Planning a trip to South Africa and looking for a place to stay in Cape Town? Here are two stunning boutique properties to check out with views to die for. Expat Living’s Lara Sage tells us more about what they have to offer.
An easy drive from Cape Town
A drive of less than an hour from South Africa’s second-biggest city, Cape Town, takes you to two distinctive hotels that are part of The Royal Portfolio’s properties in the region: Birkenhead House in Hermanus occupies an exhilarating clifftop position overlooking a whale-watching bay, while La Residence in Franschhoek commands exquisite views of unspoilt rural surrounds.
This is the epitome of a boutique hotel. Accommodating just 22 guests, Birkenhead’s staff are attentive and greet you by name. They also know just how to pour your favourite tipple! The classic beach-house décor includes white sofas, expansive glass doors and a deck that hovers above a white beach below. While summer days in the Cape are long and languid, for several months in late winter visitors can witness southern right whales and humpback whales breaching just metres from the shore.
When the movement of the sea doesn’t draw your eye to the expansive blue, you can while away hours enjoying the hotel’s countless coffee-table books and various acclaimed artworks. The interiors carry The Royal Portfolio’s trademark of ornate furnishings, chandeliers and mirrors. An embellished cabinet made from clusters of seashells and silvery mother-of-pearl is just one piece to catch my eye. It’s astounding.
Photos don’t do Birkenhead’s seascape justice. The property boasts such panoramic views that it’s difficult to take in the immense landscape of mountain and water. And impossible with a camera! Still, I tried my best to balance the light and shadow of the impressive interior and vast exterior to focus on the furnishings and prominent artworks as well the moving swell of waves. More successful by far at capturing a moment are the artists whose works are represented throughout the hotel. Especially notable is the painting in the main living room, which will be familiar to many – The Singing Butler by Scottish painter Jack Vettiao. In tune with Birkenhead’s seaside setting, it features a couple dancing on a beach, undeterred by a blustering wind and ominous grey clouds.
Dining with a difference
The cuisine at Birkenhead House is a subtle mixture of modern African cuisine, Cape seafood, and traditional French techniques, with strong Asian and Italian influences. The wine list includes regional favourites from nearby Hemel-en-Aarde Valley so aptly named “Heaven & Earth”.
A truly South African sight as you enjoy your meal are the flocks of oystercatchers with their bright red beaks. And the region’s distinctive and colourful flora, known as fynbos, which grows all over the coastline.
Up an unassuming narrow tar road in Franschhoek, against a spectacular mountain backdrop, sits the grand dame that is La Residence. With a rich ochre exterior, the property sits amidst a working farm of plum orchards, vineyards and olive groves.
Poised at the entrance is a bronze maiden by celebrated South African sculptor Dylan Lewis, as well as antique urns adorned with cherubs. The main hotel lounge is vast with lavish décor including gilded tables, sumptuous upholstery and one incredible painting after the next. Big copper pots are filled with long-stemmed flowers. Chandeliers sparkle in contrast to the raw beams and thatch above. And the striking emerald green and azure blue of the resident peacocks complements the external terracotta walls.
Another artwork catches the eye above a gigantic fireplace. Moonlight Sonata is an intriguing piece, featuring seemingly unrelated images on a predominantly blue canvas. Equally intriguing is the tale of the artist, Beezy Bailey. In 1991, he created a female alter ego for himself, “Joyce Ntobe”. He found that the artworks signed in her name were more readily received by galleries, while those in his own name were often rejected. It was only years later, when the curator of the South African National Gallery wanted to work on a paper about three black female artists, that the cat was finally out of the bag.
The hotel’s in-house book, Art at La Residence, is a leather-bound treasure trove of information, describing everything from the light-heartedly erotic pieces of Sara-J in the East Wing bathroom to the figurative artworks of Michael Austin. There are pieces by distinguished portrait painters from famed galleries the world over: Edinburgh, the Netherlands, the Royal Academy, even works by the official artist of Britain’s Imperial War Museum. Other imagery and themes revolve around the tone of South Africa’s first democratic elections, and reflect ordinary citizens going about their lives.
Take a leisurely stroll through the property’s vineyards and the tranquillity of La Residence’s agricultural setting becomes abundantly clear. Resident herds of antelope grazing calmly, the flustered flight of wild fowl disturbed in the grass, a glimpse of francolin and guinea fowl, and the birdsong of starlings. The veggie garden is a pleasure, too, with its pomegranates, artichokes, passionfruit and herbs. Meals served in the hotel reflect the variety of home-grown produce on offer. In-house beverages are complimentary, by the way and the “bubbles”, rosé and red wines are all made on the property.
In August, when the winter trees are bare and the vineyards pruned, you can see through the branches and enjoy views of the entire surrounding mountain and valley vistas. On the afternoon of our visit, a fire was crackling, and a rich afternoon sunlight streamed in, flooding our sundowners with a warm glow. Much like the one we were feeling! The promise of spring could be felt in the surrounding buds of plum blossom, with the knowledge of a warm summer to come.
Franschhoek itself is a picturesque village synonymous with wine and gastronomy. It has a laidback café culture, bistro fare and eight of South Africa’s top 100 restaurants. Or, you can dine in the grandeur of La Residence’s formal areas – and, indeed, in your own suite. All suites are themed. Each is individually decorated with oversized bathrooms, creature comforts such as underfloor heating and fluffy towels, raw silk curtains and features such as raised four-poster beds. In fact, every room is a masterpiece, enhanced by the rich colours, textures and artworks, for which the brand is reputed, with art befitting connoisseurs.
Another property by The Royal Portfolio has been turning heads since its opening in 2017. And is a must-visit if you’re in Cape Town. (You could book a few nights here before heading to Birkenhead or La Residence.) The Silo is, in short, a feat of architectural genius. 42 vertical tubes of a derelict grain storage complex converted into a world-famous art gallery with a decadent hotel perched on top. It’s now as synonymous with the skyline here as the Eiffel Tower is with Paris.
To find out more about The Royal Portfolio’s collection of boutique hotels and bespoke private residences, visit theroyalportfolio.com.
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This article first appeared in the December/January 2018/19 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.