Paul Hopkins, a Satoa Travel Writer of the Year recipient — awarded for writings on Africa, Asia and the Indian Ocean — describes a visit to the luxury Steenberg Hotel
WHAT would make you want to come back to a place that’s so much more than a piece of paradise? A place with almost eternal sunshine, beauty and utter tranquility with some of the best cuisine and the finest wines known to man, and rated by readers of Condé Nast Traveller as the Top Hotel in Africa and the Middle East?
Champagne — that’s what.
Or Methode Cap Classique, (MCC), as they call it in South Africa.
Three years ago I had stayed at the splendid Steenberg Hotel, in the Western Cape, just 40 minutes out of Cape Town airport, where I had been waited upon hand and foot and wrapped in a sway of fine dining and wonderful wine. South Africa’s mother city offers many secret corners to explore, but my first visit to Steenberg afforded me yet another breathtaking outlook on the Western Cape and had left me, the selfish traveller that I am, wanting more.
Not wishing to push my luck, I needed an excuse to return to this splendid spot by the foot of the Stone Mountain.
Champagne offered me an excuse, with the opening of the Steenberg Hotel’s aptly-named Gorgeous Bubbly Bar by Graham Beck.
A long-held ambition of renowned wine maker Graham Beck, Gorgeous (the debonair gentleman’s greeting to the ladies), is a stylish and delightful den, tastefully draped in Vivienne Westwood interiors.
And it’s the latest attraction at the estate in Cape Town’s Constantia, adjacent to Catharina’s restaurant where, naturally, we later found ourselves.
Complimented by delectable canapés created by Catharina’s celebrated chef, the diminutive and charming Garth Almazan, yours truly made his wanton way through a tasting of vintage and non-vintage champagnes, which, with one exception, epitomised elegance, finesse and subtle sophistication.
It is not every day that your wine is chosen by one of the world’s most famous men to mark a moment in history. Twice, in fact.
In 1994 Graham Beck’s Brut NV was chosen as the celebratory drink at the inauguration of South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela.
And it was the same non-vintage, with its crisp apple on the nose, that Barack Obama chose to celebrate his declaration to run for president, privately, with his wife Michelle, at the Blue Bird in Chicago.
Small wonder, though, as Steenberg holds the distinction of being the oldest farm in the Constantia Valley, regarded as one of South Africa’s finest wine-growing regions.
It has to do with its sea-facing slopes and great granite ridges and has led Steenberg, since Graham Beck acquired it in 2005, to garner a worldwide reputation.
The 62 hectares, sloping along the east side of the mountain, has a history going back to 1682 when the land was first in the hands of Catharina Ras, a feisty German woman who got through no less than five husbands in her lifetime.
The first wine was made here in 1695, and the cellars are still producing award-winning bottles today.
Graham Beck added the striking metallic sculptures of Edoardo Villa (the Henry Moore of South Africa) to the property but otherwise the buildings of the original farm and wine estate remain intact and have been converted into the luxury hotel, with rooms in the old manor house and surrounding buildings.
Catharina’s Restaurant has the ‘wow’ factor: the proportions are grand while the furniture is an arty blend of contemporary African with cosmopolitan style without compromising on the Cape traditions that underpin this estate.
For dinner I chose the Springbok tartare followed by Warthog. The springbok was infused with black truffles and was good, but the warthog was a taste sensation: pink-centred soft fillet medallions on a slither of slow roasted underbelly, grilled prawns, exotic mushrooms with a red wine reduction.
No surprise then that Catharina’s has received both the American Express and Diners Club Award for Excellence.
For more relaxed and less fine fare there’s the open planned and high-ceilinged Bistro Sixteen 82 that’s ideal for lunch.
Staying here, you really do feel privileged and pampered, a combination of bygone pleasures with contemporary luxury.
They seem to have the balance just right, with their Cape Dutch antiques, old master paintings and tapestries.
My premier room was classically decorated; spacious, with two rooms, a mini-bar, patio with mountain view and a large bathroom and all manner of modern communications from Wi-Fi to an iPod docking station.
The Heritage Suites offer views to False Bay, while the Manor House rooms have their own lounges and all are furnished individually in a style reminiscent of the 17th century.
And there are spacious family suites for two adults and two children under 12, which offer great value The gardens are an invitation to stroll, a haven of havens, minutes from the Cape Town but miles from the world.
There is much to offer at Steenberg and in the surrounding countryside. For a day at the beach, check out Camp’s Bay with the trendiest beach strip on the peninsula or go visit the penguin colony at Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town. Or go walking along the Alphen Trail, one of the most popular of the green belt walks of the Constantia Valley. The trail winds along the Diep River to the Constantiaberg Mountain and in places allows one to walk on either side of the river, with a number of bridge crossings.
It’s a beautiful walk filled with lush grass, trees, beautiful skies and the Le Sueur Meadow on the far end, towards Hohenort.
Stop off, and browse for that special ‘find’ at the popular Alphen Antiques Fair, which takes place at the Alphen Centre (opposite Constantia Village Shopping Centre) on the second and fourth Sunday of every month between 10am and 4pm.
A variety of items including jewellery, glass, ceramics, silver, toys, books, and paintings will be on sale.
But, back to being spoilt at Steenberg — there’s golf of course, where the 18-hole championship course meanders through the vineyards, pine forests and gentle waterways.
With three different tees, the course can be enjoyed by champion and novice alike.
The par-three, not-so-short 14th hole, by the way, features the largest green in Africa at 76 metres in length.
Steenberg’s Golf Academy Package offers players a 4-night escape and three professional golf lessons on the course during your stay.
And for the ladies, there’s the Ginkgo Spa at Steenberg, with its earthy and relaxing ambience and five beautifully-fitted rooms offering a soothing indulgence with an energising vigour.
I’ll be back … again!