Katie Monk stays at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in South Africa
This is the perfect time of year to visit South Africa. Not only are the spring flowers in bloom, it’s prime whale-watching season on the Cape.
Many tourists come to South Africa to do a traditional safari, but the ‘marine big five’ (great white sharks, Southern Right whales, African penguins, Cape Fur seals and bottlenose dolphins) are just as impressive.
At Grootbos Nature Reserve, 50km east of Hermanus on South Africa’s Overberg, you can do all this, and more.
Initially started as a B&B in 1994, Grootbos (which means ‘big forest’ in Afrikaans) is owned and run by Michael Lutzeyer, who, over the years has sensitively developed it into a luxury five-star lodge surrounded by 2,500 hectares of Cape Floral Kingdom – the smallest but most diverse of the world’s six floral kingdoms.
The most popular time of year to go whale-watching is between July and November when the Southern Right Whales come into the bay to calve and mate. I’m told you can hear them breaching from the top of the hill, they’re so loud. To get up close, you can either take a boat tour or a scenic flight for the ultimate vantage point. The pilot can even take you over Table Mountain and Cape Point.
As well as being the only lodge in South Africa where you can spot the marine big five, Grootbos helps protect the natural ecosystem and bring education and employment opportunities to the local community. A key component of the reserve is conservation and social enterprise. The Grootbos Foundation was set up in 2003, and 80% of the reserve’s staff come from the nearby village of Gansbaai.
The Foundation’s projects vary from horticulture, animal husbandry and beekeeping to football coaching, candle-making and computer skills. Participants also work on the farm’s extensive organic herb and vegetable garden, which supplies the on-site restaurant.
All the lodge’s water comes from the reserve’s sandstone aquifer, and is bottled in recycled glass, which saves on mountains of plastic and waste. This project is also run by the locals. In an ideal world, all hotels would follow suit.
I’m shown around by Anecke Valentine, who herself hails from Gansbaai. She drives me through the native fynbos, explaining the various plants and proteas as we go. The reserve is made up of milkwoods and 760 species of fynbos, including proteas, ericas and heath. Many have medicinal properties (buchu is good for the kidneys, rooibos is a natural antioxidant), and Anecke’s passion and knowledge for her surroundings is impressive to say the least.
“Never eat anything that looks like a tomato or smells like an almond,” she says as she plucks something from a tree and hands it to me to sniff.
There are riding stables on site, and Anecke drops me off to go on a wonderful gallop around the hills on a horse called Flame. To say I’d found my happy place would be an understatement.
Accommodation at Grootbos is split into two five-star lodges – Garden Lodge and Forest Lodge (plus two luxury, fully-staffed villas) – all perched on the top of the hill overlooking Walker Bay. Staggered for maximum privacy, the freestanding villas feel secluded and cosy, and the views are spectacular.
My villa has a small living room with wood-burner (great for chillier nights), four-poster bed, outdoor deck, a huge bathroom with walk-in shower and a bathtub that looks out over the fynbos and Walker Bay in the distance. On my first night, I watch an impressive thunderstorm and sunset whilst bathing.
The bathroom products are made on site using all-natural ingredients, and can also be bought at the shop. They smell natural and good for you, and this small but often-overlooked detail really adds to the whole experience.
There’s also a ‘forest spa’, concealed in the milkwoods, where therapist Anna massages out my post-ride kinks.
The two main lodges contain open-plan living rooms with armchairs and fireplaces down one end and restaurant at the other. Designed to maximise the natural light and those incredible views, these are the hubs of the reserve.
Quite rightly, the menu changes daily and makes the most of all the wonderful organic produce grown in the garden. Everything I sample is divine. Dishes such as creamy laksa soup and colourful Cape Malay curry sit alongside grilled sirloin, freshly caught fish and pork from the farm’s hand-reared pigs. It’s all home-made – including the bread, jam, pasta and mayonnaise.
Grootbos’s own raw honey – made from the 200 beehives that dot the hills – features prominently, often in the form of delicious ice-cream. And the wine selection is extensive and local. There are many excellent vineyards in the area, so if wine is your thing, you should arrange a farm tour while you’re here.
Breakfast is a magnificent spread of fresh fruits, cheese from local dairies and a hot a la carte menu that includes South African baked-bean chakalaka, Grootbos farm benedict, and a very moreish French toast. To be honest, I’d come back here for the food alone, it’s so good.
The best time to visit Grootbos is right about now. However, with so much natural beauty on the doorstep, and such luxury to come home to, really any month is a winner.
Fact box: Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, Gansbaai, South Africa, +27 (0)28 384 8008, grootbos.com/en. Villas from 9,100 ZAR (£265) per person per night, based on two sharing. Rates include all meals and many activities. British Airways flies direct from London to Cape Town.