10 best relaxing retreats and spas in South Africa

Posted on 16 October 2014

Spread far and wide, these 10 spa retreats in South Africa are built with relaxation in mind. If you’re feeling like you need some luxury in nature, here are the spas you simply have to check out. Photography by Christopher List.


10 of the best spa retreats in South Africa

1. Trogon House & Forest Spa, Plettenberg Bay

Trogon House and Forest Spa

You know you’ve found a piece of untouched forest when raindrops struggle to fall from the thick, dark green canopy to the soft, leaf-covered floor below. This flawless section of the Tsitsikamma has swallowed Trogon House and Forest Spa and all you can see through the glass walls of the intimate lodge are leaves, twigs and branches so intertwined that it’s impossible to know to which trees they belong.

The main building has three suites, a restaurant and communal lounge where you can sink into leather couches and spend hours reading in front of the fireplace.

Walk out onto the elevated deck where you’ll find the swimming pool and enjoy the view across a deep, forested valley. Listen for the rare narina trogon – it sounds like a big dog barking in the distance – and try spot a flash of its red belly.

A short stroll down a silkstrung walkway, where tiny spiders jump to and fro, you’ll find two secluded, romantic suites, each with an open-air shower and a private deck from where you can reach out and touch the trees.

The spa, a little further down the same walkway, allows only one couple at a time. After a full-body massage, with a fire crackling to the one side and the Jacuzzi bubbling on the other, the sauna for two in the far corner is ready and you are left alone for another one-and-a-half hours to relax in thick, fluffy robes. Don’t succumb to your city habit of switching on the TV when you get into bed in the evening. Rather switch on the light that shines into the thicket from your deck and let the forest entertain you.

B&B from R750 a person a night sharing. Tel 044 534 8191, www.trogonhouse.co.za


2. Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa, Cape Town

Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa

You have to take your time to appreciate the grandeur of a mountain range like the Twelve Apostles. The staggering peaks are covered in wild fynbos and plunge straight into the blue Atlantic Ocean. You’ll experience it fleetingly on Victoria Road, which winds along its slopes between Cape Town and Hout Bay, but what you really have to do is turn off to the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, leave your car behind and take it all in from your five-star suite. There’s only ocean to the front, mountains to the back and not a single other building to block your view.

The hotel has everything you need for a spoil-yourself stay. Oysters for breakfast and French cuisine for dinner, a perfectly warmed swimming pool overlooking the sea and a private mountain trail, packed picnics and blissfully decadent spa treatments.

The spa has a separate entrance, making day visits easy, and a glass walkway leads you from the complimentary snack station to one of the best massage cape town treatment rooms and down into the hydrotherapy and relaxation area, where it feels like you’re inside the mountain, only the rock-like walls hanging over the heated pools are painted bright white.

Although the treatment rooms are small, two tinted-glass gazebos, a little stroll up the mountain, look down along the mountain range and across the Atlantic make a good alternative. Music is compliments of the local bird population.

Back in the hotel, the signature pastel-striped hallways lead to the ultra luxurious rooms and suites, which are elegant with striking wall treatments.

Days here are simple and slow and the city is far away, but close enough for a quick outing to the Waterfront, Camps Bay or buzzing Kloof Street.

B&B from R4 615 a double room a night. Tel 021 437 9255, www.12apostleshotel.com


3. Arniston Spa Hotel, Cape Overberg

Arniston Spa Hotel

All roads in this little seaside village of white houses lead to the Arniston Spa Hotel. Of course, they also lead to the little harbour, from where fishermen take out rickety wooden boats every morning. But while fishing may be the reason for the town’s existence, the hotel is by far its most striking feature, standing proud and elegant above the surrounding thatched roofs of the stone houses. It’s the only place in sleepy Arniston where you can order a meal and it’s the hub of activity when families and couples flock here in summer.

The green lawn out front is everybody’s playground. A father and son toss a rugby ball and a handful of children play a game of croquet with their own made-up rules. Parents watch from the restaurant deck, one eye on the kids and the other on the ocean just across the road. In the rooms you’ll find comfort in crisp white linen, heated towel rails, robes and slippers, but you won’t feel like you have to pick up the toys from the carpet or pack your shoes in the closet.

Being the only hotel in town, the swimming pool and restaurant get busy, but the Gingko Spa is never crowded. You’ll find it down a quiet corridor on the top floor and although you won’t see the ocean from here, the light blue walls and whitewashed furniture are reminders that you’ll meet again that evening when you gaze over the moonlit waves while digging into freshly caught fish or pink-in-the-middle steak.

Choose the Signature Elixir Massage to relax those stiff muscles caused by a morning of beach bats and volleyball. When you’re done, the kettle in the relaxation lounge is on the boil and the sauna is ready for a few more minutes of solitude before you head back to the joys and screeches of a seaside holiday.

B&B from R995 a double room a night. Tel 021 445 9000, www.arnistonhotel.com


4. Woodall Country House & Spa, Sundays River Valley, Eastern Cape

Woodall Country House and Spa

Cobblestone paths lined with white roses, sprawling green lawns, double wood-panelled doors and Victorian baths aren’t the sort of things you’d generally associate with a holiday in the bush. Yet Woodall Country House & Spa has managed to create an immaculate piece of English countryside right in the heart of the Sundays River Valley without making you feel out of place in your khakis and fleece jacket.

Amble across the grounds from the green-and-white-striped loungers beside the pool to your private cottage with walk-in closet and marble bath. Here, the only reminder that you’re still in Africa is the mosquito net draped over the four-poster bed.

Plunge through the bush in an open vehicle for twice-daily game drives in Addo Elephant National Park. Breathe in the dust, spot the Big Five, admire large herds of plains game and enjoy a warm cup of flask coffee.

When you return, head to the spa to soothe your sunburn with a cooling aloe wrap or treat your skin to an exfoliating body scrub, washed off in a Vichy shower (five showerheads cascade water over your body as you lie on a heated marble slab surrounded by green and blue mosaic – bliss).

Redo your hair in a bathroom big enough for a king, dress in something nice, or stay in your shorts if you fancy, and head down to the restaurant deck for sundowners. It overlooks a reed-lined natural dam with birds frolicking in the trees beyond. After a five-course dinner, say goodnight to the bugs of the bush and retire to your cottage in the country.

B&B from R850 a person a night sharing. Tel 042 233 0128, www.woodall-addo.co.za


5. Morgan Bay Hotel, Wild Coast

Morgan Bay Hotel

How do you experience the grassy cliffs and cow studded beaches of the Wild Coast without having to navigate its notoriously terrible roads? The answer is simple. Visit Morgan’s Bay.

The town is small enough to still give you that deserted, windswept feel so typical of the Transkei, but it’s just about big enough to warrant a smooth, tarred road all the way from East London. What’s more, there’s only 85 kilometres between the two.

Apart from a handful of beach bungalows erected here during the First World War, the Morgan Bay Hotel was the first development in the bay. Yet when you sink into the white sheets and simply listen to the ocean beyond your balcony, you wouldn’t believe it’s almost a century old.

The hotel is kept fresh and refurbished by the family that owns and runs it, but it’s not overly fancy. Kids running around the dining hall and prams abandoned on the terrace add to the character.

A row of milkwood trees stands between the ocean and the hotel’s terrace, swimming pool and jungle gym. The berries stain bare feet pink, but the beach is just down a walkway where you can wash them off. Looking north, all you see is white sand and blue water.

The sound of crashing waves follows you to the Milkwood Spa, where most of the treatment rooms are built to face the ocean. Sliding doors stand wide open to let in the cool breeze while hot stones heat up your muscles. Afterwards, relax in the sauna or hydro bath or sip some tea on the expansive wooden deck reserved for spa guests. It’s the best place to admire the iconic Wild Coast cliffs.

DB&B from R655 a person a night sharing. Tel 043 841 1062, www.morganbayhotel.co.za


6. Umngazi River Bungalows & Spa, Port St Johns, Wild Coast

Umngazi River Bungalows and Spa

The Mngazi River starts out narrow and rocky, picking a path through thick vegetation before forcing its way open to become a broad, silent river that meets the Indian Ocean at a choppy mouth. Umngazi River Bungalows punctuate these peaceful banks and give the best of river and sea views.

Civilisation is miles away and the surrounding hills are only sparsely dotted with colourful Xhosa huts. The resort is geared for family vacations so while you get your far-from-it-all holiday, the children won’t be complaining of boredom.

Caretakers, activity rooms, an elaborate playground and a large splash pool will keep kids entertained, but everyone can enjoy games on the grass, fishing expeditions and swimming in the river. Jump on the boat to the opposite bank, clamber over the white dunes and flop onto the main beach, where the only people you’ll encounter are other guests.

The lunchtime buffet on the deck features everything from fish and chips to prawn pasta and a string of salads and desserts. The kids’ dining room will give them their fill of bright orange carrots, green peas and mash.

Abandon the fun and laughter for an afternoon and head to the spa, perched at the property’s highest point. Catch your breath on the balcony while admiring Umngazi’s best beach views. Massages, facials and the hydro bath are available in bungalows strung along the ridge, and glass doors stand wide open to let in the ocean sounds and little nature noises rather than overpower them with recorded pan flutes.

Accommodation can be neat and basic or spacious with stylish recliners and spa baths, but considering the beautiful surroundings, cliffside hikes, sunset cruises, set dinners and pub quizzes, you really only need a place to rest your head.

Full-board from R890 a person a night sharing. Tel 047 564 1115/6/8/9, www.umngazi.co.za


7. Mount Grace Country House & Spa, Magaliesberg

Mount Grace Country House and Spa

Also read: five of the best Magaliesberg getaways

A cluster of koppies plays host to the 200 rooms that make up the Mount Grace Country House & Spa. But the lawns and wild bushes that grow between them allow each pair of French doors to swing open onto a private patch of nature. Beyond this is the Magaliesberg range, sprawled out and beautiful.

Free Wi-Fi, room service, king-sized beds and flatscreen televisions mean you can have a weekend away from busy Gauteng without losing touch with the world. The exclusive villas have the added luxury of individual pools and meals served in private dining rooms.

You’ll find the spa at one of the highest points (book a room close by unless you enjoy walking up hills). The treatment rooms at the main building are kept simple, but the bush spa, a short walk away, has big windows, loads of vegetation and better views than your room.

If you’re not getting a mani or pedi, a specialised facial or a massage, you should still take a dip in the rim-flow swimming pool and the rock pools constructed in a little labyrinth behind the spa. Or stroll along a stream that trickles down the hill to get to the two main swimming pools at the dining area; it’s a beautiful walk from the spa.

Choose between the laid-back buffet restaurant, Twist, with its bright orange walls, and The Rambling Vine, the fine-dining, à la carte option with high-backed chairs and heavy maroon curtains. Meals at the latter are the most memorable, featuring gourmet treats such as beetroot soup served with cranberry sorbet and home-made jelly.

B&B from R3 150 a room a night. Tel 014 577 5600, www.africanpridehotels.com


8. Summerfields Rose Retreat & Spa, Mpumalanga

Summerfields Rose Retreat and Spa

Macadamia nut and litchi trees stand tall on this 100-hectare estate. But on the far side of the grounds, beside the Sabie River, luxury tents are surrounded by thick bushveld. The roasted macadamia nuts on your bedside table are the only evidence that you’re on a working farm.

The river is strong where it runs past the tents and your days and nights are accompanied by the sound of water gushing over rocks. You can almost feel the spray from your deck as you spot lazing crocodiles and hippos. The tents – they’re really more like comfortable lodge rooms that happen to have canvas for walls and a roof – set further from the river and deeper into the bush are quieter. All have bathrooms completely open to the surroundings and deep Victorian baths look straight out onto the trees that grow between you and the river.

Boardwalks lead to the spa’s treatment decks, which have just two wooden walls and a roof so you can stare out across the river or simply enjoy listening to the water. Electric blankets and heaters will keep you warm during colder months.

Of course, Summerfields isn’t named a rose retreat for nothing. Apart from the fresh, colourful roses sold at the deli, there are at least four bunches decorating your room, roses on the spa beds and white petals with your turndown service. Five organic vegetable gardens supply all the veggies (except potatoes and mushrooms) you’ll eat during your stay, and while the spa and your surroundings will treat your senses, the two on-site restaurants will treat your taste buds.

B&B from R2 145 a person a night sharing. Tel 013 737 6500, www.summerfields.co.za


9. Karkloof Safari Spa, Pietermaritzburg

Karkloof Safari Spa

Rhino, zebra and buffalo are the first to greet you at Karkloof Safari Spa, a private reserve enclosed by hills tall enough to pierce the clouds. Yet the game that happily roams the predator-free valley takes second place to the spa. It’s the reason people come here and where time has been eliminated.

Guests don’t have to make an appointment. Simply rock up, slip on a bathrobe and slippers matched to your size and take your pick of unlimited treatments (the list is long and you can have as many as you want as they’re included in the daily rate). Lull away the minutes it takes to prepare your facial, wrap or massage by dipping into one of three bubbling Roman baths or spend 30 minutes in solitude in a flotation pool, with salt levels as high as those of the Dead Sea. Your therapist, fresh from Thailand and with a heavy accent and firm massage skills to prove it, will fetch you when you’re ready. Flip-flop your way along the wooden boardwalks to private treatment rooms with uninterrupted bush views.

The excellence continues in your villa, clad in dark wood furniture and set against a hill so that only the occasional bush pig might peer through your windows. A mini-bar is stocked to your preferences before you arrive and there are a dozen or so varieties of coffee pods and tea bags.

It’s up to you how active and healthy your stay at Karkloof will be. Take a private yoga or martial arts class, hike or go on a mountain-biking trail and end with a dinner of only raw ingredients (every meal has delicious raw or cooked options). Or perhaps you’d prefer a fried breakfast, a game drive to see more of the valley’s animals and a glass of red beside the fireplace before a dinner of nyala steak and home-made ice cream? The choice is yours.

Full-board from R9 900 a person a night. Tel 033 569 1321, www.karkloofsafarispa.com


10. Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa, Johannesburg

Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa

Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa, is a top spa in Johannesburg, wasn’t built to be the inner-city boutique hotel it is today. It started out as the grand estate of the Oppenheimer family, long before Sandton became a tight series of high-rises.

The estate was sold in 1986, and even after changes and upgrades, Fairlawns still has a stately, historic feel. Birds sing in the ancient trees and sprinklers hum as they keep the sprawling lawns in perfect condition for an impromptu game of croquet.

Each of the 39 rooms is different, from the classically Victorian-styled Oppenheimer and Emily Hobhouse suites to the more modern Shanghai and Sydney suites. Fabrics, curtains and artifacts come from all over the world and whether your suite has its own fireplace, reception area and walk-in closet or not, you’ll still feel like a celebrity. Yes, the service is that good.

A stroll across the grounds brings you to the spa, where you’re suddenly transported to Bali. The garden is overgrown with bamboo and dotted within it are open-sided treatment decks with peaked roofs similar to those of Balinese pura (temples). If you don’t like others watching you as a therapist pulls your arms and legs this way and that during a Thai massage, book the Bali Villa at the far end of the garden for your exclusive use.

Can’t find a weekend to break free from the city? Drive out for a lazy lunch on the terrace, where soft poached eggs and hollandaise sauce accompany your risotto and spinach salad. You’ll soon forget that you’re in the heart of Johannesburg.

B&B from R4 870 a night for a suite. Tel 011 804 2540, www.fairlawns-hotel.co.za

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Getaway Magazine.


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