Two years ago, the worst wildfire disaster in South African history befell the Garden Route, so named for its lush and ecologically diverse vegetation, lagoons, and lakes. A combination of drought, powerful winds, and abundant fuel in the form of hardwood forests and indigenous scrub lead to the stoking of a “mega-fire” that killed seven people, consumed more than a thousand homes, and razed hectare upon hectare of verdant coastal landscape to the ground.
Two years on, driving into the picturesque emerald town of Knysna, sitting pretty on its glittering throne of turquoise lagoon, it’s difficult to fathom the tragedy that occurred here. The vegetation has rallied, the people have rebuilt, and, as ever, this neck of the woods remains an utterly gorgeous holiday paradise for visitors from all over the country and world. And for two indulgent days, we would be calling it our home.
Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa
www.turbinehotel.co.za, +27 (0)44 302 5746
Our home away from home for our stay was the Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, a fabulously quirky five-star hotel located on Knysna’s Thesen Island, a multi-award winning marina development in the scenic Knysna estuary. The hotel – one of Knysna’s most unusual – used to be a wood-fired turbine that powered the town, as well as neighbouring Sedgefield and Plettenberg Bay. Today, of course, its massive industrial machinery has been retired, artfully strewn about the hotel, and given a colourful coat of paint. What is an indelible part of the establishment’s history is now also, through décor, an indelible part of its present and future.
A little too early for check-in, we dropped our bags off in the lobby, scuttled off to a miniature quay a stone’s throw away, and boarded a motorised pontoon barge for Featherbed Nature Reserve with a stop en route to admire the Knysna Headlands or “Heads” as they have become affectionately termed. The steep sandstone cliff faces, which serve as the gateway to the Knysna Lagoon, protect the estuary from the unbridled fury of the thundering Indian Ocean beyond, transforming it into a watery wonderland for boating and kayaking. It’s also created a favourable environment for the endangered Knysna seahorse to thrive in, as well as a plethora of beautiful birdlife, from African spoonbills, grey herons, and black oystercatchers to pied kingfishers, little egrets, and that most iconic of our country’s birds: the African fish eagle.
Featherbed Nature Reserve
www.knysnafeatherbed.com, +27 (0)44 382-1693
Featherbed Nature Reserve has long served as one of Knysna’s top attractions, offering visitors nature trails, hiking, birdwatching, unparalleled views of the area, and a decent lunch. Tragically, the nature reserve succumbed to the 2017 fire, losing a staggering 98% of its vegetation. But, in a heroic real-life demonstration of the phoenix rising from the ashes, the team at Featherbed Nature Reserve used the opportunity to weed out all of the alien vegetation and replant only indigenous trees and plants. Today, the reserve is carpeted with new growth of indigenous fynbos and coastal forest, and the towering trees they thought would never recover, came back from the dead.
The new, wholly reimagined offering (opened since December 2018) is elevated several storeys above its predecessor. The new restaurant, which boasts a bar, wedding venue, and conference facilities, is a gorgeous affair; riddled with botanical and nautical-inspired décor and masterfully crafted indigenous wood tables by a local artist.
The reserve also offers affordable tour packages, such as the Eco Tour, which includes a return ferry trip on the Knysna Lagoon; a 4 x 4 drive up the headland onto the reserve, stopping at spectacular viewpoints and to hear the specialist guide talk about the history, fauna, and flora; an optional guided 2,2 km walk through coastal forest and fynbos into ancient sea caves; and concludes with an outdoor buffet lunch of such epic proportions, you’d do well to starve yourself beforehand. All of this for only R700 per person, and they also have South African resident rates for winter, which never hurt anyone’s wallet.
A visit to Featherbed Nature Reserve is a pilgrimage that all visitors to Knysna should make, or so I thought as we putted back to Thesen Island on the still waters of the lagoon.
Settling in and spa treatment
Back at Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, we finally checked in to our rooms, many of which had balconies overlooking the spectacularly beautiful surrounding canals and waterborne suburbia. Each of the establishment’s 26 rooms has a unique name and theme (mine was the botanical room) and, of course, the hotel’s history is honoured with industrial elements like painted pipework and wall-mounted panels containing gauges and buttons. Yes, you are welcome to fiddle with them.
After settling in, which included a hot chocolate, a quick nap in soft white sheets, and a restorative shower, I luxuriated under the sure, strong hands of my lovely masseuse at the Turbine Spa – is there any better way to dissolve the tensions of travel than with a spa treatment? A laid-back supper at the hotel’s Gastro Pub (with cocktails) doesn’t hurt, either.
Breakfast and bicycle ride
Breakfast is served in the hotel’s Island Café, which also serves a decent lunch and dinner. And after accosting the continental breakfast buffet, we grabbed a bicycle from the Turbine Hotel’s very own adventure centre, the Turbine Water Club – offers lagoon cruises, ferries to Featherbed Nature Reserve, kayaking, bicycle hire, and more – and struck out on two wheels to explore the estuary all the way up to the headlands. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to a more deserved lunch and glass of rosé!
Dinner that night was taken at the Island Café – an exceptional, fall-off-the-bone lamb shank with vegetables and potato purée, which I washed down with a glass of Hartenberg Estate’s Alchemy Rhone Style Red 2017. One thing I greatly enjoyed about the Turbine Hotel is the fact that, in spite of its boutique status and compact lunch and dinner menus, it maintains a generous wine list, featuring beautiful picks from wine routes all over the Cape.
Ancient Knysna Forest Walk
On our final morning, after another plunder of the hotel’s breakfast buffet table, we struck out for the Knysna Forest, the largest in South Africa, and went on a 9 km hike in the deep, cool shade of 900-year-old yellowwood trees. The tap-tap-tapping of woodpeckers, the liquid melody of orioles, and the harsh barking of Knysna loeries were the soundtrack to our adventure; that and the burbling of the streams that cut their way through the ancient thick tangle of vegetation and towering trees. One could scarcely imagine a more tranquil and deeply restorative place on Earth, and if you ever find yourself on the Garden Route, I urge you to visit the Knysna Forests and relinquish yourself to its verdant embrace.
Luxury base with a personality
Birdwatching, outdoor adventure, charming shops, a thrumming restaurant scene, and raw nature… Knysna is a unique and heart-achingly beautiful town that leaves a lasting impression. The Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa, a luxury accommodation with a personality (and with convenient connections to all of this action) is a highly recommended place from which to soak it all up.