The annual National Arts Festival turns the sleepy, historic Grahamstown into a riot of song, dance, theatre and fun which is why you need to book your bed for it now.
The case for Grahamstown
• For a small town, Grahamstown has an abundance of self-catering cottages and apartments, which cater mostly to parents visiting their kids at one of the boarding schools or Rhodes University.
• The guest houses are better than any of the hotels.
• Grahamstown’s peak season is the annual National Arts Festival, and people book up to a year in advance for decent digs. nationalartsfestival.co.za
• Graduation (April), Orientation Week (February) and the schools’ Balloon Week (October) are also considered high season.
• The Grahamstown Hospitality Guild offers an invaluable accommodation grading service, using the pineapple symbol to vet an establishment as Approved, Recommended, Highly Recommended and Superior.
Grader Judy Hockly knows her stock and is a stickler for quality, though like the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa’s star grading this is more about ticking off facilities and services than about taste; to view this comprehensive listing, visit grahamstown-accommodation.co.za.
1. Fiddlewood Fields, Best-value luxury garden cottages
Tripadvisor No. 11 of 40 B&BS/Inns
Just about every home in Grahamstown has a garden cottage for rent, but Liz Thomas raised the bar substantially with her three handsomely appointed cottages and Blue Room, attached to the house but with its own private garden entrance. Elegant and supremely comfortable, all have outside areas with seating to enjoy the magnificent garden. Blue Room and Rose Cottage accommodate two to three in a king-size extra-length bed that can be converted into two single beds, plus a sleeper couch in the lounge area; Sunbird and Butterfly sleep three in single beds on an upstairs mezzanine and two in a king-size bed downstairs. Liz provides a full English breakfast (R60 pp) and dinner on request, but the compact kitchens are well equipped for self-catering and each unit has a Weber. Secure off-street parking is screened from the lush garden views and pool. Given the level of luxury, these cottages are a steal.
Room tip: I like the fact that Rose Cottage is freestanding (and has an oven). Sunbird and Butterfly offer the most beds, but I’d be happy in any unit.
Cost: R475 per person sharing, R300 per person for school-going children.
2. 8A Grahamstown, Most luxurious guest house
Tripadvisor No. 1 of 40 B&BS/Inns
Louise Poole built up her Oyster Collection, comprising six superbly renovated and professionally managed rental homes, including a B&B, in nearby Kenton-on-Sea, before expanding operations to Grahamstown two and a half years ago. Here she unleashed her impeccable design eye on a simple residential building, creating a six-room cocoon of decadence. From the large walk-in rain showers and 100 per cent percale linen on king-size beds to inviting sofas and a marvellously equipped honesty bar stocked with drinks and snacks, every sense is pampered. A maximum of 14 guests share a large open-plan lounge and dining area (with a wood-burning fireplace, lit whenever it’s cool) and a well-furnished veranda with great views; downstairs, a comfortable chill-out TV lounge opens onto the garden, with loungers dotted around the pool. Breakfast, cooked to order every morning, is a feast, and there is always someone on hand to assist. All things considered, 8A is very good value.
Room tip: Rooms 1 and 2 have the best views. Rooms 5 and 6, booked as a single unit as they share a bathroom, have no views but are a good-value family option.
Cost: From R595 per person sharing B&B, half price for under 12s.
3. St Aidans – Best hospitality
Tripadvisor No. 4 Of 40 B&BS/Inns
Robyn James describes her Victorian stone cottage as ‘a home from home’, and a very comfortable home it is, comprising five en-suite rooms (four-star graded) plus a rather frilly VIP self-catering suite across the road. Robyn serves a full English breakfast; after this guests are welcome to use her kitchen or the braai facilities in the well-maintained garden, or she will serve dinner on request. Decor-wise, her style is very feminine – chintz and crochet – and quality, maintenance and housekeeping standards are fastidious. It’s the intense owner-managed focus that makes St Aidans. Most owners don’t do much to promote the town itself, given that their clientele are here to see children or enjoy the Festival; by contrast, Robyn is a font of information about what to do, where to eat and how to enjoy the best of Grahamstown.
Room tip: I liked the double Chapel room with its elevated views and balcony; taken together with Heart, these two upstairs rooms, sharing a little lounge, make a good unit for three or four people travelling together.
Cost: From R650 per person sharing B&B, R375 pp for under 12s.
4. Mimosa – Best historic bedroom
Tripadvisor No. 21 Of 40 B&BS/Inns
Grahamstown has plenty of beautiful historic architecture but I particularly liked this large, much-loved Victorian home, commissioned at the turn of
the 20th century by AN White (who established the town’s first trading store, still in existence). Mimosa remained in the White family until 2003, when Sasha and Martin Scholtz bought it from White’s granddaughter, and they have retained the house’s delightful old-world atmosphere. By partitioning off a section of it with its own veranda, the Scholtz’s have created an entirely private unit comprising a tastefully furnished main bedroom with a queen-size bed, kilim and Victorian fireplace and a second bedroom, also with a Victorian fireplace and two single beds. Both rooms have doors that open onto the private veranda which overlooks the rambling garden and a swimming pool, and share a bathroom and kitchenette (stocked with tea, filter coffee, milk and rusks).
Room tip: As there is no lounge, the main bedroom or veranda has to serve as a gathering place if you occupy both rooms. Meals can be eaten at a small table in the kitchenette or on the veranda.
Cost: R480 per person self-catering, R530 per person B&B, half price for under 12s.
5. Mhambi – Best of Boho bargain
Owner Dez Weeks, a zoology graduate working at the Albany Museum, lived in South America for four years and has decorated his quirky cottage with interesting objects collected from his travels. From the open-plan bedroom-cum-lounge, a raised step leads to a cute kitchen with a door opening onto a lush secret garden. Dez, who stays in the house at the far end of the garden, is a gentle, kind host welcoming his guests with fresh flowers and a kitchen stocked with basic breakfast ingredients: cereals, yoghurt, fruit, eggs, cheese and olive oil (it’s furnished with a fridge, hot plate, microwave, table and two chairs). Mhambi is a simple, comfortable place geared for academics and post-grads requiring a peaceful bolthole to write, or for anyone who enjoys boho-decor style and will appreciate the garden with its pebble pathways, tree ferns and clivias.
Room tip: It’s worth noting that Dez charges only R385 a night for solo travellers.
Cost: R375 per person sharing. Long-stay rates are negotiable.
6. Bartholomew’s Loft – Best historic collection
Tripadvisor No. 8 of 24 Speciality lodgings
The intersection of Cross and Bartholomew streets was the artisan quarter of 19th-century Grahamstown. Bartholomew’s Loft encompasses two of these restored national monuments, and is like a tiny whitewashed village clustered around a cobbled courtyard hidden behind tall gates. The units differ considerably, from the three-bedroom Loft that used to be a church to the 1852 Corner House that once housed a bakery. It’s similar to High Corner (page 49) in that it offers a mix of self-catering and B&B, but the original owners here were clearly of more humble stock and, like nearby Mhambi (see above), this is in a more run-down part of town. You’ll probably want to park behind the gate in the courtyard, particularly at night. Breakfast (R85 pp) is served in the original bakery.
Room tip: The Court Yard and Patio Suite are the cutest one-bedroom self-catering units; the Court Yard in particular opens onto a charming, private garden. While the B&B rooms in Corner House are very pretty, they’re on the main road and noise from traffic is a concern.
Cost: R475 per person sharing B&B, R150 per person for under 12s, R415 per person sharing self-catering, R1650 for The Loft (sleeps six).
7. 7 Oatlands
Rob and Emma Cooper moved to Grahamstown six years ago when their daughter and son started school there (their son is now the fourth generation to attend St Andrew’s College) and bought a beautiful stone house on Oatlands Road. As Emma is an interior decorator and project manager, it made sense to renovate and dress
the two stone cottages at the end of their driveway, and she has done a great job in converting them into two stylish boltholes. Both have an open-plan lounge-cumbedroom, bathroom and kitchen with a fridge, stove and microwave. The kitchens are also stocked with ground coffee, tea, rusks and fresh milk. Each cottage has its own outdoor furnished area, and guests are also welcome to wander through the main garden.
Room tip: Cottage One, with three single beds, is the larger. Cottage Two, behind it, has a king-size bed and is the more private.
Cost: R580 per person sharing.
8. High Corner
Tripadvisor No. 5 of 40 B&BS/Inns
This delightful collection of historic buildings in High Street is the best, most convenient option if you want to be in the centre of town: directly opposite the Drostdy Arch entrance to Rhodes University and within strolling distance from most restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The collection includes the 1814 Messenger’s Cottage, said to be the oldest in Grahamstown, the former Saddle Shop and Grahamstown Gentlemen’s Club (in one building) and The Tannery. In 1862 the Club added another storey in order to accommodate visiting country members; today it hosts the four B&B rooms, still featuring the original Oregonpine wall panelling and high ceilings and furnished with Cape antiques. Behind the guest house are three selfcatering units, all in excellent nick and hugely popular given
the unbelievable rate.
Room tip: If you’re opting for B&B, book Thomas Stubbs or Guy Butler rooms – for the fantastic wood panelling alone. Of the three self-catering options (you are, after all, close to a choice of breakfast venues) my preference is the single-level, two-bedroom Messenger’s Cottage.
Cost: From R620 per person sharing B&B, R230 per person for under 10s, self-catering from R520 per person sharing, free for under 10s.
9. Colonel Graham Guest House
Comprises four separate buildings of which the purpose built (2016) Frances House is the top pick, great for those who like an uncluttered space with brand-new modern fittings. Rooms are big, with king or twin beds and a small lounge area, bar fridge, air-con and modern bathroom. Book an upstairs room for the views.
Cost: From R655 per person sharing B&B.
10. Cottage in the Garden
A fairly basic but sweet little two person studio, privately located in a back corner with a small patio to enjoy the pretty garden views; if it’s available you’ve bagged yourself a bargain.
Cost: From R300 per person sharing.
11. Apple Bee
Jeannine Evans’ well-furnished one-bedroom garden cottages enjoy a deserved four-pineapple rating. Of the two, I prefer Guest Cottage One.
Cost: R440 per person sharing.
If St Aidans and 8A are full, it’s worth looking at this well-run guest house in a pretty home with good rooms, simple easy-on-the-eye decor and a great veranda.
Cost: From R690 per person B&B.
Read more from this story in the January 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our January issue features a bucket list of 45 experiences to have at least once in South Africa, a new way to experience the Wild Coast, and a beautiful beach holiday in Sri Lanka.