Eating in greenhouses, or at least conservatories, seems to be a growing trend in modern luxury hotels. At The Pigs, in England, conservatories are built on to the sides of old houses. At Babylonstoren, in Franschhoek, a freestanding greenhouse, 18 ft high and more than twice as long, is filled with big plants, and diners getting bigger and bigger as they ‘nibble’ on, say, large ciabatta rolls, made here, filled with oodles of biltong dried beef, also marinated and dried here. Babylonstoren is one stop, says the gal. Hotel, vineyard, farm and a fruit farm that exports worldwide.
The Bidens converted a 494-acre Franschhoek fruit farm to La Residence. Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos, then Editor of Elle Decoration, did the same. Buy a farm and what do you with it? In their case they started a vineyard, which of course takes years to produce its first vintage. They asked Parisian specialist Patrice Taravella to design an eight-acre formal garden. It was planted in 2010, with some mature trees brought in. Today it is a world-beating chessboard producing fruits, vegetables and herbs, for the hotel, its restaurants, and its Farm Shop. Somehow the hens and cockerels that run around nearby keep away from the precious lettuces that will be served, automatically, as a side with your biltong butty.
Terry de Waal, a local boy from Stellenbosch, is an engineer who was brought in by the Bekkers at the start, and he has evolved into onsite general manager. In the Farm Shop he shows locally-printed fabrics for sale, and wood birdhouses, and rows of colourful cordial drinks made from garden fruits. All are displayed in Vogue-type style, colour-coordinated on wood shelves, made of fruit packing boxes, laid against rough whitewashed walls. Walk on through to the working bakery, where the fire is lit at three every morning. Buy bread to take home, or eat it as a hotel guest, or an outside visitor having a filled roll (dressed roll, in Afrikaans or Dutch) in the Greenhouse.
There is another restaurant, Babel, which is glass, metal and fun. One end wall is all-tile, with a big bull head. Daily specials are written on the tiles. Plain lightwood tables have tall flowers stuck in lab test-tubes, with purple lettering to match the cans of home-produced olive oil – yes, there is also an olive grove in this self-sufficient paradise. Love the menu at Babel. Try health drinks, red, yellow or green (the hotel, and national, colours, and salads are also available in those colours). Regular dishes include lightly smoked Franschhoek trout with pickled ginger crème fraîche, or char-grilled local beef fillet on the bone with maple-roasted parsnips. Try a glass of Babylonstoren Shiraz 2011, from winemaker Charl Coetzee – do definitely, by the way, buy the BRILLIANT Babylonstoren book, vegetable, fruit and hotel guide, and recipe book (it recommends pairing the Shiraz with roast beef, parsnip crisps and onion marmalade, or with salami, olive tapenade and nasturtium).
Stay in one of the 11 letting villas, each an authentic-looking white Cape cottage (there is a also a manor house, which the Bekkers use some weekends). All have stylish white interiors with outline-only white four-posters, the decor, not surprisingly, overseen by Karen Roos – she was so occupied with Bablyonstoren that she gave up editing Elle Decoration in 2010. Stay at this luxury hotel and the minibar is included, and you choose your wines. All villas have terraces into the vineyards or gardens, and some have kitchens. Wellington boots, in your size, await, as do bicycles, from tots to largest of adults. Breakfast is served in Babel and there are pizza-pasta evenings, some nights, in the bakery.
And when you are, eventually, tired of taking the detailed walking-trails map, or studying the garden’s plant list map, or cycling the vineyards, you can find plenty more to do. There is a charming three-room spa (Africology and Dr Hauschka products), and an indoor pool with sauna and steam. You also have a 50-ft circular pool that was formerly a water reservoir: this is bordered by ten-foot bamboos, which snake around to protect a very private beach, yes, real sand, ideal for unseen sunbathing. Come to think of it, this is a pretty unusual luxury hotel…..