South Africa’s very own lake district offers peace, beauty and adventure in equal parts. There’s plenty of variety in terms of accommodation too – plus good value. Photographs by Teagan Cunniffe.
How does it work?
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 Telegraph, scours TripAdvisor and other online sites when researching a destination. For Wilderness, she created a long list of 29 to inspect. The following made the cut.
What we found in Wilderness
• Excellent quality stock in a very beautiful part of the world – the establishment of the Wilderness National Park in the 1980s ensured that this is one of the least developed parts of the Garden Route. The Serpentine, Island Lake, Langvlei and Rondevlei are a world-recognised Ramsar wetland site.
• Something for everyone – from a five-star hotel (Views) to excellent-value guesthouses, self-catering options in a variety of sizes and settings, and one of the best campsites in the country (SANParks’ Ebb & Flow North Camp).
• Most think of Wilderness as a village off the N2, but it’s an 18-kilometre stretch of coast from the mouth of the Touw River to the Swartvlei, encompassing beach, lakes, rivers, forest and farmlands. It offers a totally different holiday depending on where you stay.
• It’s a fabulous seaside destination because there is no road between properties and the beach (that said, be warned: the ocean is pretty wild here). Sands Road is my favourite; it has retained its old fashioned, low-key beach bungalow streetscape and is level with the beach.
• If you prefer canoeing and birdwatching, opt for a riverside base, preferably north-facing for sun or somewhere along Bo -Langvlei Road.
• A lot of establishments here share similar names: Wilderness Dunes and Dolphin Dunes should not be confused with Dune Beach; Ocean View is not Views (or Oceans); Lodge on the Lake is not Lakeside Lodge, and Haus am Strand is not a translation of On the Beach.
Most stylish studio apartment
1. Pearl Moon No. 4
Listed on TripAdvisor but unrated
When Carmina Cloete’s children moved out, she decided to renovate the entire ground floor of her home – a thatched building on an elevated site above the Touw River – and create four studios with kitchenettes. Each has sliding doors that open onto a private furnished deck with lovely river views. Carmen’s attention to detail and taste is impeccable – from the choice of mug and kettle to fittings like basins and shutters, everything she has chosen is easy on the eye. Guests have their own (shared) main entrance, with units accessed from a corridor; all are visually private. Room 4 is definitely the top pick for its Zen-like garden deck with water feature under a large milkwood canopy, and the fact that it has a private bathroom behind the bedroom. (In the other suites, the bathroom is located within the room behind a glass screen; these have sandblast-patterning but don’t provide much visual privacy if you’re at all squeamish about these things.)
Room tip: No. 1, the Studio, is also a good choice and costs R200 less. The bed faces the river view, plus it has a loft area for
a teenager (no children allowed).
Cost: R1400 double per night.
Best Riverside Guesthouse
2. Moontide Guest Lodge
Tripadvisor No. 5 OF 57 B&BS/Inns
This month owner Maureen Mansfield flies to London to pick up a new trophy – it’s the second year running that Moontide has been awarded ‘Best Luxury Hideaway’ by Luxury Travel Guide, but then Moontide is no stranger to awards. It’s partly to do with the setting: shaded by 400-year-old milkwood trees, the guesthouse is right on the banks of the inviting Touw River (great for swimming), with canoes and a pedalo available for guests, and a three-minute stroll to the beach. It’s a sprawling homestead comprising just eight en-suite rooms – some freestanding – all with their own garden entrance and private seating area. The breakfast setting on the terrace overlooking the river is as popular with birds as it is with guests – there is a birding checklist in your room. Note that six rooms are under thatch – if you’re allergic to grass this is not the place for you, but birders and bargain hunters alike flock to this riverside gem; occupancy during the last low season was anything but, so book early.
Room tip: Treetops, a timber cottage perched above the guesthouse, and Boathouse, right on the river, are most popular. Stone Cottage and Milkwood are my favourite family options.
Cost: From R580 per person sharing B&B, from R310 per person extra in family rooms.
Best bargain on the beach
3. Wilderness Beach Cottage
Step through the garden gate directly onto an empty beach, or gaze at the horizon from your private table wedged into the coastal vegetation, the rolling breakers literally a stone’s throw away. On Sands Road, this self-catering spot enjoys the ideal beachfront location, but another reason it scores 9.6 on Booking.com is the irrepressible owner. Glamorous Dutch-born artist Nora Frings was born to spoil: she welcomes each guest in person, and stocks the house with wine, tea, coffee and rusks, top-quality towels and gowns, plenty of wood for the fireplace and charcoal for the braai. The house is flamboyantly decorated but scrupulously clean and equipped with everything you could possibly require – there’s even a dog bowl waiting with water for your best friend. Nora’s instructions: ‘Have fun, relax, make yourself as comfortable as possible and use everything you want, darling.’ It sleeps eight but due to the unbelievably low rate it is as often booked for a couple’s break. And therein lies the rub – availability is scarce.
Room tip: There are three bedrooms inside the house, which share one-and-a-half bathrooms, and a fourth bedroom that is separate from the house with its own entrance and shower.
Cost: R2200 a night (sleeps eight).
4. On the Beach
No. 2 of 57 B&BS/Inns
John and Clare Scott have long wanted to open a guesthouse on Wilderness beach, so when this property came on the market they bought it, knocked down the old house and started from scratch. Their purpose-built guesthouse opened in September 2015 with a five-star grading, and while it’s not going to win any architectural awards, reviewers have been raving ever since. Not surprising – no expense has been spared in the sizing, fitting and furnishing of the seven en-suite rooms, from underfloor heating and open rain showers to Egyptian cotton linen and goose-down duvets, these are the most luxurious cocoons on this coastline. But the location is the real trump: on sought-after Sands Road, so within a few strides off the deck you’re through the gate and on the beach; the village centre is a three-minute walk away, it’s within sight of the lifeguard station (operating during season), and the Ballots Bay headland, jutting out to the west, also borders the view nicely.
Room tip: Of the seven rooms only one doesn’t have a sea view. I’d definitely shell out for a view, preferably one of the upstairs rooms (which also have more privacy).
Cost: From R1750 per person sharing B&B (no sea view from R1600 per person).
Best value on the beach
5. Dune Beach House
Perched on top of a vegetated dune above the invariably empty beach, with uninterrupted views of the sea, this classy establishment combines a wonderful location with tasteful decor and good rates, making this my favourite all-round beachfront B&B. It’s difficult maintaining a property this close to the sea, but the guesthouse looks as trim and fresh as it did when I first inspected it some 15 years ago – owners Gary and Melisa Grimes set aside four maintenance weeks a year, and it really shows. Of the eight rooms, only two don’t have sea views from the bed (and only one has no sea view at all). Everyone enjoys glorious views from the large upstairs breakfast room as well as the sundeck with swimming pool (a boon given the notoriously wild sea). The ambience is very soothing, as much due to the big blue views as the cool white uncluttered interiors. It’s walking distance to seafront restaurant Salina’s (but a stiff clamber back up the stairs from the beach); a two- to five-minute drive to various other eateries.
Room tip: Africa Room doesn’t have a sea view from the bed but is very spacious and has its own private deck with seating overlooking the beach and ocean.
Cost: From R2000 per room (sleeps two).
Best farm cottage
No. 1 of 37 Speciality lodgings
Having always enjoyed the Seven Passes Road to Knysna for the bucolic scenery, it was great to get off the road and explore this beautiful 640-hectare, sixth-generation dairy farm. Accommodation options include the historic Forge (currently being renovated, ready by December), five ‘farm cottages’ set along the edge of the forest and a separate cluster of four smaller ‘schoolyard cottages’ a short drive away. All are well maintained, and very tastefully decorated with lovely touches. There is much to do here, with 240 hectares of pristine fynbos and indigenous forest for guests’ use only: 16 kilometres of well-marked track for trail running or mountain biking, guided horse riding, hikes to a waterfall, fishing and canoeing on the farm dam, swimming in the natural spring-fed pools, clambering up the climbing wall to the ‘crows nest’ platform, visiting the dairy and feeding the calves.
Room tip: I liked that the farm cottages are freestanding and cosy, but the schoolyard cottages have the more expansive views. Two of these are interleading.
Cost: Farm cottage from R1650 a night (sleeps six). From R1350 for a schoolyard cottage (sleeps four) or The Forge (sleeps six).
7. Wilderness Bushcamp
No. 7 of 37 Speciality lodgings
This is the family home of John Pfaff, the surfer-developer who helped shape much of Wilderness. It’s a nine-hectare property atop the hill, offering the best vantage point in the area. Over the years the Pfaffs built a number of timber cabins, and since John’s passing the family home is also available: three-bedroom Aloe House comes with a pool and 360-degree views, plus a studio and suite. All are self-catering and there is also a ‘lapa’ area with braai and pizza oven. The cabins are showing signs of age but are clean and neat, the collection is well managed, and for this price you’re getting an absolute bargain.
Room tip: Honeymoon is a most romantic choice, tucked away at the end of the boardwalk, with views of the beach and sea down below. Lagoon View is the highest cabin (pictured above).
Cost: Aloe studio from R650; cabins and Aloe suite from R700 a night (all sleep two). Aloe House from R1500 a night for two (sleeps six) plus R100 – R250 per person extra.
Best for birders
8. Beside Still Waters
No. 24 of 57 B&Bs/Inns
Bo-Langvlei Road is a dirt track that skirts the Langvlei lake – it’s undeveloped and peaceful and feels very far from the busy N2, with gentle hillocks covered in natural vegetation providing lovely water views. This is where Rod and Hydie McDade retired to, building their very pretty double-storey home and adjoining cottage in a way that sits just right in these surrounds. The whole Wilderness area is great for birders but the proximity of Beside Still Waters to Malachite bird hide (a lovely 20-minute walk) and its Langvlei views makes it a particularly good choice. Aside from this, Hydie is the most wonderful hostess – she has two en-suite B&B rooms in her home but she takes as much care of guests staying in the three self-catering units, picking fresh flowers and leaving a little treat on arrival and baking fresh muffins on the morning of departure. She will drop off a breakfast basket or whatever else is needed given prior notice.
Room tip: Of the three self-catering units, I loved Loft – a wonderful option for a couple, with a little balcony overlooking Langvlei – and the cute, compact, three-bedroom attic apartment, Upper Room.
Cost: B&B double room from R860. Loft R700. Other units from R390 per person sharing, plus R120 per person extra (sleep four or six).
Worth a look
Three lovely self- catering cabins on stilts plus an apartment; there are fairly steep stairs to reach the cabins but the views of the Serpentine from here are just wonderful. The interiors are compact and the vibe very romantic.
Cost: From R425 per person sharing.
10. Belle Forêt
The website doesn’t do justice to this gem. It has self-catering suites (each with a braai and sharing a small kitchen), B&B rooms and cottages; all with access to a wonderful braai-lounge-dining area and circular cocktail pool on a large deck that has the most astounding view. It’s a large property with nature trails.
Cost: From R1500 double B&B, cottages from R2800 (sleep four or six), self-catering suite from R550 per person sharing.
For a ‘special occasion’ venue, this is the best-value top-end luxury lodging on the Langvlei. A B&B with just five rooms, it feels like you’re staying in a villa – an ideal choice to take over as a group. It has a lovely ‘greenbelt’ setting and views from the new deck.
Cost: From R750 per person sharing B&B.
12. Libertas Guest Farm
This working dairy farm on the Seven Passes Road is ideal for mixed groups of adults and children. There’s the historic Farmhouse (sleeps 10), The Dairy (sleeps six) with a fabulous pool converted from a reservoir, and three brand-new cottages (sleep four to eight). All very tasteful with wonderful views.
Cost: Farmhouse from R2000 for four people, The Dairy R1600 and cottages from R1100.
13. Haus am Strand
A collection of seven brightly hued self- catering suites on the beach. I particularly liked Ocean Suite.
Cost: From R600 per person sharing.
Don’t miss this
• Cruising the Touw River and Island Lake on a safari-style boat. Tel 0824409807
• For local produce, the Friday night market at the Milkwood Village and Timberlake Organic Village any time.
• Kloofing, abseiling or canoeing with Eden Adventures or Fearless Adventures.
• Oysters R Us – collect your own and enjoy them al fresco on the farm. Tel 0825786817
• Exploring the five SANParks forest trails (3.5km Giant Kingfisher leads to a waterfall and pool).
• Snorkelling in the Touw River to see salt- and fresh-water fish.
This story first appeared in November 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our special green issue features the best off-the-grid campsites, fantastic holiday stays in Wilderness, an affordable jungle trail in Borneo, incredible eco-lodges in Zanzibar and our Green Wine Guide is finally out with winners!