A Mansion at the Point

Chris Harvie discovers a Cape Town hotel which offers the perfect city escape, for a man from Hazyview

The smell of old wood and roses assaulted me. What a happy change from plastic and plywood. Winchester Mansions in Sea Point looks from the outside like a town hall in Belgium and from the inside like a block of flats in Pimlico, neither of which is a bad thing. In fact, there are not too many bad things about Winchester Mansions, apart from the fact that I have always thought that Harvey was a stupid way to spell Harvie.

Harveys at the Mansions is the restaurant alongside and, in good weather, inside the bougainvillaea-clad courtyard piazza that forms the heart of the hotel. We caught a glimpse as we checked in.

Above the damasked tables tier three storeys of rooms of various sizes and views, some towards the mountain, others towards the sea. Also above the damasked tables are strategically placed nets to catch pigeon messages. It was three hours until dinner. Three hours till we could taste Henry Jonkers’s fare.

“You’re going to love it here,” Lhonti said, leading the way to a sea-facing suite.

“You’ll be so relaxed; it’s going to make your hair grow back.” Funny. I had always thought my hair was already growing back. Maybe she could see that and knew she was onto a winner, but either way, she was very confident and with some justification. Winchester Mansions is not a five-star hotel, nor does it pretend to be one. It is a friendly, efficient, excellent four-star hotel. The rooms are elegant and everything works except the TV remote because someone had nicked the batteries. We got it going with the batteries from the aircon remote.

The guest information and the signs are in German and English and the place, clear about its two markets, combines German organisation with English charm, although I like to think it would have been a German that emptied the remote batteries into his digital camera.

All the rooms are double-glazed. The bathrooms are big (and big bathrooms are important). There is also a Health and Wellness Spa, if you need your body-fat pushed around after too many meals at Harveys, named after the Ginkgo tree, which is apparently known for its adaptability and resilience in an ever- changing world. It could apply to every aspect of Winchester Mansions. Genteel yet modern. Efficient, but friendly.

The bar is perched above the pavement, enabling patrons to look down onto the nearby heads of the passers-by to see whether they need their hair to grow back.

Of course, you can also tell from the tops of people’s heads whether they are English or German and therefore whether they buy or steal their batteries.

On a still afternoon, looking out over the Atlantic as the sun prepared to sink into it under a huge blue sky, Cape Town proffered its usual bunch of freaks. A bedoeked Xhosa woman pushed an elderly, powdered madam in her wheelchair along the pavement and stopped in horror when attacked at knee-height by a flying dachshund in pursuit of a ball four times its size, all of which escaped the notice of the four entranced hippy Tai Chi practitioners nearby and their Rastafarian leader.

“In summer, maybe to-six or past- six,” said the barman when I asked him what time the sun would set, but it was getting on for to-eight when the sea swallowed it up and we made it into the courtyard for dinner. Henry Jonkers’s 25 years of chefing were well evident in his strong Cape Malay influences infused with the experience of four years in Dublin. They call it fusion cuisine, old and new, local and international.

The blurb tells you that, if you tell Henry what you like, he will create his version of your dish, but the shrimp bobotie, the duck on sweet red cabbage and Cape sweet indulgence were straight off the menu and hugely successful. Especially the former and despite the naff name of the latter, consisting of miniatures of all your favourite South African puddings, milk tart, Cape brandy pudding and granadilla cheesecake, so order from the menu, would be my advice.

Don’t bother Henry with knocking up your favourite Lancashire Hotpot or, if you are German, your best bratwurst goulash. He knows what he’s doing.

Breakfast was equally inspiring. The mozzies flying in the restaurant had obviously discovered this for themselves, although they were after the crumbs under the tables, not the groaning buffet of pastries, cold meats and fruit.

There was even smoked salmon and, the ultimate civilised breakfast, steak tartare. Now that’ll get you going if the bran flakes don’t.

The pigeon-poo-catcher hadn’t been 100% effective at dinner, but there were no unpleasant incidents at breakfast. Indeed, there had been nothing unpleasant about Winchester Mansions at all. Go there. It’s not expensive. It’s quiet. It’s professional in a friendly sort of way. The food’s excellent.

I scratched my head as I walked out onto Beach Road. It was growing back, I swear it.

Winchester Mansions and Harveys at the Mansions, 221 Beach Road, Sea Point. From R667.60 per person per night sharing, bed and breakfast.

Tel: 021-434-2351, fax: 021-434-0215, e-mail: welcome@winchester.co.za, website:www.winchester.co.za

Jazz at the Mansions, Sundays 11am to 2pm, live jazz, bubbly and a wide-ranging buffet.