State of Grace

#91. Escape to the Magaliesburg. We headed west out of Joburg on a Sunday morning in the direction of the mountains. It used to be that you could tell where the city ended and the scrubby countryside began. That was then. Midway between here and there, somewhere near Little Falls, a large sign mounted on a plot of land declared “This is Christian Country”. Past the sign, row upon row of little Tuscan boxes on the hillside spread out as far as I could see. The men at the robots handed out flyers promising a piece of Toscana Afrikana at just R1.47-million a pop, and begged for some spare change. The huge glass car showrooms along the highway displayed signs shouting “deposit-free cars”. Indeed a saviour would be worth having in that part of town.

The usual combinations of Makro stores and Mr Price, with a Woolworths thrown in for good measure replicated themselves from suburb to suburb imitating the one we had just left behind and creating that vaguely self-sufficient Joburg state of mind. The north has no need to travel south, the west will never need to meet those in the east. No public parks, no grand artworks on the periphery, just a newness that doesn’t lend itself to curiosity.

And then came the signs that we had left the city behind. First there was the one that said “Taxidermist”. And suddenly the sky just got bigger, overtaking the land and then we were there. At our destination – Mount Grace.

The country hotel has just undergone a R135-million refurbishment taking its look from Biggie Best to Austen Powers (and that’s from its general manager). That means the soft floral couches and colours are gone and that folksy atmosphere has been replaced by some bling, waterfront villas, a few pink velvet chairs, private plunge pools, loud colours and loads of mirrors. It also means the library is gone – now a flashy bar (although a great selection of paperbacks litters the place) along with the tea and scones that were a permanent fixture outside the door (I miss these).

First stop was the new spa for a massage. Two hours after having left the city behind we were begowned and reclining on chaise longues in the spa’s garden, a fresh cup of tea and some moist chocolate pastries besides us, reading the newspaper as if we had nowhere to go. Time unwound.

Some time later I drank a very pink Cosmopolitan as the sun set over the mountains in a not dissimilar  shade and then we made our way to dinner at The Rambling Vine for some “fine dining”. Fine dining is not a movement that humours the “can I substitute this for that” or “I’ll have the sauce on the side” set (The vine could borrow the “This is not Sandton, dhal” sign last seen outside the Olympia Cafe — where the food is as good as the place is grimy — in Kalk Bay in December). The restaurant has an enormous selection of wines – each one unusually available by the glass because of a vacuum sealing machine that had the table talking excitedly and accepting offers of a visit to the cellar to see it in action.

Mount Grace Rambling Vine restaurant

The Rambling Vine restaurant at Mount Grace

You get to eat what the chef decides you will eat and when a great chef is in charge, it is best to leave your fate to the kitchen. It started with an amuse-bouche (I am all for this nouvelle cuisine creation, a teaser for the tastebuds) of goat’s cheese with caramelised onion, then a starter of yellowfin tuna served with warm sushi rice infused with sesame  oil. Next up was butternut risotto with truffle oil (I would go back for this – probably more than once. It was that good) followed by Chocolate Trifle. In the language of taxidermy, we were soon pleasantly stuffed.

After dinner a golf cart was summoned to take us to our luxurious room – more like a small home complete with a heated plunge pool (not so sure about all that turquoise netting though). We sat at the back, all plumped up from dinner, and the driver heard me remark that the weather had changed. He braked and jumped off the cart saying he had to collect something from someone and he hoped we didn’t mind.  Two minutes later he was back, wrapping us up in blankets for the journey.

Mount Grace Luxury Room

It was difficult to leave the next morning — not only because of our car’s flat battery.  We headed back to the city in Monday morning traffic, back to offices and meetings, email and school lifts, crime stories and grocery shopping, reminding ourselves that sometimes this city becomes so much easier to live in if you spend some time away.

* My stay at Mount Grace was courtesy of the hotel. Accommodation starts at around R1600 a night per room, B&B. Click here for more details.

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