In our ongoing search for the best accommodation in South Africa, we sent our professional reviewer, Pippa de Bruyn, to find the best accommodation in Ficksburg and the Maluti Mountains. Here are her top 13 cottages and lodges, seven of which are under R375 per person a night.
Also see: Guide to Graaff-Reinet accommodation
TripAdvisor gives lists of accommodation, but as much as we love peer reviews, can we trust them? Pippa, who has reviewed accommodation for 15 years, thoroughly inspected 25 properties – some rated on TripAdvisor, plus she rooted out a few new ones. These 14 made her list.
Most romantic accommodation
1. Hill Cottage
It’s a long and bumpy dirt track down an unmarked road to Uitgedacht Farm, lying right at the head of a valley. Here Catherine Cairns has established Poloafrica Development Trust, an initiative that uses the love of riding, polo and ponies to encourage kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to work hard academically, and teach them new vocational skills. From Catherine’s double-storey sandstone farmhouse it’s a few minutes’ drive up the hill, following a rough track to get to a low-slung thatched cottage perched above the farm, with a view of the valley and the mountains to the north.
It’s a simple but plushly furnished lounge-bedroom with fireplace, and a big bathroom with an open shower and claw-foot hot tub. Outside is a wood-fired tub – big enough for two (Catherine is clearly a hydro-hedonist – do take a look at her double-tub bathroom in the main house). There is a small galley kitchen for toast and tea, or you can braai outdoors, but the cottage is not equipped for cooking. Meals are taken with Catherine, who incidentally has the best wine cellar in the eastern Free State. Then it’s back up the hill to delightful isolation – private enough to strip down, and stay naked. All accommodation proceeds help to support the Poloafrica Development Trust, which has over 45 scholars enrolled.
Cost: R1200 per night (sleeps two, excluding meals).
Best polo school
2. Franshoek Farm and Polo School
TripAdvisor ranking: No. 1 of 5, Speciality Lodging, Ficksburg
Neighbouring EarthRise Mountain Lodge (see below), Franshoek Farm and Polo School is in the Rustlers Valley, surrounded by sandstone peaks and cliffs, with a river running through it. The farm has walking trails, bass fishing dams, caves and a waterfall, but most are here to learn – or just to play – polo. Owner Christian Findlay – the fourth generation to settle in these mountains – has an interesting take on horse husbandry. Believing that stabling is equivalent to imprisonment and that additional feed weakens, Christian’s horses roam free on the 2000-acre farm, moving and grazing as they please, ‘like the herd animals they are’ and as a result ‘can be ridden by all levels of players’.
Tuition is provided by ex-Springbok captain Rod Gutridge. An HPA-certified coach and umpire, Rod is well travelled, funny and opinionated – one of the most entertaining hosts you’ll encounter anywhere. For more experienced players, mini-tournaments can be arranged against neighbouring clubs. Accommodation comprises two en-suite bedrooms with their own entrances; between them is a kitchen-lounge-dining room with open-and-fold doors opening onto a shaded stoep, braais and great views. You can self-cater but try to arrange to have at least one meal with your hosts – Tracey Morgan, Christian’s partner, is an amazing cook. Yet again, the hospitality is extraordinary – I challenge anyone to leave Franshoek without feeling like they are waving goodbye to old friends.
Cost: R400 per person, self-catering. Polo packages, from R3200 per person per day, includes meals, accommodation, polo lessons and chukkas.
Best contemporary house
3. Yvonne’s House
You don’t need to know who Yvonne Short is (a food fundi and author of Kitchen Safari) to know that Yvonne’s House has been built and equipped by someone who loves to cook. The kitchen is huge, embracing most of the living area that it overlooks. Beyond, through the large window-walls is the scenic valley and farm dam backdropped by mountains.
Yvonne’s House was designed by architect Daniel van der Merwe, the man co-credited with leading the charge to Rosendal some 15 years ago (along with actor Chris van Niekerk). A compact version of the contemporary barn-style architecture that Australians such as Glenn Murcutt are so good at, this is a simple, well-proportioned pitch-roofed house with a deep veranda. Yvonne spared no expense on her interiors, which are elegant and comfortable, and the dining room and views invite long, lazy luncheons with friends. The house accommodates four (two bedrooms on either side of the house), plus an extra guest in the lounge. If you want to increase the size of your dinner party, call Elmo Goosen (0827761310), who handles rentals for most of the best houses in Rosendal.
Cost: R1000 per night (sleeps four to five).
Best sandstone cottage
4. Der Kotten
Der Kotten is arguably Rosendal’s quaintest cottage, a great opportunity to stay in one of the traditional sandstone cottages so typical of this region. Over the years the cottage has hosted a cast of interesting characters – it was, for instance, owned for some years by the acclaimed journalist Jacques Pauw. Now owned by engaging farmer Maretha Detering, the cottage interiors are appropriately furnished in rustic vintage style. It will delight anyone with a nostalgic bent, as the house provides an authentic sense of life in Rosendal some 80 years back. The house itself is structurally fairly unrenovated – it does have two interior bathrooms, but spaces (one king-size room, a twin room, a living room with fireplace, a kitchen-cum-dining room) are Lilliputian, which in turn makes it cosy and easy to heat in winter. In summer the back garden is the attraction, with its long table, shaded by a huge old gnarled pear tree, brick-built braai, and view of empty grass plots. It’s within walking distance of Rosa’s restaurant and the theatre.
Cost: R800 per night (sleeps four).
Best country lodge
5. Moolmanshoek Private Game Reserve
TripAdvisor ranking: No. 1 of 1 hotel, Ficksburg
Located deep in the Witteberg Mountains, at the end of a dirt track (marked S384) off the R70, Moolmanshoek is home to more than 200 Boerperd and endurance Arab horses, various buck, zebra, ostrich, and the close-knit Nel family. Owner-managed by young brother and sister Wiesman and Annemarie, and their respective spouses Mafie and Niklaas, the family offers generous, sincere, old-fashioned hospitality – you feel part of the family from the minute you arrive and are offered a sherry in the old 1930s sandstone farmhouse, until you are about to leave, a bit sad, and are comforted with a hug.
You can explore the reserve on horseback (Wiesman is the horse whisperer, with a horse for every level of rider) or bike (bring your own), or tackle one of the four award-winning 4×4 trails. Accommodation comprises 15 rooms, most with fireplaces; 11 are in the custom-built guest lodge located a short walk away from the old homestead (where hearty breakfasts and dinners are served) and also the locale for the billiard room, honesty bar, library and sun room. Closer to the paddocks are a further three rooms in the beautifully renovated sandstone stables; room 16 is a separate rondavel. The Nels’ attention to detail means the in-room facilities are five-star, right down to the emergency box (spare razor and so on) in the bathroom, filter coffee and delicious rusks.
Room tip: Room 4, the only one that is up a flight of stairs, has the most amazing mountain view; rooms 13, 14 and 15 are in the old sandstone stables and open onto a deep veranda with farm and mountain views.
Cost: From R800 per person DBB.
Best retreat and village initiative
6. EarthRise Mountain Lodge & Rustlers Valley Farm
It was at Sunrise House, overlooking the 273-hectare Rustlers Valley farm, that the trustees of the non-profit EarthRise Trust – in consultation with the two local village elders, Anton Chaka and Japie Lephatsi – made the plan to purchase Franshoek Mountain Lodge. Rebranded Earthrise, the 12-room lodge opened on 1 May after renovations, and Japie is now the manager. Assisted by Analeigh Ross, he welcomes every guest personally and manages the accommodation and the huge new conference centre.
EarthRise has hosted a few retreats and the guest book reads like a who’s who of South African intelligentsia. Hardly surprising given the socio-economic aims of the trustees – Jay Naidoo, Gino Govender and Greenpeace International head Kumi Naidoo – to create a sustainable livelihood for the villagers. In fact, one of the main reasons they were awarded the sale was their commitment to what were then tenant villagers, who for the first time now own the homes they have lived in for decades, as well as a portion (40 hectares) of arable land. Having survived a set back with the fire that consumed everything in 2007, compounded by the death of founder Frik Grobbelaar, it is invigorating to see Rustlers Valley rising from its ashes. Not only is the accommodation more varied and better than it’s ever been, but you get to support a great experiment – proceeds garnered from the accommodation are plowed back into the Trust. It’s also pet-friendly.
Room tip: It’s a small room but I liked room number 3 because it’s the most privately located, with a bed that faces the view. Of the self-catering options the two units that make up Twin Peaks are delightfully cosy (each sleeps six); Sunrise House is hands down the best located self-catering option, but is only hired out on a case-by-case basis.
Cost: From R684 per person B&B. Twin Peaks is R1140 (sleeps six).
Best for birders
7. Amohela ho Spitskop
TripAdvisor ranking: No. 1 of 2 B&B/Inn, Clocolan
‘We’ll have to reverse. I don’t want to disturb him.’ Jennifer Lotter slowly backs away from the secretary bird that’s strutting towards us. A passionate birder (is there any other kind?), she and her partner, Allen Jones, now have a check list of 220 bird species spotted on their 170-hectare registered conservancy; judging by the secretary bird’s response, some are fairly habituated to humans. It’s infectious, this thing for birds, but it’s not just twitchers who are delighted to discover this hospitality – families, friends or couples looking for a private, well-equipped, well-designed self-catering cottage, with unobstructed views of the Maluti mountains, will find three here.
Located a short drive from each other, and constructed using local stone and sandstone, each cottage has a central kitchen-dining-living area centred around a large glass-and-metal fireplace – cleverly positioned so that you can enjoy the view while sitting around the fire. Doors lead from both the lounge and bedrooms onto the covered deck with a Weber; bathrooms have both showers and large tubs – ‘There’s no shortage of water here,’ quips Jennifer.
You don’t even have to cook if you don’t want to; given prior warning, English breakfasts and a three-course candlelit dinner at the farmhouse are served. There are also two large en-suite units, with private entrances, in the farmhouse garden which are extremely comfortable and well-equipped (including fireplaces) but here the view is of the garden, and with no cooking facilities they are sold on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis.
Room tip: I prefer the self-catering options but only for the views. Of the two-bedroom cottages, Porcupine Cottage and Guinea Fowl Cottage are slightly more private (being at the end of the road); Mongoose House is the three-bedroom option. Of the two en-suite garden units with DBB, Nguni is worth the extra R30 per person.
Cost: With the exception of long weekends when the cottages cost a flat R1680 per night (sleeps four) and R2520 per night (sleeps six), the self-catering rate is R420 per person; R550 per person B&B and R745 per person DBB. R750 per person for Nguni.
More accommodation in Fickburg
8. Green Acorn
Green Acorn is where creative powerhouse Sandra Netherlands has transformed not only her 16 guest rooms but is also responsible for the adjoining BlikPlek, one of the town’s key attractions. Some of the rooms are a little OTT but they are all completely different. Sandra is a fantastic host, and a passionate proponent of what to do and see in town and as far afield as Rosendal and Paul Roux.
Cost: From R310 per person sharing B&B.
Kersiehuis, owned by Ina van Jaarsveld, another star member of the creative community, offers eight spacious rooms in her Tuscan-inspired house on a quiet road.
Cost: From R650 for a double room B&B.
10. Crystal Mountain
Crystal Mountain offers an en-suite room with views and its own entrance in the home of Christiane and Tony van der Veen on Franshoek Farm. Christiane’s reputation as a fine cook is known throughout the valley.
Cost: From R800 per night for two DBB.
Daskop is a 700-hectare working farm with a self-catering lodge (for a group of up to 12 persons in five bedrooms and three bathrooms) with the use of a swimming pool, mountain bike trails and lots of animal interaction. Tracy Farrell and Barry Baars welcome guests like old friends – another place to experience the special Free State hospitality.
Cost: From R3000 per night for the lodge.
12. Molly & Sue’s House
Molly & Sue’s House is fairly big and spacious, and is decorated with artistic flair. It doesn’t have the same view as Yvonne’s, but it’s every bit as charming.
Cost: From R1200 for the house (sleeps eight).
Contact: Tel 0827761310.
13. Mosamane Guest Lodge
Mosamane Guest Lodge comprises a barn that has been converted into two self-catering units, each with three or two en-suite bedrooms and an open-plan kitchen-living area. Upstairs is a loft with seven single beds. The whole lodge is from R4180 per night (sleeps 24). Of the two units, the front-facing has the best room and view.
Cost: R600 per night for a double room. Henriette Wakeford is a fabulous farmer-host, and produces a delicious range of cheeses with Barry Sergeant – be sure to arrange a tasting.
Why visit Ficksburg?
- Proximity: If you’re lucky enough to live in Bloemfontein, you’re only a two-hour drive away from this location, Gautengers just over three.
- Area: It’s the surrounds of Ficksburg that are truly spectacular. There are grass-knolled valleys backdropped by striated sandstone cliffs. The valleys created by the Witteberg mountains as they march towards the Malutis are all huge, empty of habitation, punctuated by cedars that point towards powder-puff clouds. Swarms of red-billed quelea rise up in unison as you pass, turning with the synchronisity of a Russian dance company. There are many great accommodation options in, and neighbouring, what used to be known as Rustlers Valley, which still retains the psychic residue of its anti-establishment roots, and on towards the one-tar-road village of Rosendal, about 20 minutes north of Ficksburg. Rosendal is a cluster of 60-odd houses, but it has all the basic necessities and over the years has become known as an artists’ retreat.
- 4X4 trails and horse riding: If you like exploring on horseback, Moolmanshoek or Franshoek Farm must be on your list. The 4×4 trails on Moolmanshoek are regularly rated in the country’s top 10, as much due to the views as the trails and guides.
- Hospitality: Free State warmth permeates every interaction here – locals take time to make newcomers feel at home, and every lodge or cottage owner has an interesting story to tell. And with cell-phone reception not a given, you can switch off and tune in to the contemplative mood this kind of environment encourages.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.
Please note that prices are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please be sure to check with them before travelling.