The Natal Midlands route is the ideal escape, with its foodies and farmers, artisans and artists, lush scenery plus an amazing choice of good-value accommodation. Here are 15 of the 25 best places.
How it works:
TripAdvisor lists accommodation rated by guests, but as much as we love peer reviews, they don’t offer a comparative voice so how do we know Number 1 is really the best? Pippa de Bruyn, who has reviewed accommodation for 18 years for the likes of Frommer’s and the UK’s, scours TripAdvisor and other online sites when researching a destination. For the Midlands, she created a longlist of 25 to inspect. The following made the cut.
Hacks for finding accommodation in the Midlands:
• The Midlands comprises a surprisingly large area: Howick, Mooi River, Nottingham Road, Rosetta, Balgowan, Lidgetton, Dargle, Kamberg, Lions River, Curry’s Post and Karkloof. For this trip I stuck to the area west of the N3. I particularly loved lush, wild Dargle.
• TripAdvisor does not have a single comprehensive listing for ‘the Midlands’ but lists establishments under the separate area headings, making comparison even more difficult than usual. However, Booking.com does, listing almost 100 properties under ‘Midlands Meander’. Anything scoring over 8.5, is not going to disappoint.
• The stock was superb. Excellent country hotels, good B&Bs and a wide variety of self- catering cottages, from modern to eccentric to remote. The more I saw, the more I liked.
• Midlands Meander produces a very useful A3 guide to all five routes, with accommodation, restaurants, crafters, artists and activities clearly indicated alongside. It’s not always strictly to scale, and of course gives no indication of how potholed a road is, but is often more reliable than using Google Maps. You can pick up the guide most anywhere in the region.
• Surprisingly, there is no good central accommodation booking service, making this guide and website doubly useful. midlandsmeander.co.za
Best B&B for a group
1. Crystal Barn Country Estate
No. 1 of 1 B&B/Inn, Fort Nottingham
What a glorious location this is, surrounded by rolling lawns and foothills, and overlooking the sparkling Rowe Dam. Owner Sam van de Velde has a fantastic design eye, papering all the walls with a colourful mix of Indian saris, and combining Moroccan and Indian decor with rustic French touches. It’s colourful, playful and eclectic –not for the muted modern design enthusiast. With eight compact, well-equipped bedrooms strung along a barn-like structure, plus a privately located family suite and luxurious ‘couples loft room’ specifically designed for bride preparation, this must make the most fabulous wedding venue, able to accommodate 24 guests in total. Individual bookings are welcome too. Staff are super friendly. Breakfast and lunch is served to guests and the public in a variety of venues on the estate from Thursdays to Sundays; dinners can be arranged on request.
Room tip: while they have lovely views from the shared veranda, rooms one to eight are compact; really just places to sleep. If you want a bit more privacy and space, book La Famillia (sleeps four).
Cost: from R650 per person sharing B&B.
Best for pampering
2. Indigo Fields Farm House
No. 3 of 17 B&BS/Inns, Nottingham Road
‘You ladies need another bottle of bubbly?’ hands-on owner Jennifer Hindle asks as we pass a group of women having breakfast in the cellar. Clearly, this is no ordinary spa. Jennifer explains that every meal is served in a different venue; similarly so the treatments, with guests seamlessly rotated between different bomas dotted in the tangled bush beyond. The result is a private and highly personalised pampering experience. The gardens are lush and filled with nooks – I slip past a couple lounging by the fountain; they look glowing. It’s not just the guests: the staff are radiant, too. It’s a magic recipe, empowering local women and replenishing the weary. Indigo Fields is listed on TripAdvisor as a B&B but this it is not – it’s a spa that comes with wonderful rooms and five-star service.
Room tip: You can’t really go wrong with any of the six suites, though I liked Safari best. The four-bedroom Twickle Cottage is popular with book clubbers.
Cost: Prices vary depending on the spa package; the midweek special is R1700 per person sharing full board, including a 90-minute treatment.
Best for foodies
3. Hartford House
No. 2 of 8 B&BS/Inns, Mooi River
Hartford House is neither B&B nor inn but a gracious country hotel famous for its fine dining, and deservedly so. Constantijn Hahndiek, the latest in the list of celebrity chefs who have put Hartford House on South Africa’s culinary map, continues to fly the flag high with his five-course tasting menu, which he personally introduces by explaining where he sourced the various ingredients – a lot of them from his own kitchen garden, almost all of them from the Midlands, which he calls ‘South Africa’s secret pantry’. Relative to the Cape, the tasting menu is also good value at R620 per person. Aside from the dining experience, this is the most beautiful farm in this most beautiful of regions, with rooms dotted all around a gracious historic farmstead, and perfectly manicured grounds to explore on foot or horseback. It’s perfect for a special occasion celebration – or just the place to transform an ordinary weekend into a special memory.
Room tip: My favourite was Heliotrope, the most privately located off the Garden Suites (a bit of a walk; ideal if you want to walk off dinner). If this is too pricey, I like the two Verandah Double Suites. However, Gossling, a small but perfectly good room located in the main house, is the real bargain.
Cost: Main house room from R670 per person sharing B&B, other suites from R990 per person sharing B&B.
4. Beverley Country Cottages
No. 1 of 16 Specialty Lodgings, Howick
Not a ‘speciality lodging’ but four very simply furnished budget cottages in the garden of a lovely old 1913 farmstead (which also has two B&B rooms). The location – with fabulous views of the Dargle valley and overlooked by N’Hlosane Mountain – and atmosphere are lovely, but its owner, Kate Kelly, really makes a cottage here worth booking. On receiving your confirmation she’ll provide you with a list of local produce (free-range meats, relishes etc) as well as prepared meal options. You take your pick and on arrival your cottage will be stocked with your order, so you can self-cater without actually doing any cooking, or self- cater with ingredients all sourced from the local ‘terroir’. Kate’s ability to nurture doesn’t end there – she’s one of the warmest, most engaging hostesses I’ve encountered, and very passionate about the region. You’re sure to leave feeling more of a friend than client.
Room tip: Dairy Cottage, sleeping four in two en-suite rooms, is by far the best located: in the front, so it’s very private, and with a wonderful view. Book this one early.
Cost: Cottages (sleep up to six) and B&B rooms from R440 per person.
Best historic country hotel
No. 4 of 17 B&BS/Inns, Nottingham Road
What a wonderful, authentic, old-fashioned country hotel this is – like returning to a much-loved family home, the walls feel saturated with memories. Built in 1956, many of the staff have been here for decades (maître d’ George Subramanien has been looking after guests here for 58 years!). That’s not to say it’s fuddy-duddy – the family-run hotel underwent a very sensitive R2.5-million renovation, providing the rooms with great new bathrooms but leaving the quaint, thatched 1950s exterior untouched. A sense of comfort prevails – very much the kind of place where you curl up in front of the fireplace with a book after taking a walk through the grounds. One of my favourite country hotels in South Africa, but bear in mind she’s an old dame: don’t expect perfect soundproofing.
Room tip: The lake-facing deluxe rooms 2 to 7 with bay windows are the best. Love the upstairs rooms in the eaves too!
Cost: From R800 per person sharing B&B.
Most decadent bolthole for two
6. St Verde Cottage
Owner Neville Trickett has been variously described as a design guru, fashionista, artist, culture anthropologist and ‘all-round creative guy’, so it’s hardly surprising that staying in his one- bedroom cottage in Dargle is a bit like finding yourself in a very beautiful jewel box. It’s a simple enough space, comprising two rooms and a bathroom: an open-plan lounge-kitchen-dining area with picture windows and a well-situated fireplace; the smallish bedroom is separate from this and also opens onto the veranda. Neville and wife Sharon, both fanatical collectors of the cheap and quirky as well as expensive – beautifully put together – have layered the spaces with textures, colours and creature comforts such as a Nespresso machine and Wi-Fi with two dedicated Netflix channels, should the beauty of the surrounds pall. Sharon is clearly a spoiler – there is always a good bottle of wine and ice to welcome the weary traveller to their gorgeous bolthole. It’s on the Trickett farm but privately located, making this a very romantic choice for two.
Room tip: There is only one bedroom.
Cost: R1400 a night, minimum two- night stay. Includes two bottles of wine, water, welcome snacks, Wi-Fi and basics like Nespresso pods, tea and milk.
Best-value self-catering house
7. Forest House at Hillhouse
No. 7 of 16 speciality lodgings, Howick
Hillhouse is, in fact, one of three quirky properties on the 70-hectare Dargle farm owned by stylish couple Mandy and Nicholas Crooks. It’s a cavernous double-volume farm shed that has undergone a very interesting conversion, but is looking a little well-worn. Lakehouse and Forest House are better options, decorated with flair by Mandy, and both with sweeping views that encompass the Midmar Dam in the valley below. Lakehouse is ideal for a couple or small family, while double-storey Forest House is perfect for bigger groups. It offers a very photogenic living space: a double-volume, open-plan lounge/kitchen/dining area, which Mandy has filled with mid-century furniture classics, with a central fireplace and tall steel-frame doors opening onto lawns and views. Together the Crooks have created a real class act, which makes the great rate – under R400 per person – all the more appreciated. As is the fact that dogs are welcome too.
Room tip: All bedrooms in Forest House are en-suite and pretty much equal in size, making it a great place to share.
Cost: Forest House from R2600 (sleeps 12). Lakehouse from R1000 (sleeps four). Hillhouse from R2400 (sleeps 12).
Best for solitude and nature lovers
8. Lake Cottage at Zulu Waters
No. 2 of 6 speciality lodgings, Mooi River
Just when I thought I’d seen the best, I trundled down a bumpy dirt track to Lake Cottage, and all I wanted to do was stay. A dinky, simple, contemporary stone bungalow, stylishly furnished, and with a large fireplace, deep shaded veranda, endless views, in the middle of a very beautiful 2 800-hectare reserve … heaven. Zulu Waters has two other accommodation options: the uber-stylish, fully catered three-bedroom Shaka Lodge is definitely for a luxury splurge (complete with private chef); just a stone’s throw away is two-bedroom, self-catering Nandi House built atop an old reservoir dating back to the early 1900s. Both are elevated with sweeping views. The contemporary architecture – designed by Richard Stretton of Koop Design – won the SAIA-Afrisam Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2010. Lovely add-on activities include fly fishing the pretty Bushmans River that runs through the reserve, game drives and horse rides with picnics.
Room tip: Lake Cottage is ideal for two but can take an extra bed for a child.
Cost: Lake Cottage R750 per person sharing. Nandi House R600 per person sharing. Shaka Lodge from R2365 per person sharing, including meals and a game drive daily.
Worth a look
9. Twin Pools
Anne Davis was born for hospitality – warm and nurturing, she and husband Brian have created three lovely rooms and a cottage, each with private access. The rooms have an outside seating area looking onto a very beautiful garden and dam in Balgowan.
Cost: From R470 per person sharing; cottage R1630 (sleeps six).
10. Otter’s Den
Four two-sleeper thatched cottages high above a gorge. They’re a bit close together, but each has a private balcony overlooking the Lions River. I liked the view from Chelsea and Copper the most.
Cost: From R450 per person sharing.
11. Spring Water Farm
Neighbouring Hartford, this is a great farmhouse to take over as a group, with attractive spaces and wonderful Gladys Thabile to cook breakfasts.
Cost: It sleeps 10 in five bedrooms and is a bargain at R4800 a night. B&B rooms are from R300 per person sharing.
12. Fordoun Farm Village
Nine new chalets, stark but stylishly dressed with quality finishes (including fireplaces), offering easy access to Fordoun Spa but with the independence and affordability of self-catering. They’re quite close together but good value.
Cost: From R1350 a chalet (sleeps up to six).
13. St Andrew’s Retreat
This deconsecrated, creeper-clad stone church near Mooi River is surrounded by pretty gardens and ponds and steeped in local history. The caretaker doubles up as a chef (breakfast R100 per person, dinner R180 per person).
Costs: From R1800 (sleeps six, plus two in an annex).
14. Dam Cottage at FarSide Farm
A wonderful, well-dressed two-bedroom self-catering spot with a fireplace and your own trout dam, and unobstructed views of the rolling hills of Nottingham Road. There is another cottage but Dam has the winning location.
Costs: From R750 per person.
15. Lemonwood Cottages
Another low-key option in the splendid Dargle valley, these four cottages (plus the option to book the main house) sit atop an elevated ridge on a non-working farm bordering a forest. The view, particularly from Serval, is stunning.
Costs: From R410 per person; house from R485 per person (sleeps 10).
Things to do
The Mandela Capture Site’s remarkable sculpture near Howick.
Drinking shmores, a new malt drink with marshmallows at Chocolate Heaven (also famous for its crazy chocolate dipping experience). 0332666870
This story first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our July issue features the best places to stay in the Midlands, budget family breaks in Durban, and the best (and mostly free) things you have to do in New York.