12 escapes in the Northern Drakensberg

Posted by Pippa de Bruyn on 28 September 2016

This area is central to three major cities, good value (considering that many prices are all-inclusive) – and staggeringly beautiful. Our Pippa De Bruyn picked these 11 plum Northern Drakensberg escapes.  Photographs by Teagan Cunniffe.

 

How it works:

TripAdvisor lists accommodation rated by guests, but as much as we love peer reviews, can we trust them? Pippa, who has reviewed accommodation for 18 years, inspected 21 properties – some rated on TripAdvisor, plus she rooted out new ones. These 11 made her list.

 

The case for Northern Drakensberg

Proximity
Easy to get to in under four hours from either Bloemfontein, Joburg and Durban, and extremely scenic (particularly from the newly reopened R74), the proximity of the Northern Drakensberg to every other major city socks a big FOMO to any nature-loving Capetonian.

Views, views and views
Just as you think you really can’t be whipping out your camera again you crest another pass or trail and are stopped dead in your tracks by a vista that gives real meaning to the word majestic. Listening to the wind, gurgling rivers and birdsong, dwarfed by your surrounds, you almost need to pinch yourself to check that it’s all real.

It’s undeveloped and wild
Unlike the Central Berg, parts of which were parcelled off and developed fairly intensively, enormous tracts of land adjoining the Royal Natal National Park are owned by a relatively small group of passionate conservationists. Together they are determined to keep this a pristine wilderness area, free from further development. Their synergy means you can combine different experiences easily, such as riding out on horseback from Montusi Mountain Lodge to Greenfire Lodge (about eight kilometres away), overnighting there and returning the next day.

The nature
Swimming and fishing in natural rock pools and rivers; clambering up to dramatic waterfalls, caves with San rock art and through indigenous forests; exploring a net- work of over 100 kilometres of trails marked for hiking, biking, riding and trail running – this World Heritage Site is one great gorgeous playpen.

It’s an adventure centre
All Out is fabulous at organising activities from zip lining and extraordinary bungee jumps to quad biking. The centre provides maps and passes for the colour-coded trails, guide services, and bike rentals and repairs. alloutadventures.co.za

Family hospitality
There is something very special about family- owned and managed lodges and hotels; they tend to have a spirit of generosity and warmth that replenishes the soul. The Northern Berg is home to a network of these properties, some of which have the hospitality gene running through three generations.

 

Best for total defrag

1. Greenfire Lodge Drakensberg

TripAdvisor No. 1 of 3 hotels, Bergville (listed as Drifters)

Greenfire-Drakensberg-June-2016-issue

As the rutted track ascends higher and higher, so does your heart, until finally, you are on top of the world, looking back at a vista that sweeps from the Amphitheatre to Cathkin Peak. The lodge itself is delightful: a cosy lounge/dining log cabin with views from every window and sofas that invite reclining around the central fireplace. There are nine log cabins (two-bedroom family cabins and en-suite one-bedroom cabins) each with a log-burning fireplace and powered by solar. Good home-cooked meals are enjoyed around a communal table. Part of the Greenfire Lodge Collection (formerly Drifters), this is pitched at those wanting a big nature fix, in a place that is intimate but not claustrophobic. Some may find it basic but this is my kind of luxury: warm and well-fed in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a 2 000-hectare wilderness and 1 800 metres above sea level yet dwarfed by cliffs that are home to a colony of Cape vultures.
Room tip: Be sure to specify a double bed when booking if romance is on the cards. The family log cabins have balconies with the best views but are in the teeth of the wind.
Cost: R795 per person sharing, full board.
Contact: greenfire.co.za

 

Best small family resort

2. The Cavern

TripAdvisor No. 2 of 11 Speciality Lodging, Bergville

Cavern-Drakensberg-June-2016

Like Cathedral Peak, this is a third-generation family- owned resort located at the end of a road truncated by soaring mountains, but this is a far more intimate and cosy experience. Tucked into the lee of steep wooded slopes, the hotel developed organically on the terraced veld. While the decor is more modern than Cathedral Peak, the renovations are more sensitive to the original 1940s ethos, and the combination is very pleasing indeed. With just 55 rooms in blocks arranged in such a way that the hotel feels small, and plenty of semi-private terraces to enjoy the views, this manages to be both family friendly and boutique-like, with a fantastic wine cellar attached to the cave-bar (best selection of wine in the Berg, at prices that encourage sampling by the case); there’s a uniquely located spa too – cantilevered above the forest – and the largest, sexiest pool. Great value too.
Room tip Standard rooms are great (I particularly liked the decor in block 40 to 47), with everything you need (unless it’s a TV, in which case a Superior).
Cost From R1100 per person including all meals, teas and guided walks. Check out the Activities Calendar 2016, which includes yoga, photography and sketching weekends.
Contact cavern.co.za

 

Best for foodies

3. Montusi Mountain Lodge

TripAdvisor No. 1 of 5 Speciality Lodging, Bergville

Montusi-Lodge-Drakensberg-June-2016-issue

Montusi Mountain Lodge opened in 2000 and is the most manicured and sophisticated option in the Northern Berg, with luxuries such as a nightly turn-down with homemade chocolates and haute cuisine dinners that are a real highlight. The four-course set menu offers a small but great choice – if you’re hard-pressed, order one of each and share. Having rehabilitated the 1 000-hectare farm to encourage the return of birdlife and antelope, the extremely hospitable Carte family (also third- generation hoteliers) purpose-built their lodge to create ‘the privilege of space and peace’: as such there are just 16 free standing thatched garden suites dotted on the well-groomed lawns, all with mountain views. Each cottage has a separate lounge area with gas fireplace and TV/DVD; the capacious family suites have two en-suite bedrooms. There’s lots to do on the farm, plus All Out Adventure Centre is just down the drag.
Room tip: Garden suites 11, 12 and 14 have particularly unimpeded views.
Cost From R1715 per person for a Garden Suite DBB, including a daily guided hike.
Contact montusi.co.za

 

Best self-catering eco camp

4. Sungubala Eco-camp

TripAdvisor No. 8 of 11 Speciality Lodging, Bergville
Sungubala-June-2016-Drakensberg

A dirt track twists up the mountain (no 4×4 required) to reach a small plateau and a low-key rustic eco camp dwarfed by the
2 000-metre-high mountain after which it is named. There are several self-catering options: two double-storey chalets (each sleeping five in two bedrooms), a mountain bungalow (sleeping six) and central Camels Camp, comprising three thatched en-suite two-bedroom rondavels (sleeping four each), two twin-bed A-frame units with their own ablutions and three small thatched A-frame units that share a communal ablution block. Aside from the two double-storey chalets, Camel Camp (sleeping up to 22) is preferably booked by one party to share the large kitchen and communal lounge. In fact, this is a great option for a group of up to 28 (more, if you don’t mind camping) celebrating a special occasion. Views are spectacular: huge forest-clad slopes topped by sheer cliffs that fill your horizon, with extras such as daily servicing, guided hikes and a swimming pool.
Room tip Jackal chalet enjoys plum position: right at the edge of the property with an uninterrupted view of Sungubala mountain. Of the rondavels, number four has the best view.
Cost Jackal and Eland chalets are R1700 (sleep five each). Mountain Bungalow R1400 (sleeps six). En-suite rondavels (sleep four) and the A-frame units (sleep two) are R400 per person.
Contact sungubala.co.za

 

Best large family resort

5. Cathedral Peak

TripAdvisor No. 2 of 6 Hotels, Winterton

Cathedral-Peak-Drakensberg-June-Issue

Opened in 1939, Cathedral Peak is the second-oldest Berg hotel (Mont-Aux-Sources, made bland by successive attempts at modernity, was first) and enjoys the most fantastic location of them all. At the end of a long winding road that terminates in a valley, cupped and dwarfed by rugged mountain peaks that spawn thundering rivers, it’s an environment that begs to be explored, with 18 hike trails to walk. Still owned by the Van de Riet family, it has grown to accommodate 254 guests in 104 rooms, and is designed to captivate all ages: from bingo, heli-flips, fishing, golf and archery to every kind of racquet game, plus a daily entertainment programme and a separate, well-staffed dining room for young children. Some original architectural aspects have been marred, but the overall atmosphere is still wonderfully nostalgic, a place that has clearly provided many happy memories for generations.
Room tip Standard thatched rondavels 103 to 108 and standard rooms 51 to 59 have the most unobstructed views. The best rooms are the seven honeymoon suites (notably 405 to 407).
Cost From R1420 per person sharing DBB including teas and guided walks. There is a minimum two-night stay on weekends.
Contact cathedralpeak.co.za

 

Best farm

6. Toplodge

TripAdvisor No. 4 of Speciality Lodging, Bergville

Toplodge-Drakensberg-June-2016

‘Hold on tight,’ says Gavin Everitt – who offers complimentary transfers to his mountain eyrie for those not in a 4×4 – and we set off up the steep and narrow track, leaving the ‘real’ world behind. In a valley of beautiful farms, Toplodge takes the cake: en route to its three cottages we passed valleys covered in wildflowers, eland grazing in long grass and breathtaking vistas. Chestnut, Yellow Wood and Teakwood cottages are within sight of each other but all positioned to offer a private mountain vantage. Decor is spartan; the cottages are spacious and open-plan (the bedroom faces the lounge, which opens to the kitchen with a dining counter), each with a wood-burning fireplace. But the real reason you’re here is for the expansive valley view – not a house or human in sight, just enormous space, enough to feel your spirit soar.
Cabin tip Book Teakwood (sleeps two) for its private orientation, 270-degree views and shaded patio with built-in braai. Chestnut is the only family cabin (sleeps four). Yellow Wood is being rebuilt; Gavin is planning an alfresco double shower on the upstairs deck!
Cost R1100 for two sharing. Additional adults R475 per person, children R240 each (six to 11).
No children under six.
Contact toplodge.co.za

Best B&B and more

7. Berghouse & cottages

TripAdvisor No. 1 of 14 B&B/Inn, Bergville

Berghouse-Drakensberg-June-2016

Vaughn and Chantal Piccione offer you the best of both worlds: a well-equipped cottage – decorated for comfort and with country charm – along with the option of having the most delicious breakfasts and dinners delivered piping hot to your terrace or fireside dining table. This combination – the privacy and space of your own cottage, together with the service you’d get from a well-run guest house – is a winner, along with the easy hospitality of the Piccione family. You could spend the day just lolling around your cottage (très romantic, with double beds in front of log fireplaces), enjoying the occasional visit from the free-roaming miniature horses, but the 500-hectare estate beckons seven kilometres of river frontage, three dams, plenty of trails and fabulous mountain views in every direction.
Cottage tip All eight cottages are delightful but Phezulu (sleeps two) and Thokomala (sleeps 12) have the added benefit of the most unimpeded mountain views.
Cost From R450 per person self-catering, R540 per person B&B or R700 per person DBB.
Contact berghouse.co.za

 

Worth a look

8. Drakensberg Mountain Retreat is another definite category winner, featuring more jaw- dropping 100 kilometre-wide views (similar to those enjoyed from Dumbe cottages, located on the neighbouring farm, see far right), and is an authentic family- and pet-friendly farmhouse with just nine rooms. Cuisine and service are authentically farm-style – warm and comforting. Wild free-roaming horses add to the picturesque scenes. From R670 pp sharing. drakensbergretreat.co.za

9. Little Switzerland is back in business with the R74 finally open. The resort is set on a 3000-hectare farm with a fantastic elevated location off the Oliviershoek Pass. The self- catering chalets – built in a row on its lip and highest point – have the most awe-inspiring views and are the choice pick here. From R1200 (sleeps four) and from R1750 (sleeps six). lsh.co.za

10.Thendele has to be on every South African bucket list, with a setting that truly is unparalleled: at the base of the Amphitheatre, you literally have a front-row seat to the most majestic mountainscape in Africa. Upper Camp cabins are more modern and in better shape, and Lower Camp enjoys more unimpeded views but its cabin interiors are looking a little tired. Units 15 to 27 (upper) and 1 to 14 (lower) have the best views. There is no restaurant. From R1 000 for two. kznwildlife.com

11. Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge is a fun gathering place, attracting a constant stream of gregarious budget travellers. The lodge has a variety of accommodation options of which the Deluxe Private Double, with a view of the Amphitheatre, is best. R720 (sleeps four). amphibackpackers.co.za

12. Dumbe (In our mountain cabin story) cottages are the best self-catering cottages if you are looking for romance, solitude and a gobsmacking view. For the full review, turn to page 72. Ingwe Cabin is the bolthole of George and Suzette Spies It’s not as slick as more commercially run enterprises such as neighbouring Greenfire Lodge but the secluded location – at the base of a mountain peak, surround- ed by alpine-like meadows – makes it a sublime spot. See page 71 for the full review.

*Prices and rankings correct at time of going to publication

Where to next?

Tweet us at @getawaymagazine and @pippadebruyn with the next location you’d like us to research.

 

 

This story was first published in the June 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.

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