Taking to the rails for a journey to the heart

2 Oct

First published in Juice Magazine, October 2015 issue.

Rovos Rail story Oct 2015 Cover

Ardmore Ceramics’ exotic Noahide style is nowhere more evident than in their Natal Midlands home, near Howick. where animals leap from or cling to the most beautiful of stages. There, among the animal, people and plant creations available for purchase, is the Bonnie Ntshalintshali museum, dedicated to the memory and early work of Ardmore founder, Fée Halsted’s friend and co-artist.

The story of how Fée and Bonnie went on to create a thriving business – an important community-based art producer now showcased in collections and art museums around the world, is retold on one of the Rovos Rail, Pretoria to Durban three-day safaris. Providing access to the creative process and an insider’s view in a way not available to walk-ins, is what makes this and other Rovos-arranged outings, such special experiences.

Steam haul

Preparing to leave Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria on a Friday at 10am for a three day journey into Durban, our group of strangers seem awkward together. The steam enthusiasts – a key component of each Rovos Rail passenger list, are outside quizzing the steam locomotive driver Willem Ras. As one of only five remaining steam drivers, his face is as deeply lined as the rail network when viewed from the sky.

RovosRailPg1Willem seems nonplussed with the questions about this leaver or that valve and eyes his Tupperware with sarmies and the Pall Mall cigarettes in his breast pocket as an imminent reward following our departure. For many reasons – the fire risk and environmental cost chief among them – a steam haul much beyond Rovos Rail’s Pretoria station is not practical. Rovos Rail has recently refurbished another diesel loco and these are preferred. As Rovos Rail elects to use the original rail network rather than the busy, newer commercial lines used by rail commuters and for freight, the experience on board chugging along at little more than 60 Km is frequently free from passing traffic.

After a welcome, typically by founder Rohan Vos himself, passengers are called to meet with their hosts to board the The Pride of Africa, a beautifully restored vintage train that has elevated train travel to the luxury of yesteryear where time and care were things we valued.

Stateroom interiors are panelled in warm timber hues, while emerald green carpets with gold woven diamonds cushion your feet even when not wearing the slippers and generous robe provided in your wardrobe.  Accent lights with elegant Edwardian blown glass shades remind you that the journey you’re about to take it one that reaches back in time. To help create this mood, use of technology is not only discouraged but restricted in public places. The only way to curdle cream on board is to take a mobile phone call while in the dining car!

Dressing for dinner

Although formality in dress is encouraged and a jacket and tie is a requirement for dinner, the Rovos Rail experience is unexpectedly relaxed (and, of course, relaxing). Interactions with staff, many young but all superbly trained, and preemptive in their desire to serve, are as comfortable as they’d be with your staff at home.

As a fully inclusive offering you’d expect staff to discourage yet another tot of premium whisky or bottle of Meerlust Rubicon yet they do exactly the opposite. You will get the feeling from the moment you arrive until the moment that you leave that staff believe you are under nourished and require constant feeding and watering. Despite them catering to the most exacting dietary requirements, the vastness and delicious quality of the offering will, I’m afraid, mean that you will depart with additional kilos in among your photos and happy memories. Rather than try to avoid this, it is best to wear your best, slinkiest outfit on your first night as by day three it will be too tight. I speak from experience.

During the almost two thousand meter climb from the Witwatersrand to Heidelberg and onwards as the Drakensberg comes into view conversation, so awkward and stilted at the start, flows as easily as the tea and coffee being poured in the comfortably elegant lounge car. People sitting on the benches in the open-backed observation car are clinking gins and tonic  brimming crystalware, the bright yellow lemon melding into the setting sun.RovosRailPag2

With a multi-course lunch, beautifully paired with fine South African wines and a traditional afternoon tea (cucumber sandwiches, scones and cakes) under our belts, it is time to dress for dinner.

Because your stateroom (even a single-bedded Pullman) is larger than any equivalent you might find on rails and as you have a private bathroom with toilet, basin and a shower cubicle, some suites have baths too) as well as plenty wardrobe space, dressing for dinner is a pleasure. No more so if your finery as been freshly pressed as part of the fully inclusive laundry service.

If the lavish dinner and cocktails don’t ensure a good night’s sleep, the fact the train stops for some hours at historic Elandslaagte station will. An indication of the high level of care and consideration is that ear plugs are included in amenities offered in your room, along with a protective plastic eye mask  in the event you’d like to look outside your window into oncoming traffic.

Early morning safari

There’s a 6am wake-up call with coffee brought to your suite if you’d prefer not to make your own (a kettle and fully-stocked mini bar are in your suite) in preparation for a morning game drive on the 20, 000 hectare Malaria free Nambiti Reserve, a big five retreat.

The Sundays River flows through the Nambiti and the biodiversity is unusually rich offering savanna, grasslands, thorn veld and tall Acacia trees. Because of this, great animal and bird sightings are practically guaranteed. Remember to wear layers as early mornings can be freezing while temperatures can shoot up by the time you return to the train.

Like everything Rovos Rail does, excursions are exceptionally luxurious with red-carpet welcomes and silver trays with  a champagne cocktail or sherry at the ready once you’ve returned your offered warm or chilled towel.

Such a premium experience comes at a premium price but when considered as a total package (especially if you typically fly business class and stay at five-star hotels), it represents outstanding value for money. People on board weren’t only silver-haired, well-heeled international travellers. An incentive group from Tupperware South Africa were on board, at least two of the couples we spoke to had been gifted the trip by their children while others, friends travelling Africa together from the UK, elected to stay at B&B’s elsewhere so that they could use their travel budget to enjoy The Rovos Rail experience.

Churchill, Gandhi and Majuba Hill

There is a second opportunity for a game safari at the Spionkop Reserve but I recommend rather listening to historian and raconteur Raymond Heron talk about the battle for Ladysmith while overlooking Majuba Hill. I was amazed to hear that Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi met on that hill while Churchill was a war correspondent and Gandhi worked for the Red Cross during the South African War.

The visit to Ardmore Ceramics is another highlight as the journey draws to a close. Pulling into Durban’s station late afternoon the group of strangers we curtly nodded to on arrival now leave with hugs and exchanged contact details as friends. One embarks Rovos Rail expecting a luxury journey from one place to another. The journey of the heart is the happiest byproduct.


Tru-Cape plants clone of the oldest pear tree in The Company’s Garden.

17 Sep

Councillor David Bryant with Tru-Cape's Henk Griessel, Alderman Belinda Walker and Tru-Cape's MD, Roelf Pienaar planting the Winter Saffron pear in the VOC Vegetable Garden at The Company's Garden, Cape Town.

Councillor David Bryant with Tru-Cape’s Henk Griessel, Alderman Belinda Walker and Tru-Cape’s MD, Roelf Pienaar planting the Winter Saffron pear in the VOC Vegetable Garden at The Company’s Garden, Cape Town.

The oldest cultivated tree in South Africa still lives in the Company’s Garden enclosed by a cast-iron railing and supported by poles and braces due to its extreme age for a tree of its species.

The Pyrus communis or Saffron Pear tree is approximately 363 years old this year, and was planted during the time of Jan van Riebeeck.

The City of Cape Town’s Parks Department, together with Tru-Cape, ensured the next generation of the Saffron Pear when a new cloned sapling was planted next to the parent tree.

‘About two years ago, Buks Nel and Henk Griessel from Tru-Cape came to The Company’s Garden looking for historical information about fruit trees as they were researching the history of the fruit industry in the Western Cape. At this time, the management of the garden was considering the vegetative propagation and preservation of this very historic tree as its longevity had taken a toll and it needed support from poles and braces,’ said the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Community Services and Special Projects, Alderman Belinda Walker.

‘The visit was opportune as they requested cuttings of bud material from the tree in order to make grafts to preserve this original species of pear. We agreed that when these grafts had matured to sapling trees, some would be returned to be re-planted. This would preserve this historic specimen for years to come. The practice of propagation by grafting preserves the genetic purity of the mother-plant and, as such, is a “clone” of the parent plant,’ said the Manager of the Company’s Garden, Rory Phelan.

Another of the saplings will be planted in the VOC vegetable garden’s orchard section and it is hoped that both trees will grow for another 360 years.

‘We need to preserve what we have so that future generations will know the history of the fruit tree industry in the Western Cape which was started years ago by dedicated gardeners who cultivated the first fruits at the Cape of Good Hope,’ said Alderman Walker.

Roelf Pienaar, Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing’s Managing Director, says Tru-Cape has a responsibility to preserve genetic history for future generations.

‘Sharing a Saffron Pear with the Company’s Garden is one step closer to ensuring future generations will know it too,’ he said.
The Saffron Pear tree standing to this day is all that is left of a circle of Saffron Pear trees planted in the middle of the Company’s Garden hundreds of years ago.

On 19 April 1665 , Van Riebeeck wrote in a letter: ‘The weather was not so good for vegetable crops last year but the wine was successful. Thirty apples were picked from six trees and two pears’.

The trees were described by a visiting pastor, Valetijn, who visited the garden in 1685 and 1714. In 1853, the trees were again described to be about 150 years old from a description of a Russian visitor to the Cape who said he saw a circle of huge pear trees growing in the middle of the Company’s Garden.

It is reported that in 1910, a large pear tree with Wisteria growing onto it fell down, and the Wisteria was subsequently trained onto a pergola. Near to this was a remaining pear tree which once probably formed part of the circle of pear trees described earlier. This is the tree which grows in the garden to this day and the Wisteriastill grows on the adjacent pergola.

Just cruising: Finance-friendly vacay

2 Sep


Just Cruising Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 11.05.13 AM

First published in the September issue of SKYE Magazine:

Cruising abroad luxury liners is far cheaper than people imagine. When you consider that the cruise price is typically inclusive of travel, accommodation, food and non-alcoholic beverages as well as service and high quality entertainment, there are only a handful of times that you need to dip your hand into your pocket while on board. This doesn’t, of course, stop them from enticing us to spend at every opportunity, but if you follow some of these tips, you will find a cruise-cation the very best  and cost-efficient way to travel.

Dry-cleaning, inexplicably, is cheaper on board than it is in South Africa. So, rather than fret about having your finery laundered before you travel, and then worrying about it creasing, send a stash for laundry the very first moment you begin your cruise. If you like dressing up, all liners offer formal nights. While on some liners formal attire is an instruction rather than a recommendation like it is on Royal Caribbean International (RCI) you can expect to have three formal nights on a 10-day itinerary. Typically though the second night on board is a formal one which is why you must get your gear into the laundry pronto.

Although not cost efficient, many ships also give you the opportunity of hiring a formal getup so it is possible to travel simply with hand luggage if you choose to. While on board The Grandeur of the Seas, a RCI Vision-class ship, we met fellow South Africans who not only travelled simply with carry-on bags but were also frequent cruisers. After chatting to Anton Bergstrom I learned he’d worked in the cruise industry since 1991 and had travelled on more than 42 ships. “Book an inside cabin. You’ll save as much as $300 on a week’s itinerary and if you just plan to use your stateroom to sleep and change in, it makes sense. In my experience most inside rooms are very similar in size to outside ones and the primary difference is not having a window,” he says.

Anton adds: “To say it is ‘all included’ means nothing for people who haven’t cruised before. You might pay 30 Pounds to see a show in the UK and I’ve found the quality of the nightly entertainment to be equal to London or Broadway shows. Even if you only eat at the Burger King, it will still cost two of you $100 a day for food and that doesn’t include train or bus or taxi fare. For the same quality, quantity and variety of food on a ship you’d pay $800 a day which makes cruising truly amazing value.” he says.

For budgeting purposes give yourself a $150 a day when planning a cruise so a 10-day jaunt will weigh in at $1500 per person. Of course there are cheaper liners and many more costly ones but $150 a day is realistic for most five-star ships. Anton says when comparing offerings it is essential to calculate a total daily rate. “Remember that on RCI service charges and port taxes are included in the price and not all lines include these in their package”, he says suggesting that the only way to truly compare price is to add in all the excluded costs.

I like to pre-book and pay for shore excursions well in advance so that while I’m cruising I don’t have to ferret money away or arrive home to a big credit card bill. I also enjoy the process of researching and booking a trip which I find extends the excitement and pleasure of the cruise way beyond the 10 days that I’m on board.

Anton says to book a cruise one year in advance just by paying a deposit and you then have until 90-days before cruising to pay the outstanding amount. “If the price has dropped just cancel and rebook at the lower rate without penalty.”

I recommend that you sign up to the ship’s loyalty programme. Crown & Anchor, RCI’s programme is free to join and offers meaningful discounts. While on our Caribbean cruise we took advantage of the Crown & Anchor Next Cruise deal for 50% off the second person’s fee as well as an on-board credit of $175. This will go a far way to covering essentials like Wifi, Starbucks Coffee and speciality dining. If you enjoy a drink, cocktails are around $8 while a Californian Chardonnay will set you back $42.

Anton recommends dollar-based ships like RCI and Celebrity and rather than Euro-based ships like Cunard as these are better priced for South Africans. “Many cruise lines have demand-driven prices which change whereas with RCI the price you get quoted is the price you will pay – it doesn’t go up when more people book for the cruise.” he says.

Anton warns that many of the cruise lines penalise South Africans as we are not considered a primary market. He says this means that people booking from within the USA and UK get a lower rate on many other lines, RCI however, charges everyone the same. “In terms of cost you will pay less to cruise internationally (including your air arrangements) then you will pay on a cruise that markets itself to South Africa.”

I recommend you take a view about the ports you plan to visit: In the Caribbean we elected to book all our shore excursions via RCI but on a European itinerary when we were confident about being able to make our own arrangements we did so. One important thing to note: If you are booked on a ship’s excursion and you are delayed returning to the ship, the ship will wait for you which they will not do otherwise. When you consider what it will cost you to have to catch up with your ship at the next port, I don’t believe the risk is worth the imagined saving.

If you’re heading to the Western Caribbean (Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Haiti) I heartily recommend booking a snorkelling excursion in Cozumel and don’t even think of skipping swimming with the stingrays on Grand Cayman. This is a must-do wildlife experience.

We sailed out of Baltimore, USA in December and while you will need a warm coat, gloves and a beanie we totally overpacked winter clothing. The average USA inside temperature was about 23 degrees Celsius so wearing any more than a jersey indoors left us as steamy as being on the balmy beaches of Montego Bay.

Speak to the folks at Cruises International about planning a trip. I bet you’ll be as hooked as we are. www.Cruises.co.za 011-327-0327


Follow this link to read the original magazine version online.

Paddle the two oceans in a kayak to experience Cape Town from the coast

28 Aug

This article was first published in Juice Magazine, September on Mango Airlines.

MangoSeptember2015coverTesting his recently acquired fitness, BRIAN BERKMAN takes to the water.

Zipping the drinking water pouch into my lifejacket, I think back two years ago to my first kayak experience. Actually, that experience which took us through the backwaters and rivers of Madagascar, was the second time on a kayak. The first time, at the invitation of a friend, was harrowing – I still weighed 153Kg and capsized the kayak almost the moment I sat on to it, despite being in a shallow river.


Although much lighter and fitter now, that initial fear still sits with me and despite three-days kayaking in Madagascar I still feel the novice.

Very happily though False Bay is so calm that I can perfectly see the reflected seaside restaurants and mountains behind them. We’re given the briefest of briefings by Derek Goldman of Sea Kayak Simons Town – “push the paddle away from you with your top hand while pulling it with your bottom hand. To stop, push the paddle into the water away from you. Steering on these two-person sit-on-top kayaks is with foot controls from the back seat. Push left to go left.”

I’m wondering about the much older couple in our party. Looks like they’re the parents of people just a little younger than we are. Worrying about other people helps me channel my own anxiety and I immediately feel more confident. Geoff Hart leads the way and Derek keeps an eye on us from the rear.

Soon my spouse JP and I are in a comfortable paddling rhythm. I’m still barking orders which way to steer as if he, not sitting a meter behind me, can’t see which way to go. Fortunately he knows my bossiness is just a cover for fear so is happy to oblige.

As we approach the Simons Town harbour wall,  I can see the water is much choppier now that a headwind approaches. “That’s a Grey Heron”, Derek calls out to us while we paddle faster against the tide. While it is wonderful to see Kelp Gulls, Terns and the endangered black Oyster Catchers, we’re here to see the penguins. Our two-hour trip takes us past Seaforth beach where, if time and weather permits, groups stop for a swim. “Getting back into a kayak is as easy as getting out of the deep-end of a pool – most people can manage it and we’re here to help if they can’t,” Derek says also responding to one of my perineal fears of being on the water – what happens if I fall in?

African Penguins

The older couple are struggling so Derek latches them to his kayak and does the heavy lifting. The approach to Boulders is breathtaking. The granite orbs seem especially bright and the midday sun beats off them like an oscillating lighthouse.

Commonly known as Jackass Penguins because of the eerily donkey-like sound they make, Spheniscus Demerus or African Penguins make Boulders their home. This colony has about 2500 inhabitants and many of them are walking on the beach  while others are poised like sentries on the rocks. Typically found in pairs, we encountered a lone wanderer fishing near us. In the protected bay I finally feel able to relax. “Keep paddling”, Derek says, “or you will drift with the current.” Staying still on the water doesn’t seem to be an option.

Now Geoff takes the older couple back to the harbour more directly while Derek, sensing our keenness, takes us past Ark Rock. Paddling through Simons Town Harbour, up close to a submarine that is now a museum is another highlight.

Late and Flustered

Once the paddle bug has bitten, it bites again. Stuck in traffic on the N1 into Cape Town I can see we aren’t going to make our 5.30pm sunset paddle from Three Anchor Bay.

Embarrassed at our lateness I’m already flustered. The two dogs lying under the desk couldn’t be less interested in me, or my stress, it seems, despite my head nodding like one of those dashboard dogs while only listening with one ear to options: Yes, I’ll take the splash cover skirt, I say, although the others in the party seem to be more interested in saving their manhood than keeping their legs warm. Comfort first, I say.

Being on a Kaskazi Kayaks’ two-hour guided trip tour means everything (except drinking water) is laid on for you. Our guide, Dirk Kaiser, has the locally manufactured touring Kaskazi Duo kayak ready for us at the waters edge at Three Anchor Bay and adjusts the steering pedals. He tucks my splash cover around the rim and I’m ready except I can’t find my gloves. Cycling gloves really protect your palms while paddling and make it easier to grip the paddle but there’s no time to look for them. Not thrilled.

Head Straight Out to Sea

On the water I feels less stable then I did in Simons Town so I’m a little less confident about being on the water as I’m aware of the kayak slightly tilting each time we paddle which may be because we’re sitting inside, rather than on top.

“Head straight out to sea”, Dirk shouts with his still heavy  accent. I wonder if our paddles will get trapped in the kelp but then I’m overwhelmed by the views of Sea Point and Table Mountain from the water. This is the sort of perfect kayaking day people hope for “Keep away from the shore”, Dirk warns as we pass Bantry Bay, “or the waves will push you towards the rocks”. Now the 12 Apostles come into view and it feels as if we are paddling directly into the sun, heavy above the horizon like the opening of a pizza oven.

In this light the water takes on a different hue, looking like velvet folds as it undulates beneath us. Now, totally relaxed about our movement, I pause to take photos and to rest my arms which, even after an hour, aren’t as tired as I expected them to be.

We see three seals bobbing and weaving, large flocks of yellow-billed black cormorants and a few gulls but not much else. At first glance it looks like the neck of the Lochness Monster but deep at sea the kelp grows so thick it resembles a twisted human arm.

“Yesterday we saw two sunfish”, says Dirk, “and in the morning, on our trip towards the Waterfront, dolphins.”

The goal, we’re told, for adrenaline-junkie paddlers is to paddle through the tiny gap between Lion’s North Paw, a mini-mountain with its base 40 meters under the sea, but we take the more gentle route around it.

With The Tide Behind Us

Heading back, the tide is behind us and nudges us along although also towards the coast which we must steer against. Despite hearing the waves crashing against the sea wall at Bantry Bay it is extremely calm out at sea and quiet. As we approach the Sea Point promenade, and see the umbrellas on the beach for sundowners, I’m sure we can hear people talking. Here we wait for the sun to set.

This is a first for me. I feel part of the sea, smelling its briny air, moving as it does. My heart feels open to it. I even imagine that I can feel myself moving with the earth as it rolls past the sun. I feel totally vulnerable yet equally safe.

Heading towards Three Anchor Bay I’m very glad for my splash cover which has successfully kept my lower body dry and warm. My top is damp though and to fight against the cold I paddle ever faster entering the slipway at speed. Maybe I’m not a beginner anymore.


Side Bar: Top Tips

Wear gloves: Cycling gloves protect your palms

Take a water bottle

Have a dry, warm top and bottoms to wear immediately after coming out.

A waterproof camera is great although all tours will take photos of you and post to their Facebook page.

Wear the splash cover if they offer it.


Sea Kayak Trips, Wharf Street, Simons Town

info@kayakcapetown.co.za. www.KayakCapetown.co..za

082 501 8930

Kaskazi Kayaks    Shop: +27 21 439 1134  Tracy: +27 83 346 1146  Arthur +27 83 230 2726    www.kayak.co.za    33 54.331S / 18 23.902E

Banting saved my life

27 Aug

Crystal Cruises expands free WIFI for all luxury travellers

24 Aug

Great news from Crystal Cruises: Hope others adopt the same soon
Crystal Cruises expands free WIFI for all luxury travellers 
Daily Complimentary Internet Access Enhances Onboard Amenities for Globetrotting Guests
Crystal Cruises will expand complimentary Internet access to all of its luxury guests. Beginning August 30 on both, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, Crystal will provide one free hour per guest, per day for Deluxe Stateroom and Penthouse guests; 90 minutes for Penthouse Suite guests.  With additional free access to Crystal’s 24-hour satellite-enabled wireless Internet – which will also be available aboard Crystal Yacht Cruises’ Crystal Esprit when the maiden voyage embarks on December 23, 2015 – travelers can remain connected while on vacation, whether on their own devices or utilizing one of the ships’ cutting edge work stations or portable laptop rentals, which are available for a nominal fee. Crystal Cruises is represented in South Africa by Cruises International.

“While some travelers like to ‘unplug’ on vacation, many of our guests wish to stay connected while traveling, whether for business purposes, to stay in touch with loved ones, or to share their Crystal experiences along their journeys,” says President & CEO Edie Rodriguez, “It is always our goal to make life aboard our ships as effortless and comfortable as possible for our guests, and amenities like free Internet go a long way to help those efforts.”

For guests seeking more time online, Crystal offers four convenient packages to suit their needs:

• Plan A: “Pay As You Go” for $0.74 per minute
• Plan B: 2 hours (120 minutes) for $55 ($0.46 per minute)
• Plan C: 5 hours (300 minutes) for $127 ($0.43 per minute)
• Plan D: 10 hours (600 minutes) for $220 ($0.37 per minute)

Last year, Crystal installed improvements to the onboard experience, including:

·       Maximizing satellite bandwidth with the latest technology, allowing for more users and more content to stream simultaneously.

·       Expansion of Wi-Fi signal range throughout the ships, making wireless connection available everywhere on board, including all staterooms, public spaces, and outdoor decks.

·       The ability to access internet in areas that were previously unavailable, such as Japan.

The free Wi-Fi perk was previously available only to Crystal Society Members, the line’s repeat guest loyalty program.

The world’s most awarded cruise line has long been celebrated for its onboard technological offerings, including the Computer University@Sea facilities, equipped with state-of-the-art Mac/Windows dual-compatible computers and expert staff on hand for instruction and assistance. Specially designed classes offer curriculum tailored toward novice and expert users, with topics ranging from basic operating systems and use of smart phones and other devices, to digital photo and video editing and website design.

Crystal Cruises is the world’s most awarded luxury cruise line, having earned more “World’s Best” accolades than any other cruise line, hotel, or resort in history.  Crystal Cruises has won “World’s Best Cruise Ship” in Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader Choice Awards for 21 years; been voted “World’s Best Large Ship Cruise Line” by Travel + Leisure readers for 20 consecutive years; and the “Best Luxury Cruise Line” by Virtuoso for two-consecutive years (2014 & 2015). In summer 2015, Crystal embarked on the most significant brand expansion in the history of luxury travel and hospitality, which will introduce three new classes of cruising – Crystal Yacht Cruises (December 2015), Crystal River Cruises (March 2017), Crystal Exclusive Class Ocean Cruises (late 2018)– and Crystal Luxury Air (fall 2017).

For more information, contact Cruises International on 011 327 -0327, a travel agent or visit www.cruises.co.za

Luxury hotels to visit while abroad

3 Aug

Milestone Hotel milestone, Kensington

Milestone Hotel milestone, Kensington


The pool and deep Atlantic at Belmond Reid's Palace

The pool and deep Atlantic at Belmond Reid’s Palace

The Equinox gym and spa is part of The Ritz-Carlton Washington, DC.

The Equinox gym and spa is part of The Ritz-Carlton Washington, DC.

While you’re planning your next trip abroad, don’t miss Madeira and a stay at Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel. 

In England, The Portobello Hotel, London offers zany and upscale accommodation in Notting Hill Gate while, Le Meridien, Stuttgart is wonderful if you need a spot with easy access to the transport networks.

The Hay-Adams Hotel, Washington has, unquestionably, the best view of The White House while The Milestone Hotel, London looks onto Kensington Palace.

I’m still dreaming about the gym and spa that is part of Ritz-Carlton Washington, DC. I don’t think I’ve yet visited a hotel that beats it.


UK, Germany, Spain, Morocco, Canary Islands

12 Jul

The Last Word

5 Jun

SLOWLast1 SLOWLast2First published in SLOW Magazine.

Noting the trend of large hotel chains to re-package and create “boutique” brands to stem losses as more of the well heeled and well traveled are selecting intimate hotels, luxury travel writer Brian Berkman spoke to The Last Word founder to better understand it.

“Large hotel brands are immersing themselves in ‘boutique’ to create a difference and to try to stand out from the myriad of large hotels,” says Peter Fleck, who founded The Last Word collection of three intimate hotels and one villa. “But a 150-room hotel can never be boutique and never personal,” he says explaining that’s the beauty of being small and why The Last Word have the quest to be ‘beyond boutique’ with their intimate hotels. “We believe in the pleasures that people bring to a guest experience.”

Having stayed at each of The Last Word properties I can confirm that it is indeed the easy yet professional interaction with the staff that make staying with them so special. One gets the feeling of being in the stylish home of a favourite aunt with a team of staff you have known since birth.

Peter spent a lifetime working in the liquor industry with premium brands such as Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, Absolut Vodka and Captain Morgan after starting a career in journalism in the late 60’s where he worked on The Cape Argus newspaper.  “I did write an unpublished book/manual for our staff, but that’s where the writing ends,” he laughs. It was while travelling for work where he had the opportunity to be the guest at some of the world’s top hotels such as the Dolder Grand in Zurich, Switzerland and Hotel George V Paris, France. “Now when we travel we also choose smaller properties that go ‘beyond boutique’. There are some gems that simply steal your heart: I can think of Longueville Manor in Jersey, United Kingdom or some of the Grace Hotels in Greece or other parts of the world. At The Last Word we try to build our image on the intimacy we create in everything we do,” he says. He does add though “some of the more renowned hotels I stayed in served only to inform that one needs very deep pockets and that the bigger you are the more personal service fades. Our staff give of their natural self on a personal basis and not the starched version. This is what makes  us distinctive,” he says.

The Last Word Franschhoek recently benefited from a major upgrade which included expanding suites on a second floor following flooding in the village. “Our Franschhoek hotel’s popularity stems from its location right in the centre of the village. It is just a gentle stroll to boutiques and the many fine restaurants in what is considered Cape Town’s culinary capital”, he says. He adds that the Last Word Constantia is an oasis in an upmarket residential area, centrally accessible to all Cape Town has to offer while The Last Word Long Beach is right on the beach. “Perhaps ours is the only hotel where you can literally walk 10 metres and you’re on the sand,” he says adding: “It also has one of the most picturesque views in Cape Town.”

Racontours is a parallel bespoke touring business. Peter explains: “Racontours began as an option for Last Word guests to do something interesting in a more personalised way; an opportunity to visit selected wine farms where owners meet guests for tastings; also to get the inside stories of Cape Town’s city given by a unique and knowledgeable story teller; or to tour the mountains hearing from personable experts about Cape Fynbos; or generally touring the best attractions with humour.” Peter says that while Racontours is still connected to The Last Word, it is now also part owned and run by Getaway magazine former editor, David Bristow. “Racontours tries to find the story behind the story and lets our guests live much of that story as they can,” Peter says.

“We pride ourselves in selling more than a comfortable bed. We offer an experience. The niche market we attract desires home comforts in a stylish, graceful environment,” he says.

For more than six consecutive years The Last Word Long Beach was voted South Africa’s Leading Beach Hotel by the World Travel Awards’ travel and tourism professionals worldwide.

The Last Word Constantia won a Lilizela Tourism Award in 2013 when voted the top five-star guest house in South Africa for service excellence.

Nicky Coenen, Peter’s daughter, is the group’s general manager. She admits to getting immense satisfaction from continually working towards the next level of success. “Being a family business, we are small yet highly creative – and keeping one step ahead is a constant motivating factor,” she says, clearly inspired by the position she holds.

As a guest, The Last World provides everything I want in an all-inclusive package but its real genius is in proving the things I don’t even know I want, yet always appreciate.

Visit: www.thelastword.co.za; Email: info@thelastword.co.za; Phone: +27 (0) 21 794 6561

A forest lodge with beach access that’s near Cape Town

25 May

This piece was first published on www.BizCommunity.com.

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Great kid's play area.

Great kid’s play area.

Lovely to walk under the milkweed canopy.

Lovely to walk under the milkweed canopy.

Curmudgeonly. That’s what I’ve become. Rather than focus on the extraordinary value in winter (two for the price of one), the thicket of gnarled milkwoods and coastal forest, wonderful sea views, I’m focusing on the loud music and revelry from the wedding. You should know that Sea-facing executive room, Guinea fowl, is about as near to the timber banquet room as you can get. As I’d said – curmudgeonly.

Soon enough, after the glowing embers in our wood-burning fireplace banished the evening chill from our room, I chose to focus rather on the swishing from the sea and our unexpectedly delicious dinner at Monkey Valley Resort’s restaurant, Thorfynns.

Before the sun went down I had a bath in the generous Victorian-style tub in the bathroom, designed to take full advantage of the view over the milkwoods and onwards to the sea. Earlier in the day we followed the path down to the beach, narrowly missing a series of orb spider webs spun into a silken arch between the tops of the trees.   Noordhoek’s Long Beach is well named and had the weather been finer I’d have relished a walk along it. Monkey Valley Resort offers accommodation that is self-catering and on a bed and breakfast basis. These thatched cottages are cleverly located within the greenery that trees provide the necessary privacy. It is also one of the few accommodation places that welcome animals – birds are very active within the trees and while we didn’t see the eponymous monkeys, I’m sure they are around. Many people had dogs as did the folks running the restaurant as their four-legged friends welcomed us with warm sniffs and awkward nudges whenever we arrived in the reception and restaurant areas.

They have a wonderful kid’s area with a pirate-style jungle gym that made me wish I was 40 years younger.

While some of Monkey Valley’s higher reaches were destroyed in the recent fire that decimated Silvermine and Chapman’s Peak, it looks like building work is also currently underway to expand the reception and admin building. Some of the accommodation is newly completed and I’d love to stay in one of the self-catering units nearer to the beach on a return visit.

The luxury here is in being in such a beautiful natural environment. Monkey Valley Resort is justifiably popular for conferences (the first time I ever visited was to attend a conference there eons ago) and at such affordable prices, a wonderful place for a family vacation.

If you’re as curmudgeonly as I am, keep ear plugs with you or a dinner suit so you can join the party.