Santé means health in French. While it may be built in the Tuscan style, Santé is anything but healthy, and has a long way to go to reach the level it once had when it opened six or so years ago. It is badly maintained and managed, and should not have opened so early, a mere two months ago, before achieving its 5-star grading it once had.
Let me start at the beginning. Santé was the dream of Eduard du Plessis and his then partner in a design agency KSDP Pentagraph. They sold their agency to the largest London-based design agency, and it was the money they made that led to the development of the “160 hectare working wine estate”, consisting of a 10-bedroom Manor House, 39 Spa Suites (different buildings with suites in each), and privately-owned homes, which were to be rented out to give the owners rental income. Southern Sun was awarded the contract to run the hotel at that time, and it was professionally run, and its Walter Battiss collection, the private property of Du Plessis, lent it class and modernity. It had an outstanding Spa, which Conde Nast voted as one of the Top 3 in the world in 2006.
Du Plessis and his partners sold Santé to Fidentia, whose Arthur Brown is facing fraud charges. When he was arrested, the Hotel was closed down, as there was no money for its upkeep. In the past two years numerous rumours circulated as to hotel groups buying the property, said to be valued at around R300 – R400 million. I had stayed at Santé in both the Southern Sun and the Fidentia eras, the former a good, the latter a bad, experience.
In May this year, after a two year silence, the first media reports announced the re-opening of the Hotel and Spa on 1 June, it having been leased by Carlos Vilela from the liquidators for a 10 year period, with the option to buy it during this period, according to a media report. It was a Cape Timesfeature on Santé, as well as a glowing review in the August edition of The Franschhoek Month, that made me pick up the phone and make a booking. I wanted to stay after the Women’s Day long weekend, thinking the hotel would be full over the weekend, but the reverse was true. A large contingent of police persons was to take over the hotel for a conference this week, and therefore I chose to spoil myself for the weekend. (After my stay, a staff member confirmed that the police party had cancelled).
I did the reservation with Ilse Bock, who quoted R 1500 per room, but R1000 for single occupancy. She nagged me to book, but I received nothing from her. In frustration I spoke to Janet Samuel, the Deputy GM, who had an attitude which should have served as a warning. She told me that the server was down, which was not allowing e-mails to go through. They resorted to faxing the reservation details and credit card authorisation form (plus a string of most off-putting terms and conditions), barely legible because the type size was so small. Lo and behold, a second warning I should have heeded, was that the rate was confirmed as R 1500, but Ilse quickly changed it, saying she had quoted me an incorrect rate but that she would honour it.
I asked Ilse what star grading the hotel has, and Ilse could not answer initially, but then said 5-stars. She sounded so hesitant about this, that I asked her to ask the General Manager to call me. Despite the GM Kristien De Kinder being off-duty, she did call, and confirmed that they are not 5-star graded yet. She told me that she would not accept a lesser grading, and that they are working on achieving the 5-star requirements. In the same breath, without asking her, she shared with me how difficult it is to manage staff, and told me that she had “fired” (her words) 20 staff in the previous week. This should have been the strongest warning of all, but I was optimistic that the staff remaining would be efficient in running the Hotel and Spa.
I was chased by Spa Manager Anja Liebenberg to make the Spa bookings, as she said they book up very quickly, especially over weekends. I understood later why she was pressurising me to book, as she was off for the first two days of my stay, and wanted to make the bookings personally, on request of her GM. Second, I discovered that they have many treament rooms but only six therapists, which means that they cannot take many clients. I checked with Anja whether I would be eligible for the 25 % Spa treatment discount, which Ilse had sent with all the documentation (8 pages of Spa prices alone) – she was shocked, saying it was only 10 % off, but if I had been sent this offer (an opening special for June), she would honour it!
The dreadful dirt-road to the hotel, off the R45 from Klapmuts to Franschhoek, is still as bad as ever, and no grader has been sent there recently to scrape the road. When I came to what I thought were the gates of the estate, there was no branding for the Hotel – just a brown tourism sign and the name of a farm on the walls. It took the security person five minutes to get up to move the cones, without checking who I was from the board he had in his hand – a worrying introduction to the hotel security! I was greeted by name by receptionist Michelle, and I asked her how she knew who I was – it transpired that I was the only guest staying in the hotel on the first night. I was assisted with my luggage, had a room with a view onto the Paarl mountains and a dam, and on the surface nothing had changed, the original furniture still being in place. Towels are new. Michelle sweetly helped me get the internet going, always a concern, and it worked perfectly. I asked her which TV channels they have, and she told me 11! She could not tell me which they were, and they were not in the room book (they are SABC 1,2, 3, e-tv, M-Net, two SuperSport channels, Movie Magic1 and CNN). After dinner I discovered that SABC3, which had the only decent movie, had no volume, and it took 45 minutes for the staff on duty to fix this.
Much later that evening I discovered that there were no drinks in the room bar fridge, the bath towels were not bath sheets, which one would expect for a 5 star-to-be hotel. There were no spare rolls of toilet paper. The glass shelf in the shower tilts, so the products tend to slide off it when it gets wet. I froze that evening, discovering that there was only a thin artificial duvet on the bed, and no blankets in the cupboards – I was told that the CEO does not want to allow down duvet inners (a cost issue?) . I could not get the underfloor heating to work, even though the setting was at 30 C. In the end I had to switch on the airconditioner, to be able to sleep. I had to call Reception to check how to switch off all the room lights, in a central control panel hidden behind the bedside table, but too far from the bed to switch them off!
The next morning I rushed to breakfast to meet the 11h00 deadline (not how I like to spend my precious time off). I stepped into the Breakfast Room, only to find the tables laid but no buffet table laid out at all! I was told by the waitress that they don’t do it when they have so few guests. The Restaurant Manager Sofia reiterated this, and I told her that I did not find this acceptable, and she laid out a tiny set of bowls with cereals, fruit and yoghurt, on the corner of the buffet table furthest away from me. There was miscommunication between the waitress and Sofia, as I had ordered two slices of toast with my eggs, and the waitress only brought one slice. I was told that I had only ordered one slice, and therefore I did not receive another! I had to beg for a second slice. I had to ask Sofia to not serve me any further food, as she smelt so strongly of smoking when she brought the eggs. Kristien the GM came to chat and asked if all was in order, but when I told her of my experiences since my arrival, she looked at me as if it was completely normal that I should have experienced all these problems. She seemed particularly sensitive about my reaction to their restaurant winelist (see my review tomorrow of Sommelier Restaurant), which she had received from her staff. I must commend her presence at the hotel on each weekend day – a first for a GM in any hotel I have ever visited!
The Housekeeping Manager Anja had come to chat at dinner on the first night, even though she had nothing to do with the restaurant, and gave me some valuable background. She herself runs a guest house in Wellington, while the GM Kristien runs her 5-bedroom guest house Perle-du-Cap in Paarl alongside her GM job at Sante. It transpired that the new CEO Carlos Vilela runs a restaurant called Asia in Paarl, and closed down another two weeks ago, called Perola Restaurant (could be first signs of cashflow problems, in conjunction with the staff firing, especially as some of the more forthcoming staff told me that the fired staff – with one exception who is working out a month – left with immediate effect, due to cost cutting). Anja met Carlos at the latter restaurant, and this led to her appointment, and seemed the route of the GM’s appointment too – these two managers were not mentioned in media reports covering the opening function on 1 June (at which Western Cape MEC for Finance, Economic Development and Tourism Alan Winde spoke and over-optimistically praised the hotel for helping to boost the economy of the Western Cape, creating “150 employment opportunities”). Most staff working in the Hotel come from Paarl, not known as being the centre of service excellence. Both Anja and Kristien are Belgian and friends. Anja was willing to please, and she organised extra blankets (very thin summer throws) but brought to the room by equally heavy smoking-smelling housekeeping staff, and got electric blankets from the Spa when I asked her if this was possible. The bar fridge was stocked the following day, but was not switched on, so no drinks were cold. After this I was ready to settle in and enjoy myself, after the bad start, or so I thought. An enjoyable facial by a most friendly and obliging Charlene confirmed that all was on track, except that an error had been made for a massage booking for the following day, but was quickly fixed. I was surprised that the GM and her Managers wear “civvies”, a most unusual dress code for a 5-star-to-be hotel.
In a paid-for advertorial in a Wellness supplement in the Cape Times of 30 July the hotel writes: “We are not here to re-invent the wheel, but to bring Santé back to life and provide our guests with the ultimate in service excellence and bestow upon them the luxury spa experience that one would expect from an establishment as ours”. It goes on to state: “All staff was hand-chosen and appointed for their distinctive customer-service ethics (sic) and their outstanding achievements in their professional fields. Our mission is to offer you a place where you forget all your worries and trust us as professionals of beauty, rejuvenation, wellness, relaxation, tranquillity and peace to bring you back to life”. It concludes with Vilela being quoted: “We are aiming high to exceed previous standards and guest expectations. Every member of my team has the same vision and is committed to making this a reality”! Promises I discovered that they are nowhere near achieving.
I was woken by the “Niagra Falls” outside my room on the second (rainy) day of my stay – the hotel building does not appear to have gutters, and all the rainwater came down in one section outside my room. I saw some buckets in the passage to the Breakfast room too, to catch water from the leaks inside the hotel. The occupancy of the hotel had improved to full house in the Manor House, and so a Breakfast Buffet was set up in the Restaurant, and not in the breakfast room. I was not told this, so once again I saw the bare buffet table, and sat waiting for service, but there was none! When I went looking for staff, I was told that the breakfast was served in the restaurant. Most dishes were three-quarter empty, and there was no fresh fruit at all. There was no one to ask for some for about 15 minutes. When I saw Sofia and asked her about the fruit, she said that they were busy cutting it, and stated that she had been checking the mini-bars in the rooms, explaining aggressively that she cannot be expected to be in the restaurant all the time, and that breakfast finishes at 11h00. She had a list she was ticking off in terms of hotel guests who had come for breakfast, and she would have seen that three further rooms’ guests had not yet come for breakfast, arriving even later than I did. Kristien the GM came to greet and chat to guests at a table close by, and ignored me completely, not a good sign.
I went to the Spa, to enjoy the facilities, or so I had hoped. The first step was to sign an indemnity, requested by Anja the Spa Manager. I went upstairs, and was shocked to see that most of the lovely innovative original features of the Spa were not working – the Experiential showers were in near-darkness, riddled with wet used towels lying on the floor, and the lovely fragrances of the showers of days gone by – e.g. rainforest, mint – have gone, and the water was ice cold, not attractive on a cold and wet winter’s day. The Laconium door was open, and its light on, but it was not working – there was no sign on the door to tell one that it was out of order! An open door intrigued me, but I soon discovered that it was the geyser room, and not a treatment room, so I retreated out of that quickly! All that was left to enjoy then was the pool, but it had two babies and very loud foreigners dominating it, whom the Spa Manager was unable to get to leave, as children under 16 are not allowed in the Spa section of the property at all. Some downlighters in the pool area do not work. I wanted to shower after being in the pool, but all the showers in the Ladies cloakroom had no hot water. I was now close to having had enough. The Spa Manager Anja apologised, saying that it was a day in which everything was going wrong (it was only lunchtime then). There was no notification on the cloakroom to warn one of the lack of hot water.
I saw Kristien the GM in Reception, and reported the Spa cold water problem to her – once again, she had the “I know all about it, and we are working on it” air about her, and then lashed out at me, in close distance of hotel guests who heard her, about how I had done nothing but complain since I had arrived. I reminded her of all the problems I had experienced, and she did the “my staff are perfect” routine, adding insult to injury by asking why I had not left if I was not happy. I told her it was because the hotel had taken a 50 % deposit, and would be taking the balance on my departure. The way she said it, it sounded as if she would absolve me from the second 50 % payment, and this made me decide to leave, given everything that I had experienced. When I went to the Reception, the Duty Manager Mannie asked me to sit down to pay – the second 50 % of the accommodation cost being on the bill, even though I was leaving one day early, at the “invitation” of the GM. I “invited” Mannie to ask Mr Vilela, the hotel CEO, who once worked at Sun City, the only background that I could find about him on Google, to call me to discuss the bill. I am still waiting for him to call, and to react to my review, which I sent to him for comment, offering to post his reply with it.
The Santé website is full of exaggerations and dishonesty: it describes the 10 Manor House rooms as “gorgeous suites”. They have a massive bed (although 5 of them have two double beds, which cannot be made up as king beds, as they are stand-alone, annoying Larry and Heather Katz, one of the couples staying there). It quotes UK Elle as it being “One of the Top 16 Spa’s on Earth” – yes, about 4 years ago, with working, state-of-the-art facilities at that time! It provides the menu for Cadeaux, a restaurant meant to be in the Spa section, but the restaurant has not been in operation since the hotel opened! The Sommelier restaurant is mentioned, but there is no menu for it! Chef Neil Rogers is mentioned as being in charge of “both” restaurants, but he was one of the 20 staff to be fired! (I heard that a chef from Grootbos is starting in September). The food photographs on the website are nothing like the food that was served at Sommelier. The “Terms and Conditions” state that children are welcomed in the Spa Suites only, but two children were in the Manor House, and were not kept quiet by their parents or the hotel staff. The hotel brochures are more than two years old, reflecting the paintings on the walls at that time, and not what has replaced them now, and also refer to its “5-stars”, an absolute no-no! The room folder had the “Happy Anniversary” card to Mr & Mrs Nothnagel still in it!
What can I praise? The location and its view, but far more attractive in summer – my room was in shade all day, making it cold and dark. The “captiveness” of it, as the gravel road is so bad that one is not encouraged to leave the property to take a drive to Paarl, Franschhoek or Stellenbosch. The Sunday Times and Weekend Argus being available. The wonderful therapist Charlene, who did the facial. The use of the innovative grape-based TheraVine product range in the Spa (but not carried through into the hotel rooms, where the Rooibos range is stocked).
I was most relieved to leave the Santé “zoo” after enduring two days of stress whilst staying there, the exact opposite to what I had come for! The Hotel’s marketing is dishonest and its website misleading and out of date. Santé is still a “sleeping beauty” and has not yet woken up to the real world of accommodation hospitality and Spa excellence it so proudly boasts about!
POSTSCRIPT 10/5: I was informed today that Santé has a new CEO, being Hans Heuer, who took over from 1 April. This has been confirmed in an article in the Indaba newsletter, which states that “Santé Hotel, Resort and Spa is under new management and ownership”. I will look for more information on Mr Heuer’s background. Carlos Vilela and his wife Sharon have left. The receptionist told me that Kristien, and both Anjas left some time ago, and that all the managers working there in August last year have left. The new Resident Manager is Leanne Myburgh, the Resident Manager is Basil Trompeter, and the new Spa Manager is Friena Beukes.
POSTSCRIPT 10/8: Hans Heuer, the new Santé CEO, read and left a comment with his cell number on this blogpost. I called him and we agreed to meet for coffee. I was keen to meet at Santé, to see how things have changed since my stay exactly a year ago. We made an appointment to meet yesterday at 2 pm, on my way back from Franschhoek to Cape Town. When I arrived at the security gate to Santé, and I told the ‘lady’ called Smit that I was seeing Mr Heuer, she let me past her traffic cones. Two staff members stood outside in the sun when I walked to the reception, and both greeted me, but none asked how they could assist. Mannie stood in Reception, and recognised me from my last visit, but called me ‘Mrs Ulmenstein’, getting both my surname and marital status wrong. He seemed surprised when I told him about my appointment with Mr Heuer, saying that he was in Cape Town. He called Mr Heuer, who said that something had come up! Mr Heuer sent me an sms to apologise for standing me up fifteen minutes later, meaning that he had my cell number, and could therefore have called to cancel our appointment. I did not respond to the sms, but Tweeted about being stood up. This led to a number of less than complimentary Tweets about Santé, one of the Tweeters being a tour operator who had stayed at Santé the week before. When we left the property, the security ‘lady’ did not remove the traffic cones, which meant that we had to stop at the gate and hoot for her to do so. I asked whether she had not seen us driving the 200 meters to the gate. She glared at me, and then burst forth in an uncalled-for attack, saying ‘You people with money think that you can be rude to us’! What a send-off! This morning Mr Heuer called, with quite an aggressive tone, saying that I should know that things come up in the last minute in the hospitality industry (no, I don’t know this!), and saying that he had sms’d me – I reminded that it was half an hour after our appointment time! He then became personal, saying that he had done research on me, and that I am just out to write negative things. Yet Mr Heuer had admitted in a previous conversation that things at Santé had been disastrous under the previous management, and that is why he had taken over the running of the hotel and spa! I could not help but think that Santé is a stand-up comedy, and will never make it back to its original glory!
Santé Winelands Hotel & Wellness Centre, on R45, between Klapmuts and Franschhoek. tel (021) 875-8100 www.santewellness.co.za
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage