IT’S a bucket-list thing… and BILLY SUTER has been lucky to have experienced it twice. It’s the tranquil gourmet getaway that is KwaZulu-Natal’s wonderful Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse. It is a heavenly haven that nestles beside a dam under the majestic stare of Cleopatra Mountain, which features a regal profile resembling the legendary Egyptian queen, carved by nature into a rock edge.
KNOWN for its great gourmet meals prepared by popular and amiable chef and owner Richard Poynton, formerly of Granny Mouse, Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, in the Kamberg Valley, close to Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve, is not the cheapest getaway in the land, costing well over R2000 each a night.
But, boy, is this romantic retreat one of the most special of treats – every bit as memorable for winding down and chilling out as it is for savouring some of the finest five-course suppers and top-notch breakfasts you’re likely to find anywhere.
The daily rate includes accommodation – in one of a dozen individually themed units, including two cottages close to a gurgling river and with wonderful mountain views – as well as the five-course dinner that changes every evening, a breakfast that is no ordinary affair and an informal, communal lunch spread of cheese board, biscuits, muffins and cake of the day, available all afternoon.
I first visited about four years ago, writing under the pseudonym Bill Ryan, a name I used for four years when freelancing as arts editor of Durban newspaper Independent on Saturday, and was lucky enough to be invited back again this weekend.
It was as if I had never left. The feeling of relaxation and welcoming warmth is instant as one leaves the Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse parking area, then follows a path through a large, aroma-filled herb garden. You pass canoes resting beside a braai area and boma, then bypass trees heaving with weavers’ nests, over a dam, to make your way to the reception area.
There, a welcoming smile and a hot cappuccino, as well as a slice of chocolate cake, were handed to us almost immediately as my partner, Gordon, and I sank into a comfy couch to drink in the views, through large windows, of the dam that overlooks trees and mountain views.
We then took great delight in feeding rainbow trout in the dam from the lounge verandah, where a silver bucket of pellet food is available to feed the fish. Quite a feeding frenzy it becomes, too.
Luxurious simplicity and charm, outstanding comfort, hospitality, friendship and exceptional ambiance with high levels of service are drawcards of a getaway that also caters for specialised weddings, small conferences and executive events.
The accommodation units are scattered about the well-manicured grounds, and in the three connected buildings cantilevered over the trout-filled dam, that looks on to the mountains, you will come across two lounge areas with fireplaces, a reception area, a small gift shop, a charming sunken wine cellar, a pub and a large diningroom with high windows that make the most of the beautiful views.
Large trees dripping with weavers’ nests, where the hard-working little yellow birds are constantly atwitter, cast shadows over a white floating gazebo, and braai and boma area at the dam’s edge. Close by, those two green canoes lie in wait for anyone energetic enough to climb into them. I was quite happy to sit quietly, thank you very much.
A walk around the small dam is a must – great photo opportunities – and it is also fun taking the short stroll from the acacia-dotted, tree-filled garden down to the getaway’s two cottages that overlook a river, hills and the mountains.
Many seem to enjoy simply relaxing – perhaps with a book on the white wooden loungers outside each unit or, if the weather is chillier, in the rooms, all of which have fireplaces, TV, free wi-fi, separate bath, separate shower, separate loo, heated towel racks, mini bar and cotton sheets with heated underblankets.
I loved the free cannister of crunchy, homemade biscuits alongside the complimentary tea and coffee in each room.
Another leisure option at this 500-acre getaway is the Copper Pot Spa overlooking the impressive herb garden. There an hour’s full-body, deep-tissue massage will set you back R600, a 90-minute, hot-stone treatment costs R700, and a 30-minute back, neck and shoulder massage will cost you R400. Other treatments are also available, of course.
I have it on good authority that, if you are staying a few days, a trip to the San rock art at nearby Kamberg and Giant’s Castle is a must; while hiking is a good idea too. One can also take a short drive up to the top of a mountain.
Trout fishing is available in nearby rivers and dams (not the Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse one, though), and staff can arrange a helicopter trip to take you right into the Drakensberg Mountains if you have the time and the cash. Horse-riding and forest canopy tours can also be arranged.
Evenings excite me most at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, guests meeting from 7pm around the lounge fireplace to await detailed descriptions of the evening’s menu, written up on a chalkboard. The five-course menu is explained in detail; the ingredients, where and how they were accessed, and the cooking process clearly and fully discussed.
It is always an informal, interesting affair, with award-winning chef Poynton often doing the honours, although we had informed staff taking his place when we were there at the weekend.
Fresh ingredients are essential, and being able to pick from the gardens minutes before serving is a real pleasure, says Poynton. For the most exotic tastes, he spends hours hunting down local and imported ingredients of the highest quality – flying in fresh salmon from Norway and procuring genuine Parma hams and cheeses from Italy.
Born on a sugar farm in Zululand, Richard was groomed to become a farmer. His childhood was spent hunting, shooting and fishing on the farm and sailing boats on the Richard’s Bay lagoon.
After his schooling at Michaelhouse he felt the need to formally study farming practices and went to the Cedara Agricultural College. After a stint at Rhodes University in Grahamstown – studying agricultural economics – he returned to the family farm to continue in the family tradition, reports the Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse website.
His grandfather, Fred, had cleared the virgin bush – basically by hand, with a few labourers – in the early 1900s and Richard’s father, Ralph, had continued sugar farming in a more modern era.
It soon became apparent that sugar farming was not for Richard. He was more suited to the arts, reports the website.
He had played in a band during his school, university and farming days and his love of music has never waned. Mouse had taken up pottery since her days teaching in Howick and so Richard decided to join her and they then went into pottery full time.
These were very happy years as they now had two daughters who were growing up with their parents at home. As soon as they got to school-going age he realised he needed to do something a bit more responsible in order for them to go to private schools, the website adds.
He embarked on his first venture in the hospitality industry by converting their existing house into what would become Granny Mouse’s Country House.
After eight years they then moved to the UK for a year. There they spent time working with chefs, doing cookery courses in the UK and Ireland and travelling through France and Italy. They learnt so much and realised that this is where their hearts lay.
Returning to South Africa to a family farm in the Drakensberg Mountains they started Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse.
Richard still loves to cook and is very involved in the kitchen at the hotel. Whenever they can they travel with food as their theme.
Supper is served at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse about 7.30 each evening and the menu changes daily, according to seasons and availability of local produce.
We started with an appetiser of a plump prawn wrapped in Parma ham, resting on a square tower of avocado in a reduced tomato sauce with a hint of apple cider vinegar. It looked a little odd but it was excellent – and I used a warm, crisp roll to slop up some of the leftover sauce.
Next up was a parmesan, salmon and lemon bisque which was chunky and a little overly cheesey for my liking but enjoyable all the same. Gordon couldn’t get enough of it and almost wore away the bowl trying to spoon out the last drop.
The third course was very good – two crisp squares of aubergine served with rocket and lettuce from the garden, and a minted yoghurt sauce that I would have done with a bit more of.
After a palate cleanser of litchi-flavoured ice, we were into the mains – a big winner. It was slices of blesbok layered over fondant potato with onion marmalade and a lemon and honey jus. The meat was very tasty and tender, marinated then cooked twice with long standing periods in between, we were told. It was superb, served with three pieces of braaied asparagus, sweet pumpkin slices and that great sauce.
Gordon and I were glad we had space for pud – poached pear baked in phyllo pastry, topped with homemade vanilla ice-cream and generously drizzled with a decadent butterscotch sauce. Yum!
That was followed by port and a waddle back to the room.
Breakfast was sublime – starting with a table heaving with the usual mix of croissants, muffins, the most amazing home-made muesli with yoghurt and nuts, cereals and juices. Or one could enjoy the large parfait glass filled with chopped fresh fruit, served at the table.
We were also each served a huge, fluffy omelette, filled with brie, cranberry sauce and bacon bits, and enjoyed with sausage, potato slices, mini tomatoes and health bread toast. A brilliant end to a memorable getaway.
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CLEOPATRA COUNTRY FARMHOUSE
Address: PO Box 17, Balgowan, 3275, KwaZulu-Natal.
Phone: +27 (0)33 267 7243.
Rates: Rates are per person per night, sharing, and inclusive of 14% VAT. Rates include dinner, bed and breakfast, plus cheese board for lunch, as well as all teas, coffees and cakes.
Prices: Prices until September 30 range from R2295 to R2695 per person, increasing from October 1 to end-September 2018, to between R2495 and R2895.
Note: Regret no children under 12, and no smoking permitted in buildings.
Check-in: 2pm, with check-out at 10.30am.
Deposit: A 50% deposit is due to confirm the booking, 30 days prior to guest’s arrival.