No Place Like Home | Wanted Magazine November 2011

Published in Business Day’s award-winning monthly Wanted Magazine. November 2011.

In this second instalment of Wanted’s multi-part report on trends in the luxury travel market in Southern Africa, David Allardice focuses on Cape Town and its celebrated winelands, and travels further up the famed Garden Route to highlight some of the key industry players, their offerings, learnings and business models with the emphasis on the consumer experience.

There are very few places, let alone city hotels, that cause one to be silent and still. Usually there is the continual jabber of guests, a piano playing, mobile phones, traffic congesting, staff hovering, the anticipation of activities or reservations pending. Sitting on the terrace at Ellerman House, one of Cape Town’s iconic hospitality institutions, gazing at the sun slipping silently into the Atlantic, I was as calm and thankful as when I’m a few hundred metres up, atop Lions Head at sunrise, with all their signature elements converging – natural, human and material – to provide one with the essence of a truly iconic South African Cape experience. It’s difficult to doubt that you are at the peak of seemingly effortless hospitality when there is no desire or need to be anywhere else.

Ellerman House, a century old home, in its place with its art, cuisine, scale and authenticity, provides a consistent and uncompromised quality offering, and is arguably at the apex of the world’s luxury boutique hotels. Its world-class service, value and aesthetic, is but one example of the standard, depth and diversity of the Cape’s current luxury hospitality offerings. Cape Town is arguably (Trip Advisors’ Travelers Choice 2011 Top Destination in the World) the most beautiful city in the world, so its not surprising that we boast a prolific and fitting range of stellar hotels in which to enjoy it. From Ellerman House’s uncomplicated, refined simplicity to The Mount Nelson’s conviviality and charm on a larger scale, to the warm eastern embrace of Taj Cape Town in the heart of the old city, our regal Cape Grace and The Table Bay and One & Only’s convenient Waterfront addresses, and further round the Atlantic seaboard Molori’s uber luxe villas, the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, we have a staggering array of luxury city hotels from which to experience The Mother City.

And we haven’t even ventured into the Cape Winelands or up the ever popular Garden Route. Locally, in the Constantia Winelands, Steenberg Hotel was rated Top Hotel in Africa and the Middle East in this year’s Condé Nast Traveler US Readers’ Choice Awards. It claimed the winning title ahead of another ten South African hotels which made it onto the list of Africa’s top 20 hotels, eight of which were Cape based. Awards aside – something we can confidently say down here – Karen and Koos’ Babylonstoren is a game changer on every level, Mr Graff raises the bar with his showpiece Delaire Graff Estate at the top of Helshoogte, and Le Quartier Francais’ ‘exclusive homeliness’ and consistent quality and warmth continues to be ever popular with locals and tourists alike.

Nick Dreyer, GM of Ellerman House pinpoints the profile of his customer as discerning and uncompromising, “not just golden oldies but also NYC honeymooners”. “We are a private home selling an experience as opposed to a hotel selling product” which partly explains why Ellermans’ nine luxurious rooms and two suites, with its self-contained, contemporary Villa is considerably more patronised than most. A large part of the rest of the explanation is its distinctive position overhanging the Cape’s Atlantic Seaboard, its exceptional art collection and then the customary factors of exquisite food, hospitality and service, which of course come standard at this level. How then does Ellerman House market its distinctiveness? “For eighteen years we didn’t really need to market, as we relied on the best possible channel – word of mouth”, explains Nick, “however with the current oversupply of offerings we needed to be a little more proactive, and we’ve done this by innovating through different channels yet always remaining personal”. Indeed, with a client base of close to sixty percent direct business, Ellerman was the first to introduce iPads way back in 2009 and their use of video in engaging with both their prospective and current client base is commendable. ‘You’d be surprised how many of our older clients engage with us directly through digital media – just as long as our proposition is personal”. It’s quite clear that Nick and his team have succeeded in shifting Ellermans’ once perceived detachedness and snobbery to one of personal engagement and largesse.

A seamless union of the old South African Reserve Bank, Temple Chambers and the striking new Towers building – an analogy of its convergence of old and new values and its ability to appeal to a range of guest needs – Taj Cape Town opened her doors in the middle of 2010 and quickly established itself as one of the leading luxury destination hotels in South Africa, and a significant new addition to the local hospitality offerings. In the past year they have achieved many things: their Jiva Grande Spa has won the unique spa concept category in the annual Les Nouvelles Esthetiques South African Spa Awards, featured on the Conde Nast Traveller UK’s 2010 Hot List and across the Atlantic, US Travel and Leisure included them in the influential It List of Best 2010 Hotels. Elite Travellers listed the Presidential Suite, with its views across Cape Town and Table Mountain, as one of the 101 Best Hotel Suites and the UK’s Sunday Times Travel magazine named the Cape Town hotel in its list of the 100 Best Hotels in the World, one of only seven African and two South African hotels which were included. The affable Michael Pownall, GM of Taj Cape Town, aptly describes his hospitality offering as “affordable luxury in the heart of the Mother City”. No stranger to the industry he explains Taj’s philosophy is “never elitist but also not a pure price proposition” and his target market as “the habitual luxury traveller who seeks frequent special occasions”. Recognised as one of Asia’s largest and finest hotel companies, but largely unknown in South Africa, Taj encompasses a unique set of iconic properties rooted in history and tradition, and Taj Cape Town embodies this. “We have attempted to insert ourselves into the hearts and minds of the local community through a collaborative approach based on our location and role as the custodian of the cultural heart of the city” explains Pownall. “Our diversity of offerings, from our superb fine Indian dining at Bombay Brasserie, Twankey Bar and Jiva Spa, together with our events such as our Wine tastings and dinners with the best of local estates, have become a delight for both locals and our hotel guests.”

The Waterfront Crew, namely the Cape Grace, Table Bay, and The Victoria and Alfred, all feature in the top 20 of Conde Nast’s Top 20 Hotels in Africa. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the One & Only failed to make it on to the US Readers list. Whilst convenient and central to most amenities, shopping and nightlife, these hotels attract a certain type of traveller who is arguably more corporate or who is looking for predictability, convenience and safety in their Cape Town visit. The astonishing thing here is that this reasonably small area, supports four top hotels, and if you also include the Westin Cape Town at the CTICC (formerly the Arabella Sheraton), you have an alarming oversupply of rooms in such a small albeit well trafficked precinct.

It’s not surprising then when you hear South African Travel and Tourism operators say that 2012 performance is still not expected to reach normal performance levels. The latest STR global research figures that showed the South African Hospitality industry at large took a major knock on averaged YTD occupancy of minus 5.6% year on year. A simple case of oversupply and weak demand, and nowhere is it more pronounced than in The Mother City.

Which begs the question as to why African Pride’s 15 on Orange Hotel is the latest Protea Hospitality Group property in Cape Town to receive a R25 million rand capital cash injection that will see a new conference centre built and various facilities at the hotel upgraded? “The project brings to R200m the capital investment by partners in Protea Hospitality Group (PHG) properties in Cape Town alone in the past two years and is a show of confidence that hotels in the city with the right brand and management structures are sustainable in the long term,” says PHG Director or Sales, Marketing and Revenue, Danny Bryer. “Protea’s occupancy actually increased by 1.6% over the same period”, he states, “so the decision to add additional conference and meeting venues at African Pride 15 on Orange Hotel was based on demand for the superior deluxe product and quality conference venues in the area.” Again the common denominator here is Cape Town. It seems guests, local and foreign, corporate and leisure, are voting with their feet.

Moving away from the city limits, a mere twenty minutes or so out towards the Constantia Winelands, lies some of the oldest and most gracious wine estates in the world, and yet another award-winning portfolio of world-class Cape properties. Historical monuments, award-wining restaurants and wines, wind free, dappled golden sunlight filtering through old oak lined lanes, views of the mountain, kloofs and forests, sweeping False Bay views. And yet still, one does need to ask, with due respect, why did Steenberg Hotel receive the Top Hotel in Africa and the Middle East in this year’s Condé Nast Traveler US Readers’ Choice Awards, when at first glance it appears to be yet another golf estate on some of the most expensive gated property in the country (and alongside a notorious prison)?

Gaby Gramm, Steenberg Hotel GM, explains how the golf course was initially the major pull, attracting over 80% of their guests, but as the product evolved, in accordance with the late Graham Beck’s vision, unfolding the property into a destination wine property, this ratio shifted to what is now less than 30% of golfers and a guest who is seeking, and finding, an authentic South African Cape experience.

Marking a triumphant year of major international accolades for Steenberg as a tourism destination, this award follows hot on the heels of scooping the title of Best Luxury Hotel in Africa by, in its 2011 Travelers’ Choice awards. Steenberg was also rated one of Cape Town’s top gourmet destinations when both its fine dining restaurant, Catharina’s, and the more informal Bistro Sixteen82, which Beck introduced to sell wines at the cellar door, were awarded the coveted American Express Platinum Card Fine Dining Award in 2011. Adding to this Steenberg Vineyards was named Global Winner Wine Tourism Services in the Great Wine Capitals’ Best of Wine Tourism Awards 2011. Gramm is deservedly delighted with the accolades, “As the first in the Constantia Wine Valley to be recognized among the best in the world, and only 20 minutes from Cape Town, we believe this will help to shine the spotlight on our valley as a chosen destination.”

This is an indication of a marked shift in perception of value amongst guests worldwide. Luxury is not only now expected to come standard but what is being sought out, and appreciated, is authenticity and experience, the search for and engagement with the essence of their destination. Someone who has understood this more than most, and for quite some time, is Liz McGrath. Proprietor of The Collection, a group of three 5 star hotels in the Cape Province, offering first class, luxury accommodation and a stalwart member of Relais & Châteaux, as so many of these prime properties are, her South African Trilogy includes The Cellars-Hohenort in Constantia, The Marine in Hermanus and The Plettenberg on The Garden Route, each different, yet all with the understated luxury, consistent standards and service delivery throughout. Her appointment a year ago of Tony Romer-Lee as CEO (ex Cape Grace and One & Only) was decisive in her intention to continue building a world-class owner managed boutique portfolio, and her commitment to fine dining is evidenced in her appointment of Peter Tempelhoff at The Cellars with its award-winning Greenhouse restaurant which expertly showcases his acclaimed conceptual approach to cuisine and is a sign of Ms McGrath’s ability to maintain the high standards and innovative delivery that has become her signature. Her standards continue up the coast to The Marine, in Hermanus and The Plettenberg, both distinctive properties, which provide the visiting guest with the Relais & Châteaux footprint of the highest standards throughout their journey.

Increasingly, more visitors are arriving at Cape Town airport and are turning left onto the N2, away from the city and Table Mountain, and heading into the heart of wine country – trading the crowded beaches, restaurants and nightlife for a more rural, sedate but equally indulgent foray into Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek – the Cape Winelands. Within forty five minutes you could be quaffing award-winning wine at the highest crest of the magnificent Helshoogte Mountain Pass linking the Cape’s two leading wine districts – Stellenbosch and Franschhoek – at the Delaire Graff Estate, one of the leading restaurants and boutique hotels in this illustrious vineyard region, or plucking perfect cavalo nero from a Paarl vegetable garden at the unique Babylonstoren, or popping in off the main street in Franschhoek to sample our famous Margot Janse’s Tasting Menu at Le Quartier Francais or pairing some of Jaco Marais’ award-winning wines at Grande Provence with similarly esteemed cuisine from Darren Roberts. The options are endless, and they are all exceptional, each in their own way.

In 2003, Laurence Graff bought the farm, then known as Avontuur, from John Platter, well known wine writer and maker. Commanding arguably one of the most picturesque views in any wine country in the world, he decided to rename the farm Delaire Estate, meaning “From the Sky” and immediately put it into a six-year redevelopment programme of being transformed into what can only be described as a winelands resort, replete with private villas, a leading world-class winery, restaurants, hotel and spa. Even if you don’t drink wine, the views and his art collection alone are worth a visit. A creation of this magnitude and quality has set a new benchmark for destination wine hotels and pushes the boundaries into a genre of luxury that I can only describe as a form of entertainment.

Back down the Pass towards Paarl, and no less game changing, is Karen Roos’s Babylonstoren. To plant a massive fruit and vegetable garden in the Drakenstein Valley, some of the best wine terroir in the world, is daring but also visionary, arguably political. Perfectly generous accommodation in flawless white washed restored worker cottages act as self-contained homes with glass kitchens looking out onto the proverbial patch, but it’s the quality and breadth of the garden itself, where you can wander at will, in the moonlight, pointing and plucking, that is truly the piece de resistance of the Cape winelands. Karen’s narrative is strident and authentic, not attention seeking for its own sake, not even original, as it echoes the past (and the contemporary) so well, but is always true to form and place, a living blueprint of a bygone era, with you swathed in the luxury of unassuming and discreet modernism.

Despite these new fascinations, our beloved Franschhoek continues to be a magnet for visitors. New hotels and restaurants continue to come online, with the firm favourites still delivering exceptional quality and hospitality. This is a textbook Cape experience, created, perfected and lived here. Le Quartier’s simple but lavish accommodation in the heart of the town, and its Tasting and Common Rooms, placed this town on the map and continue to be the default standard for any new rookie. Notwithstanding having a wine farm on the property, the essential formula remains the same – people need comfortable lodgings, great service, excellent food and wine, and a pleasant outlook. The deservedly lauded Margot Janse has seen fashions come and go, together with the rise and fall of the commercial chef, but her unswerving emphasis on local values and flavours and her ability to focus when others are distracted with international fads, has maintained Le Quartier as the great institution it is and will continue to be.

Reassuringly, the Relais & Châteaux footprint extends almost to the upper limit of where the foreign guest self-drives – up the popular Garden Route to Plettenberg Bay. Here, The Plettenberg completes Ms. McGrath’s Portfolio Collection, with its sweeping views of Formosa Bay and fresh seafood. For a more immersive experience, Ian Hunters’ Tsala Treetop Lodge, inspired by ancient African ruins, and perched within the canopy of a pristine indigenous forest is an extravagant structure of stone, timber and glass alongside age-old trees and views across rolling hills and valleys. But if Plettenberg Bay is all about a combination of gracious country living in the natural environment, then Kurland is the epitome of it. A country hotel set on a vast 700 hectare private estate of incredible natural beauty, situated between the mountains and the pristine beaches of Nature’s Valley, offers just 12 self contained suites that afford utter privacy. Set in the jewel of the Garden Route, away from the town of Plett, yet close enough to enjoy it, minutes away from arguably some of the best beaches and forest hiking in Southern Africa, together with its gracious charm and easy comfort, sets this property apart. Peter Behr, owner and proprietor, who from a young age has witnessed the property evolve into what it is today, sees the authenticity and position of the property as a vital component in attracting guests. “The types of guests we receive all share a similar expectation here at Kurland – being away from the rush of modern city life yet immersed in the comfort, grace and natural beauty of the landscape, with the best of the Garden Route right out the front gate”.

Again the mantra here is engagement and authenticity, and it is a trait with which the Cape is defined – the emotional and unique equity of its sense of place, history and the iconic properties that are authentic and non-replicable.

Cape Town and the greater Western Cape’s magnetic charm, history and appeal have allowed it to create the context for a local tourism industry that is truly exceptional. It’s range and diversity of world-class properties is astounding, and still they continue to grow, finding their own niches, adding to the overwhelming options already available to the local and foreign guest traveller. Nine of the top twenty hotels are from the Cape in this year’s Condé Nast Traveler US Readers’ Choice Awards for the Top Hotel in Africa and the Middle East. Right now, with such a perfect mix of the depth and type of hotels available to the consumer, and yet, under such trying economic conditions, one instinctively thinks that this vast portfolio is going to be difficult to maintain. But then, they all exhibit, to some degree or another, the essence of a truly iconic South African Cape experience, which is where the guest clearly wants to be – at the peak of seemingly effortless hospitality where there is no desire or need to be anywhere else.

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