Eastern Cape Love
Words and pics Franki Black
The world’s largest pineapple stood before me in yellow and green greatness. I positioned myself a good few metres away from it and seized the moment to snap a selfie. Bathurst – that quirky historic village situated in the heart of the Eastern Cape near Port Alfred – is big pineapple country. It’s so big that the pineapple farmers in the area decided to construct a giant four-story replica of their most-prized crop. Inside the giant pineapple are information boards illustrating the ins and outs of the pineapple industry and a small shop with juicy goodies up for sale. It also contains a rim lookout deck from where you can see the coral trees, lush meadows, Nguni cows and balmy sea of the Sunshine Coast.
We were visiting Port Alfred for the relaunch of the Royal St. Andrews Hotel and to explore the region’s local gems. In the space of two days we spotted rhinos and sable antelopes on a game-drive; we met up with potters and craft-beer brewers; we explored the grounds of one of South Africa’s top aviation schools (Air School 43), and we sailed down Port Alfred’s 22-kilometre Kowie River. The Eastern Cape is synonymous with adventure, offering activities such as diving, world-class surfing, kayaking and hiking. There are also more than a million hectares of malaria-free game reserves in the area, miles of untouched beaches and many notable historical sites worth visiting. Of all the Eastern Cape’s bounties it has to be her people that make this province seep into the souls of all those who visit. From entrepreneurs to academics to hardy agricultural stalwarts to gifted artists, the Eastern Cape’s people are some of the warmest folk you’ll meet in South Africa.
The Royal St. Andrews
Martin Bekker and his wife, Linda, welcomed us at the Royal St. Andrews Hotel after a one-hour flight from Cape Town. Originally from Johannesburg, the Bekkers fell in love with the Eastern Cape after visiting friends for an Easter weekend. A few weeks later they packed their bags, moved to Port Alfred and purchased the Royal St. Andrews Hotel dating back to 1924. “It is the people of this province that seduced us into moving here,” confessed Martin.
The hotel is located between Port Elizabeth and East London and built opposite the Royal Port Alfred Golf Club, one of the oldest and best-known golf courses in South Africa. The Royal St. Andrews and its resident pub (the Highlander) have been iconic landmarks in the Eastern Cape for decades. One of the many local tales tells of the Prince of Wales who visited the hotel in 1925. He allegedly played a lot of golf and divided his affections between the mayor’s two daughters.
Over the last three years Martin and Linda have restored and transformed the Royal St. Andrews from a 10-bedroom to a 60-bedroom hotel that boasts a spa, a conferencing centre, a pool and three restaurants. “Our inspiration grew from the original building,” explained Linda. “We wanted to maintain the integrity of the old.” The hotel blends classic Tudor style with slick contemporary architecture. Linda worked closely with local suppliers and artists to create a trendy interior that reflects the area’s rich past. Concrete and timber textures are combined with bold splashes of butter yellow and ‘French-kiss’ red to create a fresh, chic and warm interior. During the renovation stages, the construction team uncovered newspaper articles dating back to 1900. These have been framed and can be seen in select suites.
Forming part of the Mantis Collection comprising 70 of the world’s finest boutique hotels, the Royal St. Andrews offers a world-class guest and culinary experience. We gathered in the Highlander for a gourmet pub lunch that confirmed the renewed hotel is a hotspot for foodies. Simple and flavorful Tandoori Chicken, Fish and Chips, and Lamb and Danish Feta Wraps were some of the dishes served. Other dining options at the hotel include the elegant Thistle Restaurant and an in-house deli.
Top Attractions on the Sunshine Coast
Sandy Birch of Sunshine Coast Tourism met up with us to reveal the area’s charms and to introduce us to a few locals.
Adele’s Mohair: First up was a visit to Adele’s Mohair, a business which specialises in the production of high-quality knitted yarns and accessories made from locally-sourced mohair and merino wool. We rambled along a dirt road and arrived at a smallholding situated just outside of Port Alfred. Business owner, Adele Cutten, and her friendly ridgeback welcomed us and took us for a tour of the premises. We watched as a dedicated team of Xhosa women weaved colourful threads on looms and sorted silver beads into trays alongside huge pots hissing and bubbling with blue dyes. “I’ve worked with some of these ladies for over 30 years,” said Adele. “Many of them can’t read or write, but they are highly skilled at what they do.” Adele’s products are mostly exported to the US and Europe and include yarns, ponchos, scarves, shawls and throws that come in a range of vibrant colours.
The Oceana Beach and Wildlife Reserve: Oceana, a 5-star boutique hotel and reserve that also forms part of the Mantis Collection, has been described as a place where heaven meets earth. Situated on the slopes of a green rolling hill dotted with orange aloes, the hotel overlooks a vast stretch of the Indian Ocean and boasts seven luxury suites, a private ocean house, a lounge and bar area, a pool, a spa and a wellness centre. After a short drive from Adele’s, we arrived at Oceana just in time for high tea complete with strawberry tartlets and chocolate eclairs. From there we headed out for a beach-and-bush game drive. Rhinos, sable antelopes and dazzles of zebra were among the wildlife we spotted in the veld, before making our way down to the beach for sunset.
Water Activities: The Sunshine Coast, stretching from Port Elizabeth to the Transkei, boasts miles of pristine beaches and plenty of water-based action. Sandy drove us to Port Alfred’s Adventure Centre, a one-stop shop for all things outdoorsy. Activities on offer include: scuba-diving, canoeing, dune boarding, hydro-biking, deep-sea fishing, horse-riding and river cruises. We opted for a cruise on Lady Biscay, a 50-seater barge that comes with bar and braai facilities. As our captain steered the way along the Kowie River, we sat back and enjoyed the passing views of farmlands, children playing in the sand and fishermen casting their lines.
Wharf Street: In 1820 a collection of British settlers in search of a better life, arrived in the Eastern Cape on ships from England. They were faced with wild animals, harsh exposure to the elements and frontier wars being fought between Xhosas and Boers. In an attempt to survive, these newcomers quickly established farms around the Port Alfred area, some of which are still flourishing today. Much of the area’s rich history can be seen in local architecture, monuments and museums and heard through stories passed on over generations. Sandy took us for a walk along one of Port Alfred’s most historic lanes: Wharf Street. Located on the banks of the Kowie River, Wharf Street was once marked by the high sails of passing ships. These are long gone; instead visitors can enjoy the street’s courtyard coffee shop, a craft-beer brewery, an antique shop and restaurants.
Higher Education: Sandy drove past one of Port Alfred’s points of pride: the South African campus of Stenden University. Boasting campuses in the Netherlands, Leeuwarden, Groningen, Meppel, Assen, Emmen, Doha, Bangkok, Bali and Port Alfred, Stenden University is a leader in hospitality training. Its Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Hospitality Management and its groundbreaking BBA Disaster Management Degree has seen many graduates succeed at some of Africa’s finest hotels. Students are able to combine their studies with time spent at all the campuses around the world and in Port Alfred they have the opportunity to gain working experience at My Pond Hotel, a four-star establishment also located on the banks of the Kowie River.
History & Hippies: Bathurst - a town sprinkled with art galleries, cafes and passing bikers - was our final stop. Home to warmhearted farmers, hippies and artists; this captivating village boasts some of the oldest churches and monuments in the country. After exploring the Big Pineapple, we stopped by the Pig & Whistle Pub (one of the oldest bars in the country) and shopped at Richard Pullen’s Ceramics Studio and the Corner Gallery for locally-designed works of art.
SA’s Hidden Jewel
Our trip ended with the official relaunch of the Royal St. Andrews Hotel where colleagues of the Bekkers and local dignitaries treated us like long lost friends. In two days the Eastern Cape’s warmhearted people and unparalleled natural beauty almost convinced me to also relocate, but I left knowing that it’s a short plane ride away. Martin summed it up perfectly, “The Eastern Cape is the hidden jewel of South Africa.”
Kowie River Cruises:
Bathurst Agricultural Museum (Great for Kids!):
[email protected], +27 (0) 72408 4858
Source: Travel Ideas