This pretty Eastern Cape town has bush, beach, river and lagoon and that it makes very popular during peak season – which is why you should book these 15 gems cherry-picked by Pippa de Bruyn as soon as you can. Photographs by Teagan Cunniffe.
‘Kenton-on-Sea’ is wedged between two rivers and virtually surrounded by water’ TripAdvisor lists accommodation rated by guests, but as much as we love peer reviews, can we trust them? Pippa, who has reviewed accommodation for 18 years, inspected 31 properties in the town – some rated on TripAdvisor, plus she rooted out new ones. These 15 made her list.
The case for Kenton-on-Sea
It’s geared for families
Most of Kenton’s accommodation options are large houses catering for extended families or family friends. Stock is fairly limited, and in peak season (when there’s a 14-day minimum rental), it can be a struggle to find a house. Contact the helpful Nomawethu Ngangqu at the tourism office on 046-648-2411. For hand-picked rentals, backed up by services such as The Butler (taking care of shopping), Maryke Taljaard of Kenton Rentals is your go-to lady. firstname.lastname@example.org
‘You can walk everywhere in Kenton’ is something the locals say, and it’s true. If you’re based in the village, the rivers, beaches and shops (all on the main drag, including the municipal offices, where you buy your fishing permit) are less than a 10-minute stroll away.
The beaches are pristine
Kenton’s beaches, one blue-flag and two pilot status, are backed by a nature reserve and there is no sign of the rapacious development that characterises most of SA’s popular coastal destinations. You can gallop across them too ‒ horses stabled by Beachcomber Horse Trails are highly rated. eachcomberhorsetrails.co.za
The swimming choices are remarkable
Located on a narrow coastal promontory wedged between two rivers ‒ the Bushman’s and Kariega ‒ Kenton-on-Sea is virtually surrounded by water. The wide tidal rivers are navigable for kilometres (the Bushman’s for more than 30) and support an abundance of birdlife, though peak season brings speedboats, so you’ll need to head upstream. A variety of outfits offer river cruises ‒ Kenton Cruises’ Bah Fly holds particular appeal but Sibuya River Cruise (R582 pp including lunch and drinks) is the one to choose if you are interested in birdlife. sibuya.co.za, kentononseacruises.com
You can see the big five
There is a variety of Big Five reserves for day-tripping. Sibuya is the easiest and most enjoyable to access, departing from the village via the Kariega to get there (R1067 per person, includes a game drive and lunch).
Concealed behind a nondescript high wall and fortress-like door on Kenton’s only dirt road lies this spacious, elegant gem, with various wings built on separate levels and angled in such a way as to create a central triangular wind-free garden courtyard. The design of the house is quite ingenious, with the five en-suite bedrooms in two wings all entered off the covered veranda that runs the length of each wing. Not linked to each other or the living spaces, the bedrooms invite an easy flow between those wanting private relaxation and spontaneous socialising in the open-plan living area (which is open to the garden on both sides, a textured green contrast to the simple, pared-down, soothing interior), separate TV room or courtyard. Owner Jane Hammond insisted the house be designed around the existing trees, so it feels as though it has been gently placed in the well-established, dense indigenous garden, and as a result the birdlife is wonderful. I’m not a proponent of or knowledgeable about feng shui, but for a nature lover, this house has it in spades.
Cost: From R3500 per day (sleeps 10); minimum five-day rental. Serviced weekly.
I’m used to proud owners listing the thread count of their linen (in this case, a silky 200), but when the maker of the mattress protectors is also listed (Sheraton) you know that every spec in this four-bedroom villa is going to be top quality. That said, the real luxury of Umthi Lodge is the privacy, space and peace it offers. Located in the fairly new, strictly access-controlled 230-hectare Kenton Eco-Estate, the house is surrounded by natural bush and grassland with free-roaming antelope. A seven-minute walk takes you to a meandering boardwalk that descends through coastal forest to just over two kilometres of pristine, and effectively private, beach. Designed by respected Kenton architect Francois Theron, the L-shaped double-storey house buffers the pool and deck from wind, and the four bedrooms are all positioned to enjoy an aspect of the view. It’s an easy-living house for friends, or two small families (the isolation won’t suit peer-hungry teenagers), but equally ideal as a romantic break for two.
Room tip: The master bedroom is the biggest. Bedrooms three and four are furnished with single beds and share a bathroom.
Cost: From R3220 (sleeps eight). Serviced daily. Pre-stocking is by arrangement.
TripAdvisor No. 2 of 7 B&B/Inn
Judy and Simon Oliver are natural hosts ‒ engaged and entertaining, helpful, gracious and nurturing. It’s hardly surprising then that many of their guests have become friends whom they visit when travelling abroad. There are three en-suite bedrooms in their house but it’s the secluded two-bedroom log cabin at the bottom of the drive, a short stroll from the Bushman’s River, that’s the real winner. These cabin bedrooms have fabulous bush and river views and are located on either side of a large open-plan lounge/kitchen/dining area that opens onto a deep veranda. Guests are welcome to launch their boats off the jetty, relax by the Olivers’ pool and explore the beautiful gardens. The cabin is set up for self-catering (Judy and Simon stayed here while they were building their home) but you can opt to have breakfast and dinner with the Olivers ‒ and it’s worth booking a few of these. They are excellent cooks and every meal is accompanied by a good bottle of wine, a steal for the all-inclusive price of R200 per person.
Cost: R550 per person (house sleeps six, log cabin four); R75 per person for breakfast.
Best B&B and luxury villa collection
TripAdvisor No. 4 of 7 B&B/Inn
When Louise Poole opened Oyster Box Beach House on sought-after Elliot Road nine years ago, she raised the bar very high, and with each successive house (the Oyster Collection now comprises five options dotted around the village) she has maintained pole position, offering the best-equipped, most luxurious villas in Kenton. Oyster Box Beach House is still the flagship, the only one with uninterrupted lagoon and sea views and possible to rent by the room. All Louise’s houses strike the perfect balance between luxury and laid-back; large, comfy sofas invite you to put your feet up, and there are sheltered courtyards for braaiing and dining al fresco, a Piazzetta fireplace, a swimming pool, loads of sharp knives, an abundance of crockery and glasses, and basic stocks that include a large jar of her own-blend filter coffee. Sarah Bruce, her super-efficient manageress, will arrange whatever you need to make your holiday more relaxing, from a daily cooked breakfast or the occasional meal, to booking excursions and making restaurant recommendations. It’s hardly surprising that this collection is kept very busy indeed.
House tip: Only Oyster Box Beach House offers B&B (sleeps eight and is available for exclusive use). Driftwood sleeps 10; all the others sleep eight. Look out for The Boat House, launching in October.
Cost: From R1895 per house; serviced daily, and from R895 per person B&B.
If you’re travelling solo or as a couple and looking for the most attractive, good value self-catering option in the village, the two apartments in Coniston House are it. Built as a separate unit adjoining Rob and Ann Boyds’ private home, both the ground-floor and first-floor flat are accessed by their own private entrances and feature views of the nature reserve’s dunes. The compact open-plan lounge/dining room (with a couch/daybed suitable for a pre-teen child), double bedroom and an outside deck with braai facilities and table and chairs all face this view. There’s plenty of privacy but the friendly Boyds are on hand for queries, and you’re welcome to utilise their garden courtyard if they are not entertaining.
Apartment tip: The first-floor apartment has slightly better views but the ground- floor unit is bigger. There is an interleading door between the apartments for a bigger party wanting to rent both units.
Cost: From R385 per person (each flat sleeps two adults sharing and two little ones).
Best old-fashioned family holiday home
Located on Eastbourne, one of the most sought-after streets in Kenton due to its pretty views over the Kariega estuary and vegetated dunes unmarred by development, and a topography that allows for gardens, Aloes House is a real old-style Kenton holiday house – the kind you gratefully borrow from a friend. It’s utterly charming but won’t suit design purists: as advertised, this is very much a family home and the owners are present in the bric-a-brac and clutter, a mishmash of decor and organic design that is classic of a much-loved second-generation holiday home. That said, this is the kind of easy-living beach house that makes for the perfect family holiday, and you’ll likely leave with a heavy heart, wishing it was yours to return to every year. There’s an abundance of space with great views from the compact upstairs kitchen/dining area that spills out onto a large deck (with a built-in braai and 12-seater table), and the old-fashioned garden has easy access to the estuary and beach.
Room tip: The house easily absorbs a large group in six bedrooms (two upstairs; four downstairs; three with queen beds; the rest singles) and four bathrooms.
Cost: From R2550 (sleeps 11); five-night minimum stay.
Best riverside camp
Sibuya River Camp
TripAdvisor No. 1 of 7 B&B/Inn
The adventure starts when you board the boat moored outside the reception on Eastbourne Road, and slowly head down the Kariega, stopping to identify birds en route. It’s a magical stretch of water, a deep turquoise-green ribbon twisting and turning its way through steep banks, the blue-sky horizon sculpted by euphorbias and aloes. Of the two riverside camps, River Camp ‒ with just four tents and a cosy dining-lounge area ‒ is a wonderful exclusive-use option, and also has the better tent design. Every game drive starts and ends with a boat trip, and skimming across the river while watching the play of light on the water you feel a million miles from civilisation. Staff are young and enthusiastic; the rangers knowledgeable and passionate. Game drives are remarkably productive (such a privilege to see rhino) given the relatively small size of the 3 000-hectare reserve.
Tent tip: River Camp number four is the best, most romantic location, on a promontory with a river running on either side. (Eight-tent Forest Camp is also well worth booking; number eight has the most unobstructed river view.)
Cost: Book the whole of River Camp for R18 801 all-inclusive (game activities, meals, drinks) for eight adults and eight children in four tents. It’s not only for exclusive use: guests booking fewer than four tents pay R2855 per adult sharing and R1 428 per child sharing with parents (all-inclusive).
Best luxury winter safari bargain
Kariega Settlers Drift
Tented lodge TripAdvisor No. 2 of 8 Speciality Lodging
Kariega has come a long way since Colin Rushmere bought 660 hectares of pristine bush bordering the upper reaches of the Kariega River in 1989. It’s a whopping 10 000-hectare reserve, one of the triumvirate Big Five reserves in the Eastern Cape, and has now really come of age with the recent launch of this, its flagship lodge. Tucked into the densely vegetated steep banks high above the Bushman’s River, the lodge is a very modern interpretation of ‘tented’, with just nine cavernous suites sharing an equally ample lounge/dining area, terraced decks, a bar, wine cellar, library and a perfectly positioned pool. The suites are what I call ‘aphrodisiac rooms’: glass walls slide away to create what feels like a private floating platform in the bush, with fall-away views of the undulating topography; a large wood-burning fireplace is the final romantic touch. Finishes and fittings throughout are top-notch; food is excellent and service faultless. If you’re a South African passport holder, get here before 1 October and cash in on a fabulous luxury safari bargain.
Room tip: Tents one to six are more elevated,but design-wise the suites are identical.
Cost: SA winter resident rate (ends 30 September 2016) R2950 pp including game activities, river cruises, meals and some beverages (non-SA resident winter rate R5 500 per person).
Also worth a look
The House Quarters is a brand-new development, with seven apartments, is going to be the most stylish apartment block when it opens on 25 November. The views of the Kariega River Mouth and beaches from this location, right in the village, are fantastic. From R1500 per unit (sleeps two). housequarters.co.za
White House is located on the most sought-after part of Westbourne Road, directly opposite the rolling breakers that push into the Bushman’s River estuary, this old-style holiday bungalow was in the final stages of renovation. Given its location, low-key style and recent upgrade, this is one of my favourite houses in Kenton. R2800 (sleeps 10). email@example.com
Amanzi Right next to White House, is an option that features the same beautiful views but it’s a bigger house with an enormous deck and spacious living area. It has five bedrooms, with two in a separate cottage at the back ‒ ideal for teenagers. R3500 (sleeps 10). firstname.lastname@example.org
Riverside on Westbourne, is a one-bedroom garden flat has a lovely view and is a bargain at R700 (sleeps two). kenton.co.za/riverside
Beach House at Kenton on Sea On elevated Elliot Road (just above Westbourne), is a four-bedroom house (two double rooms; twin room and children’s room). From R1400 depending on numbers and the season (sleeps 10). wheretostay.co.za
Cullen House, aside from its riverside location and the number of decks from which to enjoy the views, this is a compact, impeccably maintained unit that packs a lot of accommodation: there are two bedrooms and two bunk beds in the open-plan kitchen/dining/ lounge area, making this ideal for anyone travelling with a bunch of kids. R850 (sleeps eight). email@example.com
Kariega Main Lodge, this four-star lodge, built high above the banks of the Kariega River, comprises 21 log chalets, some with private pools. It’s one of the best-value Big Five safari experiences in SA. From R2900 per person including all meals, game drives and river cruises. kariega.co.za