Go down the rabbit hole
When a friend who is a UCT old boy heard I would be spending a few nights at the Alphen Hotel in Constantia, Cape Town, he said: ''You must order the bangers and mash in the hotel bar on Sunday night. It's an institution."
This advice gave me the impression that the hotel, with its 18th-century heritage and its grand 4.7ha property, would be old-world English stuffiness with heavy drapes in beige, bottle green and maroon. I was expecting pictures of mallard ducks on the walls and stiff, efficient hotel staff.
The only preconceptions that turned out to be correct were the efficient staff.
Arriving at night with the Cape Dutch facade of the building lit up to greet me, I was escorted to my room. Left alone to explore the extravagant, yet tongue-in-cheek opulence of my new quarters, I discovered something I hadn't thought possible - that sophistication could be humorous.
This seems to be the style of new owner Paul Kovensky. For the past 150 years the estate has been a part of the portfolio of the Cloetes, patron family of this vine-rich area. Now that Kovensky has taken over, there's a sense that he's lightening up everything and having a great deal of fun while doing it.
The tall sash windows and arched entrances, plaster mouldings and carriage lamps of the Cloete era remain intact, respecting the history of the building. The contrast of the old Cape style with the lavish, almost kitsch decor of the rooms creates the impression that you've fallen down the rabbit's hole into another, far more colourful reality.
It's a good sign that I thought I had been given the best the hotel had to offer, but I was in the "Cool Room", the most basic room on the menu. The hotel also offers "Amazing Rooms" with his and her bathrooms, "Stunning Rooms" with a terrace and the "'Magic Room", a separate honeymoon suite.
After a night's rest, I woke up and opened the sash window of my room to find the cafe below already buzzing with people. Visitors come from all over Cape Town to eat at La Belle, the deli that is below an aged oak tree that casts a dappled light over the tables.
On the other side of the hotel, overlooking the pool, which is the focus of the verdant gardens, is the Rose Bar. The bar is a wall of ivy and lights up at night. During the day, the black and white striped loungers were an invitation not to be missed. I spent the afternoon by the pool enjoying cocktails and then, as darkness fell, headed to the 5 Rooms restaurant, where each room is decorated with themed artwork: the landscape room, the portrait room, and so on.
Chandeliers, rich blue velvet and leather sofas recreate the atmosphere of The Manor House, the building's previous incarnation, that played host to Mark Twain, Cecil John Rhodes, George Bernard Shaw, Captain Cook and Jan Smuts.
The thing that clinched the experience for me was the staff, who made me feel so much at home. It didn't bother me one bit that bangers and mash were no longer on the menu.
Alphen Hotel, Alphen Drive, Constantia, Cape Town
Cool Suites: R2900 per night, full rate
Amazing Suite: R3800 per night, full rate
Stunning Suite: R4500 per night, full rate
For info www.thealphen.co.za
Call central reservations on 021-795-6300
La Belle Deli
5 Rooms Restaurant
The Rose Bar