Walmer and The Carpenters

Chris Harvie discovers a true country hotel near the centre of Port Elizabeth.

I am always sceptical of hotels that call themselves country lodges when they are blatantly in towns but this was the genuine article, slap in the middle of the leafy Port Elizabeth suburb of Walmer. In place of the usual roar of traffic there is an assault of birdsong weaving through the colourful shrubs. And I have never seen so ebullient a yesterday-today-and-tomorrow.

“Have a drink, then I will show you to your bedroom”, suggested Roy, the acting manager. Interesting. In most hotels they take you to your ‘room’, not to your bedroom. This is the subtle difference at the heart of what makes Hacklewood Hill so refreshing. You really are expected to use all the rooms in the house in addition to your bedroom. You can even wander into the kitchen if you want to. The only discordant feature is that they still play The Best of The Carpenters at mealtimes, all day in fact, when I rather imagined that, like me, the rest of the world was over Karen’s tragic untimely demise and had moved on.

Our host was fairly frank about Hacklewood’s clientele. “Not everybody likes it,” he clarifies. Some find it too old and too frilly. Well, all I can say is that I hate frilly but I didn’t think this was frilly. And of course it is old. It was built in 1898 and is one of the oldest buildings of its kind in the city, but never was a home better suited to its current use. Maybe there are people out there who don’t like highly polished antique furniture, thick curtains from ceiling to floor and spade-loads of Spode china. But that’s just tough for them, isn’t it? They are probably the same people who are still listening to The Carpenters. They can stay somewhere else and leave Hacklewood Hill, once the music collection has been updated, to sophisticates like me.

I toured the cellar and then partook of afternoon tea in the drawing room. So homely was it all that I half-expected a Victorian couple called Harold and Dora with seven scrubbed-up children to come tripping in and join me but they didn’t. Instead, I got talking to Roy about the history of the house.

The accompanying biscuits and fudge bode well for dinner so I showed restraint in anticipation, managing also to stay away from the fruit basket on the table by my four-poster. (The strawberry, at roughly the size of a cricket ball, was the biggest I have ever seen.)

I lost myself in my oversized bathroom a number of times whilst changing for dinner, re-orientating myself by following the call of the Knysna loerie in a tree by my balcony. This brought me safely back to the bedroom and then downstairs for pre-prandials on the verandah. If you are getting a colonial feel here, you are right. But then what’s wrong with colonial? I have read enough brochures harping on about the ‘romance of a bygone era’ to know that there’s a market for it. And Hacklewood oozes bygone era by the silver jug-full.

I can’t fault the menu or the presentation of dinner. There was a good range of dishes and some clever flavours. I had the butternut and biltong soup followed by the linefish, slightly overcooked but rescued by its delicious caper, citrus and sweet chilli reduction. Creme brulee is, of course, the toughest of the kitchen arts to master and Hacklewood’s was perfect. I celebrated with an espresso and a large port which came with more chocolates and, unexpectedly, a marsh-mallow sosatie.

Later, hunkered down in my enormous bed, having ejected a number of unfrilly pillows to make space to lie down, I lay buried in fine white linen, as Hacklewood Hill, an extraordinary suburban masterpiece, enfolded me. There was no road noise; no dogs barked; the loerie had jacked it in for the day.

All was still. The quiet of a bygone era. Even The Carpenters had stopped their noise although, as can happen after port, I fear I may have shattered the silence by snoring like their friend the Walrus.

If you go:

Where it is: 152 Prospect Road, Walmer, Port Elizabeth. Between Heugh Road and Main Road Walmer. 3km from the airport.

What it has: 8 bedrooms. Tennis court, swimming pool and just about everything from aircon to heated towel rails and painkillers to cellphone chargers. We checked. A boardroom with conference facilities for 12. Oh yes, and five stars.

Why go there: Victorian sophistication and old-fashioned silver service, enhanced with wireless Internet.

Rates: From R1335 to R1625 per person per night, bed and breakfast, depending on season.

Contact details: Tel 041 581 1300 Fax 041 581 4155 Email hacklewood@pehotels.co.za Websitewww.hacklewood.co.za