Friday, 21 February 2014

Stay in style in the Cape winelands; Grande Provence

The stunning vineyards of the Western Cape, which encircle Cape Town like a boxing glove, are among the hottest gourmet destinations of 2014.

Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek are notable not only for their dramatically-sited wine estates – many of them dotted with traditional Cape Dutch buildings – but also for the many luxury lodges and resorts to be found in and around the vines.

Throw in world-rated restaurants and you have a wine destination to match Bordeaux, Tuscany or the Napa Valley – and the strength of the Australian dollar (and the woes of the rand) means five-star luxury can often be enjoyed for three-star prices.

One of the finest places to stay, for those for whom budget is a minor consideration, is the Owners' Cottage at Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate.

Members of the British Royal Family and Hollywood movie stars have stayed in the Owner’s Cottage at this exclusive retreat, which is under the same ownership as luxury icons Huka Lodge in New Zealand and Fiji’s Dolphin Island.

With five bedrooms (and two full-time staff members), it is perfect for family groups or anyone seeking privacy and seclusion just a couple of minutes from the famous wine village of Franschhoek.
The estate is over 300-years-old, built in the traditional Cape Dutch style and surrounded by 47-acres of grape vines. 

Sophisticated, but relaxed, Grande Provence is also home to a high-end cellar door with beautifully mannered staff that offers food and wine matchings; a top-notch eatery in The Restaurant (chef Darren Badenhorst's French-accented food is outstanding) as well as a beautiful sculpture garden and a word-class art gallery featuring works by some of South Africa’s finest artists. Regular exhibitions are held with the major disciplines being rotated throughout the year. 

The Owner's Cottage is one of those places where it would be easy spend two or three days just enjoying the surrounds. That, however, would be a pity with so many beautiful wine estates and restaurants within just a few minutes' drive. Should you fancy dining among the vines, individual private dining venues can be arranged anywhere within the estate on request.

The accommodation comprises four luxury bedrooms, a deluxe suite, conservatory, lounge, deck, swimming and spa pool area. Staff will do as much, or as little, as you request. A spectacular breakfast, with complimentary newspapers as well as a three-course dinner, is included within the all-inclusive tariff, which also includes Grande Provence wines, spirits and soft drinks, along with free wi-fi.

Live the millionaire lifestyle for a day or two; maybe request a masseuse or private yoga session in the plush gardens.

Or if you want to spend a day or two exploring further afield, your staff will be happy to set up winelands tours, township tours, a wine and game drive tour, or perhaps a round of golf or a powerboat excursion. The world is your oyster. 

Grande Provence, Main Road, Franschhoek, South Africa. +27 21 876 8600. www.grandeprovence.co.za.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Country comforts in the Clare Valley

Sometimes cute, cosy and comfortable wins out hands down over flashy and functional. 

In wine regions, it is often nice to have a self-contained cottage where you can picnic, or open a bottle of wine, on the deck or in the garden.

I very much enjoyed a recent stay at Mellers of Auburn, formerly known as Cygnets, a collection of three cottages, and a tea room, right in the centre of the Clare Valley village of Auburn and just a short stroll to the Mount Horrocks cellar door, the Rising Sun pub, the local supermarket and a brand new attraction: the Jeanneret/Good Catholic Girl and Clare Brewing Company tasting facility. 

Auburn is the first stop driving into the Clare en route from Adelaide and is a lovely little village.

Mellers, the former general store, was built in the mid 1800s and is beautifully restored. It is adjacent to Terroir restaurant, and just a short walk to the Riesling Trail.

Mellers Cafe is open for breakfast, lunch or a snack anytime between 9am and 3pm Monday to Friday and between 9am and 4pm on weekends.

The accommodation is in three heritage rooms, Mellers Studio in the main building and two delightful rooms in the converted stable block at the rear of property. 

The cottage-style comfortable rooms have large en-suites with spa baths in the stable rooms and a regular bath tub in the studio. A continental breakfast is included in the price of the rooms, which start at $440 for a three-night stay.

I found the rooms well equipped (although the shower gel/shampoo dispeners were mysteriously empty) and slept well. The gardens are lovely and it is just a short walk to The Rising Sun pub, where gourmet meals and pub snacks are served until 8pm, even on Monday nights. 

Terroir was closed when I visited but the hotel food was outstanding and I certainly enjoyed a Ranga Tang Ale and the Miss Molly grape cider at the Clare Valley Brewing facility across the road, where it also pays not to miss the Jeanneret 2013 Watervale Riesling.  

Mellers of Auburn Cafe and Accommodation, 21 Main North Road, Auburn, South Australia. CafĂ©: 0434 274 189. Room reservations: 0488 9200 677. www.mellersofauburn.com.au 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A Tasmanian hotel that offers one of Australia's best-value city breaks

You can't judge a book by its cover. Never has that saying been more true than when talking about the excellent Balmoral on York boutique hotel in Launceston. 
From the outside, Balmoral on York looks like a dull apartment block, an unremarkable five-storey caramel and brown edifice. But once you check in you'll find quiet, well-equipped rooms, mature staff for whom nothing is too much trouble and little extras like free wi-fi, free car parking, free movie channels and Fox Sports channels on the TV. 

That's nothing more than you would expect at a chain hotel charging big bucks - but rooms, including continental breakfast, 
start from just $120 a night at Balmoral on York, making it something of a bargain. 

Balmoral on York is in the downtown core, just a block from Charles Street and within walking distance of most of the city attractions - and the Tamar Valley Wine Route is a delightful nearby distraction. Some of the rooms have sweeping city views. 

I've stayed at Balmoral for the past two Festivale events and count it as my home away from home in Launceston. Late for breakfast? "No problem, what would you like?" Need a couple of emails printed out? "No problem. And no charge." Want an extra towel? "No problem, we'll put it in the room for you." 

Manager Trevor Donaldson has a policy of employing, and empowering, staff who get the hospitality ethos. You won't be greeted by a slack-jawed, pimple-faced teenager more interested in sending a selfie from their iPhone than attending to his/her customers. 

Often it will be Trevor himself helping out on the desk, or pouring a drink (he's a bit of a wine buff and also promotes local ciders). 

It's no wonder this place is regular ranked among the top three hotels in Launceston on TripAdvisor. It is a much better bet than several big-name brand hotels nearby. 

There is an on-site Garden Terrace licensed restaurant (right) that serves excellent breakfasts and affordable modern Australian cuisine at night and several good eateries and bars - including the Black Cow Bistro steak house, Dickens Ciderhouse and the new St John beer bar - are within walking distance. 

All the rooms have Italian leather couches, quality beds, high-definition TVs with satellite stations, wireless internet (soon to be upgraded to NBN internet), modern bathroom, air-conditioning, mini-bar/fridge (with Pagan cider and Fudgey Tasmanian fudge) and nice big towels. There is also an on-site conference centre. 

Balmoral on York, 19 York Street, Launceston, Tasmania, 7250. (03) 6331 8000. www.balmoralonyork.com.au.   

      

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The best address in Johannesburg

Some hotels are conveniently situated. Others offer excellent food and wine, or exemplary service. It is rare, however, to come across a hotel that is the complete package: private, set in lovely gardens, with resort and business facilities, helpful staff and two superb restaurants with a top-notch cellar.

But one such place is The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa in Sandhurst, a leafy suburb just a few minutes' drive from downtown Johannesburg. It is perfectly placed for business meetings, shopping one of the many local malls or dining in some of South Africa's finest eateries, which are found in nearby Sandton.  
A member of Leading Hotels of the World, The Saxon has several times been named as the best boutique hotel in the world. 

You can choose from villas, suites or maybe the Nelson Mandela Presidential suite, where the great man lived while working on his memoirs. 

All living areas are furnished in contemporary African style and are extremely chic and well-equipped. For those concerned about crime, the hotel has plenty of security and is set in safe and secure landscaped grounds.

The suites not only feature free wif-fi - they come with their own laptops - and the snacks and soft drinks in the minibar are also complimentary, a nice touch to avoid having to ring your butler for assistance. Yes, a butler will greet you on arrival and is available 24 hours a day.

The public rooms are beautifully designed with interesting art and artifacts, and there are two swimming pools from which to choose, as well as modern sculptures in the grounds. 

As you'd expect, there is a spectacular spa facility (offering a range of massages, sound therapy and an eight-hour head-to-toe treatment for the truly indulgent), a well-equipped gym and myriad staff for home nothing is too much trouble. 

The Saxon is known as a temple of African gastronomy, with its Qunu Grill specialising in grilled meats. The restaurant’s Xhosa name pays homage to the Eastern Cape village where former president Mandela was born. 

The hotel is also home to the high-end five hundred restaurant, and David Higgs (below), who oversees both kitchens, was the 2013 South African chef of the year. His philosophy is to use only the freshest seasonal ingredients and the hotel has its own herb and vegetable garden. 

Dinner at the sleek, super chic five hundred is a remarkable experience, particularly if you allow one of the hotel's team of five qualified sommeliers to chose wines to match your six-course degustation. 

All executive chef Higgs' dishes are a work of art (think foie gras and garden beets with savoury granola, pomegranate and juniper salt, or maybe Wagyu fillet and smoked brisket with barbecued king oyster mushrooms and greens). 

There is also a special area of the restaurant reserved for degustations matched with Champagnes from the House of Ruinart, known as The Ruinart Experience.

“We create our menu to the demands of gastronomy cognoscenti - people who combine a love of food and Champagne with a taste for luxury and quality of life,” says Higgs.

Other high-end experiences at The Saxon include al fresco dining on the terrace, spa cuisine high tea, and a cigar lounge. 

There is a concierge to make any bookings or arrangements guests may need - most useful in an unfamiliar city with an edgy reputation. 

Sorry if I'm gushing. I'm a difficult guest to please and can usually pick fault with some aspect of just about any hotel. Not this time. 

The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa, 36 Saxon Road, Sandhurst, Johannesburg 2196. +27 11 292 6000. www.saxon.co.za