While I’m a firm believer that some of the best things in life are free, some of them are, well, not. And if anyone is qualified to put together a collection of the finest not-free things in life, it’s probably Relais & Chateaux.
While journalists might adhere to the five Ws, the global fellowship of Relais & Chateaux follow a far superior motto of the five Cs: Caractère, Courtoisie, Calme, Charme et Cuisine. (And you thought you didn’t speak French.)
So a hotel or restaurant doesn’t get to hang that fleur-de-lis on its doorway without being something super special in the world of hospitality. And it certainly doesn’t get added to one of the Relais & Chateaux Routes du Bonheur (there you go, being fluent in French again) unless it offers something even beyond their ‘basic’ requirements of an idyllic setting, exquisite cuisine and luxurious facilities.
The concept of a Route du Bonheur (and if you insist that you don’t speak French, I will tell you that it means ‘Road of Happiness’) started in the 1950s, when the French version of the Blue Train ran from Paris to the Cote d’Azur.
The train, along with the road that ran parallel to it, encouraged lovely places to offer travellers their finest food and hospitality. The best of them got together to create an itinerary that became known as the Route du Bonheur.
Now, I think we can all agree that the Cape has no shortage of places that offer world-class cuisine and hospitality. And yet, while there are now 112 Routes du Bonheur around the world, only one of them is in the Cape.
Let’s ponder that together for a moment. What would you put on a no-expense-spared itinerary to extract maximum happiness from a road trip in the Cape?
Actually, you don’t need to think too hard. Because Relais & Chateaux have already done it for you. Assuming you love food, wine, art, nature, adventure, discovery, travel and tranquility (and if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?), here’s how to enjoy the very best of the Cape in just four stops.
Happy Place #1: Ellerman House
Unless you’re well-versed in luxury African travel, you may never have heard of Ellerman House. And yet it is the flagship boutique hotel in Cape Town. Put it this way: while the people at Ellerman House would abhor me telling you this (they’re far too classy), it’s the place where Oprah, Bill (the computer one), and most of Hollywood stay when they deign to grace our shores.
The thing is, Ellerman House doesn’t feel like a hotel. It feels like an ultra luxurious private home. A home that just happens to have one of the best private collections of South African art in the world. (Again, the Ellerman people would really prefer me not to say something so ostentatious. Sorry.)
The mansion and villas are bursting with two centuries worth of fine art. An Irma Stern stares moodily out from the stairs, Kentridge dominates a corner of the lounge, a clump of Battises dazzle between doors, and an entire corridor is lined with Thomas Bowler’s Cape landscapes.
The art overflows into the gardens, which is sprinkled with sculptures by Dylan Lewis, Kevin Roberts and Angus Taylor. Taylor’s impressive ‘Head’ guards the entrance to the contemporary art gallery, which is crammed with paintings by the likes of Anton Kannemeyer, Norman Catherine, Simon Stone and Lionel Smit.
Then there’s the wine gallery, which is an art installation itself. There’s a terroir wall by Angus Taylor, which documents the distinctive terroir of 100 Cape winefarms, a mollusc-shaped steel spiral staircase by Conrad Hicks, and a Pinotage vine rendered in brass by Nic Bladen, which is so realistic that everyone has to touch it to make certain it’s not real.
A giant carbon fibre corkscrew wine rack by Brian Steinhobel holds 1,500 bottles of South Africa’s best wines in the glass-walled cooler. Below it, the wine cellar holds several thousand more bottles in lasercut American oak, along with a separate cellarful of vintage Dom Perignon, and two tonnes of chalk imported specially from Épernay to clad the walls.
These are just a few of the ingenious and beautiful touches owner Paul Harris has had built into the space. However, you don’t get to see or experience any of this unless you’re a guest at Ellerman House (or a guest of Relais & Chateaux, in my case). You actually have to spend a night there. But staying just one night could prove difficult. After all, there’s a reason Ellerman House has adopted the hashtag #neverleave.