‘Let me get this straight, you say they’ve bought some miniature horses off eBay?’ asks Mr Smith when I relay what the charming manager at this luxury hideaway has just told me. Mr Smith’s eyes are on stalks when I tell him that apparently they’re getting some zebra to put in a paddock. La Residence’s setting amid a fertile Winelands landscape of blueish evergreen-sprinkled mountains and lush vined valleys is thrill enough. ‘Did they tap into my mind while I was sleeping here to make this my actual dream hotel?’ asks a chap who’s clearly watched too much sci-fi. I put it down to him still reeling from the discovery that the drinks and snacks in our Bentley-sized mirrored cabinet in our private villa are complimentary. ‘What even the bottle of Johnny Walker?’ he gasps ‘And all those sweets?’
La Residence couldn’t be accused of doing things insouciantly. We’ve been here a day and barely a moment passes without this luxury Franschhoek hotel, or one of its considerate members of staff, slipping us a surprise or a treat. There was the champagne on ice in our villa’s opulent red-and-gold Persian-carpeted boudoir-cum-sitting room. The discovery of the table of toys and children’s toiletries for our little one in her private first-floor suite was tantamount to Charlie's when he won his golden ticket to the chocolate factory. We returned from the fit-for-a-king breakfast to find our cases unpacked and clothes perfectly hung and folded. We asked about suncream, and next thing someone had been to the village to buy the right factor for us. Before la Residence, I thought getting a babysitter organised in the blink of an eye was a pipe dream.
Indeed, thanks to Naledi coming to the rescue, Mr Smith and I are now on a sofa at La Residence’s main house, sipping pale pink house bubbly gazing at the kind of violet sky you’d look at on a postcard and roll your eyes at how fake it looked. No wonder they lay on the champers: with no shortage of things to toast, we mull over how ridiculously relaxing our final days of holiday are thanks to spending them at this Royal Portfolio residence.
Rolling into our mini private drive the night before, it had seemed impossible that the palatial art-filled duplex (one of six opened in 2011) was our very own house. Ordering a light supper from room service in no time elicited polished cloches and a ta-da of zingy, imaginative seasonal salads at a table resplendent in fresh flowers. In-room eating doesn’t get more romantic. (For less than the cost of a canteen lunch back home too, observed the ever spreadsheet-minded Mr Smith). Bridging the time between supper and sleep? A ballroom-sized bathroom with a huge freestanding tub for me, a Pavarotti-proportioned shower for him, an orgy of Charlotte Rhys toiletries, then a whirl with the home cinema.
My first taste of La Residence’s charms was back in 2006 when it was still at Liz Biden’s original country-house retreat. Hearing she’d sold my favourite of all the hotels we filmed for our ‘Smith Hotels for 2’ series for the Discovery Channel had been disappointing. I never imagined her new-build version on a nearby plot of land, even lavished with antiques, art and soft furnishings, could recreate a rendezvous to rival those cherished memories. I confess the terracotta-toned exterior today isn’t as charming as that of the last historical manor, but is the experience still extraordinary? Above and beyond. The attention to detail, the explosion of extravagant decor and nothing-is-too-much-trouble TLC made our two nights in the Winelands unforgettable all over again. No wonder so many of La Residence’s guests return – be it from Johannesburg, Asia or America. Best of all, now they can bring their whole entourage, however young, thanks to the private villas.
The 11-suite main house is a mini, modern Versailles within a contemporary shell, with interiors that are pure romance: everywhere the eye comes to rest there’s an objet recherché, an exotic antique from India, Indochina or Tibet, or one of the beautiful canvases that make up an astonishing art collection worth several billion rand. As this is an adults-only playground, when they developed the villas they also created its own clubhouse with mountain-view infinity pool. We were even lucky enough to have that to ourselves for our stay – everyone else was out horse riding or wine-estate touring.
Back to us sipping that house bubbly at dusk, savouring about as heart-stirring an evening as I’ve known. These aren’t honeymooning or anniversary-marking Mr & Mrs Smiths – this is a mum and dad holidaying with their four-year-old. When the sun finally disappears behind the mountain ridges, we head in for more delicious time as a twosome. There are only a few tables in the gilded, chandeliered dining room – enough to make it exciting and have an atmosphere, but sufficiently spread apart for you to whisper sweet nothings to each other without making your neighbours blush. Should conversation stall, there’s distraction in the edifying inch-thick wine list.
Franschhoek is celebrated internationally for its incredible restaurants – la Petite Ferme, Quartier Français and Reubens – but we couldn’t have been happier staying put. After saluting the freshest, most flavoursome vegetables I’ve ever tasted (presented so beautifully I drove Mr Smith mad sharing those moments with Twitter), I filled our glasses with a world-class local chenin blanc for a final toast. ‘Please can we come back to see the miniature horses?’
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Smith extra at La Residence
A Franschhoek Valley wine tasting in the La Residence's private cellar