Cavort among the elephants, then head for a G&T and an afternoon nap
THE name Elephant House may be evocative but even more so is its deep veranda, set with comfy sofas and ringing with the clink-clink of ice in tall tumblers of Pimm’s.
Overlooking a pretty courtyard where sunbirds hover among pink aloe flowers and a languid hound saunters like a lion across the lawn, the long veranda is one of countless pleasures of this charming nineroom lodge on the cusp of the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
Addo is one of the country’s conservation success stories, providing a sanctuary for elephants that survived the destruction of the cape’s great herds early last century. When Addo opened in 1931 it was home to 11 elephants; today they number in their hundreds, together with lions, buffaloes, black rhinos and hyenas.
The park was recently extended to the coast, helping to shore up the Eastern Cape’s claim to the Big Seven national parks. For determined wildlife enthusiasts, to lions, buffaloes, leopards, rhinos and elephants can be added southern right whales and great white sharks.
Back at Elephant House we are focusing on the big three: gin, tonic and an afternoon nap, a policy actively encouraged by Clive and Anne Read, who opened this charming hostelry in 1999 following a spot of ad hoc market research.
Horse breeders and long-time residents of the rich Sundays River Valley, the Reads, working in their paddocks one day, were struck by the constant stream of tourist traffic enroute to Addo.
What was needed, they decided, was a wayside inn.
The farmhouse-style hotel they subsequently built feels as if it might have been here for a century. It has a highpitched thatched roof, skeins of creepers and country-style verandas scattered with African artefacts, and the walls are hung with grainy photos of pioneering ancestors in full safari kit.
The gardens are a delight (with two large swimming pools), marked by banks of ethereal aloe, hedges of spekboom or porkbush (a staple for the elephants), and shady trees strung with sunbird nests dangling festively like Christmas baubles.
The public rooms are scattered with Persian carpets and furnished with antiques, family photos and various horseracing memorabilia.
‘‘ We wanted it to feel like home, like returning to your grandparents’ farm,’’ Clive says, ‘‘ and nothing makes me happier than seeing a guest with his feet propped on the coffee table.’’
This sense of home is reinforced by the Elephant House’s wonderful staff, all local (chef Linda has been with the hotel since its opening) and always on hand but never in the way.
The stable doors to each of the suites are generally left unlocked and guests have the run of the house to help themselves to books from the library or rustle up a quick post-safari Pimm’s.
Guest suites feature a separate sitting room hung with curious old botanical and wildlife prints. Beds are dressed with monogrammed linen and every evening at turn-down housekeepers leave, in lieu of a chocolate, a charming African story.
At 6.30pm, champagne and canapes are served in the bar and if you are lucky enough to be in residence on a Wednesday or Saturday, you’ll be treated to a highenergy dance performance by a troupe of astonishingly talented students from nearby Patterson. So joyous is this impromptu concert, the hotel staff all turn out to sing, whistle and stamp their feet.
Afterwards a quiet dinner is served in the veranda restaurant. Linda’s food is simple but delicious; roast chicken and locally grown vegetables sing with flavour.
Elephant House runs its own safaris into Addo, led by an in-house elephant expert (alternatively, you can join one of the park’s many daily scheduled tours).
There is no guarantee of spotting an elephant, but before we have travelled 500m we have seen four. And then they are everywhere, sauntering through the spekboom, wallowing in waterholes. The only creature more numerous is the charismatic warthog.
After spending three or four hot and dusty hours with the elephants, it’s wonderful to return to the cool, shady grounds of Elephant House for a swim, then a snooze on one of those deep veranda sofas.
The Reads intend to make this retreat even more exclusive (reducing the room inventory to seven) in September, when they open a new, more budget-conscious hotel across the road. Their growing hotel empire also includes the Windermere boutique digs in nearby Port Elizabeth. Christine McCabe was a guest of Elephant House and South African Tourism.
Elephant House, PO Box 82, Addo, 6105, South Africa. Phone +27 42 233 2462; www.elephanthouse.co.za. Tariff: Low season B & B rates from R750 ($103) a person; three-course dinner, R190. Getting there: A comfortable 45-minute drive from Port Elizabeth. Checking in: Couples from home and abroad. Wheelchair access: Most amenities are on one level and two guestrooms can be adapted. Bedtime reading: TheStoryofBabar by Jean de Brunhoff. Stepping out: A good selection of tours operate from the lodge, including day trips to private reserves, canoeing, elephantback safaris, helicopter sightseeing and cultural, historical and agricultural rambles across the Sundays River Valley. Brickbats: More bathroom unguents in the rooms, please. Bouquets: Complimentary massages, manicures and pedicures in season (October to May).
Time out: Elephant House’s airy veranda is the perfect spot after a day on safari