by Chris Buchanan
images by Micky Hoyle
There were a number of German guests relaxing on the lawns with their bottles of sparkling wine when we were shown to our Pool Suite on arrival. They were jovial, content and in the precise state of mind we found ourselves after the walk through the gardens and the serene presence of the property in this historic hamlet.
The manor house is a restored Victorian national monument, originally built in 1909, some 50 years after the establishment of this town that began as a farming community along the fertile Breede River valley that borders the arid Karoo. As wine makers discovered the perfect soils for certain varietals so mushroomed the area as a wine route with some 50 estates along what has become known as the “longest wine route in the world”.
The late Tim Rands purchased the property as a place to stay when he paid industry visits to the local wine makers and in 2009 converted it into the Robertson Small Hotel which became the luxury standard in a village that boasted a heritage of Edwardian and Victorian architecture in quiet, wide avenues, lined with trees that staved off the heat in dry summer months.
In 2016 it was time for a revamp and Tim’s daughter Abigail put together a team who could have simply upgraded existing décor and facilities and left it at that. But there was more to the project than a simple makeover because it told stories of previous owners and of the town and its positioning in its surroundings, its context and of course the legacy of the person who started it in the first place.
Sophie Ashby and Abigail schooled together in the Cape so Studio Ashby was tasked with curating a collaborative partnership of local designers to reflect what this award winning establishment had come to represent within the town, the region and the family. Local designers and artists including Alexis Barrel, Michael Chandler, Renee Rossouw, House of Gozdawa, Lisa Firer, Rene Botes and Bonfred Furniture were among an extensive group of people who set about transforming every aspect from fabrics, furniture, gardens and art, to the ceramics, the restaurant menu and the corporate identity graphics. The artworks, all for sale, were commissioned by Warren Editions and feature established contemporary artists.
In describing the result I can only say that, despite extensive input from a large team of people, no one element dominates and there’s a comfortable co-existence of traditional, artisanal, modern and vernacular languages. It’s a seamless palette of muted tone and colour, invoking luxury with a minimalist intention but not empty as is often the case. The gardens, public areas, suites and amenities speak the language of having been conceived and executed as one element, each communicating to the other with no juxtapositions or contradictions. But most of all there’s a little bit of home that you’ll come across while you relax in your room, on your balcony or savour your meal in the restaurant or in the courtyard.
On the subject of meals, the restaurant menu makes extensive use of the ingredients that have become synonymous with the Karoo, as well as the agricultural practices that have come to town as Robertson evolved into a contemporary food and wine hub. You’ll see accompaniments of roasted grape salad, beetroot labneh, marinated olives, preserved lemon and pickled pears with main ingredients of springbok fillet, Karoo lamb, line fish and prawns. On the breakfast menu, the smoked salmon lavash with olives, crispy capers, red onion and rocket is so unusual yet so at home within the London bistro-esque setting.
Whether it’s the Manor House Rooms, the Pool Suites, the Stable Suites or the Family Suite, an indescribable sense continuity, calmness and serenity envelopes you as you enter the property, from the staff who welcome you to the small personal touches that will tell you this is a place of deep meaning and spiritual significance.
A Dutch gentleman in the EM bar (named after a mysterious “Tannie Em” who loved her tipple) where we enjoyed a pre-dinner gin, was quick to tell me that the ceramic tiles of the bar counter were from his homeland and the town of Delft. I wanted to elaborate and give him the history of Delft in the Cape and the vernacular used in modern installations to evoke centuries of heritage with a contemporary language, but I thought it better to admire the blue pea infused Six Dogs Blue gin that had now turned pink with the addition of tonic and lemon.
It was time to take our seats for dinner and as the others left I felt the need to linger, as if I was being called on to spend another minute in this wonderful space, this homely, comforting room. And then I saw the tile, one of the pieces of ceramic set in the middle of the bar counter, “This is for you dad” and it was then I felt the soul of the Robertson Small Hotel.