What do King Goodwill Zwelithini, President Thabo Mbeki and Oprah Winfrey have in common? They've all stayed at Ingeli Forest Lodge, and we've been invited to check it out.
We make our way along the N2 heading south as we attempt to escape the busy Christmas traffic of Durban. Turning off we follow the road past Oribi Gorge as the bustling towns are replaced with rolling hills dressed in Sappi forests and interspersed with colorful huts dotting the hills. Finally the pine trees also give way to thick indigenous forests, as a sign on the roadside informs us we have reached our destination - Ingeli Forest Lodge.
Set back from the main road, the hotel welcomes the visitor with a commanding thatched entrance and a large deck area that looks out over the green grassed area below replete with tennis court, a serious looking adventure putt-putt course and a kids play area. Tasteful Christmas decorations set a festive scene in the entrance and are made complete by the smile we receive from Rejoice at check-in.
Built way back in 1973, in the era of roadside motels, travelers would stop here regularly and receive a Kingdom of Ingeli passport that was stamped with each visit. Once a year a "prime minister" was elected as friends regularly met up in this fun, family hotel. The hotel has now been refurbished and extended to a 44-room hotel. I can see the obvious signs of attention to detail in the décor as we enter our hotel room which is tastefully decorated and flows out through a large sliding door onto a patio and the central grass area with a pool. “Check out the Victorian bath,” I say as I inspect the bathroom, “this is going to be great way to end a day.”
The rate includes dinner and breakfast, and so we will most likely end up more circle-shaped than when we arrived. But then apparently there is lots of active things we can do too…but the only activity filling my mind, as we enter the dining room, is what food should I eat?
The dining room is intimate with tables arranged around a central serving area, giving it a cozy feel – something that is often lacking in hotel dining rooms, and especially appreciated on a cool night like tonight. Soon we are warmed in and out, after enjoying a tasty roast with all requisite vegetables. Tomorrow we will explore Ingeli’s forest area…and address some of the weight gain from our delicious feast. Eish…I’ve overeaten…but it was just so delicious!
Dawn brings a misty cool day today, which means it's a perfect opportunity to explore the forests that cluster around the hotel. We are very impressed with all the cycling and walking trails Ingeli offers. Our first exploration is to the forest across the road. This 10km path winds through thick indigenous forest but also comes festooned with spiders. That’s the price you pay for indigenous…maybe we just have to up our adventurous spirit… however, after about an hour we decide to turn back as this is a 10km route and we are receiving numerous “status updates” from some of the kids on the trauma of walking so far in such spidery conditions - although it's not them who have to battle the arachnids.
Back at the hotel we grab a couple of beers and sit in the overstuffed couches enjoying some time reading in the lounge - which of course naturally brings on hunger. This is quickly dealt with when we order some pizzas to share. I'm impressed by the thick, juicy pizzas, and we are soon all licking our lips in gastronomic appreciation. While pizzas next to a log fire are blissful, nothing beats exploring and hiking for us, and so it’s time to head out again.
A magical silvery mist is now hanging thickly over the treetops which creates a perfect condition for walking. There's a shorter 3km walk to a dam that we try this time. This is obviously a more popular path, as there are no spider webs and the walking/cycle track is well maintained as it winds through thick, indigenous forest alive with the sounds of hundreds of birds.
The path winds down into a valley finally emerging at a tranquil lake. We sit down at one of the tables set beside the lake and are transported to a surreal place as we sip our red wine beneath a silky veil of mist, before a mirror still lake reflecting the green forested wonderland around us. "Shh...," says Nicky as we sit there.
"Be quiet for a moment and just listen."
The only sounds filling the air are the sounds of insects and birds dreamily drifting in the air.
We don't do enough of this.
Just being still.
What a perfect spot to do just that...especially with a glass of good red wine.
As I lounge in the warmth of my luxurious Victorian bath, back in our room, my thoughts drift like the mist to Oprah and friends. “It doesn’t really matter how rich or famous you are,” I muse, “peace and joy are found only by those who create the space, the moments, the opportunity to experience it.” And in this moment, I’ve found that space.
It’s the iconic sound of Africa, the cry of the fish eagle that draws me from my blissful somnolence. Opening my eyes I’m rewarded with a visual feast. The mirror-still estuary reflects the blue sky and the tropical forests that cluster on the surrounding hills. Faintly I can hear the deep baritone thump of the distant waves as they attempt to enter the estuary. This is the Estuary Hotel & Villas, near Port Edward on the KZN South Coast. It's a place we come to about five times a year…and we’ve been coming here for over 10 years, and this is exactly why!
“Let’s go for a canoe,” Nicky suggests as I come fully awake after the all important morning coffee. We grab our canoe and paddle up towards the river that enters the estuary. It looks like a knife slicing a mirror as we cut through the water. A flash of colour. It’s the stunning Malachite kingfisher skimming above the water in search of breakfast. Every time we canoe up the river I feel like I’m entering a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, as the thick, indigenous coastal forest, complete with vines, and huge legavaans lounging on rocks, closes in around us. And it seems we are not the only ones who think this. Earlier in the year we were surprised when we came upon an entire village that had sprung up in the forest over night. A village with canoes, reed huts, dried fish hanging….we couldn’t believe it. It turned out to be a set built by Disney for their new movie Jungle Book. However it had no sooner miraculously appeared in all it’s intricate detail than it vanished again leaving only the jungle setting.
“What’s that?” says Nicky pointing ahead as we round the corner of the river. “Oh, my hat! I can’t believe it.” Sure enough there appears to be more buildings in the forest. This time it’s an old trading store and pump house. Once more it turns out to be a set for another movie.
After our morning canoe adventure we head down to the beach. It’s a short stroll and we are soon seated on velvet soft sand pondering whether we should heed the siren’s call of the smooth swells that are rolling up the shore. I love this beach - it’s beautiful white sand, framed by the estuary and lush tropical forests on the surrounding hills. It’s little wonder that there’s a wedding taking place on the beach. What a spot to seal the deal as guests seated on white trimmed chairs, sans their shoes, enjoy the ultimate cathedral under the endless blue sky.
“How about a beer at Bobbys?” I suggest after we’ve enjoyed our swim and are now drying like content lizards. This is one invitation that never requires repeating. Beach Bobbys is just a short stroll across the beach and soon we are seated on their lovely deck area where we satiate out thirst with an icecold draft beer and the requisite plate of wedges, while looking out for dolphins and whales in the sea.
Time here seems to fold in on itself as morning somehow becomes afternoon, and afternoon melts away into evening. It’s as though the tranquility of the estuary is reflected in the tranquility of time. As the sun begins to set and turns the estuary into a canvas of red, orange, and pink we stroll up to the Estuary hotel. This beautiful hotel, originally designed by Sir Herbert Baker, is set atop a hill and commands stunning views of the living canvas below it. What better spot to enjoy our sundowners.
“Hi, I'm Quinton,” the assistant manager introduces himself. “Would you like a snack basket with your drinks?” Now that sounds like a great idea. As we sit outside sipping our wine and enjoying a tasty snack basket of samoosas, calamari, chicken and other goodies we soak in the vista.
The soft orange light of the restaurant draws us in as outside the deep purples of early evening create a stunning living painting behind us. It's not just by chance the restaurant is called the Fish Eagle Restaurant. Here you feel like a fish eagle perched up high, and the cry of these magnificent birds often floats in the air.
Tonight we have options of the buffet or the a la carte. Normally I'd go for a la carte, but the buffet looks good, so I opt for that. The delicious looking beef curry is probably what sways me, and I'm not disappointed.
With great resolve I have small portions of the crumbed chicken, pasta and other items reserving myself for the curry. Aah…and how good it is. Succulent and spicy. My love with curry is reaffirmed. The chef TK comes out to see how we are enjoying our meal and I congratulate him on his curry. Here's hoping he keeps it up because I'd go back just for that, not to mention the best views on the South Coast.
As I lean back in my chair, satiated visually and gastronomically, I am left in no doubt why we keep on coming back to this amazing place. A blend of wild and modern, beauty and adventure, forest and sea, action and tranquility…and at the moment it’s tranquility that’s winning, as we head off to bed accompanied by the distant sound of the sea and the goodnight chorus of nighttime birds and insects.
For more info on the Estuary Hotel, check out their website here!
“Wow, that’s a nice entrance,” I say as we arrive at Bushman’s Nek hotel. It’s our first time here although we are regulars in the beautiful Southern Berg. The bubbling sound of the waterfall welcomes us in, but that is nothing compared to the pools inside. Soon we are oo’ing and ah’ing at the hotel’s huge rim flow rock pool, complete with waterfalls, a slide and even hidden heated pools and coves. The pool ushers in the view across the green valley below, dotted with horses grazing, to the majestic Drakensberg mountains. It looks like we’ve found another reason why we love the Southern Drakensberg. We are going to enjoy wiling away our days in these pools.
What we don’t take into account is that there is just so much to do here, and so pool soaking time will have to fit in with cycling, running, hiking, putt-putt, paintball, tennis, bowls, archery, squash, coffee-shops, sundowners, horse riding, bingo, games, exploring. It reminds me of Basil Faulty’s quip in response to the brash American tourist boasting about all they could do in a day, “Sounds exhausting!” But this is the exhausting we just love!
“The roof is still the original roof, and the buildings are all over 100 years old,” says the elderly lady taking her dogs for an early morning walk. Nicky and I have headed out for an early cycle along the beautiful gravel road that runs from the hotel towards the mountains and the Lesotho border. We’ve stopped at an old stone building that houses a store and quaint coffee shop. “You must come back later when we’re open,” she says, “our carrot cake is delicious.” Friendly locals, stunning vistas, historic buildings, and fresh air – with the promise of tasty treats – this is a stunning place.
Sunday lunch. It’s one meal that holds a special place for millions of people around the world, and today we’re going to enjoy it in this beautiful mountain paradise. The smell draws us in, as only the smell of roast beef can. Unlike many hotel restaurants Busman's Nek restaurant is intimate and cozy but with beautiful views through huge glass windows of the majestic mountains outside.
“This is how Yorkshire Pudding should be made,” I say as I sink my teeth into the puffy, crisp on the outside but airy-soft in the inside, Sunday roast delicacy. Paired with perfectly done roast beef and the full ensemble of Sunday vegetables I'm reminded why Sunday roasts have an aura of joy about them.
Josh has chosen paintball as his outing of choice for his birthday, much to the horror of some of his siblings. Just below the hotel is a stunning horse farm, which also boasts a lovely coffee shop offering everything from Oreo milkshakes to BarOne waffles. It’s here amidst the tall trees of a forest that the action unfolds.
Thud, thud, thwat.
The sound of paintballs striking the trees harmlessly, leaving a trail of blue paint running slowly down them, like the promise of pain. As I run from tree to tree letting off a volley of bullets for cover I get closer to the flag poking enticingly out from an old car discarded amongst the tall forest trees.
OK, now I know why there was some reticence about this. It’s not paintball, its painball…but fun nonetheless, as we proudly compare bruises and share stories once the paint has dried.
The hotel is putting on an evening braai on the lawn, and so we grab our meat and go and join in. The sun is setting in dramatic beauty behind broken clouds, transforming the valley below into golden green. A spectacle we enjoy sitting on a cushioned swing bench hanging between two huge oak trees. Sipping a glass of wine and watching the stunning display unfold on this grand scale again affirms why this part of the world is one of my favorites.
Hannah and Josh braai our meat and soon we are enjoying it together with pap, sauce, salad and other extras the hotel has provided. What an epic spot to end an epic day…well, it’s not quite ended.
“Come on dad,” Hannah urges. “It's warm and you'll like it.” The children have decided that night swimming is a fitting end to our day. After leaping in the cold pool they are now luxuriating in the blue ethereal glow of the heated pool. Seeing the family all floating happily in the pool I steel my resolve and decide to join them. I’m immediately enveloped in lovely warmth as I float beneath an endless dark sky stretched above. It feels like a dream…but I suppose that is what this stunning place is - a dream destination.