Sampling five-star accommodation in the rural heart of the Eastern Cape, Victoria John finds bliss at the end of a bumpy road.
Beyond the herd of cattle staring at me dumbly in the headlights of my car was a dead end. Clearly, I’d taken a wrong turn.
This wasn’t the first hint of the deep ruralness of Chintsa East. From East London airport I had turned off the N2 highway on to a winding road towards this village, this gateway to the Wild Coast, where I gazed out at an unfamiliar darkness largely unrelieved by the twinkling lights of development.
I had been asked to review three five-star accommodation options in the Eastern Cape. With natural competitors like the Kruger Park in Mpumulanga and the pristine beaches of the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape is not always a first choice for tourists, local or foreign.
A U-turn and a five-minute drive later, I arrived at my destination —Prana Lodge Private Beach Estate & Spa. A concierge escorted me to the reception lobby, where light spilled out of wide-open doors and on to the dark forest trees in the humid summer night.
The manager passed me a champagne flute of rooibos juice on a silver tray and told me my travelling companion — my mom — was waiting for me in our suite.
Prana is an intimate setup. There are seven suites, a lounge and dining area, pool and Thai spa, all connected by a tumbling dune forest and indigenous gardens.
The estate is a family affair, run by Gail and Tim Davidson: they’ve owned the land for 30 years and have an eye for perfection.
The six suites, each with its own plunge pool, are elegantly decorated in marble, dark wood and rich colours. The bath was big enough for three.
My fresh laundry came back wrapped in tissue paper, and decorated with ribbon and lavender sprigs.
During our excellent dinner, a small dog warmed itself next to the fire.
The next morning started with a walk, to the sounds of birdsong, along bush-cooled wooden walkways to the beach.
The full-body aromatherapy massage at the Thai wellness centre after breakfast was probably the closest I’d ever come to general anaesthesia.
Serenity is nurtured at Prana, a place that makes you want to breathe deeper, walk straighter and speak softer. Such is the relaxing atmosphere that President Jacob Zuma chose it for a bit of recent R&R.
It costs R2 500 a night (per person sharing), which includes meals and beverages.
It wasn’t supposed to be a two-and-a-half-hour trip from Prana to the next stop, Pumba Private Game Reserve & Spa, but it ended up that way when, thanks to another wrong turn, mom and I found ourselves driving through East London’s robot-happy CBD. A plastic bag whipped across the windshield. The sun glinted off the storefront of a KFC. A minibus taxi passed too close. I sweated into the car seat.
An hour’s drive from the CBD on the N2 South, past Grahamstown, flanked by undramatic beige hills and open scrubland, brought us to Pumba’s entrance.
An inquisitive nyala buck blinked as we got out of the rental car at the first of Pumba’s lodges we would stay at — the Water Lodge.
“She’s part of the family but you can’t touch her,” said the woman who came out to welcome us, handing us a fresh, damp cloth for our hands and a fruity drink.
We were led to a deck where a few guests were lying on chairs, watching the hippos grunting loudly in the dam below us.
The R4 820 you will pay per person, per night, in the high season (October through December) includes all meals, beverages and two game drives a day. That afternoon I made the most of the room with its high ceilings and deep bath. I ordered room service and savoured the view from my pillows over the private plunge pool and the bush beyond. I waved at the vervet monkeys that pressed their faces against the sliding door.
The next morning I braved a 6.30am game drive. And it was a fruitful one. After seeing white lions and a cheetah it became clear that all the big game in this 6 000-hectare reserve are pretty much “part of the family”. They’ve even got names.
The stuff of dreams
I preferred the atmosphere at the Bush Lodge, where we spent our second night. It overlooks a plain. From the deck I watched a herd of eland stretching their fleshy necks into the branches of a thorn tree.
Our rooms were the stuff of dreams for anyone with a taste for bush-camp décor fit for an African epic drama.
That afternoon’s game drive was a cold one. We saw elephants, and lions devouring a kill, and returned to roaring fires and the fragrance of cooking meat and pastry. Snacks and drinks were put within hand’s reach as we sank into the couches and took off our shoes.
November is a moody time of year weather-wise. We left the next morning under a grey sky with the wind blowing hair into our eyes.
To avoid roadworks we took a detour through the nearby village of Alice, with its pot-holed, rutted dirt roads. Wild flowers clung to farm gates, ramshackle buildings hugged rusted machinery and cars on concrete blocks.
We spent our fifth night in Port Elizabeth at a Victorian guesthouse — Hacklewood Hill Country House.
The rich carpets, wooden floors, floral fabrics and antique furniture meant I could pretend I was Lady Mary from Downton Abbey — but only until I spied the Sunday afternoon braai below my window in a neighbour’s yard.
That night we had dinner at the elegantly decorated Ginger restaurant on the beachfront. When we got back to our room we found the trash still in the dustbins, the lights off and the tea and coffee supplies unreplenished. Not so very five-star after all.
We slept well, though, and if you are a fan of Victorian-era décor then Hacklewood, at R1 050 a person a night in the high season, is for you.
Waiting for our flight home the next day, mom nestled into her seat at an airport restaurant.
“It would seem the return on my investment in your education has paid off nicely,” she said.
Victoria John travelled to the Eastern Cape as a guest of Prana Lodge and the Port Elizabeth Hotel group.