The Smell Of Old Leather
Not all meeting rooms are created equal. In the Thibault Boardroom, named for the architect who designed The Drostdy in Graaff-Reinet, the sepia-scented fragrance is not old money, although you get the sense that there’s plenty of that floating around, too. Instead, what your nose is detecting are the beautifully preserved yellowwood floors, an antique stinkwood wardrobe that stands in the room more like a monument than a piece of furniture, and – yes – the leather that cushions your backside as you slide into one of the armchairs that feel like thrones. It’s these authentic old-school features that give this meeting space such character, adding not just atmosphere but actual attitude – as if they bring some of the weight of history to bear on the moment so that everything you do and say in this room seems somehow more, well, weighty. Listen carefully and you’ll probably make out the ghostly echoes of deals being forged and colleagues slapping one other on the shoulder.
You might be wondering why anyone would travel to the middle of the Karoo to sign a deal or negotiate the coming quarter’s plan of action, but that is precisely the point: where better than this? It’s one of the country’s oldest towns – and far from the hectic, distracting bustle of the big cities. And yet, being central, it’s a good gathering spot whether colleagues are coming from Cape Town, Jo’burg, Durban or PE. Once here, they’re in good hands, too. As the boardroom will testify, The Drostdy itself has a long history. For years it was a traditional dorp hotel, but before that it was what the name says – a drostdy, where government business was conducted. It was built as a symbol of importance.
We’re not suggesting that it’s all work and no play, though. In fact, the hotel’s real endeavour is to help guests reclaim their sanity, recuperate, and find soulful nourishment in the bosom of the Karoo. The entire property, which incorporates a substantial town block, has been gorgeously overhauled in recent years to become one of the most tranquil places in the country to spend a few days – your first inclination might be not to work or relax, but to set about exploring the grounds, though. Aside from the immaculate architectural overhaul of a variety of historic cottages and the creation of distinctive new suites, the hotel offers plenty of distraction. Along with several pools, a spa, and the marvellous De Camdeboo Restaurant, there are artworks everywhere, including large-scale sculptures by Dylan Lewis, and an attached art gallery that sells work from regularly changing exhibitions.
The hotel feels a bit like the fulcrum around which the town itself turns. You can explore the heritage architecture that’s on just about every street, and walk to a raft of museums – better still, enlist the guys from Karoo Connections, who have facts and anecdotes and detailed tales of a fascinating history. The entire town is in fact like one big open-air museum, with around 200 heritage buildings making Graaff-Reinet the largest repository of historic landmark monuments in the country. Don’t miss the time-preserved Graaff-Reinet Club where farmers and townsfolk nurse drinks and gossip amicably – it shares the same building as The Drostdy’s off-site casual restaurant, Coldstream, where you’ll find impressive down-to-earth dishes (including probably the Karoo’s best pizzas).
And then there’s the proximity of the town to one of the country’s most impressive geological sites – the Valley of Desolation, the main vantage point for which is at the end of a steepish road up and through a mountainous section of the Camdeboo National Park which virtually surrounds the town. Up at the top, there’s also a great viewing deck from which you can gaze down on the town, scoping the kopjes and mountains that silhouette the background and making sense of its grid-like layout and perfect situation in a bend in the Sundays River. The guys from Karoo Connections can also talk you through the incredible ancient history of the stone monuments that rise up from the valley floor. The reserve is very popular with Graaff-Reinet’s mountain biking fraternity. Bring your bike and, if you get up early before your meeting, you might find yourself pedalling among friendly strangers (The Drostdy’s manager is among the regulars who cycle here, so ask him if he’s game for company).
And, should you be able to swing an entire day away from the boardroom, it’s worth driving to the tiny hamlet of Nieu Bethesda 50km away. It’s on the other side of a very beautiful mountain pass. Once there, The Owl House – where outsider artist Helen Martins obsessively transformed her home into a colourful fantasy – is the main draw, but there’s also a craft brewery, a couple of cafes and seriously time-lost village atmosphere.
Of course, you could choose to unplug entirely from the world, settle into stillness at The Drostdy, and allow the hotel’s bygone atmosphere and mellow staff to work their magic, restoring your faith in humanity’s ability to slow down, relax and take things at
a more, well, human pace.