Out of sight

Follow the path less taken to experience unexpected treasures

Out of sight

Possibly not the right route. Quite possibly. Halfway up Phantom Pass outside Knysna, Google Maps’ suggestion that this is the quickest and best way to reach Portland Manor House from the town seems … well, foolhardy. The problem is my wheels; a road bike meant to cruise effortlessly over Germanic tarmac. Phantom Pass is anything but. Pretty, certainly. Dramatic, absolutely. But Bavarian autobahn, no.

It was my own fault – I had set myself the goal of finding a selection of hidden, unexpected properties through the Garden Route, and hidden, unexpected properties tend to be in hidden, unexpected places.

And so it proved to be. Phantom Pass (carefully) dealt with, Portland Manor revealed itself (it’s much easier to reach from the N2). Set on one of the first farms in the region, it’s high up in the Rheenendal hills above Knysna, far from the crazy day-tripper and seasonal hordes.

First-timers would be forgiven for thinking they’d slipped through the space-time continuum and found themselves back in 1840, about to take tea with Queen Victoria and her entourage. Construction of the manor house, ostensibly begun in 1863, was completed in 1878, the work of English lawyer and diplomat Henry Barrington. His was a sizeable family – seven children – and that’s reflected in the scale of the accommodation, which was modelled not on his family pile, Beckett Hall back in Berkshire, but on the later ‘freer’ manor houses of the late Victorian era. That means fewer halls, better kitchens and bathrooms, and improved flow from the dining to the lounge areas.

The idea is for a group of friends to rent out the entire manor house – five couples ideally – making full use of staff and facilities. A murder mystery weekend comes to mind, but it would be just as rewarding as either a no-stress hideaway or an active retreat, given the mountain bike, hiking and running tracks through the farm.

The manor house is currently owned by RussellStone founder Russell du Preez. He and his wife Adél have big plans for the property (which include the less grand Hotel Residence, as well as the popular Cowshed restaurant and Last Stance pub).

Du Preez’s vision is to turn the farm into a viable and productive centre of sustainable produce as much as a first-class retreat for world-weary travellers. Given his background in primary agriculture, that’s likely to see new shoots soon enough.

The couple, together with their extensive team, are also in the process of upgrading the surrounding grounds, including the large farm lake and the pool, close to the manor house. It’s really the gardens and vistas that recommend the property, acres of splendid green abundance, mature trees, a bamboo glade and formal areas. It’s a million miles away from the conventional idea of a Garden Route breakaway, and all the better for that.

Chef Morgan’s focus at the Cowshed is similar: good food, simply made, taken from the surrounding fields and served in an environment that’s accessible and friendly to both residents and the surrounding community. Morgan, previously the foodie guru at Fancourt in George, is determined to take things back to ‘simple’, an ethos underlined by the extensive use of a Dover stove to cook much of what’s on his menu.

If Portland Manor trades in the aspirations of a previous generation, then Moontide Guest Lodge down the N2 on the Touws river in Wilderness is the opposite, accenting a gentle integration of place, people and experience. There are few more relaxing spots on the route, and certainly none as hidden.

It’s hiding in plain sight though: Moontide is a hop, skip and jump away from both the N2 and the centre of Wilderness, yet feels for all the world as if it’s on its own planet. That’s largely due to the grouping of 400-year-old milkwoods that have been left to grow amid the thatched cottages and secret walkways that make up Moontide. While developers along this part of the coast regularly felled the trees so as to ease building difficulties, Moontide’s owner Maureen Mansfield, who has been on the property for decades, chose rather to integrate the abundance. It makes a world of difference.

Over the years she has added to the original stone and thatch cottages, and now a collection of intriguingly imaginative stay options are available, including an elevated tree house and a boathouse on the water. Each suite is entirely original – art gallery, showroom, cosy home. Almost as impressive is Mansfield’s choice of decoration – an amalgam of global art, carefully selected bespoke furniture and spirited colour combinations.

Anchoring the entire property is an expansive wooden deck, under the milkwoods, raised above the river, under leaf and umbrella. It’s magical; a place to spend countless hours watching pied and giant kingfishers catch estuarine fry, to swim (there’s a small pool), drink tea, and forget the troubles of a rushed, digital world. A leafy walkway leads to a floating jetty and pontoon on the water, ideal for waterside sunbathing and birders keen on the thick reed bed alongside.

But arguably the best part of Moontide is Mansfield herself, a treasure trove of stories about the area and her own colourful history. She was one of the first KFC franchisees in SA and a Miss South Africa finalist, and her business acumen has taken her in all manner of intriguing directions. Hers is the story of a strong, independent woman before strong women were accepted or lauded. An hour on the deck with her for tea, elegance and strength personified, is a real experience.

The 1840s was a busy time in the Knysna area, an influx of traders, merchants, miners, silk and hardwood farmers swelling settler numbers. Many failed and headed back to the relative anonymity of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, but a few prospered; the names Duthie, Rex and Barrington crop up again and again.

They all intersect at Belvidere on the western shore of the Knysna lagoon. Belvidere, loosely translated from the Italian meaning ‘beautiful view from on high’, is a mixed-use estate today, once a farm belonging both to the Rexes and to the Duthies.

An understated manor house was built in 1848, along with a number of outhouses and a chapel. It was in the Duthie family until 1987, when it became the Belvidere Estate, incorporating homes, rentable cottages, a jetty, a restaurant and pub, as well as the Manor House.

Today it’s loved for its picturesque, free-standing cottages as much as the historic Manor House. They line a communal green area, complete with pool, that tumbles down to the Knysna lagoon. Because they were built ostensibly to be lived in by permanent residents, they are larger and better appointed than most weekend cottages. Spacious bedrooms, lounges and patios recommend them, as does the view down to the lagoon. The Manor House itself can be rented as a venue and houses Caroline’s, the manor’s sit-down restaurant. Behind the Manor House is the Bell Tavern, on the site of the original farmhouse – tiny, convivial and a firm favourite with locals and travellers alike.

Visiting Belvidere is an exercise in restraint. There are no loud colours, people, boasts or parties. It’s a place that seems to percolate class, from the tended borders to the subtle green and white paint motifs. It attracts a gentle breed, intent on quiet anniversaries and unhurried relaxation. It wasn’t a complete surprise to discover it is a favourite place to bring elderly parents for a special treat.

A week later and the Garden Route had delivered up at least some of its secrets. There are plenty more. A feature of the famed Garden Route Hike along the beaches of the southern Goukamma region is the sight of unheralded, grand old beach houses down hidden paths. Many have boards advertising lodgings.

On the island at Groot Brakrivier the same is true, beautiful historical houses open now to visitors. And increasingly, up on the heights above the seaside towns of Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, Wilderness and Mossel Bay, are large estates, catering to a demanding clientele. Only one thing for it – a return and a return and a return. Preferably with the right wheels, this time.

By Peter Frost
Images: Gallo/Getty Images, Peter Frost, Portland Manor

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