March 5, 2015
When the light is just right – usually early mornings or at dusk – the winegrowing Franschhoek Valley, about an hour from Cape Town, attains a near-mystical quality. Its vineyards shimmer as if dusted with gold, the surrounding mountains set against a dramatic blue-and-orange sky. Its name – Dutch for “˜French Corner’ – references the history of the valley as a French Huguenot settlement. Escaping religious persecution, they arrived in a wild valley where large elephant herds once roamed, and started planting grapes. For some years now their valley has been considered one of the most beautiful in the Western Cape, vaunted not only for the majesty of its setting, but also for the quaintness of its little village, its preserved architecture, its cellar tours and tasting rooms, and the reputation of its dining scene. For a small country town, it offers an incredible density of top-tier chefs, elevating Franschhoek’s restaurants to astonishing heights. The vast majority of visitors, however, trundle in on daytrips, sadly missing the Valley at its sunlight-dappled best.
Which is a shame, because Franschhoek’s accommodations include some of the most romantic and luxurious in the country. Some, like Sir Richard Branson’s latest South African acquisition, Mont Rochelle, are set within the grounds of historic winegrowing estates, so guests peer directly into the vineyards from their private porch, or even from the comfort of their beds.
It’s Mont Rochelle’s setting, up on a hill surrounded by 39 hectares of verdant countryside and breathtaking views of the valley that delivers an honest sense of being in some pastoral idyll. The property is attached to another 37 hectares of vineyards, so there’s green space all around, despite being just a short drive up from Franschhoek village. Plus, continuing the sense of immersion, a 150-year-old wine cellar is located within easy reach of the thatched manor-style hotel with its 22 chic guestrooms. The hotel is divided into the Manor House and Garden House, with a separate semi-subterranean wing that’s tucked below the rest of the hotel, yet its rooms have doors opening directly onto the edge of the vineyards.
With Branson’s takeover, the hotel has received a much-needed makeover, replacing its dated chintz and drab beige-grey interiors with a look that’s altogether more contemporary and fresh. It remains in every respect a beauteous classic of high-cheekbone pedigree; only now it has added sex appeal.
Guestrooms vary in terms of price and spaciousness, but all are sumptuous and adorably luxe. Some have pod-like wicker-and-cane swing chairs and open-plan bathrooms, all have designer lamps and chairs, incredible linens and the latest techno gadgetry, but most essential of all is that each and every one takes advantage of the surrounds, affording impeccable views of the vineyards, whether from a balcony or a large patio.
If money’s no object, pick one of the two gigantic suites, which both have their own plunge pools – appropriately, they’re named after South Africa’s premier Champagne-style bubbly, Cap Classique.
That this boutique-size retreat has everything you might need – a spa and gym, two restaurants, vintage bar, heated outdoor pool, and a staff quick to do your bidding – needn’t stand in the way of your desire to explore beyond its lovely grounds. Franschhoek has plenty to offer, and is within striking distance of other prominent winegrowing towns, including Stellenbosch, Paarl, and the Elgin Valley, where – besides some exquisite wine farms – artisanal cider is being produced and some of the Western Cape’s finest mountain biking trails are up for grabs. You can arrange a (very early) pick-up for shark-cage diving in Gansbaai or go whale watching in Hermanus, where there’s another covetable winegrowing valley, Hemel-en-Aarde.
In Franschhoek, you can sign up for a horseback tour that connects several wine farms – it’s the liveliest way to explore the Valley while sampling its most precious commodity. But you can just as easily drive (or get driven) between tasting rooms and cellars. Several estates have their own restaurants, but you’ll want to devote at least one afternoon to a picnic prepared by Mont Rochelle’s kitchen and enjoyed at your leisure beneath a tree somewhere on the grounds.
Or savour lunch at The Country Kitchen, the hotel’s more informal restaurant situated near the wine cellar, where you’re encouraged to sip, savour and swallow some superb Franschhoek vintages.
Just don’t forget to cast your eyes across the Valley at sunset and watch it turn to a golden glow.
Header Image: Franschhoek Valley © Mont Rochelle
Virgin Atlantic operates a seasonal direct service to Cape Town from London Heathrow, making it easy to plan your say at Mont Rochelle.
Have you visited the Western Cape? Have you stayed at Mont Rochelle? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Keith Bain