South Africa Dispatch series

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for South Africa on March 21 to begin an eight-day trip sponsored by South African Tourism. David will be exploring "Africa beyond the safari," particularly South Africa's cultural health and sociopolitical environment 13 years after the end of apartheid. He'll be filing on-site reports to Travel Weekly's Web site on a daily basis (Internet access permitting).

The 1,000-mile flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town took only 90 minutes but transported us to a vastly different world, from the rolling inland country of Johannesburg to a sparkling coastal city.

In our landing descent, I saw from my window an imposing black mountain range like obsidian pyramids jutting up from fertile plains divided into agricultural plots, some rectangular, some circular like pie graphs. Finally the suburbs of Cape Town came into view. As we neared the city center, I could see the famous Table Rock looming imposingly over the city near the coast.

Though we'll return to the city for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival later in the week, we first climbed into a van and drove east along the coastline for two and a half hours toward Grootbos, a private natural reserve where we are scheduled to stay two nights.

It was a rocky coastline, with beach towns along the way that looked much like other beach towns, from Monterey, Calif., to Italy's Almafi Coast. Soon after passing the towns of Hermanus and Stanford, we climbed up a thickly grown hillside, through a gate to Grootbos.

We were greeted by a gregarious man with a strong South African accent who walked up very close to each of us, took our hands, looked straight into our eyes and welcomed us. He was Michael Lutzeyer, the founder and driving force behind Grootbos.

The name is Afrikaans for "big bush." It's a nature reserve, but also a luxurious resort hotel with two lodges and a number of separate cottages. In addition, it houses a school that trains people from the nearby townships in horticulture and life skills.

Lutzeyer said the area from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town was the richest botanical area in the world, with the most plant species of any place. There are 9,500 species of plants there, he said, 7,000 of them endemic. Four "new species of plants for humanity" have been discovered and catalogued on the grounds, Lutzeyer said.

Near the front of a thatched roof lodge with a deck looking out over Indian Ocean sunsets was a corral with several horses, including two foals only a few weeks old. Next to the lodge was a sparkling blue swimming pool. Cottages enveloped by thick vegetation spread out on the other side.

The Grootbos operation rests on three pillars, Lutzeyer told us: five-star accommodations and service, conservation and social responsibility. The first was apparent enough after I checked into my cottage, a small stone and stucco house with high ceilings with exposed beams; a canopied bed piled high with thick covers and 10 pillows; a private front porch with an iron table and chair; a wooden deck with chairs facing the ocean; a long bathtub and separate shower; a living room with a sink and satellite TV; and a walled-in backyard.

Each of the two lodges has a restaurant that serves imaginatively conceived and presented dishes of the quality you would find in the best New York restaurants. The hotel offers spa treatments, tours of the area with geological and botanical specialists, horseback riding, whale watching and boat rides to observe dolphins, sharks, seals and octopuses.

In addition it's a bona fide nature reserve, sanctioned by the government for its work in conservation. It employs 140 local people and educates even more at its accredited Green Futures Horticultural and Life Skills College, founded in 2003.

So while you're lounging in luxury, you can feel like you are giving back to the world by supporting the institution.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].


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