can venture into town (a mere five minutes away) to eat and drink your way through some of South Africa’s finest world-class restaurants, quaint cafes and award-winning wine estates.
I can promise you two things: you will go home feeling absolutely relaxed and recharged, but you will also go home a few kilograms heavier. Some would call it balance, I’d call it happiness.
Ending with a dreamy sigh(lo)
Right up there with kissing giraffes in Nairobi, The Silo has firmly remained one of my all-time favourite hotels on the planet since it opened its regal doors just over two years ago. Its world-famous façade takes pride of place along Cape Town’s beloved waterfront. The iconic building, with its unmistakable floor-to-ceiling pillowed glass windows and regal yet quirky and bold interiors, are immediately recognisable.
The Bidens had long been scouting for the perfect location for the fourth and final jewel in their royal crown and when Cape Town’s historic grain silo (which was built in 1924 and remained fully operational until 2001) became available, they knew it was meant to be.
A daring architectural design, The Silo occupies the grain elevator portion of the original silo. Its 28 extraordinary rooms, of which no two are the same, take up the six spacious floors above the celebrated and well-worth-a-visit Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA). The MOCAA proudly houses Africa’s largest collection of contemporary African art.
The Silo’s dramatic, floor-to-ceiling windows, which were cleverly designed to make the industrial building resemble a twinkling lantern, are by far its most recognisable feature. Masterminded by industrial designer Thomas Heatherwick, the 82 signature pillowed glass windows are undeniably the focal point of any picture you see of the Silo, inside or out. Each impressive window, which is 5 m (nearly 17 ft) high with immediately recognisable steel beams and perfect geometry, has 56 separate and symmetrically angled panels of architectural magnificence.
Gazing up at The Silo from the outside, you immediately appreciate that it’s an unusual building, but you have no idea what quirky and artistic interiors await you inside. The luxurious rooms are as bright and sparkly as they are timelessly elegant and intentionally eclectic; a fine balance that Liz has clearly come to master. I love the kaleidoscope of colours, the shimmery light the prominent windows emit, the tapestry of different patterns and of course the deliberate celebration of local African artists everywhere you turn.
The Silo perfectly combines the upliftment of local African talent with the jaw-dropping natural beauty of one of the world’s most picturesque cities. Falling asleep in an enormous bed with heavenly scented pillows and a twinkling cityscape, then prying your eyes open to an achingly beautiful 180° view of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill through the immaculate windows of Room 802 will forever rank high in my memory bank. Even my morning cappuccino and circular breakfast tray of goodness had its own view of the mountain. Talk about a wanderlist moment.