Country estate makes going for a long walk as attractive as enjoying warmth and luxury
Central Dullstroom in the busiest part of the day can, for all of its interesting attractions, be a bit of a tourist scrum. So when the hunt for a touch of downtime takes you through town and up into the hills a little, you might be forgiven for feeling a moment of relief.
Walkerson Hotel & Spa is close by, accessed via a steep descent into a valley dotted with small bodies of water off a winding river and populated with stylish modern homes. It’s estate living, but with trout dams rather than a golf course.
The hotel itself is at once old-fashioned and up to date. There are dark wood beams and log fires in the dining rooms, lounges and rooms, but everything from the cuisine to the spa offering is contemporary. The food, available at either The Terrace or The Flying Scotsman restaurants, is superb: melt-in-the-mouth steaks; tangy, textured desserts and creatively presented salads. And the space in the spa is notable – it feels somehow easier to relax when the plinth you’re on is not closely encircled by walls. Add to that an aromatherapy treatment designed to make toxins take a longer holiday than you’re on and you’re off to a great start.
Stretch your legs
Staying on a healthy bent – and it may be necessary, depending on how much you’ve had at lunch – the property is magnificently set up for walking. You can slalom between the trout dams or follow the picturesque watercourse past waterfalls, designer architecture and trees perfectly mirrored in the water. Birds descend and fish rise and, if you’re lucky, you might bump into some of the zebra or antelope that share the estate with the residents.
The grounds are big enough to try several different routes during your stay, along the river or up onto the peaks of the hills, to take in all the views. In the middle of the valley, there’s a private airstrip. It’s not flat and it’s as narrow as a road, but it’s hugely convenient if you live close to it: you could step out of your Cessna into your driveway. On a slightly less James Bond level,
you can book a lunchtime picnic on the banks of a large pool above an unexpectedly large waterfall that tumbles down the escarpment near the hotel.
Heading up the mountain at the far end of the estate, anyone of average fitness or below will quickly discover that Dullstroom is at a higher altitude than they’d thought. For the record, the town sits at 2,100m above sea level, about 400m higher than Johannesburg, which already feels like a base camp experience for Capetonians and Durbanites. Thankfully, there’s a well-kept path up to a lookout point with a bench right at the peak, and it’d be rude to the folks who’d lugged it all the way up there to not sit for five minutes or an hour and drink in the view, which encompasses the whole valley. This perspective also allows you to grade the positioning of the room you are in and its view relative to those of your travelling companions, and to perhaps make notes for future bookings.
If you’re feeling adventurous on the way down, it’s possible to follow a game path down the flank of the mountain, though you should keep in mind that even a baby zebra has better balance and stamina than your city-dwelling body (and yes, that includes you, smug trail-runners).
The zebras, at least, choose not to rub this in, being very calm and allowing you quiet passage as you wheeze past.
The Wi-Fi is so-so, but if the weather is good, you can and should be out fishing, horse-riding, walking or cycling, and if it’s bad, the lounge or your room offers the chance to catch up on your favourite sports tournament or sit through a whole movie without the kids interrupting you. And the rooms are lovely – massive bed, a fireplace, two comfy wingback chairs, a TV and a minibar: everything you need in a refuge from cold, rain or busyiness.
A four-course dinner with wine tasting sounds like a recipe for snootiness, but pretentiousness is not on the menu here: a host simply presents a handful of wine options lined up on a table and lets you choose according to your taste, rather than some labdetermined tasting notes. The waiting staff are similarly easygoing regarding guests’ offbeat dining preferences – if the desired titbit exists in some form in the area, they’ll track it down for you.
Outside, there’s a sweet domestic drama unfolding. One of the resident ducks from a dam across from the hotel entrance has a clutch of eggs and they’ve just hatched. She’s stashed the little ducklings behind some arum lilies in the garden along the side of the reception parking lot, and now, provided visitors are careful and respectful, popping out to see the new little family has become an unscheduled itinerary option.