Paul Hopkins discovers the many joys of one of South Africa’s most revered holiday destinations
Once upon a time, by the edge of the Little Karoo desert in South Africa, by the towns of George and Oudtshoorn, on a plateau between the Outeniqua Mountains to the north and the Indian ocean to the south, one could drive past empty farmhouses whose people had decamped, leaving fronts boarded up, gates locked, uncertain of their country’s future after independence.
Now, the land has been repossessed, its heirs — to the former Feather Barons who financially fell foul of the innovative automobile that only ruffled a woman’s fashionable ostrich plume — quietly and confidently announcing themselves.
Washing flaps on the line, smoke rises from the chimneys, and there is optimism, 25 years after the ending of apartheid, as a community thrives on its industries of timber, ostrich meat and hide, wine-making, and tourism.
I fly in from Cape Town to George, the pioneering town established by the Dutch East India Company in 1776, and drive just 10 minutes to the truly magnificent Manor House on the Fancourt Estate, a declared National Monument, lovingly set out on more than 600 hectares of manicured lawns and natural grasses.
Fancourt, home to golfer Ernie Els, boasts three of the finest golf courses in the world, originally designed by Gary Player, including The Links — given the accolade of Africa’s No.1 by Golf Digest USA — and its Montagu and Outeniqua finding places in the Top 20. Worldwide, . Fancourt has also won the gong for South Africa’s Luxury Golf Resort at the World Luxury Hotel Awards.
But if this last word in luxurious accommodation has everything for the seasoned or aspiring golfer, with its mix of creative and challenging holes against a colourful aesthetic backdrop of diverse fauna and vegetation, it has so much more to offer those chasing an alternative indulgence. Or, for the golf widows among us, if holidaying en famille.
Here, unashamedly, is the epitome of enjoying the diversity of dynamic luxury and rustic pleasures. It’s the ideal place to base the self, with so much to offer in the environs of the Garden Route. Enjoy a safari on game drive or horseback at nearby Buffelsdrift as I do and get to meet the elephants so up-close and personal that I have one literally eating out of my hand (above).
Take a helicopter flight and enjoy shark viewing, including the Great White, or go quad biking by the historic Montagu Pass: explore the Cango Caves — 20 million years old, putting us all in perspective — with their awesome and intricate stalagmites and stalactites. Not for the faint-hearted or unfit, for one woman, so the story goes, some years back, was stuck in a narrow passageway for 11 hours.
I go ostrich hunting, or at least seek my chance to ride one of these interesting but ultimately dumb creatures who can lay eggs 24 times the size of a hen’s and are so strong they can manage even to carry my excess (it’s the SA cuisine) baggage. I decline racing the big flightless bird, though (that’s tempting providence), opting instead for a light lunch of sizzling spiced sausage and creamed cheeses and some wine tasting at nearby Karusa (a Khoi-San word for ‘land of little water’), an ideal climate for this small winery — the first in Oudtshoorn — to give life to the most tempting and complex chardonnays and succulent syrahs and cause celebre Méthode champenosie.
But it is fabulous Fancourt itself that is the piece de resistance, offering an unspoilt world away from the weary one. There is the 115- room luxury hotel but I stay — butler, naturally, in tow — at the Manor House, transformed from the original homestead built in 1859 and rejuvenated into a sumptuous boutique experience with its combination of old-world charm and contemporary comfort. Five star and the rest — and, blessings, no children under 16 save at the main hotel.
Dinner is a wonderfully civilised affair at the estate’s Henry White’s with smoked springbok carpaccio parcels filled with cream cheese and dukkha (an Egyptian seed and spice), served with tomato and onion relish. Then a taste of the lightly curried butternut tart with cumin crème and garam masala butter. My main is the Cape’s renowned kingklip with lemon beurre blanc, served with spinach and baby tomatoes. I choose to imbibe with a great Karusa and, all in, it picks the purse for in or around €50.
Morning follows a deep and soothing slumber befitting the gods, and finds me pampering myself beyond need in the inviting bespoke bathroom before breaking fast like a king and then languidly lounging by the pool just outside my suite, in superb sunshine (26-29°C), the utter tranquillity broken only by the call of the Namaqua warbler.
I cannot leave Fancourt before escaping to the spoils of its famed spa with its complete top-to-toe treatment, with African ginger for firming and mongongo nut for detoxifying, topped off with African potato for healing and repairing. Sixty minutes of sheer indulgence for around £40, that leaves me invigorated and renewed for the next stage of my journey… and a jar of that African potato stowed in my carry-on bag.
GETTING THERE : Rates, depending on season, available from €157 a person sharing a night for a 3-night stay including a round of golf at Montagu or Outeniqua Golf Course or a Spa or dinner voucher to the value of €40 a guest per night’s stay.
South African Airways fly London to Johannesburg daily overnight from around €495 return and Johannesburg to George daily from around €215 return. Visit Flysaa.com.