March 23, 2012
South Africa is the ideal destination for those who want more than just sun, sea and sand from their honeymoon (though it has all that too). Its hugely diverse landscapes offer a correspondingly broad variety of experiences, whether you’re on safari, taking a road-trip or just looking to chill out in supremely beautiful surroundings.
We’ve already written about two of our favourite safari lodge experiences, Sir Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in Sabi Sands and Madikwe Hills in Madikwe Game Reserve, but today we’re travelling further south, to the Cape Winelands region just an hour outside Cape Town, where in the heavily French-influenced village of Franschhoek we fell in love with the extraordinary and romantic La Residence.
The magnificently situated Franschhoek valley lies at the junction of a number of mountain ranges, surrounded on all sides by towering peaks and vineyard-carpeted slopes. It was originally settled by French Huguenot refugees who always remained true to their age-old French food and wine culture, and Franschhoek itself (literally, “French Corner”) is now regarded as the gourmet capital of South Africa, home to a disproportionately high number of the country’s best restaurants.
Franschhoek is an ideal base for exploring the Cape Winelands. Just 45 minutes from Cape Town, the valley is easily the prettiest in the region and there is a genuine feeling of being completely encircled by nature. Fertile farmlands criss-crossed by dusty dirt tracks, rolling fields of lavender, a patchwork of plum and olive trees and miles of lush green vineyards present themselves at every turn.
The village – which comprises a long main street packed with restaurants, pavement cafes, art and craft galleries and gourmet food, antique and gift shops – can get crowded in high season, though you only need wander a street away to find relative solitude and more of those amazing views, which are even more spellbinding from the grounds of the many upscale wineries strung along the valley’s length – most with renowned restaurants attached.
As we pulled up outside the hotel, we surveyed the scene before us; a well-proportioned but unfussy building with plain ochre stucco walls and archways, centered around an inner courtyard. It’s a building which lends no clue whatsoever to the drama and decadence that lies beyond its entrance.
It’s impossible to overstate the sheer over-the-top fabulousness of La Residence’s interior spaces. Setting the scene is a 4-metre crystal chandelier suspended from the beamed, vaulted ceiling of what is essentially a giant barn, albeit one with chequered black and white marble flooring imported from India. This is the hotel’s palatial entrance lobby, dining area and lounge, and it’s where guests first get a sense of the kind of magical juxtapositions that continue to reveal themselves in every public nook and cranny, and within the eleven vast guest rooms.
Owned and designed in its entirety by ex-fashion designer and now global hotelier Liz Biden, La Residence is filled with the fruits of her passion for sourcing unusual furnishings, antiques and trinkets from around the world, not to mention an expertly-curated and valuable collection of paintings. Inside the guest rooms, all of which are beyond spacious with either a private terrace or balcony, fantasies of pure indulgence are made reality.
Each room is different, though all share the same flair for the unexpected twist; the chartreuse crushed oriental silk curtains behind a hot pink chaise longue, the exquisitely engraved Chinese screens standing on ancient Persian carpets, wall-hangings from Tibet above squidgy, French velvet headboards, gleaming mirrored cabinets lined up behind a central rolltop bath – whichever way you turn, your eyes cannot help but feast on this intriguing bounty of objets d’art, and everything just works, from the abundant use of tactile textures to the clever splashes of bold colour.
This is most definitely not a hotel for minimalists or those who like their holiday environment to be calm and understated. Yet neither is it a look-but-don’t-touch kind of place, where you feel the need to delicately tip-toe around. Instead, it actually manages to pull off what is quite a remarkable feat, considering the no-holds-barred opulence – it feels as comfortable and relaxing as being at home.
So many things, but it all boils down to this: details. The warmest of welcomes, as though you’re old friends, but never in a way that’s intrusive or overfamiliar. Being led straight to your room without the need to ‘check in’. Your clothes unpacked, folded and put away. A completely complimentary mini-bar filled with an imaginative selection of treats. Fresh flowers daily and unexpected surprises left in your room. Being encouraged to take peeks into the other suites when unoccupied, or to wander into the kitchen for a chat with the chef.
Mealtimes are extra special. Whether you’re dining on your own balcony or having breakfast or lunch on the courtyard terrace, the staff somehow manage to make everything feel intimate and private while pampering you to within an inch of your life. This is even more the case for dinners in the great hall, where tall red armchairs and tables are pulled into a corner by a fireplace just for you. You can almost pretend you’re living in your own castle.
Aside from all this, what left us perpetually open-mouthed were the views. To the rear, beyond the sky-blue pool and terraced garden of roses, are purple-hued pine-blanketed mountains; their craggy outline sharp against the summer sky. To the side, a sloping lawn leads down to a pagoda and small circular lake, glinting in the sun. We were left wondering if any hotel in the world could lay claim to as fine a setting as this.
You’re in one of the most renowned wine producing regions in the world so make the most of it. Visit some of the excellent wine farms in the vicinity such as Vrede en Lust, Boschendal or Rickety Bridge. Indulge in a food and wine pairing at the Holden Manz estate, or take a wine tour on horseback at Knorhoek.
Pack a gourmet picnic and drive across one of the many twisting mountain passes to find your own little slice of solitude, or visit the nearby wine centres of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Somerset West.
Franschhoek is about a 45 minute drive from Cape Town. There is no public transport, so you will either need to hire a car or arrange a transfer with the hotel. Virgin Atlantic Flying Club members can earn miles with one of our car hire partners.
As you might expect, La Residence doesn’t come cheap – off-season rates start at around £335 per person – but for an out-of-this-world honeymoon experience, even if just for one or two nights as part of a wider South African trip, it is simply unbeatable.