Hotel Review: Rijk’s Country House is country kitsch, tries too hard!

I am very fond of Rijk’s Shiraz, having drunk it for the first time just after maze at the One&Only Cape Town  opened two years ago.  When I saw the name of Rijk’s Country House as the only five-star accommodation option for a wedding weekend in Tulbagh, I booked, given my positive association with the wine.  But I should have known that a five-star “Boutique Hotel”, charging R 3000 per room per night in Tulbagh, was too good to be true, even though I was offered a hospitality industry rate reduction of 50%.   The Hotel is not five star, in my evaluation, and tries too hard to please, and thereby fails.  It has a very kitsch taste in some aspects.

The reservation ran relatively smoothly with Rijk’s directly, but I did not receive a confirmation of my booking after transferring the 50 % deposit, and no response to my e-mail request for the confirmation.  I therefore called Rijk’s, but only saw the number of a central reservations line, being that of African Pride Hotels, the luxury arm of Protea Hotels, who do the marketing of and bookings for Rijk’s.  The African Pride Hotels link to Rijk’s gave me confidence in its calibre.  I was put through to the sales department, and spoke to an unfriendly ‘machine’, who was speaking too fast, and he must have got annoyed when I told him that I could not understand him, and requested that he slow down.  He responded by putting down the phone. I then found the Tulbagh number of Rijk’s lower down on the website, and called them directly.  Here too the telephonic communication was a struggle, until I was put through to Andretti, who did confirm telephonically that all was in order, and he did so by e-mail as well.

Louisa Colquhoun, the General Manager of the 15-bedroom Rijk’s Country House, called a few days before our arrival, and apologised for the problems with the interaction with African Pride Hotels, and requested more details about the person I had spoken to there.  She told me that she had been sent a link to this blog by her boss, and that her boss is a regular reader. 

Our journey was beset with delays, and we only arrived at 8.30 pm on Friday.  We had to call en route, to find the best way to drive to Tulbagh from Franschhoek, not having been sent any directions.  Here too we had communication problems, in getting clear guidelines as to how to drive to Tulbagh from Wellington.  There is no signage in Tulbagh to direct one to the town centre, or to Rijk’s  from there, so we had to call again.  When we arrived, Louisa came out to the car, to greet us, and walked us inside. Two staff members almost ‘sang’ a welcome to ‘Chris and Alex’, even before we were introduced to them, and we were ‘Chris and Alexed’ by all staff throughout our stay, a little too familiar, I felt, quite a contrast to the ‘Ms von Ulmenstein’ treatment experienced at the 5-star Taj Hotel recently.  One of the staff had a tray of welcome Rijk’s Shiraz 2004 for us, very generous in its pouring.  The other tray had towel cloths for us to use, but we did not have enough hands to take the glass and the cloth plus what we were holding already, so we could not partake of this service.  Louisa showed us the lounge, the Polo Wine Bar, where they do winetastings too, and the Que Sera dining room, where they serve breakfasts and dinner, and we stayed to have dinner immediately, without first seeing the room.  Louisa gave me the Guest Registration Form to complete, and most of its clauses would not pass the new Consumer Protection Act  with its ‘legalese’, and the waivers and indemnities.

Dinner at the 32-seater Que Sera was a hit and miss affair, mainly because we were left with a junior waitress Chantel, who was generally unknowledgeable.  We were the only guests dining.  I asked Chantel who the chef was, and she said her name is Joan.  She knew nothing more about her, other than that she had worked at Rijk’s for 21 years.  I did not realise that it had been open for so long.  She said the owners of the Rijk’s Country House are Stuart and Mason Cranswick, who lease the buildings from Neville Dorrington, the owner of the Rijk’s wine farm and Private Cellar. The staff wear a turquoise shirt and black pants and black apron. Chantel said that she has been at Rijk’s for three years already, and worked at Paddagang restaurant previously.  The lighting was very low, until we asked for it to be turned up a little.  The room walls are bare, except for two pictures over the fireplace, but did not seem to be original works of art.  The white table cloth had a runner over it, and the beige chairs were comfortable.  A vase with a carnation and a candle were on the table.  Eetrite cutlery was modern in design and functional.  A wooden board arrived with a tasty seed-topped mini-bread, olive tapenade, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  When my son asked if the tapenade contains anchovies, the waitress confirmed this, so she found us some anchovy-less tapenade.  The menu is in a brown plastic cover, and refers to “Rijk’s Boutique Hotel”, showing some confusion as to its identity and positioning.  Each page of the menu is dominated by the blown-up Rijk’s  Country House logo, over which the menu items are printed, making it hard to read them all, especially in the low light.  My heart sank when I saw that three of the starters were served with sweet chilli sauce. 

We were warned that the Beef Wellington (served with a choice of starches, my mash topped with fresh coriander) would take 20 minutes to make, which we said was fine, given that I had ordered a nicely presented Avocado Ritz starter.  I enjoyed both dishes, except that the Beef Wellington (R120) only contained mushrooms and no chicken liver paté.  The fillet was perfectly cooked medium rare, as requested. My son was not happy with the Wild Mushroom and Thyme Risotto (R80), being completely overcooked, too salty, not containing any identifiable thyme, and tasting of a spice which made it inedible.  We sent it back, but were still charged for it, until I asked Chantel to take it off the bill, which she did.  Starter options range from R37 for calamari steak strips. Tempura prawns, peri peri chicken livers, gazpacho and a soup of the day are some other starter options. Main course prices start at R80 for the risotto, and Pan-fried Citrus Salmon Trout costs R155, expensive for Tulbagh, I felt.  Steak is served three ways, and costs R100 – R140, and one can order a 150g or 200g portion.    The menu states that one can order a salad or seasonal vegetables as part of the main course, but this option was not presented to us, and I did not see it on the menu when we were ordering.  We did not order any desserts, costing about R30, but could have had desserts from a trolley, a cheese platter (R66), fruit salad or sorbet. When I ordered a cappuccino, it took a good half an hour to get one.   The very noisy industrial-looking coffee machine is in the dining room, so we could observe the process.  It took three attempts to get a cappuccino served in a cup, and not a latte in a glass, despite our clear request to Chantel.   We were told that the coffee comes from ‘Beans for Africa’ and was called ‘Peru Organic’.  Just after the starter was served, Louisa came to check on us, and we did not see her again during the dinner, and she did not ask us later for feedback about the dinner.

The wine list also has a brown plastic cover, and no vintages are indicated.  House wines by the glass cost R28 for an unspecified white and R31 for a red wine.   Organic white and Rosé wine by the glass can be ordered at R22, but the origin of it is not identified.  Moet et Chandon costs R750, Billecart Brut R690, and Billecart Salmon Rosé R1088. Cap “Classic” sparkling wines include Krone Borealis Brut, at R120, and the Nicolas Charles Krone Marque 1 is the most expensive at R420. The winelist offers a Rijk’s wine in each variety, and is not always the cheapest one offered – in fact it was the most expensive option in most cases.  There is a heavy 50 % mark-up on the Rijk’s’ wines relative to the next-door cellar prices, the Shiraz costing R205.  A page in the winelist provided prices of wines one could buy from the Rijk’s Gift Shop, at R128 for the Rijk’s Shiraz, and even the three champagnes on the winelist can be bought at about 50 % less!

The welcome letter from Louisa introduced Tulbagh, described Rijk’s Country House as “country living at its best”, and stated that “the hotel makes use of the farms water supply and is being treated”, which I did not read on arrival, and the bottled water drinking recommendation was not explained to us verbally.  I was impressed that the letter was personalised, in referring to the wedding we were attending.  Surprising too was the invitation to enjoy a winetasting in the Rijk’s Polo Wine Bar in the Rijk’s Country House, rather than in the Rijk’s Private Cellar  tasting room.

The rooms are actually cottages away from the core reception building, so we had to drive to the cottage that we were allocated.  It is an open plan lounge and bedroom, with a large bathroom, and a separate loo.   My heart sank as soon as I saw the rug, a cheap floor decoration, and not a Persian carpet, which would have been befitting of a five star room.  Also, the windows have cheap plastic blinds with a net curtain, shouting ‘cheap and nasty’.  The end result of such ‘curtaining’ is that it let in the light at 6h00, not exactly what one wants on a precious weekend away.  The beds were requested to be twin, but the beds had been separated, so each of us had to sleep on a  precarious single bed, something I have not done in more than 30 years (in our guest houses we keep the beds together, but use single bed linen to make up the beds).  There was a nice selection of magazines, but I was surprised to find a ‘Franschhoek Style’ amongst them, marketing Franschhoek, competition to Tulbagh, especially when it comes to weddings!  Worst of all about the cottage was a sickly sweet smell in the room, probably coming from a heavy dose of Charlotte Rhys room spray that had been sprayed at turn-down, prior to our arrival!  I had to open all the windows to get the smell out of the room, and almost froze to death, not being able to sleep as a result. Spread out on the bed was a dressing gown, which may be the highlight of other visitors’ stay, but certainly is not a requirement, in my book.  On top of this was presented the turn-down ‘treat’, the most bizarre and kitschy I have ever experienced – a pink wrapped mini ‘Christmas cracker’, with silver ribbon, containing … a pink and a white marshmallow!  There is a Belgian chocolatier (Moniki) in Tulbagh, and it would have been more fitting to use their products.  I got up to write when I could not sleep for most of the night, and heard the loud staff arrival just after 6h00.   The crowning glory was that there was no water coming out of the taps the next morning, something Louisa had mentioned the night before could be a possibility.  Whilst we had bottled water for brushing our teeth, we could not have a shower or bath in the musty smelling bathroom – to open its window one has to step into the bath to get to the latch!  Water clearly is a problem at Rijk’s, as a letter from Louisa, which must have been in the room, but which I only read on our return, explained about “water shortages and other difficulties”, urging us to use the bottled water supplied for drinking and in the kettle.

When we came for breakfast, Louisa came to apologise for the water situation.  She also said that she felt that Rijk’s could not meet our requirements, and offered to refund our deposit payment. I told her that we had already booked alternative accommodation for the second night.  Whilst the water situation was inconvenient, but out of her control, I suggested to Louisa that she waive the restaurant bill of the night before as a make-good, which she accepted.  However, she wrote the following day: I spoke with my Shareholders on your departure and relayed the details of your stay.  I explained that you had declined a full refund but requested the dinner be complimentary.  They requested I get in touch with you and request your bank details as they would like to ensure the return of your deposit.  I would be grateful if you would allow us to facilitate this.  Once again we apologise that your stay did not meet your expectations and look forward to hearing from you.” 

The Breakfast was served outside on the vine-covered Iceberg Terrace, with a lovely view onto iceberg roses, the vineyards, and the Wintershoek mountains.  The colour scheme for the table runners and outdoor chair cushions is grass green and turquoise, quite ‘loud’.  The vase of fresh roses on each table was a nice touch. No breakfast buffet was laid out, but a collection of breakfast items was brought on a tray and put onto a stand next to our table, consisting of two yoghurt flavours, two cereals, a cold meat and cheese platter, fresh fruit served on a chipped plate, and a basket of muffins, scones and croissants.  I was served a perfectly made cappuccino, but was initially told that it was not possible to make one due to the water problem.  I suggested to Chantel that she use some bottled water.  As we were the only guests having breakfast, it was surprising that the service was so slow.  Chantel waited until we had finished our cereals before she asked for the egg order, and this took a good 20 minutes to be brought to the table, the eggs arriving quite some time before the toast, which I had to remind Chantel about.  The orange juice was not freshly squeezed, and came out of a bottle.   The estate handyman came to our table to also apologise for the burst water pipe, and explained that they were working on it.  The music at Rijk’s made one very nostalgic, and included ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and a ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’.   As happened  at dinner, Louisa was barely present at breakfast, and did not check on how we enjoyed it, and if there were any problems.  Understandably, she was stressed about the water situation. Her deputy did not come to our table during our breakfast.

So what can I praise: the free easy wireless (but slow) internet connection, even reaching to the cottage.  The lovely roses.  The generosity of the welcome drink.  Louisa’s apologies for things going wrong.  The good breakfast scones.  The setting and the view.  However, so many other aspects appeared amateurish and the staff poorly managed, that they spoilt the enjoyment of our stay.

Rijk’s Country House, Tulbagh.  Tel (023) 230-1006. www.rijkscountryhouse.co.za (The website refers to ‘Fine Dining’, but there is no menu nor winelist.  The Image Gallery does not contain a single food photograph.  The breakfast description includes reference to a daily newspaper, but we did not see one).

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter: @WhaleCottage

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