A WEEK IN HEAVEN FOR A TRAVEL-STARVED MUM
On hearing I would be taking a small group of journalists to South Africa for a week … I was torn. Torn between being totally excited to be staying in some of the country’s top boutique hotels or the simple pleasure of getting a rare full night’s sleep. As mum to 3 boys (including 2 year old twins!) a full night’s sleep sounded like a major highlight. So despite some trepidation about leaving my little monkeys behind, it was with great excitement and anticipation that I met four lovely ladies at London Heathrow for our flight to Johannesburg. We all hit it off right from the start over some tasty lunch and drinks in South African Airways’ Star Alliance First Class lounge. It certainly set the tone for an amazing week of luxury and decadence.
One of the bonuses of visiting South Africa is the easy 10-11 hour overnight flight and the minimal time difference- meaning there is no jet lag. Between the on-demand movies, tasty meals and a few hours kip we were landing in what seemed no time at all. We had a few hours between flights to kill at Jo’burg airport before our flight down to George – a great opportunity to get to know each other a little better. Our lil team of lovely ladies included Sarah Green from You and Your Wedding Magazine, Diana Pilkington from the Press Association (writing for the PA Wire/Etc Magazine/Evening Standard), Kate Gilbert from Handbag.com and Anita Clements from Hamilton PR, writing for Cosmopolitan Online and Selling Long Haul.
After our 1 hour 50 min flight to George on SA Airlink and a short ten minute drive from the airport to Fancourt, I was struck at how lush and green it all was. No wonder it is called The Garden Route! A mass of multi-coloured bougainvillaea’s marked the entrance of the Fancourt Estate – and a hint of the amazing gardens, greens and spectacular countryside that lie within its 613 hectares of prime Garden Route property.
We were very lucky to be staying at the new “Manor House At Fancourt” which opened in 2011. A boutique style all-suite hotel built within the historical homestead known as “Blanco House” that belonged to Henry Fancourt White 150 years ago. One thing that is certainly not lacking in is WOW factor. The 16 suites are both sumptuous and spacious. The smallest suites are over 60m2 if that gives some indication of their size. The suites include an entrance hall/butler station, private lounge (complete with funky mirror that turns into a flat screen TV at the touch of a button!), private patio overlooking the pool, luxurious bedroom (I’m told that 10 layers of luxury ensure a comfy night’s sleep) and a bathroom that literally blew me away and made me feel like royalty. They come equipped with complimentary mini bar including wine and bubbly, snacks – everything from jelly beans to biltong (nom nom), a coffee machine and decanters of spirits you just help yourself to. And if there’s anything you can’t find- a quick call to your butlers will see that problem sorted. What a way to holiday!
Our three nights at Fancourt were a mesmerizing blur of pure luxury and decadence – a constant flow of canapés served up in the Garden and Tea Lounge and High Tea on the terrace – with the always present bubbles of my favourite Graham Beck Brut NV (the choice of both Obama and Mandela to celebrate their inaugurations).
Henry White’s fine dining restaurant housed within The Manor House was unfortunately closed for a few days for a soft refurbishment during our stay – but we didn’t really notice as the weather was so fantastic we opted to eat breakfast on the terrace anyhow – and our first dinner was enjoyed al fresco in the idyllic garden gazebo nearby with the lovely sounds of Africa as crickets and frogs serenaded us while we ate. The gazebo is understandably very popular for wedding ceremonies. We had a wide choice of dining experiences without even leaving the estate and particularly enjoyed La Cantina which has a lovely Mediterranean/Italian feel and menu – and Morning Glory does a killer Crayfish feast!
For the first two days we didn’t even bother to leave Fancourt – preferring to while away the hours in the amazing spa, enjoying massages and relaxing in and around the impressive Roman Baths. I even picked up a book which is a rare treat for a mummy.
On our third day we were ready to explore and went on a fantastic day trip to Oudstshoorn. Our guide Mario Febbraio from Tours for South Africa ensured the drive was not only scenic but informative as we wound our way over the majestic Outeniqua mountains. Amazing to see how a mountain can separate the lush gardens along the coastline from semi desert the other side in the Klein (little) Karoo – like two different worlds. The bonus of having a desert on your doorstep (well, an hour or 60kms away anyhow) is that Oudtshoorn enjoys an average 330 days of sunshine a year- so even if you get an off day on the Garden Route – it’s not far to find some good weather.
We started off with a visit in the Cango Caves – Africa’s largest show caves which started forming 20 million years ago and have been used by earliest man for shelter for over 80,000 years . We did the standard tour, not really fancying slithering about in tunnels called the Devil’s Chimney and the Letterbox! Then it was off to Buffelsdrift Game Reserve nearby where we enjoyed an amazing lunch overlooking a dam/waterhole filled with fish, crocodiles and hippo. Then we had the rather surreal experience of interacting with three beautiful elephants that had been rescued as orphans from the Kruger National Park. A small group of us went to meet Jabari (meaning powerful), Bolelo (meaning Thank you) and Malaika (meaning Angel). We got to hand feed these gentle giants, have a cuddle, and even sit on their backs. AMAZING! I worked for the Tembe Elephant Park for a number years and whilst I love nothing more than to see Ellies living wild and free in the bush as they were intended – it was a pure privilege to actually touch these amazing creatures and to see how happy they seemed. Apparently they actually lie down to sleep as they are so happy and relaxed in their sleeping quarters where they retire each night after a day exploring the Reserve. They played a few ball games, tossing and kicking the ball to us which was amazing. It is an experience I shall certainly never forget.
Then we were off to the Safari Ostrich Show Farm where we wandered around the gift shop (us being 5 girls the shopping came first). Having an ostrich purse or handbag is a real status symbol but sadly was out of our budgets – although we did splash out on some feather dusters. After a guided tour, a couple of us sat on an ostrich – and Anita and Sarah bravely donned the not so glamorous “riding trousers” and actually rode them – which is a moment I shall never forget the girly shrieks could brighten the dullest of days!
I wished we’d had a few more days as we had only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is available to explore from Fancourt as your base on the 200km of Garden Route, stretching from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape all the way to Storms River in the Eastern Cape. In an ideal world, I would have taken them down to Heralds Bay, just a short 15 minute drive from Fancourt – to show them how great it is for families or couples wanting a bit of beach time.
Fancourt is a great base for families – with nearby attractions including the Cango Wildlife Ranch, Monkeyland, Knysna, hiking trails at Tsitsikamma Forest and boat trips to spot dolphins and whales. There are also many activities for the more adventurous or adrenaline junkies such as shark diving, abseiling, kayaking, skydiving and bungee jumping. It is also the golfing mecca of South Africa – with three Championship courses on the Fancourt Estate itself including Outeniqua, Montagu and The Links (recently voted Top Course in Africa by Golf Digest USA). The list is endless.
But despite how much I was appreciating the break from my “parenting duties” and how much fun the ladies and I were having – I did find myself regularly wishing that I had my family with me. Because if anything – despite being told numerous times that “Fancourt is not just about golf”, even I hadn’t FULLY appreciated how fantastic it is for families. Not only can you give them the freedom to explore over 600 hectares of beautiful space and fresh air without fear of them getting lost or meeting with traffic – but the facilities are incredible. In addition to the mountain bike, walking and jogging trails that run around the estate and golf courses ranging between 2 and 10 kms – Fancourt has a brand new leisure centre (which opened October 2012) and fully supervised Fancourt Kidz Club – which is free to all guests. What?? Free childcare??? No jokes!
The new centre had me literally drooling on behalf of my kids – with a bright and cheerful play room, including play house, library corner and arts and crafts tables, a soft play climbing frame, outdoor playground, indoor heated family pool plus outdoor pool – and a cinema. They even gave me some activity books to take home for my children – which has had the desired effect already … Josh begging me to take him there to do all the activities highlighted in his book. During school holidays they also run an hourly programme of events for 3 – 10 year olds so that parents can enjoy some down time, visit the spa or hit the golf course. Babysitters can also be hired for under 3’s.
There are also 4 tennis courts, a state of the art gym and dance/aerobics studio where they offer classes (Ballroom and Latin dancing) and Pilates as well as volley ball courts. The trendy Teen lounge is sure to be a hit with older children with an area of their own with pool tables, table tennis, DVDs and PlayStation games.
Fancourt has fantastic two-bedroom suites that are ideal for families with separate lounge and dining area – but their one-bedroom suites’ lounges are also large enough to accommodate 2 small children (under 11) free of charge on a sleeper couch. But if like me, you are taking a little sojourn from the mayhem of family life, you can momentarily wish your children were here– but then quietly (and rather smugly) head back to the elegant comfort of the Manor House where there are no children under 16 years and wallow in the peace and tranquillity that encompasses you as you enter this hallowed house of harmony. And oh look – there’s another tray of canapés and champagne. It’s a tough old job this! Not!
And Next – we are off to Cape Town!