There is a mysterious romance attached to rainy weather, misty meadows, fireplaces and red wine. Especially when what should be the last bit of summer, turns out to be an almost wintery weekend in the Midlands. We recently meandered the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands, exploring luxurious accommodation options and enticing activities not to miss out on when you’re in the area.
Written by: Renate Engelbrecht from Suitcase & Chardonnay (Follow her on @suitcaseandchardonnay)
Some of my most memorable holidays were those where we used our accommodation as base to explore the surrounding area, which is why a meander through the Midlands sounded quite appealing. I was surprised at how much the Midlands had to offer and we found it very hard to finally decide where to go and what to do. We were opting for a relaxing, romantic weekend and the Midlands gave us so much more. We would have loved to explore all five of the Midlands Meander routes, but between delightful 6-course dinners, early morning strolls among grazing thoroughbreds and relaxing in floatation pools, we barely got to explore one. A good excuse to return, if you ask me.
We stayed along the Western side of the N3, but tried to meander as much of the Midlands as possible during our 3-day visit. Still, there is so much more to discover and this was merely our first of many Midlands adventures.
Luxury Stays in the Midlands
Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse
I must admit, for a romantic like me, it is easy to be biased when it comes to Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse. The destination, owned by Chef Richard and his wife, decorator and housemaker Mouse Poynton, ticks all the right boxes of a romantic gourmet getaway; the ideal destination to nurture yourself with nature.
The farm-style details in Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse’s rooms, the lounge areas and the restaurant bring forth a feeling of comfort and cosiness and Mouse has coupled it with romantic lace and clever rustic décor items that make luxurious, rustic romance tangible.
In the kitchen, Chef Richard makes magic, which is why Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse can comfortably and proudly be promoted as one of the Midlands’ best gourmet getaways. He brings farm to table in the most creative and aromatic ways, with Mouse often lending a hand in designing unpretentious, elegant plating for his dishes. The dining experience at Cleopatra leaves you speechless for all the right reasons. Here, Chef Poynton’s food does the talking – not the embroidered chair details, the calming trout dam views from the dining table or the vintage Pioneer room where guests get to indulge in his fine cuisine. Still, these things have a definite effect on the experience, as did the pre-dinner visit to their underground wine cellar, where we got to choose a special bottle of wine for the evening. The cellar is filled with rare and limited vintages of some of the top South African wine farms and sure adds to the rustic romance of the destination. We enjoyed the first glass in the lounge and coffee shop area that has been added to Cleopatra’s offering during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. This area is right next to the bar and brings with it additional dam views, lovely light and more space for Mouse’s creativity to flow freely. The farm-style feel of the room had me lazily lounging on the couch as if I were at home and I had to remind myself to relax with poise more than once.
Following our pre-dinner fireside drinks was a six-course dinner that blew my mind. The food was plated on the most beautiful crockery, allowing space for flavour and texture to impress. Chef Poynton’s creations had me dumbstruck and had me guessing recipe ingredients time and time again. The flavours you’ll experience at Chef Poynton’s table are flavours you won’t easily find anywhere else. It’s fresh, humble farm-to-table cuisine that even the queen will crave.
The Pioneer Room’s walls are filled with framed photographs from years gone by. From the Port Natal harbour to early Pietermaritzburg days. It adds to the vintage and rustic feel that Mouse has so cleverly braided into the rest of the interior experience at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse and somehow has a way of making you feel grounded.
As we arrived for breakfast the next morning, fellow guests came in dressed and ready for their morning hikes and we wished for another day at Cleopatra. In addition to lovely berg hiking trails, guests can also enjoy horse riding and helicopter rides into the Drakensberg, which would certainly add to a memorable Midlands experience. Our time at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse was limited. Still, the little time we had was spent exploring the terraced gardens (when the weather allowed), standing in awe of the gigantic trees and the unpretentious beauty of the Drakensberg and truly being in the moment while enjoying a glass of wine by the fire. We would have loved to have more time to explore the area, with Giants Castle being just around the corner and some interesting Khoi San paintings to view nearby.
Did you know? Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse recently added a self-catering option to their offering and a very exciting and bucket list worthy one at that. The Poyntons’ former home has been turned into what is now called Cleopatra Homestead. It is any nature and décor lover’s dream, complete with a reading deck, walled rose garden and its own private swimming pool with a waterfall! And, although it is self-catering, you still have the option of dining at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse.
As we drove through the Narnia-like gates at Hartford House, we were transported into a time of high teas on outstretched lawns and promenades with lacy umbrellas. I felt like I had been magically positioned in the heart of the recent Bridgerton series on Netflix. Hartford House is located on the Summerhill Stud Farm on the Midlands Meander and in addition to the unique experience it offers, it also comes with an interesting history.
Granted to the Moor family by Queen Victoria in the late 19th century, Summerhill Farm was later sold to the Ellis family – a famous racing family who owned it from 1939 to 1990. It was around the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison that Mr. Ellis and his Hillcrest residing opponent, Mick Goss, decided to swop houses. The two lawyers apparently shook hands on the matter while standing at the urinal during a short interval in a court case they were involved in. Mick’s brother, Pat Goss (who was involved in the launch of Rand Merchant Bank and who currently owns Umngazi River Bungalows and Spa on the Wild Coast), bought Summerhill together with Mick, but Mick later bought him out. Summerhill became a well-known thoroughbred stud farm, with people from all over the country coming to view the horses. Eventually, Mick’s wife Cheryl suggested that they make their home a hotel, which is how Hartford House came to life. Sold early in 2020, Summerhill Stud Farm and Hartford House is now owned by Henning Pretorius, a vegetable farmer from Skeerpoort and also the owner of Capital Stud (one of the largest horse breeders in South Africa). The 1000-hectare farm is currently home to 350 warmblood horses and about 200 thoroughbreds.
On arrival at Hartford House, we indulged in late afternoon libation at the hotel’s recently renovated, Colonial-style bar and found ourselves gobsmacked at the brilliancy of its décor and atmosphere. While indulging in a glass of Chardonnay, I could not wait for a pre-dinner bath, though as the Victorian-themed Moor Room – our room for the evening – awaited with a humungous bathroom boasting large windows overlooking the gardens from a stone bath. The 1875 Manor House was built by the farm’s very first owners, the Moor family and so Room 18 has fittingly been named after them. It is filled with unique Victorian-inspired touches – from matching wallpaper and curtains to the king-size bed’s impressive headboard and the romantic fireplace. It also comes with a foyer, which makes it feel even more luxurious. The Moor room is also the only room that can be booked within the Manor House.
A day at Hartford was not enough. We took the time we had to explore and experience as much as possible, but to really become part of the past that is so evident at this Midlands destination, you really need to stay for two nights at least. Then you’ll have time to stroll through their magnificent gardens, plunge in the pool, have afternoon tea at the Tijnhuis between Koi ponds and butterfly luring flowers and read a book in the Victorian lounge. At Hartford House you need to allow yourself time to walk the circle route that passes meadows with grazing horses; to meet up with some stallions in the stalls and to prepare for dinner on the porch that elegantly hugs the manor house with chess-style tiles and recently added glass windows.
Speaking of dinner… Hartford House’s Executive Chef, Paul Antolik (who grew up in Pietermaritzburg) recently moved back from Tanzania where he acted as a Chef Trainer at a group of luxury lodges. The six-course meal he prepared with his team during our stay was certainly one of our highlights at Hartford. We indulged in stone-mill to oven artisan breads, grilled butternut and spaghetti squash with blue cheese, sage and pumpkin seeds, and a Blue Orange Farm Chicken Ballotine. This was followed by an impressive palate-cleansing sorbet and then we were offered a decadent Midlands Beef Fillet that came with spiced freekeh, grilled fig, mange tout, oyster mushrooms and a red wine jus. He had a student pastry chef prepare dessert, which was a delightful, light lemon tart. Dinner was concluded with delicious chocolate bon bons – the perfect end to a spectacular evening.
An early morning jog was in order after an evening of indulgence, but what was meant to be a jog, became a stroll among thoroughbreds, dreaming of owning a horse. Or five hundred of them! I found it refreshing that guests are offered the opportunity to explore the farm and its day-to-day activities and would love to return with our kids to show them the ins and outs of a stud farm.
Did you know? Hartford House is currently undergoing a multi-phase renovation, of which the first phase (including rooms 1 to 12 and room 18 and the manor house) had been completed upon our visit. This also allowed them to make some welcome changes to the hotel’s operational flow, which General Manager, Maretha Langenhoven, says makes a huge difference. Phase two will include the renovation of the lakeside suites and a whole new wellness centre, which will undoubtedly be worth the wait. There are also four new rooms being built. The interiors were done by Anne Venter and Elzabe Brent Architects and many of the Manor House’s furniture pieces were merely restored to its former glory instead of being replaced, which adds to Hartford House’s tangible history.
Fordoun Hotel & Spa
When co-owner, Richard Bates started working at Fordoun Hotel & Spa after returning from the UK, they cut down a cedar pine tree and after counting the rings, he says: “They definitely went back further than 1857. That could only have been Afrikaans settlers. There’s no recorded history of them being here, but they were definitely here. There are still wagon tracks around here and they can identify where the old wagon routes used to be.” He says that the Midlands is said to have had vast herds of game, very reminiscent of the Serengeti, and when winter came, the herds would move South. There are also evidence that there were Bushmen in the area where Fordoun Hotel & Spa is located, with some paintings that have been found very close to the hotel.
Bates’ family moved to Fordoun from England in the 1940s, looking for a place in Africa that reminded them of the UK, but with the wildness of Africa. It was going to be a summer place for them only, but during their first summer at Fordoun, Sir George and Lady Nora Usher decided that Fordoun was to be their permanent residence. Lady Nora Usher was Sir George’s third wife and they never had children of their own. Jon Bates, Richard’s father who owns Fordoun with his two sons, was very close to his aunt, Lady Nora Usher. He went to school in the Midlands and she looked after him like a mother as he spent most of his time on the farm. In those days, when you were at school, you were lucky to go home twice a year and Fordoun kind of became home to Jon.
As Lady Usher became older, she wanted Jon to come to the farm and look after her. According to Richard, her conditions were clear: “If he did not come to look after her, he would not inherit the farm.” Since Jon had wanted to get into farming, the decision to move to the Midlands was easy and Jon and his wife took over the dairy farm and ran it quite successfully. So much so that they could not expand anymore, which put them in a position where they either had to sell the farm or do something else. Jon told Richard, who was playing professional rugby in the UK at the time: “We either sell or we’re going to do something else and turn the old farmyard into a boutique hotel and spa,” and that’s where it all began.
After deciding to turn the farmyard into a boutique hotel and spa, Jon’s son, Richard returned from the UK and did a quick, one-year learnership with the 12 Apostles Hotel & Spa in Cape Town. It took a year to build Fordoun Hotel and four months into Richard’s learnership, he was already recruiting. “It was very much a rushed system,” he says. “My strength is that I try to recruit people who make me look good.”
Fordoun’s spa was once the farm’s dairy and its wonderfully relaxing floatation pool used to be the granary or silo where the maize was kept. Room 15, 16 and 17 next to the spa was the original homestead (the oldest building on the property, built in 1857). A lot of the rooms are old sheds that have been converted. The family wanted to keep as much as possible of the original building, hence the stonework of the rooms is the original stonework that has just been taken apart and put back together. Walking past these rooms, you’ll undoubtedly get that village vibe many of us often long for. You’ll also be transported into the heydays with various old photos in the restaurant (which used to be the farm manager’s house). “Sometimes I need to remind myself as well. It’s changed quite considerably,” says Richard.
The Bates family later decided to expand Fordoun with five Superior Mountain View rooms (which is where we stayed), overlooking the Drakensberg. Tip: Take an outdoor shower! The magnificent 180-degree Drakensberg view will leave you speechless.
Richard reminisces about weekend visits to his great aunt, Lady Nora Usher and says she used to pick him and his friends up from school with her chauffeur. “She was very la-di-da. When you came for lunch, you had to get your ties on and make sure you were looking pristine. You had to sit with her for about 40 minutes before lunch and do small talk and all the rest and then you’d have a formal lunch with silver service. You had to be on your top behaviour and then you had to sit with her afterwards while she had her coffee or whiskey. And, then you were free. It was two hours of pain for about five, six hours of fun,” he laughs.
Did you know? Fordoun also offers self-catering units for families, built around a cricket field next to a lovely wedding venue. These units are not star-graded, but still offer a very comfortable, quality stay. It’s more rustic that at the hotel but allows Fordoun to cater for different markets.
What to do in the Midlands
Apart from the many activities you can indulge in at the various accommodation options, the Midlands Meander also offers an array of doings to keep yourself busy.
As wine lovers, we just had to try some Midlands wine. Who would have thought that there are wineries in the middle of the Midlands? What was previously a small hydroponic vegetable farm in the misty hills of the Midlands, became the now ever so popular Highgate Wine Estate after it was purchased by the Kassier family in 1996. This is also where the concept of the adjacent Piggly Wiggly Farmstall (also worth a visit) was born. The farm boasts a 5-hectare vineyard, producing ten certified wines including the very first Chardonnay to be certified in the Kwazulu-Natal region. Winemaker, Thornton Pillay joined the farm in 2016 after spending time in France (Burgundy) and working at renowned wine farms like Groot Constantia, Ernie Els Wines and KWV. Highgate now produces 17 000 bottles per annum and continues to expand. We had a lovely, laid-back wine tasting coupled with a divine charcuterie platter – the perfect way to relax on a Saturday afternoon. Of course, the winery’s architecture and interiors are also rather Instagrammable, which inevitably had us taking way too many pictures. Abingdon Wine Estate is another wine farm in the region to try out.
In addition to the lavish dining experiences at the destinations we stayed over at, the Midlands is filled with an array of restaurants, delis and local produce to explore. If you don’t have enough time to visit them all, pop in at Piggly Wiggly where you’ll be able to discover some of the best Midlands-made artisanal chocolates, ice cream to die for and more. This is also where kids can run free, play mini golf, do candle dipping, explore a farm and reptile park, go on the piggy zip(line), take a train ride and more.
If you’re a fan of coffee, Terbodore Coffee Roasters is non-negotiable for your Midlands itinerary. Their farm-style restaurant and coffee shop and the welcoming watch dogs (the Great Dane, Sultan being the brand ambassador) boast a special experience of its own. Not to mention the lovely breakfasts and signature coffee blends to be had while taking in the beautiful scenery.
Wedgewood Farm and Wedgewood Emporium are both also worth a visit, not only for the wonderful confectionary, but also because it is such an inspirational family business. The farm is a decommissioned dairy farm, but also home to their state-of-the-art nut cracking facility, the Wedgewood Bakery and Makery and the Wedgewood Farm Shop. They continuously experiment with ways to reduce their footprint on the environment. They currently use their Macadamia shells to fuel their hot water supply and they extract the Macadamia oil in order for the nuts and shells not to go to waste. They are also 100% plastic neutral. If you can’t visit their farm, at least stop by their Emporium at Piggly Wiggly to sample their latest flavours, including unique handmade nougat ice creams!
If you’re a fan of German food, add the Beirfassl to your list of dining to-dos. Their eisbein and beer tasting trays are undoubtedly the favourites from the menu.
All in all, the Midlands is a place where you can lose yourself in either adventurous activities or luxurious romance. It’s a destination for young and old; singles and couples and has been underrated for far too long. When you ever head down to the coast again, be sure to add an extra day or two to your itinerary to meander the Midlands.