Nestled in the heart of South Africa’s Cape Winelands is the quaint French-founded township of Franschhoek, where ultimate luxury awaits the weary safari enthusiast in need of sound retreat.
Story by Antonino Tati
When people think of South Africa, they generally think of one of two places: the busy, schizophrenic-like hub of Johannesburg – particularly for corporate types – or one of any of the many rustic, rolling game reserves – naturally for adventure types. But there is a well-kept secret in the heart of the southern Cape District that just has to be revealed. It goes by the quaint name of Franschhoek, pronounced ‘France-shook’ and literally meaning ‘French Corner’. This really is one of the most beautiful small villages I have had the pleasure of holidaying in, and upon first impression, you’d think you were in the heart of the southern European countryside rather than a wine valley toward the base of Africa. Spectacular vineyards blanket humungous mountain slopes that were settled more than 300 years by a band of Europeans known as the Huguenots. These French immigrant refugees might have left an impressive motherland behind, but they brought all of their efficient rural nous with them, for Franschhoek now thrives as a most well-kempt village boasting 44 extraordinary wine cellars, eight of South Africa’s leading restaurants, a plethora of innovative galleries and stylish boutiques, and over a hundred diverse places to stay.
But if Franschhoek is a crown of quality, diversity, charm and grace, its greatest gem might be La Residence, a 30-acre estate in the heart of the majestic valley on which sits a private hotel that is a true work of art in the world of luxury hospitality. La Residence offers guests one of 11 ultra-luxe suites, each individually and thematically decorated with furnishings and objects d’art sourced from around the globe. Owner, interior designer, and all-round art enthusiast Liz Biden might just possess the most eclectic taste in décor. Walking through the Tuscan arches of the lobby and dining room feels like having induced a mind-altering substance like Alice did in her camp and colourful Wonderland. It’s no wonder Elton John considers this ‘home’ when he visits South Africa. Beneath exposed roof beams and throughout spacious loggias hang dazzling period paintings as well as knick-knacks of a Victorian art deco bent. The sense of opulence is never intimidating, for just when you’re admiring a portrait of some regal-looking chap, something more colourful and quirkily postmodern catches your eye.
Now back to those suites. I had the pleasure of staying in the Armani Room, one that was either originally designed to appease the discerning Italian designer or may well have been designed by he himself. All modern classic chic in neutral tone, the room features a chiaroscuro-like painting of a ballerina, complemented by other noteworthy graphics in black and white. The minimalist tones carry through onto a king-sized bed and padded headboard, while the décor gets a little more flourished (in keeping with the hotel’s opulent aesthetic) with damask upholstered side chairs, distressed side tables, and a bathroom brimming with vanity-mirror lighting. If Sarah Jessica Parker gets excited about grand wardrobes, wait till she gets a hold of this great powder room with expansive closet space.
Other outstanding examples of unique suite design include the Tibetan Room with its tasteful tangerine-tinted oriental furnishings and giant Tibetan murals hanging over a plush padded headboard (and even prayer scrolls if you’re inclined to partake in some dedicated chanting); and the Maharani Room where vibrant red and yellow Indian antiques come to life – a gold tiger statue here, blossoming flower print sofa there. Heck, there’s even a suite Britney Spears would feel right at home in, with the Hibiscus Room dripping in shades of pink and mauve (even the big marble basins in the bathroom are of a Barbie-esque hue!.
Each suite offers a unique perspective of La Residence’s expansive lawns and gardens. Each morning, I woke up to the subtle kurr-kurring of black swans in the lake outside my window. As a boy originally from Western Australia, whose state bird symbol is the black swan, I felt very much at home here. That, and I’m a sucker for eclectic tastes such as those which grace this amazing place.
Cuisine on the La Residence menu is worthy of two- or three-star Michelin ranking with many of the dishes prepared from regional produce (eg: free range poultry; fresh venison) and textured with delicious ingredients like pickled lemons, caper berries and crispy nuts. The seafood of South Africa’s Cape region is always pulpous, and I relished a dish of fresh salmon trout with my glass (well, three glasses) of Jean Daneel White Blend (how’s a mix of Chenin Blanc, Colombar, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay sound?). Dinner, on which one night we were joined by the hotel’s charismatic General Manager, Edward Morton, proves a truly colourful affair at La Residence.
For the traveller who might like to sample regional cuisine outside of the hotel, there’s always the option to roam down Franschhoek’s main street which is lined with affordable and impressive restaurants, charming little cafes (one of which we saw packed with well-heeled bikies, oddly enough), art galleries, stationery shops and crafts market stalls. The more adventurous might like to partake in a wine tasting and horseback-riding tour. A company called Delta Crest offers a variety of horse trails for both beginners and experienced riders including wine tasting trips on horseback. Steer your horse through beautiful scenic trails lined with vineyards and orchards. Pick a fresh plum off a tree to complement the fruit from the vine. And if the thought of drinking while on horseback makes you giddy, you can always settle for a traditional cheese and wine tasting session at Allee Bleue which offers locally made reds, whites, ports and dessert wines for a fraction of the cost of our quality Hunter Valley or Margaret River jubbly back home. A bottle of awesomely tasting Starlette Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc blended with Chenin Blanc) retails at just 30 rand here, which equates only five Aussie dollars! And believe me, it’s a very good drop, with hints of green pepper and tropical fruit enveloping the palette.
Many of Franschhoek’s wineries are happily mixing ye olde in with the new. Grande Provence Estate in the winelands region successfully marries heritage with contemporary chic with its classic Dutch architecture sitting amid manicured gardens, and houses a fine gourmet restaurant, spacious art gallery, and industrial-designed tasting room. New Zealand-born interior designer extraordinaire, Virginia Fisher, was responsible for the bringing together of steel joinery, galvanised metals and skylights that work to steer Grande Provence away from the traditional and into the realm of hip. High-backed chairs upholstered in white leather are dotted around minimalist trestle tables in the deep blue-grey hued restaurant, while slotted windows frame the picturesque view from the interior. As for the food? Simply divine.
Manager Amanda Roberts sat with us over lunch to discuss the 300-year history of the estate while spoiling us with the best from her husband, executive chef (and Melbourne export) Darren Roberts’ menu. Just some of the delights we sampled included a Tartare of Springbok served with Pomme Frites and Marinated Mushrooms; Carpaccio of Beetroot with Buffalo Ridge Bocconcini and Asparagus Mousse; and Baby Chicken with Dukkah, Lemon, Caper Berry and a side of creamed rice. It sounds all very rich, but with his Australian not-too-much-fuss ethos, Darren does a good job of never allowing the dressings, sauces or creams dominate the fresh produce too intensely. Desserts, however, are another story, and one spoonful alone of his famous Chocolate Calzone with Orange Sorbet is enough to get you into trouble with no turning back.
After a day of shopping down the main street, horseback riding, wine and cheese tasting and an excellent meal and wine tasting at Grande Provence, it was back to La Residence to bid our good friend Edward goodbye, and mosey on to our next destination… As we drove out of Franschhoek, the curling clouds between the vivid green mountains looked almost as though they were beckoning us to stay a little longer. We’ll be wanting to add a couple of extra days to our trip here next time, that’s for sure.
Elandskloof Private Road
Elandskloof Farm, Franschhoek
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 876 4100
Main Road, Franschhoek
Western Cape, South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 876 8600
Delta Crest Horseriding Trails
Telephone: +27 (0) 83 300 4368
Allee Bleue Wine & Cheese Tasting
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 874 1021
Photography courtesy La Residence, Grande Provence & the lovley Ms Tricia Welsh.