BOARDING the Rovos Rail train and embarking on a journey across Africa cocooned in the opulence of beautifully restored train coaches – and where you dress for dinner – is without a doubt something that should be on every traveller’s bucket list.
Just imagine… the Royal Suite has a Victorian-style bathtub. On a train.
But if time and budget delay this trip of a lifetime, you can still experience a measure of the luxury synonymous with Rovos Rail by staying in one of its gorgeous guest houses in St James.
The three houses are all more or less on the same block of the main road overlooking the ocean – the Homestead and Seaforth are actually right next door to each other. I was given a private tour of them, each with its own unique character, but my night was to be spent in St James Manor and I was not sorry.
The grandeur of this splendid old dame – built more than a century ago – cannot be overstated, with its polished wood panelling, statuesque floral arrangements, Persian carpets, rich fabrics, and the early English and South African antique furnishings. It’s all perfectly complemented by the level of service and attention you receive as a guest; your every whim, wish or desire is happily accommodated if not intuited.
When I arrived, the weather was gearing itself up to lash the coastline with wind and rain. A fire had been lit in the drawing room, beckoning me with its seductive promise of contentment and cosiness. I was torn between a civilised cup of tea and an equally civilised glass of red wine. My conundrum was solved by having both, at the urging of the gentlemanly and chivalrous manager Lawrence Hurwitz, who gave me the distinct impression he was there for me and only me.
Showing me to the bar, Hurwitz enquired as to my wine preferences before selecting a bottle he believed I would enjoy and indicated I was welcome to help myself to any other drinks I wanted during my stay (this is included in the rate).
Books on the area and its historic homes were proffered, as were tiered silver stands filled with savoury nibbles. I could easily have stayed right there all afternoon but I had business in Kalk Bay, which is just a few minutes’ walk away. There you’ll find lots of gorgeous little shops, boutiques and art galleries as well as plenty of restaurants and great coffee spots. If you time it right, you can buy fresh fish right off the boats in the harbour.
Why would you want to do this when staying in a guest house? Because all three houses have dream kitchens filled with top quality appliances, to which guests have full access (unless they’d prefer the chef to cook for them, which is also all right). There are outdoor braai facilities as well, and even a pizza oven at Seaforth. This is seaside villa living at its elegant best, and those staying a few days or longer often wish to entertain guests of their own. It’s not unheard of to book out all three houses at the same time.
Besides the number of attractive reception rooms for meetings and social gatherings, a library, the aforementioned bar, a breakfast room and elegant dining room, St James Manor has six spacious suites – and by spacious, I mean bigger than my own apartment, which seems to emerging as a pattern. I am not complaining; it helps me reach my 10 000 steps a day. Mine was called Vancouver; each name has a story behind it which the staff are happy to share with you.
The suite was a delight, with its massive bed, chaise longue, writing desk (complete with personalised stationery so you can write directly to Rohan Vos, the founder of Rovos Rail which, incidentally, is still family-owned) should you have something on your mind, lounge area, and semi-private balcony shared with another suite. The vast marble bathroom has a massive tub which we hope is more for show than anything else, a long vanity counter with a very welcome magnifying mirror, and filled with a variety of toiletries and shower accessories, including a mini loofah. The details matter.
In the bedroom, the underfloor heating and electric blanket kept me snug all night until I woke the next morning to a gloriously grey and wet day. No, we Capetonians just won’t stop talking about it.
Breakfast, which I had ordered from the menu the previous afternoon, was served in the dining room – soft scrambled eggs with Chalmar Beef meatballs, and grilled mushrooms and tomatoes – with mugs of coffee. Each table has a small silver bell, but I just couldn’t bring myself to ring it.
Should you be visiting in the summer months, hewn into the mountainside behind the house is the back garden and pool area with lounging deck. The beaches are literally across the road: the smaller, less populated Danger Beach (do not be alarmed by the name) and St James itself, famous for its tidal and rock pools and colourful bathing huts.
This stretch of the False Bay coastline, from Muizenberg all the way around to Simon’s Town, has a sense of nostalgia and history all of its own that is unfettered by the frenetic tourism of the Atlantic seaboard. The short distance from St James to Muizenberg is known as Millionaire’s Mile as a testament to its wealthy colonial past.
And it’s perhaps appropriate that these three gracious homesteads sit alongside the railway line where the soft, soothing pulse of the passing trains comforts the soul.
Telephone: 021 788 4543
- This story first appeared in Independent Traveller on June 23, 2018