Alan Wallcroft recently travelled to South Africa to spend time touring the Eastern Cape province and discovered a unique spot where the visitor could be forgiven for thinking time had stood still....
PLACES that time appear to have passed by and where time seems almost an irrelevance, are pretty rare to come by.
That’s why Montagu, known as the Gateway to the Karoo in South Africa, is that little bit special.
It’s also a shade special getting there as the road leading into the village takes you along a mountain valley and through a hole in the wall, or rather the rock face - a very short tunnel hewn out by hand and which is guarded by a fort which harks back to the days when the Brits and the Boers were at each other’s throats..
The Karoo, at the height of summer, can be a hot and dusty region and the area around Montagu gives a glimpse of what can be expected in the more remote spots of this desert land if you venture away from the main routes.
But Montagu nor its inhabitants are remote – especially where their visitors are concerned, as it’s a place that lives up to its billing of ‘a community of smiles and sunshine, with people who ask how you are - and wait for the answer,’ It has, in the past, been voted the country’s Village of the Year, and that wasn’t just for its magnificent views, fine architecture and excellent hot springs – but apparently also for the homeliness and hospitality of its people which the judges said ‘set it apart from the rest’.
And also set apart from the rest is the Montagu Country Hotel where time has, and does seem to stand still – a truly bygone era of elegance and space and it’s a great base from which to explore the delights that surround it.
Enter its tidy reception and glance left or right and you would be forgiven for thinking you had stepped back in time. For this is an Art Deco hotel and everything about it smacks of the 1930s. There are parts looking a bit tired and jaded but it does not detract from the hotel’s overall appeal.
Best time to arrive is possibly early evening, just as dinner is being served, for there in the candle-lit restaurant the diners are being entertained by a pianist. It smacks of that famous scene from the film Casablanca... all that is missing is Humphrey Bogart sidling up the piano and urging the man on the ivories to ‘Play it again Sam’. Although this isn’t Sam.
Our resident pianist is Kosie Hanekom, who has several CD recordings of his piano playing available to purchase.
And it’s not many hotels where the man who has just entertained takes the time and trouble to call at various tables for a little chat with guests and to advise about nearby places to visit. Also in tune on this score is the hotel chef who too appeared to enjoy a chat and a drink with those he had just fed numerous quality dishes.
It’s also good old fashioned service we have here... attentive waiters and waitresses are friendly and helpful as are the rest of the staff both day and night. They certainly live up to Montagu’s boast about caring for its visitors.
The hotel is a fine place to unwind as is Montagu itself – quiet and restful even though it’s sits at the side of village’s main shopping thoroughfare. Not that this road is regularly thronged with shoppers and vehicles. It has its busy times but generally life goes on at a much slower pace and you can stroll around and browse and be completely at ease.
Montagu is not too far from Cape Town on the famous Route 62 – just 200 kilometres in distance - and makes an excellent weekend destination, or preferably a week, to ensure you have the time to see and sample as many of the local delights as you can. There are fine restaurants, a bustling Saturday morning Village Market, walks and rock climbing in the surrounding and impressive Langeberg Mountains, caves to explore, visits to game farms to see the Big Five and an abundance of historic sites.
It’s wide streets and architecture also gives the impression, a feeling, of what times might have been like in the old colonial days.
Some of the architecture and historic buildings are fascinating, especially as you can enjoy some of the best-preserved homes from the country’s ox-wagon days just along Long Street.
Another claim to fame for the village, one of the oldest in South Africa, is that it has more national monuments in one street than any other town or village in the country. An equally interesting heritage fact is that - once upon a time, the village even had its own currency as you can discover with a visit to one of the interesting museums.
There’s also another factor to encourage a visit if you enjoy a good bottle – that’s the locally produced wine from more than 45 different cellars and claimed to be one of the area’s best-kept secrets. How that can be so with Robertson just down the road and very much on the world wine map is perhaps just good old tourism spin.
Wine, and there’s plenty of excellent vintage around, can be sampled on the fast growing Route 62 Wine Tours, as well as picturesque river boat cruises on the nearby Breede River such as on The River Goose and Viljoensdrift.
If you want something a little more adventurous there are many scenic walks, nature trails and mountain hikes in and around Montagu, or you could opt for an easier way up the mountains to see more of the many spectacular and stunning views by taking a tractor trip. And if you have spent a long time on your feet then the healing waters of the area’s magical hot springs might well do the recovery trick especially as they are literally on tap at the hotel as well. The hot springs have helped keep Montagu famous for well over 150 years.
When we stayed in late February the hotel was offering holiday specials. These ranged from one night from R330pp bed and breakfast, two nights from R590, and three nights from R735. With an exchange rate of around 12 rands to the pound at that time it worked out at around £27.50 for an overnight stop and cheaper still for the three nights. To find out forthcoming offers you could e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the hotel website www.montagucountryhotel.co.za to see what’s on offer.
If you want to get away to a great place to unwind, to escape the rat race and to sample a bygone era of elegance - a way of life that has virtually disappeared into the mists of time, then Montagu is most certainly worth a little spin along Route 62.