If you’ve never considered a botanical safari, then there is a very special corner of the Cape just waiting to change your mind about flowers. More specifically Fynbos, the flowering plant endemic to this southernmost tip of South Africa. Both the smallest and richest of the world’s six Floral Kingdoms, there is more biodiversity here than the Amazon rainforest.
Set between the mountains and sea, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is made up of 2,500 hillside hectares blanketed by this native shrub – a thriving eco-system of which 70% of species grow nowhere else on earth. This is also the only lodge in South Africa where you can spot the “Marine Big Five” – great white sharks, southern right whales, seals, penguins, and dolphins where two oceans collide down in Walker Bay.
What started as a humble bed and breakfast, has since grown into two boutique lodges, that now make up one particularly special hotel. While Grootbos cocoons its guests in nothing but five-star luxury, the reserve’s primary focus is to protect, nurture and restore the indigenous and endangered landscape on which it sits – something the custodians of the reserve the Lutzeyer family, have worked towards since acquiring the property in 1991.
Here, among the flowering Fynbos and gnarled milkwood forests, guests are encouraged to immerse themselves in nature, with specialist guides eager to share their knowledge of this biodiverse wonderland.
As soon as we arrive, we sit down with a specialist guide to work out what activities we’d like to do during our stay – from responsibly-run whale watching tours to shark diving at Gansbaai and coastal guided walking safaris.
While the focus is on the experiential, no detail has been overlooked when it comes to the rooms. Ours is part of the Garden Lodge – one of 11 free-standing suites set among the bush, through ancient forest and greenery alive with the hum of wildlife.
An unassuming stone exterior hides our expansive suite – with a lounge and wood-burner for a cosy Scandi feel and a selection of books to keep even the most fervent naturalist happy. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors open onto a private deck with sun loungers – a haven surrounded by the chorus of the Fynbos. Picture windows frame the view from a plush oversized bed, out over the dense Fynbos and down to the windswept sands of Walker Bay. In the bathroom, a free-standing soaking tub sits in a corner window, so close to the uninterrupted nature around you you’d swear you were bathing al fresco.
The separate Forest Lodge offers a further equally luxurious 16 suites, with open fires and two with private pools – all sequestered away within the Milkwood forest and offering similarly stunning views, the only difference the slightly more sleek feel to the common spaces. There are also two private villas which include a personal chef and guide, perfect for families or groups of friends.
Sunset at the Garden Lodge is a real event – guests congregating around the freeform pool with a gin and tonic (mixed with a sprig of rosemary from the herb garden) as the sun sinks in an amber flash. We sit down to a candlelit dinner on the verandah – surrounded by the nighttime sounds of the bush and the occasional quacking of the Cape River Frog. Our host Princess expertly guides us through the locally sourced four-course menu – from the mussels which come from nearby Gansbaai to the freshest herbs and vegetables grown here on the reserve. Even the honey for our ice-cream is produced here – made from the rare Erica Irregularis its deep floral flavour is one to be savoured, as it can be found nowhere else.
Aside from the thoughtful staff, this intimate hotel feels all the more special thanks to the presence of the charming owner Michael Lutzeyer, who flits between tables checking up on guests.
Generously insisting that we have a bottle of one of his favourite wines ‘The Last Syrah’ with our dinner (a limited edition bought from a friend at the Cape Winemakers Guild, an association of South Africa’s finest winemakers) – Michael kindly offers to take us out on a 4×4 botanical safari in the morning.
Which is how we find ourselves up before breakfast – racing off across the patchwork of trails in one of the open-topped Landrovers. I’ve never considered myself to be interested in flowers, but Michael’s depth of knowledge and passion for this unique floral kingdom is infectious – he’s also great fun.
In the UK, he explains, there are 1,550 species of flora. Compare that to the Cape – where there are 9,500 (6,500 of which are endemic) and you start to see the significance of this region. Six new species were even discovered right here on the reserve, he tells us with a proud smile.
This is botany brought to life – with fascinating stories centred around the fynbos. From how a sunbird’s beak fits perfectly into a flower, or how the fires that ravage this land are crucial for its survival – with some plants depending on this heat to for their seeds to germinate. Every few minutes we pull to a stop, Michael having spotted something minuscule in the bushes, each with a story to tell.
We’re also able to take a guided tour of the organic farm and horticultural college – all part of Grootbos’ work to both conserve the critically endangered fynbos, as well as transform the lives of local communities.
Established in 2003, the Grootbos Foundation has turned the reserve into a world leader in progressive luxury tourism. Every action they take, explains Michael, should benefit the community, or have a positive impact on the environment – from the fresh fruit you eat at breakfast to the recycled candles in your room.
Initially run as an agricultural training program teaching farming, beekeeping, animal husbandry, the Growing The Future organic farm has since expanded to provide career-guidance and internships focused on entrepreneurship. The farm itself is run as a commercial enterprise with all goods produced here sold back to the Grootbos Lodge and kitchen – the income providing funding for further Grootbos Foundation Projects. Even the lodge’s water supply is run as a self-sustaining business by the Foundation, with a solar-powered pump and reusable glass bottles eliminating tons of plastic waste.
At the Green Futures Indigenous Nursery, we see Grootbos’ approach to conservation in action – from chatting with one of the resident ecological researchers to the Green Futures students tending the on-site nursery – working towards the accredited courses offered by the Horticultural and Life Skills College.
Returning to the reserve in time for breakfast, we find a spread of homegrown fruits, jams and marmalades, salmon blinis and cheese from local dairies. That’s in addition to a hot a la carte menu, from which I choose the Grootbos Farm Benedict – two impossibly orange yolked eggs on a bed of spinach and micro-herbs – all from the reserve. Eaten on the sunny terrace surrounded by morning birdsong, it is quite simply bliss.
After breakfast, Michelle who runs the on-site stables (with 19 gleaming ponies and horses for all levels) takes me for a gallop high up in the hills on a black horse called Flame. The hills around us thrum with life, buzzing with birds and insects, flowers flashing past flame’s pricked ears in a haze of purple.
It’s then I realise I’m looking at this landscape afresh – with a sense of wonder for each element that creates this eco-system. From the fynbos to the bees, chickens and vegetable gardens, Grootbos is protecting not just plants, but the people that call this place home – in a holistic and sustainable way, this is surely the future of eco-conscious luxury travel.
I know I’ll never look at flowers the same way again.
To book, visit www.Grootbos.com