Inspirational food in Nieu-Bethesda

One of the things you can always be sure of while traveling through the Karoo Heartland of the Eastern Cape is that you will get good food, fantastic hospitality and a full tummy. Visiting Nieu-Bethesda one would expect your meal to be lamp chops, a hearty stew or something straight from granny’s kitchen. So finding a place with inspirational fusion foods straight out of something you’ll expect on a Master Chef cooking competition was totally unexpected. Enters Barbara and Johan Weitz of The Ibis. Their little restaurant is called Stirlings and all their meals incorporate indigenous medicinal herbs and plants harvested from the veld and their own vegetable garden as well as locally sourced meat and produce.

I was in Nieu-Bethesda for a tourism meeting at The Ibis and afterwards Barbara gave us a taste of what they have on their menu in the form of several mouthwatering snacks and titbits that had us begging for more. Not just was the plates put in front of us, but Barbara also explained what each item was and where the ingredients come from.

The lunch included the following items and is expanded on with a full 6 course meal available from the menu. Starting with the cup and going around clockwise:

ūüĆĪRoasted butternut soup with Wilde Als,

ūüĆĪ Babotie Tartlet with spekboom chutney,

ūüĆĪ Veldtroos, a digestive tea served with Wildmint, wildeals, Veldtee & lemon verbena,

ūüĆĪ Grilled Zuchini Parcel with Handmade Turmeric pasta, oyster mushrooms and a roasted red pepper & Nasturtium sauce,

ūüĆĪ Locally sourced cold meat,

ūüĆĪ Stoneground wheat seed bread with Karoo bossie Charcuterie, labne with Camdeboo Zataar spice. The flower for the bread is stone ground at the historic watermill in Nieu-Bethesda.

I could have had a plate of any of those items, but my item of choice was definitely the Bobotie.

The biggest surprise of the day came with the dessert

ūüĆĪ Roasted garlic ice cream with a veldtee shortbread, and

ūüĆĪ Wildmint infused Pannacotta tart with a bloubos coulis.

Yes, you read right. Roasted garlic ice cream. And before you say “Yuck!” That was my first thought, but it turned out to be anything but. It was the best home made ice cream with a sweet taste of roasted garlic hitting you in the back of your mouth just ever so slightly.

Next visit to Nieu-Bethesda Stirlings at The Ibis is definitely going to be on my list of things to do and then I’m having the full meal and an extra scoop of roasted garlic ice cream.

Mahai Campsite – heaven in the Drakensberg

Nestled in a beautiful valley in the Royal Natal National Park of the Northern Drakensberg is a campsite that regularly makes lists of top campsites in South Africa. Six years ago we discovered Mahai Campsite for the first time and spend an unfortunate holiday there during major floods that hit the area that summer.  Even with all that it still counts as one of our favorite holidays and when we left that year we vowed to be back some time.  After making a few other summer holiday turns over the last few years we decided to head back to the Berg this past December and topped our previous visit by a country mile.    

Mahai lies along the Mahai River in the shadow of the Dooley Mountain with the world famous Amphitheatre looking on over its shoulder. ¬†What does this mean? The campsite is IN the mountains. ¬†It’s definitely not one of those campsites that sell itself as a Drakensberg campsite yet the mountains are only visible on the horizon. ¬†Here the sun disappears behind the mountain in the late afternoon, summer thunderstorms roll straight off the mountains and the mountain streams and hiking trails run right through your backyard. ¬†It truly is a mountain campsite. In the mountains. ¬†With mountains all around.
Mahai has about 120 campsites equally split between electric and non electric sites with more than enough ablution facilities, washing up areas and space. ¬†Lots and lots of space. ¬†It’s definitely not one of those campsites where you are squashed in like sardines in summer like you often see along the coast. ¬†The campsites are huge and the space between even bigger. ¬†Facilities are well looked after, ablutions kept clean and security is tight keeping day visitors to the park as well as passing baboon troops out.¬†
If you want to know anything while at Mahai you just ask Lucky. ¬†Lucky is supposed to be the day security guy but he literally is Mr Mahai. ¬†In addition to being day security he makes sure everything in the camp runs smoothly, he points out empty spots to arriving campers, is always available to give you a helping hand and chases off any baboons coming too close. ¬†Lucky is always smiling and returning campers come over to greet him with a hearty handshake and a “How are you Lucky? Great to see you again.” ¬†Lucky is also teaching himself to be a birder and always have his binocs and bird book handy. ¬†Most importantly, the kids just love him. ¬†Probably because he’s always friendly.
One of the best parts of Mahai is the fact that I can just sit in front of my tent and watch the mountains, listen to the nearby stream and just chill. ¬†Relax heaven and one huge adapter to plug one’s soul into for a major recharge. ¬†Also because it’s a back to nature campsite people really respect the environment so nobody spoils the atmosphere with load music and parties. ¬†It’s about listening to the wind in the trees, the stream flowing over the rocks and the Piet-my-Vrou calling rather than your neighbour’s doef doef music. ¬†Absolute heaven.¬†

Mahai is like a free range reserve for kids. ¬†The whole campsite is enclosed with only two gates so you know the kids won’t go very far. ¬†They tend to disappear in the mornings and only reappear when they get hungry or thirsty. ¬†If there was a cricket game somewhere we knew exactly where to find Miggie while Chaos Boy kept on searching out a quiet spot somewhere to read a book or let his imagination run wild with him without being disturbed. ¬†The kids were like herds of animals the way they grouped up and kept on moving from one place to another.¬†
The campsite may not have a swimming pool but there is no shortage of spots to go for a swim. ¬†The main swimming area is about 700 meters up the Mahai River from the campsite at the Cascades, a safe swimming spot where the river cascades over a series of little waterfalls and through shallow pools. ¬†If you’re looking for something a little quieter then there are more than enough options along the path upstream. ¬†A couple of times the herd of kids (under the watchful eye of one or two parents) would just go for a swim in the river right outside the campsite. ¬†You may not be able to dive in and swim laps in the river, but what is better than being able to swim in a fresh clean mountain stream like this? ¬†Definitely not something us city folk get to do very often.

The biggest advantage of staying at Mahai is the fact that you don’t have to get in the car to drive somewhere to be able to go for a walk in the mountain. ¬†The trails all start right outside the gate and vary in length and difficulty. ¬†We did a couple of easy 6 km morning trails during our stay while I headed off on a longer 13 km walk the one day to find some Geocaches. ¬†Did I mention there are about 50 Geocaches in the park? No? Well now I did. ¬†As we opted to just do nothing on a couple of days we didn’t get to do all the trails in the area and some of the longer and more challenging ones we left for a future visit. ¬† ¬†¬†
The trails don’t just offer beautiful mountain and valley views. ¬†Most of them cross various streams along the way and end up at a waterfall at some stage or another. ¬†Lot’s of opportunities to fill water bottles, cool down feet and bodies or just sit and watch the water flow by. ¬†

Deciding to return to the Drakensberg this summer was the best decision we could make and you can’t go wrong by choosing Mahai as your Drakensberg campsite of choice. ¬†It’s may not be a “resort type” campsite with holiday programs and organised activities to keep everybody busy, or have a pool with slides and a putt putt course next to it. ¬†But who needs all of that when you have the mountains all around you to admire, lots of space to set your head straight in again, hiking trails to get out on, streams to cool off in, waterfalls and the chance to really immerse yourself in nature? ¬†
Everything has a bit of a downside though and it can’t always be moonshine and roses, so I don’t want to pretend that Mahai is any different. ¬†The first of the two biggest ones for us was the fact that the nearest town is a good 50km away and unless you carry absolutely everything with you and have a proper fridge along you will have to make the trip at least once, especially seeing that the little shop in the park has a very limited variety of things. ¬†The other is the fact that you are in the mountains in a summer rainfall area and its nothing strange to have a thunderstorm suddenly appearing over the mountain mid or late afternoon that comes to mess around with your braai fire. ¬†Just make sure your tent is properly waterproof and there there is enough firelighters around to get the fire going again and Bob’s your uncle. ¬†We did have one spectacular midnight thunderstorm with Miggie not being very impressed with the thunder and lightning, but seeing that we’re not used to thunderstorms I really enjoyed listening (and watching) to it pass over. ¬†Ok, so these are minor downsides compared to all the advantages of camping at Mahai but I just wanted to mention them.¬†
If Mahai and the Drakensberg wasn’t so far from Port Elizabeth we would probably head out that way a lot more often than once every few years. ¬†At about 1 100 km the trek is just a bit on the long side. ¬†Next time we’ll probably try and visit in winter to see what these mountains look like covered in snow but regardless of when, we will definitely be back.

Disclosure: This camping holiday at Mahai in the Drakensberg was our annual summer holiday and was done at our own cost 

Master Chef judging, the Firefly version – Ginger Restaurant

Port Elizabeth is very quickly getting a reputation as a good food destination with visiting bloggers and journalists raving about the variety and quality of restaurants and food markets available around the city in their articles. ¬†Now I’m not food expert although I am known to enjoy a good steak / pizza / chop and braaibroodjie / plate of home cooked food / cinnamon and sugar pancake / or > insert whatever food here< on occasion. ¬†I'm not the judgmental type (friends not allowed to comment on this) and can be pleased very easily when it comes to food, but I have also watched my share of cooking shows so have learned to not just stick my food in my mouth, chew, swallow and not have an opinion about it. ¬†So Facebook will hear about it if it wasn't good. ¬†Having known that, the marketing people at Ginger Restaurant probably wouldn't have been so quick to invite me to the relaunch of Ginger at the Beach Hotel. ¬†Or if they did, perhaps they had the conviction of their chef's abilities to back the invitation up with.¬†

Since opening in 2007, Ginger Restaurant has carved a reputation for itself as a fine dining restaurant with a comfortable yet upmarket atmosphere.  The restaurant just underwent a refurbishment to modify its contemporary flair and under the guidance of interior designer Michele Leyland, Ginger has a fresh look but with the characteristics that it has developed over the last nine years.  That, along with being awarded a Platinum Wine List Award from Diners Club International, the relaunch was seeing in a new era of dining at Ginger.

The Damselfly and I were the first guests to arrive the evening (seeing that it was a school night and all) so chose one of the best seats in the house. ¬†Right by the big windows with a view across the road towards Hobie Beach and Shark Rock Pier. ¬†It was dark though, and raining, but we wanted to sit there regardless. ¬†We were showed to the table and was served welcome drinks. ¬†Now I’m not a whiskey drinker, but the whiskey cocktail I got really wasn’t bad at all. ¬†Wonder if they would tell me what went into it so I can try making it at home next time somebody comes over. ¬†You know, that’s how you impress folk.

Ordinarily Ginger would have an a la carte menu but for one night only they had a Relaunch 7 course menu for diners to enjoy. First up was Amuse Bouche. ¬†Like I said, I’m not food expert or restaurant critic, so I had to turn to my friend Google to see what it meant. ¬†To quote Wikipedia, An amuse-bouche [aňĆmyzňąbu É] (plural amuse-bouches) or amuse-gueule [aňĆmyzňą…°Ňďl] is a single, bite-sized hors d’Ňďuvre. Our Amuse Bouche was made up of rare beef, onion marmalade, blue cheese and guacamole on croutons. Bite sized? ¬†Probably more like two bites if you didn’t want to struggle to chew because of a overly full mouth. ¬†The Damselfly wouldn’t ordinarily do the blue cheese thing nor am I an avocado fan, but together this was a bite that ushered in a very enjoyable evening of dining. ¬†Ok, so now I also want to know how to make onion marmalade.

Next on the menu was the Starter consisting of poached crayfish, mussel, mange trout and seaweed salad all in an aromatic chorizo and saffron broth. ¬†When our waitress put the plates down I wondered why she had a teapot on the tray but it turned out to be the broth that she then poured over the seafood. ¬†The Damselfly who will always order seafood if it’s on the menu was over the moon and it probably came in as her third favorite of the dishes for the evening. ¬†You’ll see her top two below. Unfortunately it was my least favorite, but hey, I only learned to eat Sushi the other day. ¬†Please don’t misunderstand me, there was nothing wrong with it. ¬†I just didn’t enjoy it as much as what was to follow.
After a sorbet to cleanse the palate (no, I’m not posting a photo of sorbet), the first of two Tasting Plates were served. ¬†Lamb chop, herb crumb toasted cumin cauliflower pops, candied carrots and a chive mash finished with a natural lamb jus. ¬†If they had just served me a big plate of this I would not have wanted anything else for the rest of the meal. ¬†The first thing I tried was the cauliflower pops. ¬†Nice texture and slightly crispy. Man, I’ve got to try this at home. ¬†The lamb was soft, juicy and the spicing was perfect. ¬†If this was made outside over the fire, Justin Bonello of Ultimate Braai Master would have been seriously impressed. ¬†Candied carrots? No, not just sweet carrots. Candied like a toffee apple gets candied. Great combination along with the green mash. Perhaps I don’t do fine dining enough, but I approached the green mash with a Dr Seuss rhyme in the back of my head before recomposing myself. Can’t help but laugh looking back at that. ¬†This dish was definitely the favorite one with both of us.
The second Tasting Plate was made up of toasted beetroot risotto, pickled mushroom, home cured venison loan and finished with a smoked creme fraiche. ¬†The Damselfly once, many moons ago on a cruise we took, had a very bad risotto experience which often still comes up as a personal joke between us. ¬†She wasn’t so sure about this one. ¬†Me on the other hand dove straight in to find out what the risotto tasted like. ¬†A very peculiar taste and not bad at all. ¬†She picked a pickled mushroom off and said it tasted sour. ¬†This is where watching Master Chef comes in. ¬†It’s not about the individual components of the dish, but rather what they taste like as a combination. ¬†And no, they don’t just make that up as something to say on television. ¬†I piled a bit of everything onto my fork and took a bite. Mmmmm, now there’s a combination that talks to each other very civilised. ¬†This time around the shoe was on the other foot and I really enjoyed the dish while the Damselfly didn’t. ¬†It just shows that it is different strokes for different folks.

The Pre-Dessert was more like a different take on a palate cleanser and had a combination of fruit to start the transition from savory to sweet.  Bring on Dessert. 
Dessert came in a close second on both our favorite dish ratings although it could well have been a draw with the earlier lamb. ¬†Salted caramel ribbon, chocolate and Frangelica soil, ginger sponge accompanied with a smooth mango sorbet and mint leaves. This was chew your lips off lekker. ¬†If Ginger would package and sell the caramel ribbons I would probably have a standing order for them. ¬†Yet again the whole combination was a winner. ¬†We ended off our evening with coffees and then it was back to real life but with the memory of a great meal enjoyed in the perfect environment. ¬†That big boerseun from the Free State would probably have stopped for a burger afterwards, but we found the meal to have been just enough not to feel uncomfortably full, the flavours were perfect and the service excellent. Obviously I will have to come back another time to see what is on Ginger’s new menu. ¬†Now back to the salted caramel ribbons. ¬†Could I perhaps have the recip… Never mind.¬†
Disclosure: I was invited to the re-launch by Ginger Restaurant¬†as I work in the tourism industry and not as a blogger. ¬†They didn’t ask for a blog post to be written (and not being a food writer I don’t think they even thought I’ll post something about the meal) and I keep full editorial control over the post and content.

Butcher Block Umhlanga – the BEST steak I have ever had

I don’t think there is anybody out there¬†(except obviously vegetarians or vegans)¬†who doesn’t love a good steak. ¬†Not everybody can make a good steak though. ¬†I have tried many times and just can’t get it right. ¬†It’s always either done to much or not enough and I think the Damselfly may even have given up on me finally producing her the perfect steak. ¬†But there are those who CAN make the perfect steak and on my visit to Umhlanga recently I discovered just the place to enjoy it at. ¬†Unfortunately it’s just too far from home to do so on a regular basis.
The Butcher Block Restaurant is located on Umhlanga Ridge right next to the Holiday Inn Express Umhlanga where we were staying.  The nice part of staying at the Holiday Inn Express was that we could sign the bill to our room and only settle it along with the room bill on departure. 
We decided to indulge a bit and go for starters as well before tucking into the steaks.  The Damselfly loves mussels and I love cheese so she opted for the Mussel starter (Half shell mussels gently simmered with Chardonnay, garlic, mascarpone cheese and cream) while I went for the Camembert starter (Deep fried camembert cheese served with roasted almonds, fresh rocket, cranberry sauce and melba toast).  Great options on both instances.  Second tick for Butcher Block for the evening.  The first being the great service we received from the moment we walked in.  A greeting at the door, a greeting from a passing manager, a good table at the window and very attentive, brisk and extremely friendly service. 
Then it was time to select our steaks. With a great variety it wasn’t easy though and we both probably changed our minds a couple of times while discussing the different options on the menu. ¬†The Damselfly eventually settled (although settled probably isn’t the word; more like excitedly chose) on the Camembert and Bacon sirloin steak (Steak with a delectable green peppercorn sauce topped with pan-fried bacon and Camembert cheese. ¬†My choice fell on one of their specials for the evening, a Fillet steak stuffed with jalapeno peppers, cheddar and mozzarella wrapped in bacon with a paprika infused butter on top ¬†When the steaks came we immediately knew we were in for a treat when we saw that they were flame grilled and cutting into them they were also done to perfection. ¬†The Damselfly’s medium rare and mine just over medium (so that a good vet can’t save it anymore). ¬†My better half also mentioned that the bacon on her steak definitely wasn’t just catering grade beacon fried in a pan as it had a distinct smoked taste and flavour to it. ¬†Both steaks came on very nicely presented plates and were served with chips. Steaks = tick number three and four.
My lovely wife having dessert
And talking of dessert. ¬†Although we weren’t really planning to have dessert after starters and mains, I decided to have a look at the menu anyway. ¬†With the Damselfly only having ice cream and chocolate sauce I decided to be a little more adventurous and try something else. ¬†I was torn between two options and hadn’t even finished asking the waiter which he would recommend when he said the Kahlua and Ice Cream Crepes. (Ice cream rolled in light crepes, drizzled with hot Bar One sauce topped with roasted almond flakes) ¬†I’m¬†sure I could find somewhere to fit that in as well… Out came the plate with two pancakes filled with ice cream and accompanied by a shot of Kalua. ¬†My eyes went big but it tasted so yummy that I made sure I found enough space for all of it. Fifth tick goes to the dessert giving them a full house for the evening.
The verdict at the end of the night? Butcher Block can really be highly recommended and served us probably the best steaks we have ever had anywhere. ¬†And don’t just take my word for it. ¬†The next morning while waiting for our taxi to take us down to the beach we chatted to a British visitor who comes to the area at least once a year. ¬†He asked us about our plans for the day and told us that we definitely had to try the restaurant (Butcher Block) next door as it had the best steaks he’s ever had and he travels extensively. ¬†So next time I’m in Durbs and feels like a steak I know where I will be going.¬†

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 about the hotel itself but had no editorial input in the content of the post. This post I threw in extra as I can recommend the place with conviction.

"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. 

Tip a glass at the Le Vino Wine and Tapas Bar

Last night I joined some media friends at the Boardwalk for the opening of the newest restaurant offer in the complex. ¬†In recent months the Boardwalk has opened two new restaurants, Coast and Craft, and these are now joined by Le Vino Wine and Tapas Bar. ¬†All three of these fall under the Boardwalk’s own banner and is managed by the Boardwalk’s F&B department. ¬†Le Vino itself is located in the old Dulce Cafe premises and offers a great spot for wine lovers to sit and watch the sun go down over the Boardwalk lake while trying out the restaurant’s extensive, and believe me it is extensive, wine list. ¬† ¬†

Our evening started with wine, obviously, and a couple of tasters of what was to come later on.  After the formalities we all headed outside for the annual Sparklers event, followed by the Boardwalk Fountain Spectacular, before it was time to try out the food. 

The food at Le Vino is tapas style ranging from lamb chops, pork belly and short rib to my favorite of the night, fish with among others, litchi in the flavoring. ¬†Wow, I need to find out how they did that cause it really was a winner. ¬†The menu isn’t that extensive but the fare on offer is worth it. ¬†

My recommendation isn’t to go there for a full on dinner, but rather make it your starter stop. ¬†Enjoy the sunset from the upstairs balcony while sipping wine and enjoying some tapas for your evening’s starter before moving on to Coast next door or Craft on the other side for your mains.

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 souffl√© 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 clich√©. 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 clich√© but believe me, you get everything but clich√©.¬† 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.

Trying new menu items at Fratelli Foods

A couple of weeks ago I had to meet a friend of mine for a business breakfast and she suggested we go to the newly opened Fratelli Foods in the Lower Baakens Valley.¬† Fratelli is an Italian Deli and Coffee Bar and at that stage they hadn’t even had their signage up yet but I had a feeling that it would turn into a very popular spot very soon.¬† I immediately joined their Facebook group¬†to keep an eye on them.¬† Yesterday morning there was a post on the group showing the newest addition on their menu.¬† A¬†piadina is an italian flat bread eaten on the streets of Italy and this one is¬†filled with prosciutto and fontina cheese along with tomato and rocket.¬†¬†I was busy setting up a meeting for the Travel Massive PE chapter leaders¬†to discuss the first Travel Massive networking event in the city and suggested that we meet at Fratelli.¬† Ulterior motives you see.

Owner Michelle Puggia¬†greeted me¬†like she¬†greets all the patrons coming through the door.¬† Friendly, welcoming and with a big smile.¬† My companions got there a bit¬†early and was tucking into their breakfasts already and on asking what I wanted I immediately referred Michelle to yesterday’s FB post.¬† They were still¬†making the flat breads but she immediately agreed to prepare me one.¬† When it came I was ready to tuck in but not sure what to expect.¬† Would the ham and cheese me a little bland and not being one who eats rocket that often I wondered what the¬†rocket would do to the taste. Boom! What a winner.¬† The rocket and tomato is the perfect compliment to the meat and cheese and I made sure I ate as slow as possible to savour every second.¬† Michelle came by to check how her first customer to try it was doing and asked why I wasn’t eating it the way the Italians do, by hand.¬† I just felt it would last longer cutting off smaller pieces.¬† Nom nom nom.
Just to mention,¬†my friend Geoff had a croissant with scrambled¬†egg and crispy bacon on it which looked absolutely divine and was my second choice of the piadina wasn’t available.
So next time you’re looking for a nice intimate coffee shop with great food and lekker coffee for a quick mid morning meeting or brunch, this is the place to¬†go.¬†¬†

Spending a weekend at the 150 year old Ann’s Villa

Its a hot day in the southern Karoo just north of the Zuurberg in the Eastern Cape.¬† Not a breath of air moving.¬† Cicadas are chirping away in the surrounding veld.¬† Its been¬†four days since you left the small port town of Port Elizabeth and after struggling up the rough Zuurberg Pass the previous day and camping out near the Zuurberg Inn, the day is spent making your way down the pass and into the dry and flat area beyond.¬† The oxen are acting up after the hard trek and the family on the back of the wagon is tired.¬† You shout to the man leading the front ox to keep it tight and strike your whip to make sure the rest of the animals follow like they should.¬† Sweat trickles down into your¬†one eye and¬†you lift your hat¬†to wipe your brow.¬†¬†Coming round a corner¬†you look back to¬†make sure the young boy working the brake behind the wagon is alert.¬† Then you spot it.¬† The welcome sight of the next¬†inn on the route north. ¬†Ann’s Villa at the bottom of the pass.¬† Somewhere to outspan and let the people and oxen¬†rest, have some repairs done and stock up on food.¬† The date¬†is (or was)¬†1874.¬† Now its 2014, 140 years later and I’m spending a Sho’t Left weekend at Ann’s Villa with the family, taking in the¬†open spaces, history and beautiful surroundings.¬† The Inn looks the same but there are no ox wagons¬†in sight though.

Ann’s Villa was opened in 1864 – making it 150 years old in 2014 –¬†by John Webster, only 6 years after the official opening of the Zuurberg Pass in 1858.¬†¬†Webster was a¬†baker by trade and sailed for Algoa Bay from Scotland with his family in 1849.¬† They lived in Port Elizabeth for 5 years before Webster sold his bakery and bought the farm ‚ÄúKleinplaas‚ÄĚ (now Ann‚Äôs Villa)¬†from a Mr Grobbelaar.¬† The family appear to have lived in the old cottage on the property¬†(Bergview Terrace,¬†later renamed Verbena Cottage) and Webster baked for the road builders who were 10 km away at¬†Stebbings Convict Station.¬† After the pass was opened¬†he built¬†Ann‚Äôs Villa¬†in its current form.¬† The villa was named after his wife Ann Elizabeth Whall who died a¬†year after it was opened.¬† She was 46 at the time and had borne 14 children in her lifetime.¬†¬†A year after Ann‚Äôs death, John Webster married again.¬† This time to¬†Mary Ann Jenkins (he seemed to love women named Ann).
In 1867 diamonds were discovered and the diamond rush began.  With its seven rooms the villa boomed. It’s base at the foot of the Zuurberg Pass was perfect for the blacksmith, wheelwright, bakery and shop. (the latter is still in the villa and virtually unchanged). In 1896 a post office and a school were added.  The corrugated iron shed with its sprung floor was ordered from England as a kit and used both as a shearing shed and for local dances while Ann’s Villa also became a centre for sport like tennis and shooting.
After mentioning Ann’s Villa in a blog post some time ago, I got an email from the owner, Jeremy Lunn, to bring the family for a weekend and experience this piece of history first hand.¬† These days Ann’s Villa offers self catering accommodation in those same seven rooms that the early travelers would have stayed in.¬†¬†The house also has a fully kitted out kitchen for visitors to prepare their meals in or you can have a braai on the back verandah.¬† We made full use of the lounge and games room on both evenings we were there as well and the¬†KidZ would have played games all night long if they could (or had the energy).

Our whole idea behind the weekend was to go somewhere away from everything to unwind and Ann’s Villa was perfect for it.¬† There isn’t much traffic on the pass so we could sit out in the front garden the whole afternoon relaxing with a couple of books while the KidZ played on the lawn.¬† Walks were also high on our “to do” list and we explore both down the road as well as up the pass.¬† The first afternoon I moseyed over to the old grave yard next to the house and found the graves of the Websters.¬† In the case of the one in the picture, Ann (check how it was spelled on her grave stone) Elizabeth Webster after whom Ann’s Villa was named.

The history attached to Ann’s Villa is amazing and more so the fact that it has been maintained for all these years.¬† Attached to Ann’s Villa is the old General Dealer where travelers would stock up¬†their supplies and locals would have come to shop at.¬† During the Anglo Boer War wounded British soldiers stayed at Ann’s Villa and Boer commandoes even raided this same¬†store.¬† Walking through the old shop there is something interesting to see on every shelf.

The General Dealer also had a post office and that and the old public telephone can still be seen.  Even though we had cold drinks in the kitchen the KidZ wanted to buy drinks from the shop just to be able to say that they did.  
Another interesting part of Ann’s Villa is the Blacksmith Museum.¬† Due to the very bad road across the Zuurberg Mountains a lot of the wagons were damaged and in need of repairs by the time they got to Ann’s Villa hence the blacksmith and wheelwright being added to the inn, bakery and shop back then.¬† The museum contains all the original equipment that was found in the blacksmith’s workshop and more with some of it actually dating back to the early days at Ann’s Villa.

Guided tours of the Blacksmith Museum is available not just for those staying over at Ann’s Villa but also for the public and the guide would even demonstrate some of the equipment in the museum.¬† At first the KidZ weren’t to keen on the tour thinking it was going to be boring but by the end we couldn’t get them away.¬† They wanted to see everything and know what every piece was and the “boring museum”, as Chaos Boy put it before we went on the tour, suddenly became very interesting indeed.¬†
The first time we stopped at Ann’s Villa briefly I asked the lady who showed us around if it was haunted and she said no without blinking.¬† This time around I was a little worried about the KidZ though before we went as I didn’t want to sit with two children thinking there were ghosts in this old building.¬† Well, two days later and no ghosts, no hauntings and no scared children.¬† With us being the only ones staying over this weekend they did give it horns a bit so perhaps the ghosts were the¬†scared ones hiding away.¬† Hie-hie-hie.¬† While on the tour of the Blacksmith Museum they did hear footsteps on the roof, but on closer investigation it turned out to be a¬†family of dassies that lived in the attic.
One unusual thing though.¬† As you come in the front door of Ann’s Villa there is a door to a room under the stairs.¬† On the door it says, “PRIVATE. HARRY POTTER’S ROOM”. Even more peculiar and on the same topic is the magic potion ingredients available in the shop.¬† Did Harry Potter really visit here and what is the magic connection?¬† These magic muggles are curious.¬†¬†
Disclaimer: We spent the weekend at Ann’s Villa¬†as guests but all other expenses and transport¬†were covered by ourselves.¬† I received no further remuneration, wasn’t asked to write a positive post¬†and keep full editorial control.¬†¬†¬†

Directions: Ann’s Villa is situated just over an hour from Port Elizabeth.¬† Follow the N10 via Paterson and thr Olifantskops Pass and turn left on the R335 dirt road north of the pass.