South Africa

Delaire Graff Estate
Delaire Graff Estate

The morning started out simple enough. Our group of planners/journalists drove to the suburbs of Cape Town for breakfast at the elegant Relais & Chateaux property, Ellerman House. Built by an English shipping magnate in the early 1900s, the Cape Edwardian mansion overlooks Bantry Bay from a high hilltop perch. On the top floor, there’s a corner dining room seating 25 for exquisite morning repasts amid the graceful architecture and 250 pieces of museum artwork. Dinner is grand too with a wine list topping 7,500 South African labels.

You walk out of there floating just a little, with the fresh squeezed mimosas and rarefied setting having their predictable effect. So it was a jolt to see 10 motorcycles with sidecars and a gang of leather-clad bikers waiting under the port cochere.

Our South African Tourism handlers had promised the trip of a lifetime as a run-up to last winter’s SITE International Conference. Between the new luxury hotels built for the 2010 World Cup, the resulting oversupply of rooms offering excellent values, and an exotic collection of group activities, you can easily create the same experience.

With one person riding shotgun in “the bucket” and another sitting behind the driver, we rumbled away on the bikes provided by Cape Sidecar Adventures for the transfer back into town. This time we took the long route along the bustling beachfront and new Cape Town Stadium. Garnering more than a little interest from waving locals, this was a total blast while seeing the city in an entirely different light, especially for the first-time bikers.

Everyone assumed we were heading back to the hotel until we stopped at Cape Town Helicopter Tours. Four to a chopper, we flew high over the coastline along the summit of iconic Table Mountain and around the Cape of Good Hope. In colonial times, the Good Hope peninsula was regarded as the end of the earth by sailors fearing the notoriously dangerous waters where the Atlantic meets the Indian Sea. Today, the craggy shores are one of the top attractions in the country for visiting groups.

Another surprise. Rather than returning to the helicopter base as anticipated, we swooped down into an ungodly beautiful valley laced with vineyards to the front lawn of Delaire Graff Estate in the Stellenbosch wine region. Before the end of Apartheid, Cape Town existed in a wine wilderness even though grapes have been cultivated here for 350 years. In the last decade, South African wine country—aka, the Cape Winelands—has expanded to over 600 wineries, making it the 8th largest producer in the world. Wine Tourism is exploding due to the worldwide foodie/locavore trend, and the wineries are capitalizing on it with magnificent restaurants and globally hip upscale inns for small retreats.

Owned by Graff Diamonds, the Delaire winery sits on a crest within the Helshoogte Pass bookended by gently sloping mountains, offering ga-ga views from Delaire Graff Restaurant. Available for private rental for 80 indoors/100 on the terrace, the space is a contemporary masterpiece designed by London interior guru David Collins, who decorated with Graff’s private modern art collection celebrating indigenous African culture.

The menu soars with items like pickled beetroot carpaccio with goat’s cheese fritters, and crayfish lasagne with king oyster ‘shrooms. There’s also the 18-seat Vinotheque private dining room inside the cellar, and there’s a collection of gorgeous new, sustainably-minded lodges with private pools facing the valley.

The way this day was unfolding, we should have expected a fleet of vintage cars like those used in Driving Miss Daisy waiting outside for us. I hooked up with Steve Woodward who restored the 1948 Hudson Commodore that he drives with a group called Old Timers Classic Car Hire. It’s a network of cool old dudes who chauffeur groups up to 200 pax around the Cape.

Steve drove a few of us through the rolling Winelands to Drakenstein Valley and the new Babylonstoren—one of the best preserved farm estates in the Cape Dutch tradition, anchored by a manor house built in 1777. Open since December, everything revolves around the massive garden where attendees can pick herbs/fruits/veggies for DIY meals at Babel, housed inside a bright and airy converted cow shed. They make an apple crumbler that will compel you to extend your booking.

For centuries, merchant sailors plying the routes between Europe and Asia stopped in Cape Town to replenish vegetables and fruit, so Babylonstoren pays homage to that tradition. For pre/post bookings, suggest to attendees with farm-to-fork inclinations one of the 14 guestrooms, some with funky stainless steel and rustic wood kitchens. Love the stark white, “barnyard-chic” rooms with farmhouse motifs that open out to the garden.

For the right type of group who want this sense of purity and simplicity, Babylonstoren is a perfect hub for exploring the historic towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, located 45 minutes from Cape Town.

One of the most picturesque cities in the world, Cape Town sits on the doorstep of majestic Table Mountain, with a 2-mile flat summit plateauing 3,500 feet in the clouds. Groups flying into Cape Town stay either downtown or within the adjacent Victoria & Albert Waterfront, surrounded by over 80 restaurants and a plethora of attractions. It’s here where groups depart for Robben Island where President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.

There are quite a few legacy luxury hotels in Cape Town with a long list of regular clients, but two new properties have broken the mold in terms of style and design.

Last spring, celebrities from Robert DeNiro to Clint Eastwood joined President Mandela to kick off the grand opening of the 131-room One&Only Cape Town located in the V&A. There are not many hotel entrances in a city setting grander than here. Guests walk through the doors and straight into the aptly named Vista Bar with 30-foot high windows framing the view of Table Mountain.

On the other side of the windows, 40 rooms with private terraces are propped up in a lagoon like South Pacific urban bures while kayakers paddle around the perimeter. The other 91 rooms are housed in the curvilinear Main Rise building facing Table Mountain with large balconies overlooking the waterfront.

Cape Town is rated one of the best value for money tourist capitals globally. Projections are anticipating continued growth in both meetings and tourism, but presently the city is overstocked with luxury hotel rooms due to the aforementioned build-up to the World Cup. That’s pushing down rates for the foreseeable future. For instance, a vodka/soda at One&Only costs $6. Dinner with wine comes in under $75 at the typically prohibitive Nobu, called the hippest restaurant chain in the world by Vogue and the sexist by The Observer.

The cuisine incorporates local seafood and indigenous spices with Japanese techniques/sauces, like the scallop and lobster entree with ceviche miso, or rock shrimp in yuzu sauce. Make sure someone orders the juicy Namibian ribeye. But the best part is the variety of finger food served with multiple sauces that everyone can mix and share. Nobu also caters private events held in the 2,100-sf ballroom with large outdoor terrace hosting 130 sit-down, plus the two boardrooms and elegant top-tier suites.

Downtown, we attended a reception on the rooftop of the new 166-room Taj Cape Town, located within minutes to half a dozen museums and the bright, modern Cape Town International Conference Centre. Opened last fall, the hotel’s public and meeting spaces are housed within a restored bank and temple built in the 1800s. On top of that, the bulk of rooms are located inside an ultra modern 17-story tower, all with balconies.

The lobby is dominated by a striking barrel vault ceiling, and the adjacent Bombay Brasserie is a sister establishment to the famous London restaurant credited with inventing modern fine-dining Indian cuisine. They do fun wine tasting and jazz events, where sommeliers hold court while guests nibble on Tandoori Norwegian salmon crudites. For group biz, there are eight meeting rooms, including a ballroom for 110-pax banquets. For VIPs, there are 30 Heritage rooms in the historic section with original mullioned windows. And the rooftop deck is part of the split-level Presidential Suite, which can cater groups up to 75.

The Sabi Sand Reserve is a protected area located along South Africa’s eastern border with Mozambique. Within the Reserve, the 12-suite traditional Singita Ebony Lodge and 15-suite modernist Singita Boulders Lodge sit on 45,000 acres of private land. Because the Singita operation has so much exclusive real estate, you’re guaranteed to see wildlife. Lots of wildlife.

We hunkered down at Ebony in large thatch cottages with mahogany 4-post beds, stone fireplaces, vintage safari photography, private pools and clawfoot tubs looking out over the veld. We were told to latch our doors because the baboons know how to turn the handles.

The first morning there, we met in the towering open-air lobby with a heavy wooden bar, native rugs and accoutrements and a Hemingway-esque reading room. Our first day on safari.

It’s 8:30 am and we’re driving in open-air Land Rovers through the scrubby bush. Our guide Samuel spots the herd of seven elephants walking about 1/4 mile away parallel to us. He knows instinctively where they’re going. So he pulls ahead to a watering hole and positions the truck on the other side with the sun at our backs. Slowly, the beasts come toward us one by one into the pond, where they roll in the mud to cool themselves.

There’s a baby who leaves first and sees us. It raises its trunk to test our scent and starts to move closer. When the baby is 40 feet away, mom catches eyesight of this. She gets up out of the pool with commitment, and then the rest of the family starts to follow, including dad who’s the size of a cement truck.

Samuel moves the shift knob into drive. He feels it necessary to tell us not to get out of the truck. The whole family then lines up side by side facing us directly less than 15 feet away. Mom is doing the thing with her ears, spreading them in a show of force. Sam asks if everyone’s okay. I’m thinking we’re sorta relying on him to tell us if we’re okay. Two people in the truck are looking at their feet. My body is literally vibrating being so close to so much tonnage of defensive elephant with no fence in between.

This goes on for three minutes. Feeling secure, the animals move on and we get out for a break of tea and fresh crumpets.

We eventually saw all of the Big Five animals numerous times during the four dawn and dusk safaris. Don’t come to South Africa without doing this. Definitely the “meeting” of a lifetime.