While many people like to spend their hard earned Rands on glamorous trips around the globe I much prefer to spend it on things that are little more off the beaten track. There is so much to see and do in this beautiful country of ours and the best part is it’s just a drive or a flight away! A few weeks ago the boyfriend and I spent a magical week road tripping around the country – 3000 kms and 3 provinces later we returned with nothing but hope for the future of our country. If you’re feeling a little bit disillusioned with where things are going in South Africa then the best thing for you to do is explore our country – head to the small dorpies and the hidden gems and you will have a new-found love and respect for South Africa, I promise! First on your list should be the village of Nieu-Bethesda in the Eastern Cape. We popped in for one night and while you might not think there is much to see in a village with just a handful of streets and a population of 79 people in the main village, we found that one night was not nearly enough!
The little village at the foot of the Sneeuberge, is literally in the middle of nowhere. Located about 50 kilometres from Graaff Reinet, Nieu-Bethesda was founded as a church town in 1875 and today is famous for the Owl House and its now deceased resident, artist Helen Martins. I must confess, like most people who visit this sleepy little spot, the artist’s former home was my main reason for wanting to visit, but once you’ve explored the museum there’s so much more to keep you coming back again and again. In fact, I have a friend who regularly visits the village for a week at a time just to soak up the peace and quiet that you simply cannot find in the city. In Nieu-Bethesda time stands still – there’s no traffic, nowhere to rush to and no diaries to fill and for us city folk it’s a welcome change to the fast-paced lifestyles we lead. No really, this place is so chilled out it even gives Cape Town a run for its money!
Just over 7 hours from both Cape Town and Johannesburg, the village is a popular destination wedding spot for those who have family coming from all over the country and is more than worth the drive. After a peaceful 5 hour drive from Jeffrey’s Bay we arrived in Nieu-Bethesda just in time for lunch. We checked in at our guest house, The Four Season’s Country House, where we would be staying for the night and then headed out on the town.
Surprisingly there are plenty of places to eat in the village and after some umming and aahing we settled on a spot called the Ibis Lounge. The quirky restaurant-come-guest house is a great place to soak up some small town hospitality and shop up a storm at the same time. We sat outside on the stoep, where we could watch the people go by on the main drag and dined on the most delicious Jaffles (because why not). After a long leisurely lunch we popped inside to explore the handmade goodies available in the gift shop of the restaurant. It’s a great place to get gifts for family and friends and spoil yourself, of course.
From there it was on to the Owl House. I had heard so much about the spot from friends that I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. The late Helen Martins spent the latter part of her life transforming her ordinary little Karoo home into a wonderous world of colour and light – windows were replaced with coloured glass, walls were meticulously plastered with crushed glass in all the colours of the rainbow and her garden was filled with concrete and ground glass sculptures to create her own little world. The extraordinary, other-worldly home of Helen Martins is often cited as South Africa’s finest example of outsider art and is something you have to see to believe. At just R50 per person for adults and kids, the Owl House is a must-visit when in Nieu-Bethesda.
After our visit to the Owl House we spent a little while exploring the rest of the village and happened across an honesty shop on the stoep of a nearby house. I spent ages looking at all the little hand-made goodies on offer and finally settled on a jar of delicious Karoo honey. I put my money in the cash register (teapot) provided and left elated with my purchase. It’s things like that little honesty shop that make small towns so fabulous!
Another highlight of our visit was, of course the guest house we stayed in! The Four Seasons Country House has just three guest bedrooms and offers guests a little bit of luxury and lots of small town charm in the Karoo. With its blossoming rose garden in the front yard, ivy-covered stoep and wooden floors, doors and windows the beautiful old karoo house is like something out of a fairytale. It’s too beautiful for words and is probably the most romantic place you can stay in the village. The entire house is decorated with the most beautiful antique furniture and is chock full of charm. Our room was absolutely stunning – it had huge windows looking out onto the rose garden at the front of the house, a luxurious four-poster bed, a huge bathroom, and double French doors leading out into the back garden of the guest house. We also had free reign of the rest of the house which offered a dining room, sitting room with a fireplace and a lounge area with a TV.
That night we enjoyed an incredible dinner at the guest house restaurant – Alfresco Pizzeria. It’s the only pizza joint in town and they serve the best pizza in the country! No really, the boyfriend and I are obsessed with pizza and this was one of the best we have ever had! The pizzas are made with a hand-rolled thin based crust which comes out of the oven crispy and ready to be devoured. The menu at Alfresco Pizzeria offers everything from a classic Focaccia (R40) to more exciting creations like the Tre Formaggio (a rich cheesy affair with onions, Gorgonzola, mature cheddar, and mozzarella – R90) and the Island Style Pollo (pan tossed chicken topped with peppers and pineapple – R90). The eatery also whips up a different pasta dish each night for those who don’t feel like tucking into a pizza. The pizzeria is also open for private functions and guests can either be hosted in the pizzeria or downstairs in the private wine cellar, if they’re looking for something more exclusive.
The next morning, before we left, we were treated to breakfast under the majestic Weeping Willow tree in the garden of The Four Seasons Country House. It was the most serene spot to enjoy a meal and I quickly understood why the table under the Willow Tree was the most sought-after spot at the guest house. They even host private functions under the tree for guests who want a peaceful outdoor setting. As for the food, the staff cooked up the most delicious 2-course breakfast for us, complete with fruit and muesli to start followed by eggs, toast, mushrooms, bacon and grilled tomatoes. It was the perfect way to end our short but memorable stay in the village.
While many might see the sleepy town as nothing more than a fascinating one-night stop on the way to and from somewhere else, in the end we left Nieu-Bethesda wanting more. There was so much we didn’t get to do – like have lunch and a few beers at the Sneeuberg Brewery, experience the Fossil Safari and rock art walk, follow one of the many hiking trails up the mountain, or just spend the afternoon doing nothing but reading on the stoep and enjoying a pot of tea. Luckily, there will be plenty of time for all that next time we visit … and there will be a next time!
For more on the Four Season’s Country House visit their website.
For more information on Nieu-Bethesda visit the Nieu-Bethesda tourism website.
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After years of working as an Editor and writer for popular websites like Joburg’s Darling, Cape Town’s Darling and Joburg.co.za, Crystal left her sanity and an established career in lifestyle journalism behind to follow her dream of creating a website for the intellectual and discerning woman. Today she spends her time chasing the thrill of being the first to know about ‘the next big thing’. She’ll try anything once and has been known to put her body, hair and health on the line – all in the name of research.