Nieu-Bethesda accommodation at Outsiders B&B

The last couple of times I’ve been in Nieu-Bethesda I stayed with Ian and Katrien Allemann at Outsiders B&B every time. Outsiders is conveniently situated on the main road as you come into town and just about next door to the entrance of the Owl House. Everything is literally walking distance away and you can leave your car here and just explore on foot.

I stayed in the front room which is comfortable and spacious. Best is the fact that the door opens onto the front stoep and you can sit and watch the day go by with a hot coffee in winter, a cold drink in summer or a glass of wine at any time.

Breakfast in the dining room included stone ground bread from flour ground at the local historic watermill and bacon and eggs made to order by Ian. Local honey and jam, fresh fruit and a lekker cup of boeretroos (coffee) rounded it out.

Time to grab my coffee and go and sit out on the stoep to enjoy the morning sun. Hoping that it won’t be too long before I get the opportunity again.

A visit to Matatiele in the Eastern Cape highlands

I haven’t really had the opportunity to venture into the North Eastern Cape so a first visit to Matatiele in the Eastern Cape highlands near boundary with Kwa-Zulu Natal was on the cards while en route to the Drakensberg in December.  Matatiele services the surrounding villages and farming community and gives a very good first impression.  Even though it was a long weekend and only about a week before Christmas, the town was neat and tidy, unlike some of the other towns we passed through on our way there.  Surrounded by the the Southern Drakensberg, Matatiele is a great starting or finishing point for trips into neighbouring Lesotho, especially for bikers.  

A very popular activity in the area is fly-fishing and for that Matatiele has the perfect spot. The Matatiele Mountain Lake.  This 30-hectare lake is located in the mountain above town and forms part of the Matatiele Nature Reserve which is a core protected area within the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area.    
It was up to this lake that Phillip Rawlins, owner of Resthaven Guesthouse in town, brought us while showing us around town. Wow, what a beautiful and peaceful spot.  He explained that the lake is a natural lake fed by three springs and not a dam.  It means that the water is clean and unpolluted and the perfect spot to fish for rainbow trout.  

Driving back down the pass to town this was the view of Matatiele with Lesotho off beyond the mountains on the horizon.  I wish our stay was long enough to venture over the border with Phillip (the invitation was there), but the Drakensberg was calling and our time limited.  Next time I will definitely slot in an extra day or two to visit the Mountain Kingdom.

While in Matatiele we stayed at the excellent Resthaven Guesthouse.  Resthaven is located on the main drag through town and offers 22 rooms stretched over four buildings on the property surrounded by lush green lawns.  Owners Phillip and Elrita welcomed us with open arms and typical small town hospitality was evident the whole time we were there.  Breakfasts were spot on but I can’t help but to comment on the dinners.  No fancy meals, no extensive menu, just good hearty plates of food, well prepared by Phillip and the kitchen staff.  The guesthouse is the perfect overnight spot for anybody wanting to stay over in Matatiele.

Disclosure: We stayed over in Matatiele at the invitation of the owners of Resthaven Guesthouse who I have known for many years.  They didn’t expect me to do a blog post about the town nor the guesthouse and will probably be very surprised if they get to see this.  All opinions are my own and they had no input on the content of this post. 

A romantic evening at The Plantation

When you are young and in love you go out your way to be romantic.  Flowers, movies, open the door, whispers in the ear, special dinners and and and.  When you get slightly older and have kids, just spending a little time together on your own without the kids is seen as romantic.  For us it is anyway.  Now when you get to combine both of these, you know you have a winner on your hands.  And a winner I was at the first #ECMeetUp a little while ago when I won an evening at The Plantation here in Port Elizabeth.  Just the fact that the Damselfly and I could spend some “us” time was enough, but little did we know what Sarah and Ralph has in store for us. 

The Plantation is a wedding and conference venue just off Sardinia Bay Road which means that it is surrounded by indigenous coastal bush giving it a real romantic forest feel.  As there was no wedding on the weekend we chose to stay, we were given the honeymoon suite in all it’s stunning splendor.  Iffy weather that weekend meant that we could only go for a short walk through the bush before the skies opened up again.  It did mean though an evening of snuggling up under the duvet in front of the television (also romantic in mu book) just chilling away from the KidZ in each other’s company.

On arrival our picnic dinner was waiting for us already and if the weather played along we would have been able to throw the blanket open in the garden and enjoyed it there.  Instead we threw the blanket open on the bed which, as it turned out, was a good second option.

Sarah and Ralph really went all the way with cold meats, cheeses, biscuits, breads, pates, salads and more along with a bottle of chilled sparkling wine.  This was followed by not one, not two, but three different desserts.  Everything nicely presented and tasting divine.  Now that is how you spend a romantic evening with a loved one.  BUT… that wasn’t all…  

We didn’t even have to get up to go for breakfast the next morning.  
Breakfast came to us, delivered to the room in two sessions.  

The first “course” consisted of crumpets with strawberries, syrup and cream along with our coffee which was followed fifteen minutes later by a warm breakfast and a message of “Take your time.  No need to rush and check out.”  Just what we wanted to hear although the KidZ had phoned already to hear when we would be home…

Disclosure: I won the evening at The Plantation as a prize in a competition at the #ECMeetUp bloggers event so I didn’t pay to stay.  There was absolutely no expectation from them for me to write a blog post, but how can I not after enjoying our stay so much? 

"Surprise surprise" at Holiday Inn Express Umhlanga

“How about a weekend in Umhlanga with the Damselfly?” So the email I received from the InterContinental Hotels Group didn’t quite say that, but it could just as well have.  A weekend at any of their South African hotels and I got to choose which one.  I could have chosen the luxury Intercontinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers or any of their other hotels in Jozi, Cape Town and Pretoria, but we decided on the Holiday Inn Express in Umhlanga.  Firstly because of the destination and secondly because I have never stayed in a Holiday Inn Express before and wanted to know what it was like.  And disappointed we definitely weren’t.  
We got picked up at the King Shaka International Airport, got delivered to the hotel’s front door and from the moment we walked in it was smiles and great service all the way.  The ladies at reception welcomed us with open arms and checked us in while asking about our flight and if we had been to Umhlanga before.  In no time all the necessary admin was done while we were also signed up for the IHG Rewards program.  Not just do they offer great benefits to regular guests, but you also get additional Wi-Fi vouchers which meant we could connect both our phones and the laptop to upload photos over the weekend.  After a quick chat to the hotel manager who came past while we were busy it was time to go and check out the room.

I don’t know why but I always had an impression that the Holiday Inn Express was some kind of budget hotel where you have to push yourself flat against the wall when you’re partner wanted to pass you or where you had to stand on the toilet to be able to close the bathroom door.  It was anything but.  We had a spacious room waiting for us with, big enough to also have a couch next to the bed (not that I needed it over the weekend being in the Damselfly’s good books and all), a coffee making station and a bathroom bigger than what I always imagined the rooms were.  What a surprise!  Just shows when you have ignorant preconceived perceptions about places.  Not just did we have a big room but also one with a sea view and a balcony. Ha! VIP treatment bonus.  Unfortunately the PE wind followed us to Durbs so we didn’t spend a lot of time out on the balcony though. 

Umhlanga is divided into two areas.  Umhlanga Beach and Umhlanga Ridge.  The hotel is located up on the edge of the ridge which means that you’re not quite on the beach itself, but rather about a kilometer or two up the road.  It does mean that the hotel has a killer view of Umhlanga Rocks below as well as the whole coastline all the way to Durban.  It also means that it’s a lot cheaper than the ultra expensive hotels right on the Umhlanga beach (making this no ministerial R11 000 a night visit), making it a lot more affordable to visit this popular coastal destination.  What really counts in your favour as well is that the hotel has a local taxi company they use with whom you can bill your taxi fare back to your room.  It means you can head down to the beach for a walk and leave your wallet in the hotel safe. 
Breakfast, included in the room rate, is served in the Great Room and includes the full buffet offer of hot and cold options with coffee and muffins available if you just want a quick snack before heading off to an early meeting or the airport.  The first of our two evenings at the hotel we decided to have dinner at the Butcher Block next door.  I’m purposely not posting anything about it because I’m doing a totally separate post about it.  Why? Because we probably had the best steaks we have ever had.  EVER. Another bonus is that you can also bill this back to your room. 
As we flew into Durban and didn’t have a car, we were worried that we may get stuck at the hotel or will have to take a taxi every time we wanted to go anywhere.  Other than taking the taxi down to the beach and back, we actually ended up not needing any transport.  Gateway Shopping Centre is literally 5 minutes’ walk from the hotel and other than crossing one road it’s just about a walk in the park.  Except you’re walking on a sidewalk.  We popped up there for a few things Friday afternoon, dinner on Saturday and then again to check out the Sunday market nearby.  If the weather played along we would have spent some time next to the hotel’s pool as well, but the wind was horrible.  Not the hotel’s fault though.  Actually, the pool is quite sheltered but it was a little too chilly to take my shirt off, not to mention going in the water.
All in all the weekend was a rather pleasant surprise.  Not just did the Damselfly get to visit Umhlanga for the first time, I actually got reminded, as mentioned before, that preconceived ideas about a place can be very wrong.  In this case we got a huge surprise in both the quality and well as the substance of the Holiday Inn Express brand of hotels.  Sponsored trip or not, I can definitely recommend the Holiday Inn Express hotels for anybody looking for something just below the top of the range type places with what the hotel didn’t have in luxury it definitely made up for in friendliness, service and location.

Disclosure: We were invited for a weekend at the Holiday Inn Express Umhlanga by the InterContinental Hotels Group and they carried all the costs for the weekend.  They asked for a blog post to be written but had no editorial input in the content of the post. 

The good, the bad and the ugly of the Wild Coast

The Wild Coast has always been one of those within reach yet just a tad too far away destinations for me.  Living in Port Elizabeth I have travelled down the Garden Route and through the western part of the Eastern Cape quite extensively, but the Great Kei River beyond East London was like a hurdle I just didn’t get to cross that easily.  That was until I planned a short Wild Coast road trip as part of a journey to Durban.  After my experience I have to say the title of this post should actually be the good, beautiful, good, scenic, good, lekker, good, awesome and a little bit of bad and ugly of the Wild Coast.  Please don’t stare yourself blind against the bad and ugly and crucify me for mentioning it.  The only reason I put it in here is to let people know to expect it and not to try and put them off.  In actual fact, the reason for this post is the total opposite.  I want people to go and experience the Wild Coast like I did.  So lets get going.     
After a Monday morning meeting in East London I pointed the Polo up the N2 to Butterworth from where the road took me south to Kentani.  That was where I hit my first dirt road which was the first bit of ugly of the trip.  The ugly quickly gets neutralised though by the rolling hills covered in villages, friendly people waving and unusual scenes you just don’t get to encounter in the city.  Just keep an eye on the road and make sure you bob and weave around the potholes and you will be okay.
The Wild Coast is literally one big surprise after another and arriving at Wavecrest Beach Hotel was no different. WOW! with capitals and an exclamation mark at the end.  Wavecrest  is situated on the banks of a lagoon (and a stone’s throw from the river mouth) where the Inxaxo and Ngqusi Rivers flow together and immediately became one of my favorite Wild Coast locations.  A very friendly receptionist greeted me at arrival and after checking me in took me on a tour of the hotel and facilities… in her slippers.  At first I thought it very strange but then I realized that it was the first sign of how laidback the place really is. 
I dropped my bags in my rondavel, changed into shorts and slops and headed down to the river where I grabbed one of the hotel’s kayaks and paddled out onto the lagoon.  Which way to go? Up the Inxaxo or the Ngqusi? What the heck! Why not do both?  It wasn’t long before I found myself between the mangroves with the only sounds being the distant ocean and a couple of pied kingfishers dive bombing into the water around me.  What more do you want?  Before I knew it the sun was starting to head towards the horizon and I had to start paddling my way back to the hotel while making a mental note that I will have to come and do this again properly at some stage.
Back at the hotel I decided to explore a bit and discovered that the hotel has 30 units ranging from doubles to family units all either garden or river / sea facing.  The hotel also have various public areas including a full snooker table games room, TV “cinema”, lounge and bar area.  I grabbed a ice cold Savanna from the bar and found myself a spot with a view out on the verandah to wait for dinner time.  It was here that I met the hotel’s general manager taking a stroll around.  Guess what?  He was also in his slippers.  Take that suite and tie people!  Like so many of the other Wild Coast hotels Wavecrest offers an extensive dinner buffet.  As it was midweek and midterm there weren’t a lot of guests in-house yet the selection of food on the buffet was still way more than what I could try out.    
The plan was to be up before sunrise the next morning and get a couple of pictures of the sun breaking the horizon.  I never set my alarm and woke up with a start… Was it too late?  I threw open my door and noticed the sun  was moments away from showing itself. Talk about timing.  I grabbed my camera and rushed out.  Seemed a couple of other guests had the same idea as I was joined on the river bank by two others doing exactly the same.  Taking photos of a sunrise on the Wild Coast. See two of those pics here and here.  This was followed by a walk out to the river mouth from where I could look back at the hotel. Ah, I wish I could have stayed longer.

After breakfast it was time to hit the road back towards Butterworth to continue my Wild Coast adventure to Coffee Bay via a stop at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu.  On my way up the gravel road I was stopped in my tracks by a typical Transkei road block.  These guys just didn’t want to let me through, approaching on all sides to check my license and probably the state of my tyres.  Eventually a couple of young guys coming past had a word with them and I was allowed through.  I should have just told them to mooooo’ve.

Hitting the tar I was on my way at full tilt again with the next stop being Qunu.  Qunu is where former president Nelson Mandela grew up as a young boy, with his birthplace at Mvezo not far away.  It is also where Madiba’s family home is and you pass the homestead on the right just before getting to Qunu. 
I have never been to the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu and decided to stop for a quick look.  I wasn’t quite planning to do the tour but changed my mind when I was met at the entrance by one of the guides.  Unfortunately I’m going to lie to you if I didn’t say I was slightly disappointed.  They can really do so much more with the museum and what they have on display.  Most of the museum’s exhibits are nothing more than a few photographs with information on the walls in two rooms that visitors have to read.  I was expecting more things associated with Mandela like I have seen in the Mandela exhibit in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg recently.  But on to the rest of the tour.  The view from the museum stretches for miles and the guide pointed out a few places of note.  We then took a walk away from the buildings down to the sliding rock.  The sliding rock is where Mandela and the boys from the village came to play.  They would slide down the rocks and there are a few spots where you can see the rock has been smoothed over the years with all the boys going down.  Definitely the highlight of my visit was going down there myself.  But more of that in another post soon.  The museum does offers guided tours to all the significant Mandela sites in the area and if you have time, doing that would be worth a lot more than just visiting the museum.
Next stop…  Ocean View Hotel in Coffee Bay.  Driving into Coffee Bay after negotiating another stretch of potholed dirt road, I was slightly bummed.  I was expecting this quaint little village on the coast, something like Wilderness on the Garden Route.  It didn’t quite look like the picture I had in my head.  Don’t ask me why I thought that.  You just sometimes tend to imagine something a certain way it Coffee Bay wasn’t what I imagined.  The village quickly took me by the shoulders and shook me awake though, showing me a place with character.  Various characters actually. Quirky characters, quant spots to eat and drink, friendly people and more stunning scenery.  Didn’t take long for me to create a new picture in my head and disappointment quickly took a walk out to sea and disappeared under the waves.
Unfortunately part of disappointment returned to me shortly later.  After checking into the hotel I decided that I had to go and see the Hole in the Wall.  How can I say I have been to the Wild Coast and am an expert on the Eastern Cape without having visited Hole in the Wall?  I asked for directions at the hotel and I can’t say the receptionist didn’t warn me about the road, but shortly later I was heading along a dirt road down the coast to the holy grail of Wild Coast attractions.  This is unfortunately where I encountered the real ugly of the Wild Coast.  Not just one ugly.  More like two ugly step sisters causing a lot of harm to the beauty everybody wants to see.  Firstly there was the road.  Parts of it made the general potholed dirt roads looks like a smooth as glass tar road.  Going down two of the hills en-route I had to literally get out my car to find the best route through the dongas.  When I finally negotiated my way along to the grassy parking area, the ugliest of the two step sisters stepped up.  I was suddenly swamped by informal guides wanting to look after my car and “guide” me to Hole in the Wall. “Its only 10 minutes walk mister,” one told me.  “I’ll take you and will show you.”  No, I didn’t want him to take me or show me.  In actual fact, I felt intimidated.  I also didn’t feel comfortable leaving my car with the lot around and decided that I didn’t have to see the Hole in the Wall to be able to say I experienced the Wild Coast.  I turned around and negotiated my way back through the dongas, snapping the picture above with the Hole in the Wall just visible in the distance.  I promote the Eastern Cape and thus also the Wild Coast every day.  When it comes to the Hole in the Wall though I will now in future change my angle to tell people to book a tour from their accommodation establishment which will take them there in a 4×4 and has its own guide on board.  A much less stressful option. 
I wasn’t going to allow my Hole in the Wall non-experience to get me down though and decided to go and climb the hill between the main beach and Bomvu Bay.  This wasn’t a bad idea at all.  The walk took me along the beach and through the shallow Nenga River mouth.  From here I followed a path up along the sea side of the hill, eventually looking probably a good 50 meters straight  down on the sea below.  The view from the top was amazing looking down on the village on one side and the coastline on both.  Really worth the climb and fully (ok, mostly then) made up for the earlier disappointment.
The Oceanview Hotel didn’t just get its name because the hotel is close to the ocean.  It got it’s name from the magnificent views of the ocean.  Something that seems to be a prerequisite for any Wild Coast hotel.  My room was in the main building above the restaurant area and had the most stunning – so much more than just decent – view down the main Coffee Bay beach.  I wanted to take a walk into the village before dinner and grab a drink at one of the quirky bars I mentioned earlier but changed my mind when we were plunged into a deepest darkest Wild Coast situation.  Eishkom implemented loadshedding.  Instead I enjoyed a drink on the hotel balcony listening to the sea which was not even a hundred meters away.  The traditional Wild Coast buffet made an appearance and like the previous night I stood there with a couple of decisions to be made.  Stew, curry or seafood, salad or veg, do I have soup for starter, which dessert to end the meal with?  So I had a bit of soup and then hit the seafood platter. Prawns, calamari and mussels.  And just in case you wondered.  I ended with the cheese and biscuits rather than sweets.  Back in my room I decided to read a bit but left the balcony door open.  Eventually putting my book down, switching off the light and just listened to the ocean.  How I wish I could hear the sea like this from my house.

After an early breakfast it was time to hit the road again.  The plan was to head further north, swing by Port St Johns and then aim for the Wild Coast Sun.  By now you’ve figured out what the ugly part in the post’s title is.  But what would be the bad?  For me the bad of the Wild Coast are the children.  Not them being children but what they do.  Every time one passes kids on the road they shout, “Sweeeeets”. Apparently it is something that has been happening for a very long time and not something anybody would be able to stop very quickly.  So why would I put this in a travel post?  I want to ask people not to oblige them by handing out sweets every time they encounter kids.  As long as people do it this kind of begging will continue and it can’t be good for either the kids or the image of the Wild Coast in the eye of visitors.  Just my 5c worth.

Although there are a lot of other Wild Coast hotels along the coast I still want to visit, I decided to organize my last night of the trip at Sun International’s Wild Coast Sun.  The hotel is nothing like the typical Wild Coast properties and include a casino, a lekker water park, sports facilities, lots of entertainment options and more.  The one thing that makes it similar to the other Wild Coast hotels is the location. On the coast with, yes you guessed it, beautiful coastal views from the rooms higher up.  I can already hear somebody ask why I decided to go there and not to another one of the “traditional” Wild Coast hotels. Fossils.  Fossils? Yes, you heard me right. Fossils.  

The Mzamba Cretaceous Deposits, referred to as the Mzamba Fossils and Petrified Forest Trail, is located on the beach right next to the hotel.  I joined a couple of other guests on a tour the next morning led by fossil guide Benny Mbotho.  Benny walked us about a kilometer or so down the coast from the hotel before he started pointing out the first of the petrified trees lying in the shallow waters of the exposed reef.  That was when I realized that my timing for the trip was just right as doing the tour at high tide would have meant that I wouldn’t have gotten to see the petrified forest part of the tour.  I have a couple of pieces of petrified wood in my collection that I got from my father-in-law, but they don’t come anywhere close to what we got to see.  Huge fossilized logs imbedded in rocks.  Even if we saw nothing else it was worth the trip.  But it wasn’t all.

Just down the beach from the petrified forest next to a series of cliffs and overhangs known as White Man’s Cave, came the next group of fossils.  The deposits consist of greyish-brown sandstone, as well as limestone, rich in fossil material dating back 80-million years.  These deposits include masses of marine shells, among them stunning examples of coiled ammonites, echinoids (sea urchins) and bivalve shells.  Benny also pointed out a fossilised sea turtle and huge clam shells.  My mind was all over the show.  This was an experience not to be forgotten if you have an interest in fossils.  The Mzamba Cretaceous Deposits should actually be one of the prime attractions of the Eastern Cape and be on most itineraries through the area. 

Before I knew it my three days on the Wild Coast was over and done with. Disappeared like mist in front of the sun.  Gone but not forgotten.  I think the biggest problem with this trip is that I just want to go again.  I want to see more, visit more places, stay in more of the hotels, meet more people and obviously do more of the Geocaches (which you will notice I didn’t keep mentioning in this post for a change *smile*).  It means I will have to find another excuse to go again… and again… and again.  To hell with the bad and ugly, pack your bags, fill up your car, check your spare tyre and head on over.  The Wild Coast is waiting and calling your name.

Disclosure: I received a generous discount from Wavecrest Beach Hotel and complimentary stays at Ocean View Hotel and the Wild Coast Sun due to my involvement in the tourism industry and not because of being a blogger.  My transport cost was covered by ECTOUR.  I received no further remuneration, wasn’t asked to write a positive post and keep full editorial control.

Cradock’s Tuishuise and Victoria Hotel

Driving through the Karoo from the interior to the Eastern or Southern Cape coast (or the other way around) and looking for a spot to sleep over?  The Karoo Heartland has some excellent overnighting spots in towns like Cradock, Graaff-Reinet, Nieu-Bethesda and Somerset East.  If Cradock is your overnight destination of choice then you really don’t need to look any further than the iconic Tuishuise and Victoria Manor Hotel.

Die Tuishuise  on Market Street in Cradock is made up of 30 beautifully restored Karoo style cottages.  These cottages date back to the 1840’s and are all furnished with antique furniture yet also includes all the modern amenities travelers require.  The Victoria Manor Hotel at the top of the street is one of the oldest hotels in South Africa and was built in 1848. 

Baviaans Lodge – a special oasis in the southern Baviaanskloof

The Baviaanskloof must be on the bucket list of a lot of South African travellers.  Stunning scenic beauty which, if she was a person, would put her in the top three of a Miss Universe competition.  Isolation, but not like just around the corner where you can’t hear the traffic.  A true wilderness area.  UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Overnighting in caves or on a river beach next to sheer cliffs.  Challenging roads.  Unfortunately for us mere sedan drivers a big part of it is only the domain of the 4×4 boys and off-road bikes.  Sedans can get in for a short distance from both the Willowmore and Patensie sides, but we will never see the middle section of the Kloof unless our cars have some sort of death wish.  Very few people know though that sedans can also get into the southern section of the Baviaans.  It was here where the Damselfly and I escaped to for a weekend without the Kids  to recharge our batteries at Baviaans Lodge.  Yes, we left the KidZ at home for a change. 
When we first got the invitation to go I was seriously worried about getting there.  Owner Rob le Roux put our minds at ease though and the trip was on.  To get there it’s about an hour and a half from Port Elizabeth to the Langkloof town of Kareedouw and from here you head along a dirt road over the Kouga Mountains and into the southern Baviaanskloof.  The lodge is situated 47km along said road and even though it was a little roughish every now and then, we comfortably got there.  With numerous photo stops, and believe me there are many possible ones, we arrived 90 minutes after hitting the dirt.  Cresting the last rise the lodge was visible in the valley below, looking like an oasis waiting to sooth our souls.  The only difference being this oasis wasn’t situated in a desert but in the midst of rolling hills and mountains, meandering streams and endless scenic views.  
As we pulled up to the lodge, the first thing I noticed was that I had no cellphone reception when I wanted to check in on Facebook.  Although I did find out that the lodge does offer guest wifi, I decided not to even ask Rob about it and left my phone on the bedside table for the next 48 hours.  Something we all need to do every now and then.  But I’m digressing.  We weren’t even out the car yet and Rob came to greet us.  A short tour of the main lodge with its sitting area, bar and dining room later and we were on our way to our cottage.  Baviaans Lodge has five stone cottages, all a short walk from the main lodge.  Not to sound too cliche’ but each cottage is well appointed and laid out with our’s, the Bush Cottage, giving us extra privacy due to its location.  The other thing that one spots immediately is the fact that there is no electricity. No city slickers, it doesn’t mean the end of the world.  You can go without television for a couple of days and, like I mentioned before, you don’t need to charge your mobile phone.  The best part of no electricity is that the soft light of burning lanterns and fire places give the place even more of an ambiance once the sun goes down.  Plus who needs a tv if you can watch a fire burning in the fireplace in your room.  Romantic. #nuffsaid.  Take that Eskom.
After putting down our bags and having a quick and welcome coffee out on the lodge’s verandah, it was time to explore a little bit.  What’s the use of being somewhere this beautiful and not knowing what it looks like?  Rob’s youngest son, Robert, took us for a walk around the lodge and showed us one of the ancient yellowwood trees growing on the property before we headed up a nearby valley to the dam.  What dam we didn’t know and he didn’t say, but this is what exploring is about, isn’t it?  Hopping across a stream a couple of times, with vegetation quickly changing from fynbos to a more foresty feel as we went deeper into the valley.  Suddenly the old dam loomed up in front of us.  It wasn’t the Gariep Dam nor was it a run of the mill farm dam.  It had a very old look and feel to it.  The kind of thing that immediately tickles my interest.  Once here we knew we won’t get lost anymore and released Robert from his responsibilities, watching him head back down the valley at a jog.  For most people just getting to the dam and enjoying the scenery and surroundings would be enough.  I wanted to go further. 

Getting the Damselfly up to the dam wall was the least of my problems though.  Getting her across to the other side where the trail continued was another thing.  It took some coaxing and promises of (hopefully) more beautiful settings and on we went.  She wasn’t sorry that she did though.  About 10 minutes later we got to the most beautiful spot we encountered all weekend.  A tranquil spot with cliffs all around, a mountain pool and a small waterfall beyond.  Not another soul in sight.  All you could hear was the water and the birds.  If it was warmer I would have stripped off and gone for a swim in the pool, but being autumn and late afternoon there was no way.  So we just sat there and took in all the spot had to offer.  What a pity we had to leave after a while but by then the sun had disappeared behind the mountain and started heading to bed already.

As far as food goes, Rob’s website states: We pride ourselves in offering the warmest country hospitality and  serve delicious country style cuisine. All our meals served are freshly prepared at every mealtime by your host in our Lodge kitchen. 
Spending two nights we were curious what the meals would consist of.  Firstly we are literally in the middle of nowhere with no shops nearby and secondly, Rob doesn’t strike you as the kitchen type and with only his boys (over weekends) and one staff member as help, one would have just expected him to throw a couple of tjops and wors on the coals and serve that with roosterkoek.  Would he even know what a salad was?
After sitting by the fireplace with a drink chatting to the other guests, Rob came out and announced that dinner was ready.  We were well and truly hollow after our afternoon walk and all the accompanying fresh air, so took our places in anticipation as the smell from the kitchen had our mouths watering for a while already.  Out came the most yummy cheese soufflé followed by stuffed chicken breasts served with veg and as dessert, malva pudding.  Truly delicious country style food.  Exactly as promised.  Dinner the next evening by the way, consisted of vegetable soup coupled with Rob’s home made buns (amongst the best I’ve ever had), meatballs, gravy and veg and topped off with peach pudding.  I just also want to give an honorary mention to the omlette I had the second morning.  True food porn.  Rob makes sure nobody leaves the dining room hungry.
Stunning accommodation… Lekker food…  Beautiful scenery… Friendly hospitality…  But Baviaans Lodge and Baviaanskloof was the gift that kept on giving.  We were still in for the biggest treat of the weekend.  Staying at the lodge the same weekend as us was Alan Fogarty of Alan Tours.  I have known Alan for years and must say that Alan must be one of the top nature guides in the Eastern Cape.  With that I mean as in better than most of the rangers that take guests around at the top notch game reserves in the province.  At breakfast Rob announced to the guests that Alan would take those of us who wanted to go and see the rock paintings on the property. WOW! What an unexpected surprised. 
After a short 20 minute drive on the back of Rob’s bakkie, now kitted out with home made seats for our comfort, we headed off on foot along another valley and up to the overhang where the rock paintings are located.  The walk wasn’t just a walk.  It was an moving lesson.  Every few steps Alan pointed out a different plant explaining names and uses, identified flowers, taught us the inner workings of termite hills and had us scan the surrounding hillsides for kudu and other animals.  He even knew that there was a few kudu up on the trail not far ahead of us by the fact that there were hoof prints in the soft sand after each stream we crossed.  How did he know they were just ahead of us?  The sand and rocks around it were wet from them splashing through.
The rock painting site must be one of the best I’ve ever been to.  Figures, animals, fish and hands adorned the rock walls.  There’s even one that looks like he has a cape on and shooting energy from his hands.  A cousin of Superman’s perhaps?  Yet again Alan’s knowledge came through as he explained what a lot of the drawings were and the thinking behind why they were put there and what they represented.  Like the previous evening at the mountain pool I just didn’t want to leave.  Luckily for us Alan wasn’t in a hurry and gave us more than ample time to examine and photograph the drawings. 
Before we knew it our time at Baviaans Lodge was over and we trekked back to civilization, proverbial batteries recharged and ready for whatever the weeks ahead were going to throw at us.  What did I take from this weekend?  You can experience the Baviaanskloof without actually going through the main Baviaanskloof.  You don’t need a 4×4 to experience this part of the Baviaanskloof cliché. Ok, I’m lying.  I didn’t learn that one.  I’ve known all along.  People just need to experience it more.
Disclosure: We enjoyed our visit as guests of  Baviaans Lodge.  I received no further remuneration, wasn’t asked to write a positive post and keep full editorial control.

Dune Ridge – a country jewel in the St Francis Bay crown

When you think St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape you tend to think beautiful coastline and black and white houses on the canals.  If you had to spend a weekend in St Francis you would probably expect your guesthouse to have stunning sea views or be situated right on the canals.  Yes, but not always.  We spend a fabulous weekend at Dune Ridge Country House just outside (and with this I mean literally only a stone’s throw away) St Francis Bay and found anything but.
As we arrived at Dune Ridge we knew we were in for a treat.  This award winning – it was the national winner in the four star country house category at the 2013 Lilizela Awards –  accommodation establishments are nestled away between thick coastal fynbos teeming with a multitude of bird species and the large dune fields to the rear of the property.  You are literally removed from the rest of St Francis Bay so it gives you a great country feeling while still only 5 minutes away from the beaches and canals.  We were welcomed by owner Sarah Swanepoel who showed to our rooms consisting of two of the 6 double rooms in the main house.  Unfortunately the family cottage outside was booked but there was an inter leading passage joining the rooms giving us our privacy yet still being close to the KidZ. 
The guesthouse is surrounded by lush gardens and once the KidZ started exploring they quickly came back to fetch us and point out the paths to the swimming pool and well hidden spa area.  The pool looks like the ideal spot to sit with a book and cool down between chapters.  Unfortunately for us it was a cool autumn weekend which meant that we skipped the pool and rather went for a couple of short hikes along the Cape St Francis coastline nearby.  The one thing we didn’t get a chance to do was Dune Ridge’s Frog Safari.  Not for the squeamish I presume but I’m sure the adventurous would get to see a couple of potential princes (and princesses?) hopping around in their torch lights.

Although Dune Ridge serves dinner we tried out a couple of places in the village.  Breakfast was a feast though, served out on the stoep the first day and inside the dining room the second.  Talk about spoiling us rotten.  The KidZ especially loved the waitress who brought them hot chocolates with probably more marshmallows in it than actual hot chocolate.  The same stoep was also the perfect spot for afternoon coffee and listening to the birds (when we could get to KidZ to be quite for 5 minutes) with a glass of wine around sunset.  Was it sunset or wine ‘o clock? I can’t remember.  But is there a difference?
Dune Ridge really is something a little bit different from what you expect out in that area.  The guesthouse is a mixture of colonial nostalgia and modern sophistication yet it isn’t stuffy and pretentious.  It’s family friendly, very homely, a beautiful setting, offers great service and dishes up good food.  Yes I know that line sounded just a bit too cliché but believe me, you get everything but cliché.  The only problem?  Our stay being just too short. 
Disclosure: We enjoyed the visit as guests of  Dune Ridge Country House.  I received no further remuneration, wasn’t asked to write a positive post and keep full editorial control.

Canals, Coastline and Candelabra flowers – Exploring St Francis Bay

We are very fortunate here in Port Elizabeth that we have a number of excellent destinations surrounding us.  This does mean that it isn’t always that easy to decide where to go for that much needed weekend break with your loved ones.  Seeing that we can’t get away over Easter this year, we decided to have a family weekend away a week or so earlier.  After much deliberation along with outside encouragement and a couple of invitations to visit, we decided to spend the weekend in St Francis Bay, throwing anchor at Dune Ridge Country House.  Dune Ridge an award winning four star Country House nestled between thick coastal fynbos and located just outside St Francis Bay.  It is actually perfectly located to give that “away from everything” feel while still being close enough to easily explore the nearby St Francis Bay and Cape St Francis. 
After a warm welcome by Sarah Swanepoel and her team, we settled in and explored the property a bit before a drive into St Francis to grab dinner.  Dune Ridge is a mixture of colonial nostalgia and modern sophistication.  When one thinks St Francis you think canals and coastline.  Dune Ridge isn’t quite that.  Its location rather lends to a bush and beach feel than just a coastal holiday  With six double rooms and a family unit it’s also not big and crowded like a hotel and gives you more than enough privacy to relax in. 

Saturday morning was a nice cool one so we decided to start the day off in Cape St Francis after breakfast and go for a walk.  A quick bit of research showed two possibilities, both with Geocaches for us to find.  You know me, a possible Geocache find is always a game breaker.  We decided to do both.  Heck, we’re here so why not?  The first walk was along the rugged coastline going westward from the village towards the blowhole.  The 2,5 km walk took us past the wreck of “The Osprey”.  Not that there is much left of it.  The ship, which wrecked here in 1867, was built of wood and all that remains are small twisted hunks of metal.  The blowhole itself is apparently impressive at high tide when the water rushes in through the cave and blows up through the hole in the rocks.  We unfortunately didn’t check the tides and ended up there at low tide. Bah humbug.  Will have to return some other time to see it perform for us.  The walk was still more than worth it with stunning coastal beautiful fynbos and lots of little flowers, especially the bright pink Candelabra flowers blooming at the moment.

Before the next walk we swung past the historic Seal Point Lighthouse and adjacent penguin sanctuary for a quick look around.  Renovations to the lighthouse is coming along very nicely and it will hopefully be open to the public again some time soon.  The SANCCOB penguin sanctuary offers tours around the facility to show visitors the awesome job they are doing in the African Penguin’s battle for continued survival.  
Our second walk was from the Port St Francis side to Shark Point, the easterly of the two points in the area, the other being Seal Point where the lighthouse is situated.  The cache we found near the point turned out to be the oldest active Geocache in the Eastern Cape.  Nice to get that ticked off my list.  The views on this side of the coastline is slightly different from the first walk as you look into St Francis Bay itself with mountains on the horizon across the bay and the houses along the coast in the distance.
Late afternoon we headed to Brisan on the Canals in St Francis Bay for a cruise on the canals.  The canals with their black and white houses are stunning and if feels like you are in a different world yet it’s right here in the Eastern Cape.  (And here I can’t help but to use my #experienceeastcape hashtag)  Other than just showing us the appeal of the area, owner and skipper Brian Cunningham was telling us about the huge fire that destroyed over 70 houses in 2012 and pointed out how many of them have been replaced, built bigger and better than before.  During the one hour tour we made our way out onto the Krom River and as we cruised along with a glass of wine in hand (cold drinks in the case of the KidZ) the sun set in the west behind us.  The perfect end to a choc and bloc day of exploring.
Sunday morning after breakfast we decided not to go out and spent some time next to Dune Ridge’s welcoming swimming pool.  After checking out we opted for a bit of a detour via Jeffreys Bay rather than heading straight back to PE and ended up on the beach at Aston Bay close to Marina Martinique. Oi, if only we had more time but this part of the Kouga will have to wait for another visit.

Disclosure: We enjoyed the visit as guests of  Dune Ridge Country House, Brisan on the Canals and Kouga Baviaans Surf and Safari CountryI received no further remuneration, wasn’t asked to write a positive post and keep full editorial control.

10 not to miss activities, restaurants and accommodation in the Tsitsikamma

Ahh, the Tsitsikamma…..  My favorite Sho’t Left destination for a couple of days’ breakaway.  Beautiful indigenous forests to sooth my soul, mountains on the horizon, streams running past ancient indigenous trees and forest giants to a rugged coastline where the blue ocean crashes as white waves on black rocks at the foot of sheer cliffs.  This part of the Garden Route must be one of the most beautiful places in South Africa.  Truly paradise.  The Tsitsikamma is a lot more than natural beauty and scenery though.  Its also a place of activities and adventures, some adrenalin filled and others a lot more relaxing.  I am fortunate that I work in the travel industry and the Tsitsikamma is one of the areas that I get to visit quite often both for work and play.  I decided to compile a list of 10 activities, restaurants and accommodation establishment (in no particular order) that I got to visit in 2014 and that is not to be missed.  Not that there isn’t more, because there is.  It’s just that I have had first hand experience of these.  

#1 Woodcutters Journey

I have a very special place in my heart and soul for an indigenous.  It’s somewhere I can go to unwind.  Somewhere I can sit in silence and allow all my problems to flow away from me, even if its just for a short time.  I like to go for a walk on any of the short trails through the forest around Stormsriver Village, but there is another way to explore it and learn at the same time.  The Woodcutters Journey is a guided tour down the old Storms River Pass is a specially designed vehicle.  The pass follows the old elephant migratory route down to the river and on the way passes tree ferns, stinkwoods, yellow woods and many other tree species.  The guide tells you more about the history of the area while pointing out the local flora and fauna. At the bottom of the pass the tour takes a break next to the river for a light lunch or tea and cake.  This is the ideal tour for older visitors or those who would like to learn more about the ins and outs of the forest.

#2 Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour

How about gliding through the indigenous forest like the elusive Knysna Loerie?  Experience the forest from above.  The Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour has become a iconic activity in the area and consists of 10 platforms and 10 zipline slides.  The tour takes about three hours and is more than just an adrenalin rush.  The guides aren’t just adventure guides, they also tell you more about the forest and what you see along the way.  I had the great opportunity to do a Canopy Tour with the family and it was something the KidZ have been talking about over and over.  Something I won’t forget quickly was getting ready to push off one of the platforms 30 meters up when suddenly two Knysna Loeries swooped up from below and took the lead for me to follow.  An experience you won’t forget that quickly.

#3 Tsitsikamma Segway Tour

One of my absolute favorite activities in the area is the Tsitsikamma Segway Tour.  A Segway is a personal transporter that is easy to handle and another perfect way to experience the forest.  You start off with a 15-20 minute training session on their training course where the guides make sure you know exactly how to handle your Segway safely before setting off.  The 1 hour Segway experience takes you on a journey through the quaint Stormsriver Village and follow one of a selection of routes among cool pine forest, the indigenous forest, or to the historical Witteklip bridge.  It also takes you through the local township.  The 2 hour tour, the one I went on, goes through Stormsriver Village, and into the cool pine forests.  From here we entered the ancient indigenous Tsitsikamma Forests and made our way along the paths to the famous and majestic 1000 year old Tsitsikamma Big Tree and back to the village.  Once you do it, I promise you won’t want to stop.

#4 Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures

How about flying over a river gorge, across a waterfall and along the river itself? You can do it at Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures.  The experience includes eight slides of which the longest is 211m.  It zigzags across the river gorge, sometimes as high as 50m above the water.  Because its open and you aren’t amongst the trees, you get a better idea of height which gives you the opportunity to really take in the views and your surroundings as you go along.  Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures is situated on the N2 about 10 minutes east of Storms River Bridge and takes about an hour and a half which is ideal if you haven’t got that much time in the area.
Because I have done both Tsitsikamma Falls zipline and the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour, I have had a lot of people ask me which one is better.  It’s really impossible to say because other than the fact that they are both guided zipline experiences, they don’t have much else in common.  They use different zipline “setups”, the one is a full on tour while the other is more seen as an adrenalin activity, one takes it easy which is more time consuming while the other is a much shorter experience, one involves the forest and the other a river gorge and so I can go on.  It really depends on what you want and what experience you’re looking to have.  If you have the time and your budget allows, I would say you have to do and experience both.

#5 The Big Tree

The Big Tree is as part of the Tsitsikamma as the Tsitsikamma National Park down on the coast is.  Probably the second most visited spot in the area by tour groups (don’t go and quote me on that now).  The forest around this 1000 years old tree (I’m sure when I was still guiding 7 years ago the signs still said 800 years) forms part of the Tsitsikamma National Park which now is a sub section of the Garden Route National Park.  The Big Tree is a great leg stretch stop if you are just passing through or something to go and do early morning or in the afternoon to take your mind off all the other things you can do in the area.  From the parking area it’s a nice easy 500 meter walk along a boardwalk to the tree.  Americans seem to be disappointed when they get there, but it is because they are used to Redwood Trees back home.  She is a biggie though and stand 36.6 meters tall with a circumference of nearly nine meters and a canopy spread of about 33 meters.

#6 Regyne Protea Farm

Did you know that the biggest commercial protea farm in the world can be found in the Tsitsikamma? No?  Well it is.  About 8 or so years ago I used to visit the farm on specially organized tours with British tourists, but Dewald Niemann of Oudebosch Farmstall now offers groups regular tours to the farm.  During a visit you don’t just get to see the proteas growing in the fields, but also how they pick, sort and pack them for export.  The warehouse isn’t that big, but it’s an amazing sight walking into the cold storeroom and seeing the whole place full of flowers waiting to be shipped out.  The tour also includes the protea nursery where Hanli Viljoen may just take you around to show off all her babies.  This is another of the activities in the area that I got to share with my family this year.  Bookings can be made through Oudebosch Farmstall and there are minimum numbers so give them a call in advance to check if there is a tour going.

#7 Marilyn’s 60’s Diner and #8 Oudebosch Farmstall

I’m combining #7 and #8 in one heading as they are both restaurants. 
Visiting the village of Stormsrivier, you would never expect to find a place like Marilyn’s 60’s Diner there.  It’s all neon and chrome with lots and lots of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and 60’s memorabilia.  This is also where you would find the annual Elvis Festival Africa. Very cool indeed.  Marilyn’s is great for a burger and chips lunch stop, because burgers and chips is what you eat at a place like this.  Their milkshakes also go down like a dream after a walk in the forest while a midmorning coffee between activities is also an option.  Right next door there’s also a new micro brewery, but that I’ll keep for next time after I have had a chance to try it out.
One of the most popular stops in the area is Oudebosch Farmstall on the eastern side of the Tsitsikamma.  Oudebosch is more than just a regular farmstall.  It has three main components to it.  There is the supermarket servicing the surrounding farming community and tourists heading to Eersterivier and a curio shop where you will find mostly South African crafts and gifts.  The main reason people stop here though is the restaurant / coffee shop.  Oudebosch has a full lunch menu which is very popular but they are truly famous for their mouth watering roosterkoek made right there in the restaurant on the coals. 

#9 Tsitsikamma Village Inn

The Tsitsikamma is truly blessed with a wide range of excellent accommodation establishments starting with camping and self catering in the Tsitsikamma National Park to backpackers hostels, B&B’s, guesthouses and hotels.  My favorite place to stay is the Tsitsikamma Village Inn, right in the heart of Stormsriver Village, where the main building dates back to 1845.  The hotel has 49 free-standing rooms and is laid out like a village with each cottage individually styled, themed and decorated to match specific colonial building styles found on the Garden Route.  Facilities include the De Oude Martha Restaurant, the Hunters Pub and Cafe Bacchus.  I prefer to have dinner in the Hunters Pub just because its a lot more cosy than the restaurant, but the food is great no matter where you eat.  The hotel is also very centrally located allowing one to explore the village and surrounding forest on foot without having to take your car.  I know I should try out some of the excellent guesthouses nearby, but I’m always drawn back to the hotel thanks to great hospitality by owners Chris and Irma.  Plus they always invite me back so how can I say no?  

#10 Eersterivier

Eersterivier is one of the secret gems of the Tsitsikamma.  The village is hidden away right on the coast close to Oudebosch Farmstall and consist of privately owned holiday homes.  Accommodation at Eersterivier is on a self-catering basis in these holiday homes and can be booked through  Tsitsikamma Seaside Accommodation.  Eersterivier offers a serene seaside holiday experience.  Days are spent on the beach, doing hikes along the coast or through the surrounding fynbos, doing shore based whale and dolphin watching or playing golf at the nearby Fynbos Golf Course.  Either that or just grab a good book and enjoy the magnificent coastal views from the deck of your house.  We spent a weekend Sho’t Left in Eersterivier recently and the KidZ just loved the area. 
As they say in television infomercials, “BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.”  These are just the ones I did in 2014 so watch this space and I will report on more Tsitsikamma activities, restaurants and accommodation in 2015.  Right now I’m compiling my list of things to do so I won’t mention names just yet…….