Looking for a big city break, but tired of the same old places? These are unusual, beautiful, and adventurous – and you can reach them within three hours of leaving Gauteng.
Also read: Top 32 weekend getaways near Johannesburg
1. Fairview Towers – Sleep in grain silos
Cost: R350 per person, minimum R1400 a night
Ever seen a fluffy South American alpaca? Or watched a flock of these llama-like animals grazing from the towering top of a renovated grain silo? Time to skirt the Maluti Mountains, behold the highlands encircling Fairview Estates – a mere half-hour drive from Fouriesburg – and unpack your bags. An eighteen-month overhaul and plenty of angle grinder blades later, two sturdy silos that once stored cattle feed were cleverly joined with red face brick and transformed into a four-storey holiday home.
The owners claim ‘all their ugly pieces of furniture’ make up the trendy décor, but if it’s true, their home must be gorgeous. Personal touches like a poster-sized vintage photograph and South American poncho-cum-wall hanging, coupled with the art gallery-styled lighting, give the rustic rooms a contemporary feel.
Pale untreated concrete walls contrast with the painted pops of postbox-red from window and doorframes, while eclectic South African-inspired scatter cushions, perfectly worn antiques and shwe shwe-style curtains complete the warm Bohemian space.
The towers sleep eight people in two master bedrooms containing queen-sized beds sheathed in white percale linen with electric blankets. The kids bunk on the ground floor. A wooden staircase spirals up the left side of the cylindrical silo, climbing past the bedrooms and homely open plan kitchen/living area toward a magnificent outdoor lapa equipped with a gas braai, pub-style bench and astonishing hilly views.
Roam around the 4500-hectare farmlands, frolic among the Alpacas, grill some steaks, bring your fly fishing gear to catch a big one in the trout dam or just enjoy the tranquil space in this unusual getaway just three hours from Gauteng.
2. Mashovhela Bush Lodge – Hang in a hammock
Cost: R316 per person
Mashovhela Bush Lodge offers Venda-style chalets, or you can sleep under the stars in their unique hammock camp for an evening. The hammock camp is a stargazer’s dream and, accompanied by star-guide Abel’s telescope and heartfelt love of the area, it’s enchanting. Around the fire he says there’s more than science to the stars, it’s an ancestral story.
Here, I discover we’re made of stardust, carbon beings risen from an ancient soup following a galactic explosion billions of years ago, where the elements we know today – hydrogen, copper, iron, oxygen – were birthed.
Of Venda culture, he goes on to talk about local royalty, King Thohoiyanda and his mighty drum, which are said to have disappeared into the sacred Mashovhela pool where you can still hear beating beneath the water. While here, walk to the sacred Mashovhela rock pool and the exotic-looking waterfall just beyond it.
Take a butterfly book with you – the property is home to about 300 different species – or go on a bird tour with one of the knowledgeable guides. You can also visit Khavambe, the nearby Venda village. Be sure to specify in your booking that you’d like to attend Abel’s stargazing talk.
3. Satyagraha House – Bunk with Gandhi
Cost: From R1135 per person sharing, including breakfast
A museum-cum-B&B, The Satyagraha House is a living heritage site in Orchards, the residential suburb that Mahatma Gandhi called home more than a century ago. On the stoep of the thatched rondavel, Gandhi began work on a non-violent political resistance philosophy called Satyagraha, after which the house is named, and which was later adopted by the ANC against apartheid.
The commodious Kasturba room (named after his wife) looks into the herb garden, whose yield seasons the zesty vegetarian-only dinners. Milky-white, cotton-draped lighting, natural wood finishes, matte-black fitments, the absence of a TV and a glass-door fireplace replicate Gandhi’s undertaking of simple living, but it’s undeniably designer chic – ironic perhaps, given his chosen path of poverty. Nonetheless, it is without doubt a gorgeous and fascinating historical undertaking.
Gandhi’s sober, wholesome spirit extends throughout the guesthouse – thanks to specialist historians, curators and interior designers, you sleep inside the fully restored home as though he still lives here. Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa, two in this unassuming home.
4. De Kunst Huisje – Quirky art house
Cost: from R440 per room
De Kunst Huisje is an expertly curated guesthouse that better belongs in a Visi Magazine spread than in the small farming town formerly known as Warmbaths. Most visitors bypass the actual town of Bela-Bela (as it is now named) in a hurry to holiday in the surrounding Waterberg bushveld, but one night spent here will prevent such an oversight.
The old farmhouse is immediately striking from the roadside, with red door and window frames and enormous wooden carved chickens settled on the stoep. As its name suggests De Kunst Huisje (‘The Art House’ in English) is filled with artworks, from quirky and antique to modern and classical. Big oil paintings adorn the black lounge walls and a vintage display case shows off collections of old tins and ceramics in the kitchen.
There’s an incredible attention to detail in the styling of the six uniquely decorated rooms, with pieces such as a chair fashioned using old garden spades and a hanging wall curtain made from seed pods instead of conventional beads. You’ll also find fresh lavender from the garden laid over the towels when you arrive and there’s aromatic filter coffee on demand. There’s a great breakfast spread in the morning – healthy muesli and fruit followed by croissants and scrambled egg, all beautifully presented with pansy flowers decorating the plates. Flowers are changed regularly and the entire house just feels loved.
Although it’s not the most picturesque settlement at its city centre, the surrounding leafy suburbs in Bela-Bela are quiet and idyllic. It’s the perfect base to explore the bushveld or visit the hot mineral springs the town is named after at Forever Resorts, about a two-minute drive from the house (from R80 a person). The three-star accommodation at the resort is expensive at about R1 500 a night, not to mention incredibly dull in comparison to a stay at this B&B.
5. Foxwood House – Snooze with spooks
Cost: From R912 per person sharing, including breakfast
Almost a century old, the ivy-covered Foxwood House is a ten-suite boutique hotel boasting a Sir Herbert Baker nametag, but was actually built by his more daring partner Frank Fleming under the business name. One room is available in the original house with the other suites and cottages sprinkled across the gardens. The outer cottages are more private with garden views, but all rooms feature quaint antique furnishings so you won’t sacrifice the vibe for solitude.
Referred to as ‘The Villa’ this home has only had two owners – the Oates from 1933 until 1989, after whom most of the rooms are named, and the current hoteliers who opened the old-world home to guests in 2002. The hotel has had spooky sightings of Paul Kruger and a woman with a small boy used to frequent the balcony that overhangs the front door, but those in the know say she’s now left the premises. During my stay in the Pearl Oates suite nothing went bump in the night, but I did hear footsteps on the stairs made by guests next door. I think.
Filled with antiques, dusty books, the Oates’ enormous gramophone, hundreds of black and white photographs and kitsch Paul Kruger memorabilia the house is a fascinating museum-like stay. It’s also old. The worn wooden floors creak and it feels a little like gran’s house, but its clean and well kept. Swans, ducks and peacocks wander around the lush gardens and the labyrinthine pathways are a pleasure to walk through. You’re paying for ambiance here and are treated as family (the owners live in the house too and are always available, but never overbearing). Plus, if you’re lucky you may even get to meet some of the much older relatives who supposedly still roam around this historic home…
There’s a dinner menu, which varies from night to night – I enjoyed a starter of butternut soup with venison pie mains and trusty malva pudding to round it all off. Breakfast is a simple affair of yoghurt, cereals and fruit followed by eggs and bacon. Ask to take your breakfast outside at one of the charming wrought iron tables in the garden.
6. Forum Homini – sleep in a luxury cave
Cost: From R4000 per room including six-course dinner and five-course breakfast
Barely half an hour away from Sandton the Forum Homini Hotel echoes the importance of the Cradle of Humankind as being the birthplace of humankind with quirky five star accommodation.
Each of the 14 suites is designed to replicate the caves that humankind emerged from – but in far superior style. The eco-friendly grass-covered rooms are very unassuming compared to the colourful interiors that all have a double indoor and outdoor shower, cosy fireplaces perfect for winter and stalactite lights hanging from the ceiling. The two deluxe suites also have a jacuzzi outside.
It’s an incredibly stimulating getaway with unusual artworks adorning all corners of the boutique hotel, but food is the real event. The six-course dinner is a slow meal that dares the senses with every plate. Just one course consisted of pickled beetroot, confit, duck cannelloni with vanilla and hibiscus macaroons. Each course is paired with a different wine, expertly justified by a knowledgable sommelier and even if you don’t spend the night, you should definitely make a dinner reservation.
But then you’d miss breakfast. It’s just as gob-smacking – with courses like silver fish with broccoli, spinach, apple and pine puree, patty pans and sweetcorn (along with a pastry basket, whiskey oats and fresh fruit with strawberry mousse – because yoghurt can wait for an ordinary day).