'The hotel that changed my life': inside the Cape Winelands' most extraordinary hotel

Tuesday, July 17 2018

'The hotel that changed my life': inside the Cape Winelands' most extraordinary hotel

'The hotel that changed my life': inside the Cape Winelands' most extraordinary hotel Claire Irvin The Babylonstoren wine farm in South Africa makes such an impression on visitors that it can transform the way they live back home. More If, like me, you love hotels (and the fact that you’re reading this is a good indication that you do), you’ll have ones you’ll like, ones you love, and the odd one you loathe. You’ll also have those that you’ll never forget for all the right reasons. But how many can you say have actually changed your life? I’d have scoffed at this very notion a few months ago – before, that is, I visited Babylonstoren , a Cape Dutch wine farm in the Franschhoek region of South Africa. It aims, as founder Karen Roos says, to allow visitors to “ground themselves” again and “to enjoy the mountains all around as much as we do, pick their own healthy fruit and veg, play pétanque, swim in the farm dam, enjoy an hour in the spa, eat a simple fresh dish at one of the restaurants, walk up the conical Babylonstoren hill, await sunset with a glass of wine in hand, then slip in between sheets of crisp linen and drift away… more or less.” Eleven years on, its philosophy is in tune with a global focus on sustainability, and the authenticity of its offering has won the hearts and minds of guests around the planet. Rooms are located in Babylonstoren's 13 cottages, all built in the Cape Dutch style of architecture. Credit: DOOK More The farm sits at the heart of wine country, boasting chardonnay, chenin blanc, viognier, shiraz, mourvèdre, sémillon, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and pinotage as well as one of the best-preserved plaaswerwe (farmyards) in the Cape, with an eight-acre garden bearing fruit, berries, bees for pollinating, indigenous plants, fragrant lawns, a prickly pear maze, a clivia tunnel, and a plethora of trees of historical and botanical import. Guests are enveloped by its generosity of spirit from check-in, where they are welcomed to the green room complete with sinkable sofas with drinks from the amply stocked complimentary bar, books and board games, a chess set and an easel for painting, before checking into rooms in the Cape Dutch Manor House, or one of 13 cottages next to the garden, all newly built in the Cape Dutch style of architecture on the footprints of the original labourers’ cottages with thick walls, elegant gables and hearty fireplaces. A contemporary glass cube has been seamlessly added to the 18th-century structure of the two-bedroom cottages to house a dining and kitchen area and give a sense of space, abundance, and, of course, those views. At Babylonstoren, all paths – and there are many – lead to conservation. And while it’s an experience in itself to wander the grounds for a couple of hours, marvelling at the spectacular backdrop and the organic gardens, you really do need two, or better still three nights here to fully revel in the experience it offers, then revisit them again in your own time. The owner, Karen Roos, has an unerring design eye, and has beautifully juxtaposed the historic origins of her 18th-century farm with clean-lined contemporary elements. Credit: DOOK More Story Continues Each time you’ll notice something new – like the paths made of fruit stones that indicate you’re in the soft fruit orchard, for example. (And, yes, hotel and day guests alike are encouraged to simply pick and nibble on food as they go.) You’ll want to visit the pristine cellars with one of Babylonstoren‘s olive press or wine experts (and taste it, of course – the good news is that the tour is followed by a five-wine tasting, with convivial sharing platter in a contemporary glasshouse overlooking the very fruit you are tasting). You might even fancy rolling up your sleeves and baking, or joining the daily guided drive up the slopes of Simonsberg, immersing yourself in the late-afternoon tranquillity of the farm and feasting on sunset views of the valley and beautiful Table Mountain in the distance with (of course) a glass of wine. There are bikes for literally all sizes. Spurred on by a newfound lust for adventure, my son Charley, six, finally found the confidence to ride without stabilisers. Although beware the baby hedgehogs – one wrong turning and I nearly took out a family of newborns! Even the donkeys (three of them, including one with the biggest ears in the world – true story) require some time and TLC, as you romp around the garden looking for carrots and leeks to pull up for them (although, as we discovered after a hot and dusty hunt, they are just as partial to the acorns that fall right next to their paddock). You’ll want to linger by (or in) the deliciously sun-dappled pool – and find some time for a signature hammam treatment and time in the secluded salt treatment room. You might even get to sunbathe in peace at the grown-ups pool if you can divert the kids for long enough. At Babylonstoren, all paths – and there are many – lead to conservation. Credit: CACTUS BRANDING More Guests staying at the same time as us had cancelled long-anticipated experiences elsewhere to extend their stay (but good luck with getting an impromptu table at Babel restaurant – it’s booked up two months in advance). Hoteliers and restaurateurs, take note. The breakfast buffet, focused on texture, is like no other – a table exploding with colour, and groaning under the sheer weight of fresh home-grown produce: soft and sweet prickly pears, glossy persimmons, crunchy melty honeycomb, oozy cheese and glistening cured meats (just remember to leave room for the eggs the children collected earlier – not to mention the sausages and home-cured bacon). Lunches and evening meals at Babel are a similarly exciting experience of seasonal gastronomic simplicity: starters collated by colour, plates of raw and smoked foods with explosive taste sensations, and farm-fresh vegetables. Oh, and with a Babylonstoren wine paired to each, of course. (We are still debating our favourite – helped by the occasional imported delivery from their cellars). Dessert subscribes to four flavours: salty, bitter, sweet and sour. All of which has transformed our own meals at home. So we don’t need to look through pictures or our Instafeed to remember our time at Babylonstoren. We’re still living it. And we’re moving it on. We’re bringing its interiors into our home. We’re looking at what we eat, how we use water. We’re developing our garden to see how we can, in our own small way, grow and harvest in their image. On check-in, guests are welcomed to a cosy lounge complete with sinkable sofas, complimentary bar, books and board games, a chess set and an easel for painting. Credit: DOOK More Oh and Charley’s still riding his bike. Which brings me back to my first point. If every hotel succeeded in creating an experience that is not just restorative, inspiring, transformative even – but continues to resonate long after you’ve left its hospitality and care, how differently we would look upon the brochure puffs. And how, maybe, we would choose hotels based on who we want to be, rather than how we want to feel. But then, if every hotel managed it, I wouldn’t be writing this. Read the full review: Babylonstoren Abercrombie & Kent offers a 15-night Classic South Africa trip taking in Cape Town, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape from £6,995 per adult and £2,305 per child, including economy flights from London with Emirates, B&B accommodation at Babylonstoren, a safari with private vehicle and guide, all transfers, and full day winelands tour. For more information, visit: southafrica.net . Holiday Extras offers Meet and Greet services from Heathrow from £84.99 for eight days and airport lounge from £26.99 per person including snacks, drinks and newspapers.