Tag Archives: Port Elizabeth

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

A chokka shocker

Most South Africans have never actually been to Port Elizabeth. Frankly, like Australia, it seems an awfully long way away and possibly not very advanced. I’d driven through it on the freeway a couple of times but finally, in search of things that we just can’t get in Graaff-Reinet (like a toast-rack, for example, without which civilised living is not possible), I had to go there for a couple of days and looked forward with trepidation-tinged gusto to investigating a city with more sobriquets than Cape Town and the same number of unfinished flyovers.

So was it friendly or windy? And is it still the Detroit of Africa? Well, it is friendly. It really is. The occasional grumpy-drawers who cropped up inevitably turned out to be from out-of-town (usually Bloemfontein). The air, however, was still and, although I have never been to Detroit, PE seems to have shed the Detroit thing fairly conclusively and dumped it on Uitenhage up the road, leaving itself with a huge bay, loads of very presentable houses and shops, billions of restaurants and a non-stop friendly fairground atmosphere without the carousel. (There was actually a small one but it wasn’t turning).

So what do they do in Port Elizabeth? They don’t seem to work. Much of the time, they don’t seem to be there at all. The roads are empty. The shops have no queues. You can always get a table in a restaurant.

And what do they eat in Port Elizabeth? The same as the rest of us, I suppose, but we had heard much about chokka, South Africa’s own calamari, loligo vulgaris, the long-finned squid, and set out to find some and to see the boats bobbing about in the bay.

PE is like Utopia without the over-optimism. People smile without reason. They greet you as though they’ve known you all their lives and have been waiting with bated breath for your long-awaited arrival, which is now and even more exciting than they had dared to expect. And that was just the waitress at 34 South.

Actually just under just under 34 South and sister to the Knysna branch which is just over 34 South, this was our first PE restaurant, purveyors of finest Cape salmon and other good fishy things but, for some reason Patagonian calamari, so a chokka failure. Our table was perched on the edge of a pond in The Boardwalk, the Sun International entertainment complex on Humewood Beach, which just manages to evade the traditional synthetic-boulder tastelessness of such venues despite kilometres of fairy lights, a fake lighthouse with a laser in place of the Edison screw and the pale tilapia floating listlessly near the surface in the water features. There are countless shops and not one of them sells anything vaguely useful or even slightly tasteful. You can even watch the DJ currently hosting an Algoa FM show on a screen outside the studio (if you can’t find any drying paint to watch).

It’s all real though. That is what PE is like. A combination of youthful shoeless Billabong fashionistas and aging bats with racking coughs in Jettas, all living in friendly, fishy harmony amongst the seaport smells and guano-covered cranes. A pre-breakfast walk along the front is as uplifting as fresh bread and affords more ‘good mornings’ than a royal walkabout.

PE has a positive, non-racial ‘Up With the New South Africa’ feel to it. Cocktails at Primi Coastal, our next evening’s food venue, came in a huge jam jar and the serving staff were utterly on-the-ball and overexcited, their hair sticking out at impossible angles and their spiffy orange and grey overalls besloganed with thought-provoking comments including ‘work is love made visible’. There you are. Chew on that little piece of philoso-PE.

Chicken livers with bite and crunch, a Neopolitan pasta with bite and crunch, a very bright waiter and a very spunky waitress both with lots of friendly bite and crunch. Our only unsure moment was when Mandisi, temporarily overwrought, offered us coffee with black milk. Port Elizabeth non-racial chic we decided and, given the chap’s confusion, elected not to enter into a debate about the origins of the imported calamari. It seems odd, though, that there is a bay-full of squid, dotted with the fishermen’s lights every night, yet there is no chokka to be found on the menus. The conspiracy theory has it, though, that PE calamari is so good that we export it all and we have to import to make up for this.

So proud of our cephalopods were we, that we worked our way with gusto through the list of digestifs, under an umbrella that masked the towering impersonality of the Garden Court, with its cockroaches still quivering on their backs on the bathroom floor and its special deals hanging on the door-handles so you only see them when you’ve already paid full price. Primi’s offered us instead the warm and fuzzy belief that we really were in the Friendliness Capital of the World and that, if only a light breeze would get up and a Detroit-registered Dodge Viper would mosey down the seafront, the scene would be complete.

34 South 041 583 1085
Primi Coastal 041 586 1266