Visiting the wine and food region of Franschhoek in the late winter (August) meant that we benefitted from leafless trees, their stark branches exposing much more of the area’s splendid views than in the lush summer months. Now and then we’d catch a waft of early blossom from the orchards in front of our spectacular villa at La Clé des Montagnes, and we could see the flush of pink and white buds over the manicured hedges.
I first visited this luxury accommodation a few years ago, and vividly recall the manager opening the front door to reveal a breathtaking mountain backdrop and saying, “This is why it’s called ‘The Key to the Mountain’”.
Last treating ourselves to a stay in this gorgeous establishment, while enjoying a break with friends. Three couples stayed in La Grange, one of four villas on the property, and two other couples were next door in La Galerie.
Guests enter La Grange through oversized glass doors, to be greeted by the rich aromas of leather (from the seats) and oak (the bookshelves). Walking deeper into the barn-like living space, you discover that every feature of the décor enhances the property, including the double-sided fireplace for warmth and the original wooden beams for rustic ambience.
Also original are the external walls – and they’re more than an arm’s length thick; their original air-vents have been glassed in and retained as an interesting feature in the bedrooms. The original stone wall of the farm has also been preserved and is incorporated into the gardens, overlooked by a full-length verandah.
An upstairs nook serves as a TV room, with a large carpeted area and massive sofas; all the bedrooms below have TVs too, as well as under-floor heating for a leisurely and comfortable out-of-season stay.
I loved my room’s rough-finished original stone walls, exposed beams and wood-panelled ceiling. The green buttonhole headboards on the beds enhance the natural colour scheme, and every room has a spacious double shower and bath, stylish black granite tops and an elegant boudoir.
In short, this restored packing shed on this longstanding farm has been given a sumptuous new lease of life, with considerable help from talented interior decorator, Sarah Ord.
Some people make a lasting impression, and Sarah is one of them; I met her briefly several years ago, and was enamoured by her chic sense of style. Each of the villas at La Clé des Montagnes showcases her incredible knack for getting everything just right.
We were surprised at how well stocked the kitchen was with appliances. Having said that, we also chose to spoil ourselves by calling in an expert chef, Craig Cormack of Stellenbosch restaurant The Goose Roasters, who produced a four-course meal, including a fascinating interactive discovery in the form of salt pairing.
Yes, salt! I had no idea there was so much involved in the production of salt. For one thing, there are 17 natural processes through which it can develop – in muddy deposits, or from lava flows – even from wind-swept granules forming above salt lakes. There are thought to be over 14,000 documented uses for salt; of these, less than a fifth are in food preparation. Many people know the age-old trade value of salt, but I hadn’t realised the word “salary” derives from the Latin salarium, or “salt money”.
We ate a delicious meal off a thick salt block that looked like a tile of rose quartz. Salt also loves tannin, and that’s why it can pair brilliantly with various wines. We enjoyed our interactive meal around the large table in the villa, discovering that real salt, free of additives, comes in an array of flavours. With the expert chatter and the presence of a connoisseur from Fleur Du Cap wines, we enjoyed an informative and unique culinary experience.
While La Grange is more like a barn, La Galerie is bright, bold and arty, as its name suggests. It has two identical, symmetrically placed bedrooms, and a living room that is a riot of colour and pattern – a pop artist’s delight! The impact of walking immediately into a wide passageway adorned with framed artworks is unique; we found ourselves drawn to admire them – and our champagne wasn’t just for the photos; Frank, our very capable butler, presented them to us on arrival!
While the interiors of La Grange are vivid, the view to outside is as calming as from the other villas, enclosing a secluded garden with a hammock and your own swimming pool.
This is a restored and converted manor house, offering a collection of inter-leading living rooms with a red-and-black theme. Originally built in 1820, and then added to in 1880, the house has much historical value, hinted at in the original wooden doors and windows. A gigantic oak tree, covered in verdant moss, also tells a tale of times gone by; indeed, it’s older than the house itself. Elsewhere, steps to the roof indicate where a water-tank once sat.
While one massive room is ideal for parents with its oversized four-poster bed, and convenient adjacent children’s room, the spacious master bedroom features an eggshaped bath set into bay windows.
This villa has the largest private garden on the property, with an enormous swimming pool and a pizza oven for cooking in summer. It sleeps four, and lends itself especially well to a family wanting a quiet escape. One of the many living rooms within the villa consists of a series of red-lacquered bookshelves in a library with bay windows.
This is the largest of the villas; it’s another renovated building, with four bedrooms and a large private pool, and an African theme to the décor. Along with woven striped rugs, patterned sofas and wooden carvings in the living areas, the floor tiles in the bathrooms boast earthy colours – mustard, red clay and cobalt blue. The driftwood light-fittings over the dining room table are eye-catching, as are the large armchairs and bright tiles behind the stove. An art screen makes an impressive statement in one of the rooms, while bringing in a multi-dimensional feature that would otherwise be tricky to place in a home. Here, though, it just adds to the property’s grandeur. And grandeur is the word.
Everything about the four villas of La Clé des Montagnes grabs your attention, from their spaciousness to their individual style, form and colour.
Direct Singapore Airlines flights depart at around 1am, arriving in Cape Town midmorning. (Franschhoek is a 50-minute scenic drive from the airport.) Note that on certain days of the week, you don’t disembark en route in Johannesburg; instead, you stay on the plane briefly while some passengers get off. Flights leave again around mid-morning from Cape Town, arriving in Singapore at around 6am the next day. Provided you can handle the time difference, you could conceivably make a trip to Franschhoek a long-weekend affair.
To read more about La Clé des Montagnes, visit lacle.co.za.
Elsewhere in the Cape…
The west coast of South Africa is famed for the abundant spring flowers that dazzle visitors in August and September. People wait for the bright sunshine that prompts the blooms to open. Don’t forget to keep an eye on your rear-view mirror when driving by the fields, because the flowers open to face the sun and it’s easy to unknowingly pass them by!
In taking the scenic drive up the coast from Cape Town towards Namibia, we discovered Draaihoek Lodge, a purpose-built guesthouse in the whitewashed style of the local fishing villages. The four-star cottages and a self-catering house are tucked against powder-soft white sand dunes where our children jumped, ran, rolled and dug for hours on end. Having enjoyed its heated pool, fantastic farmhouse kitchen and comfortable accommodation, we’ll be sure to visit again for a sense of calm that’s hard to find. We spent hours walking along the remote beach, invigorated by the occasional salty spray of icy Atlantic water.
The two-hour car journey itself was stimulating; sights included billowing washing lines in rural villages, and interestingly painted homes in the middle of towns we’d never heard of, or along dirt roads. In an odd turn of events, my daughter bought a big South African flag at a roadside stall, so we look particularly patriotic in the photo of our spontaneous picnic in a patch of flowers. It was here that my husband proved that wine can be enjoyed at any time, so long as you’re carrying a knife to make goblets and tumblers out of plastic water bottles!
On the other side of the coastline, east of Cape Town, where the sea is slightly warmer, you’ll find the popular town of Hermanus. More urbanised than the remote west coast, this area offers countless activities, the most noteworthy being whale-sighting in the months of August, September and October. Southern right whales travel from the cold polar regions to the shallow coastal waters of Southern Africa at this time, and sheltered bays such as Hermanus are ideal for mating, calving and nursing.
By far the best way to enjoy a trip to see these animals is on aWhale Cruiser tour, which offers seating on the roof of the boat. You can enjoy not only watching whales doing what whales do, but also looking back to the shore, and beyond to the mountains.
This article was first featured in the December 2015 issue of the magazine.