Hanging out in the gardens of Babel - Africa - Travel - The Independent

Hanging out in the gardens of Babel

Babylonstoren, South Africa

Five years ago, Koos Bekker, South Africa's Rupert Murdoch, made his first step into commercial property by buying a big estate with an 18th-century Cape Dutch house. Last year, it opened with an acclaimed restaurant, an outstanding kitchen garden and a fledgling wine business – a fine example of what can be done by applying media-magnate drive to prime South African countryside.

Five years ago, Koos Bekker, South Africa's Rupert Murdoch, made his first step into commercial property by buying a big estate with an 18th-century Cape Dutch house. Last year, it opened with an acclaimed restaurant, an outstanding kitchen garden and a fledgling wine business – a fine example of what can be done by applying media-magnate drive to prime South African countryside.

The purchase was prompted by Bekker's wife, Karen Roos. It followed a holiday in France that included a visit to Le Prieuré d'Orsan, Patrice Taravella's groundbreaking organic garden in the Loire Valley. Before long, the celebrated Parisian landscape architect was on a flight to Cape Town to create a formal garden for Bekker and Roos at the base of Babel Hill. (The name is a reference to the mixed cultures that gathered here when it was first colonised in the mid-17th century.)

A grid of paths with inset Middle Eastern-style irrigation channels and arches of climbing roses provides access to more than 300 varieties of edible plant, camomile and thyme lawns, yards with hens and ducks, a bee garden and ponds filled with tilapia and rainbow trout. Taravella is a master of exotic excess: check out the prickly pear maze, the guava avenue, the grapevine pergola, the citrus block and 14 types of raspberry cane. The maestro returns at least once a year to check up on his grand design. Or, more likely, because he enjoys staying at this fabulous hotel.

The Babel Restaurant serves a full English breakfast daily, but is also open for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday and dinner on Friday and Saturday. The locally born chef, Simone Roussouw, offers seasonal menus with the emphasis on garden produce and local meat. All the bread is baked on site and Babylonstoren is celebrating its first year as a producer with two white wines, chenin blanc and viognier, a rosé and a shiraz on the market. A daily cellar tour starts at noon.

Sunday is popular with Capetonians: they arrive in time for a tour of the garden, buy charcuterie and cheese in the farm shop, and enjoy a wine tasting before a long lunch. On the evenings when the restaurant is closed, overnight guests can tuck into a tapas or cheese platter in their suite or cook on their own braai (barbecue), with steak and sausages provided by the hotel.

In the winter, guests gather in the Green Room, an elegant library furnished with antiques and deep leather armchairs. In summer, they prefer the Tea Garden, an airy greenhouse that's part café, part plant nursery.

You can take a swim in the circular outdoor pool or go cycling or walking among vines and fruit trees planted in neat rows on the hillside, or go canoeing in the reservoir, retained by the dam, a beauty spot with varied bird life and spectacular views over the vineyards.

Location

Babylonstoren is 60km north-east of Cape Town in the Drakenstein Valley, and a 40-minute drive from the international airport. The attractive small towns of Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch are 15 to 20 minutes away. Babylonstoren is part of a wine tour at the base of the Simonsberg Mountains, with tastings along the way.

A hire car, exceptionally good value in South Africa, opens up the possibility of dining in one of the neighbouring towns. The steaks in the Hussar Grill, Stellenbosch, are recommended.

Comfort

Character and luxury combine in 14 cottages, a euphemism for one-room workers' houses that have been turned into immaculate suites with private patios and wood fireplaces. Karen Roos has put her time as editor of South African Elle Decoration to good use in a light functional design in soothing pale colours. Living and sleeping spaces are divided by a wooden structure that functions as well-stocked bookshelves – provided you read Afrikaans – and a swivel TV. The bathrooms are contemporary chic, with basins in the form of upturned tubes. Drinks in the mini bar are included and there is free Wi-Fi.

Babylonstoren, Klapmuts/Simondium Road, Franschhoek, Cape Winelands, South Africa (00 27 21 863 3852;  babylonstoren.com

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