Luxury's lap

Under times of extreme stress I have an odd fantasy. It involves me being hospitalised in some fine mental institution—such as one you might find in a posh old English movie—dressed in fluffy slippers and gown, sedated to the eyeballs, being spoon-fed puréed veggies and patted sympathetically on the arm by a kindly nurse.

It’s bizarre, I’ll admit, and politically incorrect without a doubt, but the basis of the fantasy lies in a desire to give over complete control and care to anyone but myself.
Not forever, you understand, just a day or two—long enough for my anxieties to find a resting place and quit their frenetic bombardment.

I was fortunate enough, however, to find an altogether more rational retreat from “Babylon”. My recent weekend hibernation at the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa in Cape Town did allow me to spend the majority of my time there in slippers and gown but spared me the indignity of having to dribble on my own shoulder. The cherry on top was that instead of puréed mush I was able to dine on the finest fare, with seasonings plucked from nature’s basket, and be soothed by the finest wines.

There were no kindly nurses, but the genuine warmth of the staff more than made up for it as they eased their way through the battlefield of honeymooning couples and work-weary and overseas holidaymakers, catering to the whims of even the crankiest guests.

Not that I spent all that much time among them. With the cold wind whipping up a frenzy on the steel-blue sea I needed little encouragement to curl beneath the covers of my lavender-scented bed and dive into the pages of my book. On the odd occasion when I ventured out for meals, my spa treatment or just a short walk around the hotel to prevent bedsores, I was relieved to find that I wasn’t the only bear hiding in my cave. Judging by the array of trays that were left for collection outside my neighbours’ doors—empty champagne bottles, teapots and plates—they had less guilt about bedding down for the duration of their stay than I did.

The Twelve Apostles is nestled in the Table Mountain National Park, bordered on one side by the Atlantic and acres of pristine fynbos mountainside on the rest. If you look to your right you can catch a glimpse of overcrowded Camps Bay, which makes you feel rather smug at being tucked away from the madding crowd. But should you choose to join them there is a complementary shuttle that leaves on the hour via Camps Bay to the V&A Waterfront.

The only touch of drama that occurred during my weekend hibernation was when I allowed my imagination to run rampant during my five-course meal at the Azure restaurant . With its dark curtains pulled against the cold night, mirrored walls, drooping orchids and dramatic atmosphere, I rather fancied myself as part of an old-style James Bond movie. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least had some scar-faced villain marched in with an entourage of equally menacing baddies to interrupt Bond’s meal with an exotic supermodel.

The sense of drama was intensified when the waiter arrived with a soupçon of red carnation sorbet served on a plate with a jug of dry ice. With a theatrical flourish he poured water on to the ice, resulting in swirls of thick white steam gushing from the jug and enveloping the table for a few seconds.

It is the small attention to detail such as this that the hotel prides itself on and that makes the guest feel especially pampered. It is almost churlishly disappointing when you spot other guests being treated with the same degree of consideration. None of this comes cheap of course, but the hotel runs some very reasonable packages for winter.

I had a similar sense of being in a Bond movie when I visited the spa for my back, neck and shoulder massage. You enter the spa through a steaming candlelit passageway flanked by treatment cubicles and find yourself in a small waiting room staring at two beaming, chubby Buddhas beside a small waterfall. The rest of the spa is set into an artificial rock cave, which is completely dark aside from the muted fluorescent walkways and steps that lead to a variety of saunas and hot and cold plunge pools.

It is here that I have to confess I experienced my best massage ever (and I’m pretty fussy about these things). My massage therapist, Pumeza, was fantastic, applying just the right amount of pressure to iron out the creases, without a fraction of pain.

I have a journalist friend who has visited the spa twice and was disappointed on both occasions, complaining that her therapist arrived late and short-changed her on the massage time, so perhaps it was just luck of the draw. My only gripe was that the 40 minutes felt like 15 (it wasn’t, I checked my watch) and in future I will have to book for the minimum of an hour.

Fynbos cookery
Executive chef Roberto de Carvalho adds a truly local twist to items on the Azure restaurant’s à la carte menu by making use of the Cape’s indigenous plants. He cooks up a fynbos feast that includes Karoo ostrich fillet carpaccio seasoned with, among others, wild rosemary and tossed in wild dagga pesto for starters, fynbos vegetable curry using Malay spices and buchu, or bittersweet chocolate tart with wild dagga served with rooibos and fynbos honey ice-cream for dessert.

The menu came about when the hotel staff were clearing out indigenous plants to grow more traditional kitchen fare such as basil and rocket. “Certain of the indigenous plants kept growing back,” says De Carvalho. “So I started thinking there must be something we can do with them.”

He sought advice from botany and horticulture professor Wim Tymans—“a real nutty professor sort who distils fynbos wine in his garage”—and developed a few dishes for the hotel’s winter specials. “They were never meant to stay on the menu, but they became popular and four years on they are permanent fixtures.

“The plants obviously grow well, but we don’t just go out back and pick from the mountainside. We have areas where we rotate the picking so that we can allow plants to recover.”

I tried the masala-seared West Coast sole served with wild garlic, peppadew and mashed potato spring rolls and dressed with a creamy buchu butter sauce. The fish was delicious, though I couldn’t recognise the buchu in the sauce. “The idea,” says De Carvalho, ” is to strike a balance between the herb being right in your face and a taste you can’t quite put your finger on.”

The Azure restaurant was recently awarded a blazon by the esteemed Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a collective of top international foodies who rate an establishment on a number of criteria from location to service, menu and wines.

Getting there
The Twelve Apostles Restaurant and Spa is a 30-minute drive from Cape Town International Airport. The hotel can organise a luxury transfer for you for about R400 one way. Lisa Johnston experienced the “hibernate to rejuvenate” package, which starts from R995 per person per night sharing and includes a full English breakfast daily; one 40-minute head and shoulder massage per person; a soup and potjie meal in The Café; a five-course dinner from the winter menu in the Azure restaurant; use of the Sanctuary Spa hot, cold and salt-water plunge pools; movies and popcorn in the 16-seater cinema; or a DVD to watch in your room with hot chocolates and marshmallows. For other specials visit www.12aspostleshotel.com or call 021 437 9000.

Lisa Johnston was a guest of the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa

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