Johannesburg – More often than not, top-of-the-range hotels and guesthouses fall into two categories: elegantly functional (which generally appeals to businesspeople on the run) or opulently ornate for tourists and romantic couples.
Recently, I have experienced a new genre… what I call Fivestar-Funky… in Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and the hideaway West Coast fishing village of Paternoster.
From football- and art-inspired boutique hotels to the multi-storeyed all-suite Cape Royale, where the vistas are incomparable and virtually no two suites are exactly the same, the three getaways I visited epitomise trendiness and top-class service.
Claridges Hotel was a landmark on Cape Town’s Green Point strip for decades. Apart from anything else, it was the first place my mother stayed when she stepped off the boat from Scotland in 1947 and on whose premises I covered my first murder for The Cape Times 40 years later.
Paschal Phelan, a retired meat-processing mogul from Kilkenny in the Irish Republic, has his own memories of the old place. Over one of several minimally diluted glasses of Glenmorangie in his personal penthouse, Phelan admits initially being repelled by the building.
“The place was a dump and I couldn’t see its value. But then, I said, ‘let me see up top’ and went to the roof. Feck me! The view! People say that Table Mountain has a magical effect on people… it certainly worked its magic on me.”
Marketing craic has it that a business’s success depends on “Location! Location! Location!” and what the old Claridges had going for it was the view. Face south and Table Mountain was at your left shoulder, Lion’s Head at your right. To your back would be the entire Table Bay, from Milnerton through Robben Island and all the way to the horizon.
Phelan was smitten and bought the place on the spot. Over the next few years, he also bought several adjacent properties and tore everything down. The R250 million rebuilding process was protracted and controversial, with many people doubting his architecturally funky vision would ever be realised.
“This hotel is my pride and joy,” he says. It is modelled on the buildings of the Palace Vendôme in Paris, partly for the symmetry of its façade but also because, he confesses, they didn’t have balconies.
“Nobody uses them and they spoil the look of a building.”
What makes the Cape Royale so funky is most obviously the fact that few of its nearly 100 suites (all with full, ultra-modern kitchens) are precisely the same and that the corridors are a feature of the hotel’s design rather than a necessary evil linking suites to other amenities.
The latter attests to another of Phelan’s self-confessed idiosyncrasies. “I have a pet hate of corridors. The room you’re staying in might be beautiful but you’ve got to scuttle down a rabbit warren to get to it. What you’ve effectively got here are three different French-style buildings linked by walkways with a lift-shaft in the middle.”
The effect is neither hotel-warren corridor nor open-air, tenement-style landing, but rather a vaulted approach to a suite that fuels the anticipation of walking in and opening the curtains before cracking open the mini-bar or calling room-service as a prelude to enjoying the spectacular views. Of course, it helps that the hi-tech kitchen has absolutely the coolest-looking kettle…
Two hours north of Cape Town is the fishing village of Paternoster, home of the west coast sea-cockroach commonly known as the rock-lobster as well as locals who have absolutely no respect for fishing seasons or size restrictions. Everything Cape Royale is, Abalone House ain’t.
Where the former is modern-minimalist to the point of being austere (though with classic décor items judiciously added almost in counterpoint), Paternoster’s first five-star boutique hotel is happily, decoratively busy.
I would go so far as to describe the former as functionally funky – the perfect base from which the well-heeled can explore Cape Town and its nearby attractions – with unobtrusive yet impeccable service.
Abalone House, on the other hand, is a destination in itself.
Johan Jansen van Vuuren and Stef Venter bought the house in 2003 and commenced their “labour of love, passion and fun”.
“We bought the house essentially because it was the only one in that part of Paternoster big enough to accommodate all our stuff,” laughs Jansen van Vuuren.
The partners from Bela Bela brought truckloads of furniture and bric-a-brac from the textbook-free northern province and grew the dwelling around their lifetimes’ possessions. Though they were to stay in the house for the next seven years, the intention was always to convert it into a guesthouse by constructing additional bedrooms around and above a sizeable courtyard.
They called in renowned Cape Town interior designer-decorator David Strauss and what could easily have become a kitsch monstrosity (Jansen van Vuuren describes the collection of décor items a regte mengelmoes) is a masterpiece of expensive eccentricity and humour.
It’s also extremely colourful, with giant Tretchikoff prints dominating the reception area and each of the dozen or so guest bedrooms. Colour is a vital ingredient: pretty as Paternoster can be, it can also be grey and bleak in winter.
Naturally, bleak winters also call for fires in cosy pubs, great food and exquisite service, and Abalone House excels in this regard thanks to Welsh-born chef Darren Stewart and his wife, Lindsay, who handles front-of-house. The pair had previously worked the luxury lodges at the Singita Sabi Sand reserve and brought with them a nothing-is-too-much-trouble attitude. Indeed, the night a friend and I stayed at Abalone House coincided with the Under-19 Rugby World Cup final and the two of us were frantically keen to watch the “Baby Boks” take on New Zealand.
The match was played during dinner-time and it was with some trepidation that I asked Lindsay if we could have our meal in one of the rooms so we could catch the game. Instead, she suggested we make ourselves comfortable in the library, which had a big-screen television. We were joined by a couple from Gauteng and a merry evening was had… all the more enjoyable because the SA youngsters won.
Somewhere between Cape Royale and Abalone House (in terms of functionality and décor rather than geographic location) is the recently renamed No 5 Boutique Art Hotel – formerly Shamwari Townhouse – in Port Elizabeth.
The hotel is part of the Mantis Collection and comprises two structures in Summerstrand. I didn’t stay in the main hotel but found myself ruling the roost in the three-roomed, football-themed 2010 annexe across the road. There are 10 rooms in total, all uniquely appointed and lavishly decorated with original artworks, as well as Champagne and whisky lounges, a private movie theatre, spa and conference facilities.
Like Cape Royale, No 5 markets itself as a hub for tasteful businesspeople or as a base for discerning tourists enjoying all that Port Elizabeth has to offer. In terms of décor, however, it is more Abalone House.
The properties were acquired by Mantis Collection managing director Adrian Gardiner who, reveals general manager Tania Plakonouris, “has an absolute passion for SA art.
“In fact, working here has made us all passionate about the art. The whole place is about art. It’s not just the pieces on the walls… the building itself is in the art deco style while even what my little team of 17 people does – hosting guests and making them feel welcome – is an art form of its own.”
The annexe was acquired in 2009 purely because it was on a double stand and the hotel needed it for parking. “Then we thought, ‘Hang on a minute’: here was a beautiful little home that was in a terrible condition but the World Cup was only a year away. Call it fate or destiny, but Duncan Stewart was exhibiting his series Hope through Sport here at the Ron Belling Gallery. Duncan desperately wanted the collection kept intact and Adrian stepped in,” recalls Plakonouris.
“The beauty of this place is that it is a hotel that does not feel like a hotel. It feels like a home but is not a home. Guests want to be private and informal but they also require a high level of service. The team is small but strategically placed in order to achieve that balance. You could say our motto is ‘Be seen… when needed’.”
l Cape Royale
47 Main Road, Green Point
Tel: 021 430 5000
l Abalone House
Kriedoring Street, Paternoster
Tel: 022 752 2044
l No 5 Boutique Art Hotel
5 Brighton Drive, Summerstrand
Tel: 041 502 6000
www.mantiscollection.com/no5-boutique-art-hotel/ – Saturday Star