Summer’s calling. What’s better than a few lazy days by a riverside? We reviewed the best stays in this Overberg idyll, Vermaaklikheid.
How it works:
We googled a destination that doesn’t have any hotels or B&Bs, only speciality lodgings still so undiscovered they’re not even on TripAdvisor. Pippa, who has reviewed accommodation for 18 years, inspected 21 properties – these 10 made her list.
The case for Vermaaklikheid
It’s a nostalgic holiday
The origin of the name Vermaaklikheid – ‘entertainment’ or ‘recreation’ – is vague, but it’s an apt moniker for this little-known Overberg gem. That said, the recreational pleasures are old-fashioned: swimming, fishing, walking, games fuelled by creativity and conviviality. No phone reception, no TV and – for the most part – limited electricity.
There are deep, wide, mirror waters
Swimming the Duiwenhoks is something to be experienced. In summer river temperatures are layered, a delicious combination of bath-warm to icy. Its tidal push-pull offers the perfect workout, alternating between swimming and floating into fynbos-clad hills reflected in still waters.
Birds and fish abound
It’s a conservancy, so no water sports are permitted; happy are the anglers and birders slowly tooling along the river as it curls towards the sea, passing reed-fringed beaches and mudflats where children pump for prawns.
Beaches are footprintless
On the beautiful estuary that lies five to 10 kilometres south, beaches stretch for miles in either direction completely uninhabited.
It’s a real rural escape
The place is a widely spaced collection of predominantly thatched, whitewashed buildings, mostly on farm-size erven, with no real shops, no fuel station and no tar roads. Farm gates have to be opened by hand. Kids run feral, cellphones forgotten, appearing only when hungry. Privacy, space and utter relaxation.
It’s the place for early risers
From enormous flocks of ibises to out-of-tune cockerels, the morning chorus is hard to ignore, and what a pleasure to greet the dawn, mists rising off the river.
Taste fynbos-infused spirits
The Inverroche Distillery tasting room is just 35 minutes away in Stilbaai; aside from its gins, the new fynbos-infused brandy is going to take the world by storm.
1. Tented River Camp
This enjoys one of the closest, most idyllic riverside settings and views, with the benefit of being near to the estuary mouth, and surroundings that are more nature reserve than farm. Accommodation is fairly basic: three sleeping pods ‒ taut canvas over a timber frame with timber doors ‒ but weatherproof, with no flapping, and a roof pitch that’s high enough to stand up in the centre. The dining/kitchen area is under roof but this is definitely a summer destination, with a large wrap-around deck, picnic table and braai pit. There is an enormous, level grassed area the size of a football pitch where guests can erect an extra tent or two of their own (but note there’s only one toilet and one shower cabin); a few metres upstream is another jetty behind which a second shaded dining and braai area has been constructed. It’s an absolutely beautiful stretch of river; once settled you’ll be hard-pressed to leave, not least because the access track is so steep you’re asked to sign an indemnity form, and it’s certainly not suitable for 2X4 vehicles. If you don’t have a 4X4, a porterage service (at an extra cost) will assist with luggage and supplies. Be prepared for a fairly stiff ‒ but incredibly beautiful ‒ walk in and out.
Capacity: An exclusive-use property that sleeps eight in three tent-cabins (two double beds, four single beds). No babies or toddlers.
Cost: From R1000 to R3600 per night; two-night minimum stay, which includes a double canoe if available.
Best for sea views
2. The Beach Shack
While much of the accommodation in Vermaaklikheid is along the river, this one is up the coast from the river mouth. It must be one of the most secluded beach locations in the country – a steep and very slippery walk through jagged, pockmarked sandstone boulders twists down to reveal a pristine stretch of beach overlooked by three rectangular prefab shacks. It’s extremely basic – the rooms are furnished with beds (bedding is provided) but there are no headboards, no bedside lamps or lanterns and no towels; in only one bedroom does the wall reach the ceiling, so there’s no aural privacy either. Aside from the kitchen, which is basic but charming and equipped with a gas stove/ oven and an electric fridge with a small freezer, there is a dining room but no lounge, so it would be a dreary choice in inclement weather. But when the sun shines you couldn’t wish for a better spot, and enjoy what many know is real luxury: a 2,5-kilometre private beach that stretches as far as the eye can see – and a great outdoor braai and dining table from which to enjoy it all. All lights are powered by wind and solar, but there’s a flush toilet and an indoor and outdoor shower. It’s pet-friendly too.
Capacity: Sleeps eight in four rooms (two double beds, four single beds). Not suitable for babies or toddlers.
Cost: From R1200 to R5000 per night; two-night minimum stay. A daily cleaning service is available for an additional fee.
Best large luxury house
3. House of Eels
Don’t let the name put you off! A possibly apocryphal tale – inspired by a surprise find of eels that made their way south from Mozambique to settle in the large ponds next to the house – the only sign of eels today is on the small inscription next to the gate. From here a long private driveway – past cows and wild pastures – ends in the real surprise: a large, immaculately maintained house surrounded by tall reeds and green lawns. Furnishings are pared down and tasteful, with numerous nooks to hive off into; in fact, the quirky organic design absorbs people like a sponge, making it an ideal multi-generational holiday home. Come sunset, the central outdoor firepit is a beacon around which everyone gathers, and meals are served al fresco at the large dining table or at the equally generous table off the open-plan kitchen. Thick whitewashed walls, stone floors, high ceilings and thatch help keep it cool in summer; other than from the upstairs bedroom, there are no river views, but it’s only a five-minute stroll to the jetty. One caveat: there is only one en-suite bathroom; remaining guests share a large outside bathroom/laundry.
Capacity: Sleeps 10 in five bedrooms (three king/double beds, six single beds). Toddlers require supervision.
Cost: From R4000 to R6000 a night; minimum two-night stay. Includes a large rowing boat and three canoes.
Best location and style
4. Hill House
This is my top pick: a compact, thatched, rustic L-shaped cottage built in the vernacular style, with a deep vine-covered stoep and picture-perfect river and garden views framed by cottage-pane windows. The proximity of the river is a real boon: it’s virtually part of the garden, with two jetties to jump off from, a rowing boat and canoe, and diagonally opposite is the famous Vermaak rope swing, hugely popular with children. Aside from its idyllic riverside setting, owner Michelle Hill is a dab hand at unpretentious elegance – a linen sofa next to the indoor braai-fireplace; a properly plumbed bathtub in the garden; an extensive collection of vintage bric-a-brac that is both functional and decorative; old wrought-iron beds dressed in silky linens; two outside showers with views. The stoep and lush, well-maintained garden invite lounging and entertaining in equal measure – aside from the large outdoor braai platform, there is a much-used pizza oven, daybeds and a sheltered outside dining area with a long table overlooking the river. The well-equipped kitchen will delight foodies. What more could anyone ask for?
Capacity: Sleeps 10 in three bedrooms (four adults maximum and six children or teens in a separate barn; no kids under eight years old). Servicing costs extra.
Cost: From R4000 to R6000 a night, two-night minimum stay.
Best views (and bathrooms)
5. Thorn & Feather
It took Jonathan Gersh and a small local team of builders two years to carve out this terraced family compound up on the ridge above Oshoek Farm, with its spectacular view of the S-bend river carving its way south. The sleeping arrangements comprise three separate sleeping cabins, built from rough-hewn white rock sourced on-site, each with its own entrance and located on different levels. The main house has an open-plan kitchen and dining/study area (very effectively warmed by a wood-burning stove); glass doors lead to a separate lounge area with a fireplace. It’s a great easy-living, communal space but perhaps the pièce de résistance is the decadent bath house: open to the elements with bush views, it’s a huge room with a large open shower and a bathtub big enough for two. Piping-hot water is supplied by the donkey boiler, fuelled by invasive rooikrans, thereby providing local employment at the same time as eradicating this invasive alien (it means a daily visit from a staff member to light it). River access is a three-minute stroll down the hill. The off-grid system maximum capacity is 2kW so hairdryers and dishwashers are not an option here.
Capacity: Sleeps nine in three bedrooms (six adults and three children).
Cost: From R2400 to R3250 per night, minimum two-night stay. Includes an assortment of canoes, kayaks, an SUP board and a daily housekeeping service.
Best budget choice
6. Deck Plek
The latest house in the River Magic portfolio, Deck Plek is by far the most enchanting. Access is by boat only, so be prepared for a bit of a derring-do as Kyle the property manager ferries you, guests, luggage, supplies and dogs across (yes, praise be, four-legged children welcome). As the pitched roof with its extended veranda and large downstairs stoep hoves into view against the dense green surrounds, you’ll know it’s going to be a fabulously relaxing break. Kyle built the shade structure above the outdoor dining table as well as the upstairs deck. Interiors are simple but spruced up: enter a spacious kitchen/dining/lounge area, with three downstairs bedrooms and a small bathroom (with a tiny shower space, the biggest drawback of the house); upstairs is a large loft (with four single beds and a partitioned-off double bed) and separate loo. There’s an outside shower (nicer than the one indoors) and fabulous river views from all the outside areas. You are fairly far upstream (around 12 kilometres from the river mouth and beach), meaning the bird life and sense of privacy is unparalleled.
Capacity: Sleeps 12 in three bedrooms and a loft (more suitable for children). It includes a canoe and rowing boat.
Cost: From R750 a night for three, plus R250 per person extra; minimum stays on weekends and over Easter. The compulsory cleaning fee is R300. Ferry there and back, free of charge, once per booking.
Most romantic hideaway
7. The Boathouse
This was the original boathouse on gorgeous Oshoek Farm, and enjoys the closest riverside location in Vermaaklikheid ‒ open the double doors and you can literally roll into the water. It’s a rustic, quaint renovation ‒ a single room under thatch, with kitchen cabinets to separate the bedroom from the dining area, which has a fold-out couch. Bolted onto the boathouse are two cubicles for a shower and loo, both accessed only from outside ‒ not ideal if it’s raining, so there are plans afoot to incorporate an entrance to the loo from the bedroom. At night it’s romantically lit with candles, paraffin lanterns and the Godin wood stove; the fridge and geyser are powered by gas. Again, this is not luxury in the obvious sense, but by its location and space ‒ you share the 20-hectare farm and 600 metres of river frontage with just three other houses. Stripping down and walking into the balmy water at night to float under an enormous star-spangled heaven will restore your faith, if you’re that way inclined.
Capacity: Sleeps two adults sharing a bed (plus a third person on the couch).
Cost: R800 per night; minimum two-night stay except in winter. Canoes are included.
Worth a look
8. Vermaaklikheid Olive Farm
There are two very basic, simply furnished cottages near the village post office, and with a dearth of accommodation options catering just for couples, this is a welcome addition. Of the two, Hannah se Huis ‒ an open-plan renovated labourer’s cottage with a wood- burning oven ‒ is bigger and private, making it a rustic and romantic winter bolthole – in summer, The Boathouse’s riverside location wins. In April guests are invited to help pick olives; Judith Loewenthal makes a delicious peppery olive oil called A Taste of Vermaaklikheid. R800 per night. Call 0827026282 or find it on Facebook.
9. Peter’s House
This is the smartest option on Oshoek River Farm, and combines excellent value with a great location. Literally a stone’s throw from the river bank and surrounded by treed lawns, the thatched house sleeps up to seven in two bedrooms and an upstairs loft (accessed by an outside staircase). The double-volume, open-plan living area opens onto a deck with lush views. This is one of the rare Vermaaklikheid houses with a TV; bring your own DStv smart card. R1800 per night; minimum of two nights except in winter. capestay.co.za/oshoekriverfarm
10. Marshall Farm
Another great riverside option, it’s located a short stroll (upstream) from Hill House. It offers a comfortable stay for 11 in four bedrooms (the loft room is accessed by an outside staircase), and a great outdoor area. David Marshall has plans in council to build the most fantastic jetty; once completed this will be one of the best places to relax on the river. From R4000 to R7500 per night; minimum of two nights. perfecthideaways.co.za
This story first appeared in the September 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our September issue features affordable destinations around SA, great photographic hides, and a Thailand travel guide. On shelves from 22 August.