Read the Room at the famous ‘Book Hotel’

Posted by Mishqah Schippers on 20 May 2021

Novelty, yarns and spiels, hidden wonders and reluctant hoteliers. Melanie van Zyl counts the ways that checking into a quirky hotel in South Africa is always more fun – even when there’s a lack of amenities.

Words: Melanie van Zyl | Photography: Melanie van Zyl, supplied

The book-filled lounge at the Royal Hotel in Bethulie, complete with a Tretchikoff print.

Many apologies for all of the shortcomings,’ hotelier Anthony Hocking said with prim articulation and a warm grin. I’d just arrived at the Royal Hotel Bethulie only to have our evening thwarted by load shedding. Frankly, it was lucky I even found the hotel at all. No electricity was coupled with a deficit of cellular signal and no Google Maps app to aid me. I puttered about the ageing town of Bethulie, scouring the potholed streets for any signage. None pointed to the hotel, and it sits unassumingly across the road from a home with a candy-striped stoep at the corner of Voortrekker and Joubert streets. ‘Our marketing strategy is word of mouth. This way, we’re left hosting and accommodating the people that really appreciate it,’ Anthony said when I noted the absence of hotel insignia. ‘We don’t have a sign outside, and yet people seem to find their way here.’ And find my way I did, to a warm welcome, too – despite the lack of electricity.

My room was simple but cheerful, painted a mellow yellow with a wide window that let in lovely late afternoon light. Following a brief nap and a dribbling shower, I ambled over to the dining room. Complementing the lack of electricity and cell phone signal, it appeared we also had no water. Being under strict lockdown, I didn’t have any booze either, and I pined for a glass of wine to quiet a growing unease. It was all starting to feel distinctly Fawlty Towers. Wandering the dimly-lit, wood-floored hallways, I half expected to stumble across Manuel shaking his head and muttering, ‘I know nut-ing!

Anthony’s storytime by lamplight.

Instead, there were just shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books. Romantic novels, classic tomes, travel tales, cookery guides… you name it. Beyond the volumes of books, an impressive collection of vinyl records from high ceiling to carpet, packed so close you could hardly fit another in between.

‘People call this the Book Hotel, but I call it the house of stories. New stories are being made all the time,’ Anthony told me during dinner. Also a published author, he charmingly visited every candle-lit table (mine included), enquiring after journeys and offering advice as I munched on a homely chicken stew with Tastic rice. As he made the rounds, I eavesdropped to learn that the hotel houses an impressive 120 000 books, just a quarter of Anthony’s total book collection. ‘Of course, I haven’t read all of them. I’ll never catch up because people keep giving me more!’

The stone Bethulie viaduct connects the Eastern Cape to the Free State across the Orange River.

Later, the other guests and I followed Anthony to the lounge for an evening of thoroughly entertaining lectures. ‘Usually I do a town tour but there’s no time these days,’ he remarked. So, I settled down at a table to the glow of a paraffin lamp and Anthony began by saying that we were currently seated upon the stoep of a trading store built in 1873. Shadows scampered up the ceilings as he elaborated. The store later became a hotel to serve people moving between the diamond fields. ‘Transport riders needed to feed their oxen after all, and Bethulie had plenty of grass all year round.’ We then learnt about JB Robinson: ‘Not the nicest man around. He was tall, thin, gaunt and serious, and the Boers liked him a lot.’ His tales were peppered with fragments from the Boer-Basotho War, the horrors of the Anglo-Boer War and the concentration camps. As he circled back to the story of the hotel, he said that to qualify as a Royal Hotel, a lodging must have had royals staying at it.

‘There were about 30 Royal Hotels at one stage in South Africa. I’m afraid we’re bogus like all the others, save for two. The only genuine Royal Hotels sit in Knysna and Durban.’ Genuine or not, electrified or unshowered, I could’ve listened to stories like these for hours, or as they say, at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

From R520 pp sharing B&B and dinner R160 pp, 071 683 7767, [email protected].
FYI A room with views overlooking the harbour at the Royal Hotel in Durban costs R495 pp sharing B&B (031 333 6000, coastlands.co.za) and R420 pp sharing at the Royal Hotel in Knysna (044 382 1144, rhk.co.za).

Meet the Reluctant Hotelier

Anthony Hocking says it wasn’t always the plan to own and run a hotel but he couldn’t bear to see the derelict shell of the Royal Hotel go to unscrupulous hands while living in his
beloved Bethulie.

For you, what crucial elements constitute a quirky hotel?
‘Quirky’ can be good or bad but I like to define it as ‘unusual in an attractive and interesting way’. Applied to a hotel, that could relate to the staff, the guests, the decor, the activities, the ambience. A hotel doesn’t need to be more than 100 years old to be quirky, though it helps. An interesting history can compensate for occasional lapses in service. In my experience, a hotel’s quirkiness or lack of it stems from the owner. Hopefully, he or she has resisted the temptation to renovate to perfection, thus eliminating all traces of the hotel’s heritage. You don’t find many quirky features in a chain establishment.

The hotel is home to over 100 000 books.

What five hotels would make your ideal ‘Quirky Alliance’ of hotels?
Of the hotels I know about, the ‘quirkiest of the quirky’ is the Karroo Theatrical in Steytlerville (from R465 pp sharing, karroohotel.co.za), where the owners put on a hilarious drag show every Saturday.
A close second is the Kimberley Club in the Northern Cape (from R750 pp sharing, kimberleyclub.co.za), where the historical connections speak for themselves. Then there’s the Green Lantern at Van Reenen’s in KZN (from R395 pp sharing, greenlantern.co.za), which has a donkey in the bar and shows silent moves round the clock. And how about the relaunched Rhodes Hotel near the Lesotho border (from R450 pp, rhodeshotel.co.za)? All these are well worth a visit – and so are the elegant Victoria Manor in Cradock (from R500 pp sharing B&B tuishuise.co.za), the lonely Middelpos Hotel near Calvinia (from R500 pp sharing DB&B, [email protected]) and the recently revamped Leydsdorp Hotel in Limpopo (from R500 pp sharing, 082 461 6433).

The stone Bethulie viaduct connects the Eastern Cape to the Free State across the Orange River.

Can you suggest one thing not to miss in Bethulie?
That would have to be the massive Bethulie Bridge spanning the Orange River, though in truth it’s a viaduct. Completed in 1970, the ‘bridge’ rests on 27 arches, is 1.2km long and 50m high. When it was built there were strong expectations that the wall of the Gariep Dam would eventually be raised and the whole valley would be flooded. That’s why Bethulie Bridge was made so high, to take account of future water levels.

More Great-Value Quirky Hotel Stays in SA

Graskop, Mpumalanga

Graskop Hotel

Elements of its industrial past are everywhere in this quirky lagoon-side hotel.

Tagged as ‘the art gallery you can sleep in’, this Mpumalanga hotel on the scenic Panorama Route certainly lives up to its slogan. The old town hotel was lovingly restored to its current boutique offering and boasts 37 en-suite rooms. However, be sure to check into one of the 19 upstairs bedrooms. Each suite was individually decorated by an acclaimed contemporary South African artist. Willem Boshoff, Walter Oltmann, Gordon Froud, Cecille Heystek, Phillys Green and many more have walked these hallowed halls.
From R840 pp sharing B&B. 013 767 1244, graskophotel.co.za

Elements of its industrial past are everywhere in this quirky lagoon-side hotel.

Knysna, Western Cape

The Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa

The Graskop Hotel is on the Panorama Route.

It’s housed in an old power station, but modernised into a contemporary industrial hotel, so you walk past bulky turbines, brightly coloured steel piping and ever-evolving menageries of artworks to get to your room overlooking the Knysna Lagoon. Look closely and you’ll find all sorts of contraptions and instruments around the hotel, pegged to keep engineers, scientists and curious visitors fascinated for hours. The lodgings also double as an art gallery.
From R900 pp sharing B&B (but check for midweek specials). 044 050 3500, turbinehotel.co.za

The Graskop Hotel is on the Panorama Route

Montagu, Western Cape

Montagu Country Hotel

Book a tailor-made wine tour in a gracious 1956 Cadillac Sedan De Ville or a gutsy 1964 Cadillac Sedan DeVille when staying at the Art Deco Montagu Country Hotel

Got a penchant for nostalgia and pizazz? Then the recently revamped Montagu Country Hotel is for any Gatsby go-getters. Bedrooms and leisure areas are all decorated in either Art Deco or Victorian style – right down to the door handles and cutlery – with handpicked chests, chairs and tables harking back to the 1920s. Then there are the classic cars often parked outside. Hop into a baby blue Cadillac for the most memorable Route 62 ride of your life!
From R785 pp sharing DB&B (ask for the Montagu Break Away special offer) and enjoy a classic car ride with American Dream Cars from R695 per hour.
023 614 3125, montagucountryhotel.co.za

Mossel Bay, Western Cape

Santos Express Train Lodge

Santos Beach in Mossel Bay is perfect for a dip straight from your train carriage – the train ain’t going nowhere without you.

No bucks for a night at the coveted Kruger Shalati hotel? Then make your railway ride a reality at Mossel Bay. The Santos Express Train Lodge is a genuine train with spectacular sea views (and much kinder to the bank balance). The hotel consists of decommissioned carriages procured from South African Railways, which have been upcycled and fitted with plumbing and electricity. A tip: maximise your beach location by booking into a royal sea-view facing carriage room complete with plush wood panelling and a private deck.
From R490 pp. 044 6911 995, santosexpress.co.za






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