The hospitality industry was shocked to hear last year that the Alphen Hotel had closed down, after the Three Cities Group had relinquished its contract in operating the hotel. Unknown to most was that Paul Kovensky, owner of Camps Bay restaurants such as The Kove, Zenzero, Pepenero, Bungalow, and Paranga had taken a 30 year lease on the hotel, and was furiously renovating and transforming the then 3-star hotel into a five-star boutique hotel six months later, creating an interior that according to its room book is a ‘little eccentric, somewhat bohemian, rather eclectic and causally elegant and definitely sensual’. The Alphen opened in December last year, and has already been named one of only two South African Hip 100 Conde Nast hotels in the world!

The Alphen once was part of Groot Constantia, converted from a farm to an estate over the years, the first building having been established in 1773.   It was taken over by the Cloete family 150 years ago, and declared a national monument in 1973.  Wine was made and sent to the kings in England and France, The Alphen being the first wine producer, its sweet wine being particularly well-known.  Over the years the estate hosted a number of names from the history books, including Mark Twain, Captain Cook, Cecil John Rhodes, Lord Charles Somerset, George Bernhard Shaw, Jan Smuts, Dr James Barry, royalty, and ambassadors, most of the visitors having been captured in portraits.  I was taken around the estate by The Alphen GM Robert van Gent (ex Cullinan Hotel consultant, ex-Hollow Hotel, ex-Euro Disney), and he shared the passion for ‘his’ hotel. He said that Lord Charles Somerset was said to have pistol duels on the garden alongside the hotel. Dr Barry was the first medical doctor to conduct a Caesarean section, and was discovered to be a woman on ‘his’ death, women not being allowed to practice as medical practitioners at that time. In 1962 Sandy Bairnsfather-Cloete inherited the land, and opened The Alphen hotel.  The Alphen has ‘inherited’ 300 paintings of the Cloete family, and these have been rehung and grouped into themes, and ‘married’ with paintings specially commissioned by a British artist, for a more modern touch.

In planning the renovations of the buildings on the estate, the very strict requirements of The Heritage Council had to be considered.  Mr Kovensky wanted to create something unusual and unique, and Stefan Antoni was appointed to tackle the refurbishment of the 21 rooms of the hotel, as well as create two restaurants and conference rooms.  The designers looked to marry the historial heritage of the building with modernity, in its lighting, furniture, fabrics, paint and fabric colours, textures, and artwork, its room book commenting: ‘not your typical 5-star hotel, a modern and playful twist has been added to the décor and design while preserving traditional and exceptional, age old hospitality’. In their design, they looked at respecting the heritage framework, but also wanted to add ‘provocation, contemporary glamour and surreal fantasy’.

The hotel reception is in a small area, unlike the vast reception areas of many hotels, and here the classic and modern contrast is evident already, with gilded guest chairs and artwork frames, and modern artwork, and leather office chairs for the staff.  The porter Green showed me the room, switching on the TV to find the soccer, and explaining that the mini bar was empty, and that one can order drinks from a list.  It appears that guests have abused the ‘honesty bar’.  Now the mini bar contents can be tailor-made to suit each guest, said Mr van Gent. The room opens onto a little courtyard, with big windows, a king size bed, a white leather couch, a red velvet upholstered chair, a historic writing desk, a modern-to-look-old unit containing the mini bar, a dressing table, a massive dress mirror, a large old wooden wardrobe, and large bedside units, with lots of gilded touches introduced in the feet of the couches, the frames of the artwork and mirror, the structure of the room lamp, and gold curtains. Modern touches are the underfloor heating (which kept the room comfortably warm on a chilly night, without the need for airconditioning, even though it is provided), a LavAzza coffee machine, the flat screen TV, a Samsung DVD player with speakers, and an iPod docking station.  A ‘cheeky’ chair, resembling the shape of a women’s figure, is in most rooms, in red or white.  The bathrooms are modern, with black wall tiling, white bathroom fittings, silver taps, white floor tiles, silver heated towel rails, and black and white bathroom amenities by Charlotte Rhys, with a massive old-fashioned style gilded mirror to link the bathroom to the bedroom decor.  All rooms have his and her basins, and a bath and shower.  Some of the larger rooms even have ‘his’ and ‘her’ bathrooms.  Mr van Gent explained that they have renamed their room types, in keeping with their ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking.  For the turn down a bath robe and slippers were laid out on the bed, with a massive brightly coloured macaroon from the hotel’s La Belle Café and Bakery.

The estate has different buildings, the original Manor House, now housing the 5Rooms restaurant, Reception, and conference rooms having been the home of the oldest Cloete son.  Daughters and young children were housed in The Dower House, and some of the lower doorways reflect this. The Mill House has rooms too. The entry level room type is called ‘Cool Suite’, at the winter room rate of R2000. As the rooms get bigger, and if they open to the garden, their room type names and rates change to ‘Amazing Suite’, ‘Stunning Suite‘, and the honeymoon suite ‘Magic Suite’, which will have a private outside jacuzzi and daybed.  Children 4 years and younger stay for free, and 5 – 16 year olds pay R500 per bed brought into the larger rooms.

Breakfast is served at La Belle Café and Bakery, and one can choose to have a health or English breakfast, Eggs Benedict, flapjacks, Churros, fresh fruit, and the Alphen Breakfast, with fruit, pastries and eggs, presented on branded wooden boards. Breakfast ends at 11h45, a treat for hard workers and late sleepers.  Coffee is by LavAzza.  One can buy delectable pastries, slices of cake, cupcake, and freshly-baked breads at La Belle too, and they are very busy for lunches and early dinners, closing at 21h00. They have become the taste of the Constantia and other Cape Town residents, making booking a necessity.  Dinner is also served at 5Rooms restaurant.  The hotel also sports the The Rose Bar, a popular meeting place with a gorgeous garden view, and is heat-protected in winter. A spa is being set up and a consultant has been appointed for it.  Treatments can also be done in guest rooms. As it will open onto the lawn, they will offer their guests Pilates, Tai Chi, and yoga outside. Wi-Fi is complimentary, room service is 24 hour, and a safe is provided.

The Dovecot is a beautiful building in the far corner of the lawns, and in it is the power house, and the Cloete family ashes.  There is a little family chapel behind it.  The old Watermill is to be reinstated near the Rose Bar. Weddings are hosted on the lawns, and special marquees are erected.  The brides come down the original steps of the Manor House, more than 200 years old, which are not allowed to be fixed and not even the grasses growing in them are allowed to be removed.   Close by is the slave bell.

This area smells beautifully of the lavender planted there. The hotel sports its own herb garden, from which the two restaurant chefs pick their daily kitchen requirements. The original cellar is let out as offices, with auctioneer Stephan Welz using one of the buildings for storage.  Robert proudly spoke about the ‘Little 15′ they have on the estate, and the squirrels jumping around in the old oak trees are definitely his favourite.  At The Alphen one feels that one is far from the city, and cannot hear the motorway not too far away.  Music is piped throughout the estate, and is light lounge music, adding a modern contrast to the historical structures on the estate.

Despite being in Cape Town, staying at The Alphen was a lovely break away, as good as a holiday.  One does not need to leave the estate at all, there being more than enough to do and eat and drink, and entertain one’s friends.

Disclosure: I was a guest of The Alphen Hotel for one night.  Service feedback was provided to the management.

The Alphen, The Alphen Estate, Alphen Drive, Constantia. Tel (021) 795-6300     www.alphen.co.za Twitter@TheAlphen. Monday – Sunday. La Belle Cafe and Bakery 7h00 – 21h00. 5Rooms dinners every day and Sunday lunch.  The Rose Bar open from 16h00 – 23h00 on weekdays, and 12h00 – 23h00 on weekends.

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