NOT one journey from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town can pass without my husband, Glenn, regaling us with happy memories of family holidays at the Fairy Knowe Hotel in the 1960s and ’70s.
The storytelling is triggered as we drive past the Touw River in the Wilderness where the alluring, old-world lines of the historic riverside family hotel can be seen by motorists as they rumble along the N2.
At this point in our annual December trek from East London to Cape Town Glenn stops grumbling about the traffic, the cheesy music on regional radio stations and a stiff neck from too many hours on the road and goes into flashback mode about the sun-dappled summers when his parents, younger sister, older cousin and their friends would journey from their Cape Town homes and check into the Fairy Knowe for their annual hols.
Our student daughter, Anya and I have heard about the boats they rowed up the river, the old fashioned hotel dinners of steamed fish, elegant grown-up dance evenings, happy afternoons playing ping-pong and darts and Glenn’s daring diving excursions into the river which yielded rusted enamel bowls from days gone by which he then presented to his bemused mother.
So when an opportunity to visit the establishment arose, the three of us did not hesitate to book a two-night spring stay at the fabled hotel. Glenn’s reasons were sentimental; Anya and I needed a backdrop for the stories.
To say Glenn was taken aback by how little has changed at the Fairy Knowe would be an understatement because he could not stop remarking about the authentic slasto porch, the gleaming wood-panelled lobby with swing doors leading to the men’s and ladies’ and the old-school dining room with yellowwood tables and chairs – all unchanged and now decidedly retro.
But what really blew his hair back were the boats. The gaily painted rowboats which grace the perfectly manicured lawns adjoining the river are the same ones that gave him and his family so much pleasure over 40 years ago! Lovingly maintained, these boats, which have been supplemented by modern Indian-style canoes can be taken up the river right up to the Ebb and Flow resort.
Turns out Glenn is not the only sentimental visitor who staff receive at the Fairy Knowe, which has been owned by three generations of the Dumbleton family since the early part of the last century.
“We often have visitors who say they holidayed here as children or that stayed here on their honeymoon. This used to be a renowned honeymoon hotel in the 1960s,” said the hotel’s marketing manager Olga de Wit, who is part of a small new team that has taken over management of the three-star hotel, which is still owned by Bertram Dumbleton.
And although plans are afoot to modernise aspects of the hotel – our riverside room had already been upgraded with lovely white bed linen – De Wit understands that a big part of the Fairy Knowe’s charm is its old-school appeal and the fact that it has not succumbed to chain hotel blandness.
“We want to hold onto the old fashioned charm, but we want to breathe new life into the Fairy Knowe, and reposition it as a family resort hotel as well as a wedding and conference venue, because although this hotel has always been known as a honeymoon destination, it has never hosted a wedding. We are going to put in a honeymoon suite and marquee near the tennis court. It would make a stunning location for wedding photos,” said De Wit.
Keenly aware of the romantic history of the hotel, De Wit pointed out framed black and white photographs of the Fairy Knowe back in the day when then-proprietor Harold Dumbleton would permit members of 61 Air School in George to pitch their tents on the premises during World War 2.
The landing strip across the river from the hotel is now an adventure facility that offers canoe hire, kloofing and abseiling, but the RAF used to land planes on its runway for many years, adding to the allure and mystery of the Fairy Knowe.
The hotel is a short stroll away from Gallinule Bird Hide where bird watchers can quietly await the abundance of birdlife that visits the river. The Knysna loerie is said to visit daily and is just one of the 280 species that can be spotted here.
For the more energetic, bicycles can be hired at reception and pedalled along the picturesque lagoon to the quaint Wilderness village which offers several good restaurants . We tried Pomodoro Italian restaurant and the Blue Olive, both of which were superb. And, of course, the magnificent stretches of Wilderness beach are just a hop, skip and jump away if you can bring yourself to leave the tranquillity of the river.
Like the old-school resorts along the Wild Coast, The Fairy Knowe Hotel is one of the few remaining hotels that were built near water for the sheer pleasure of active, sun-drenched, no-frills family holidays.
And now, when we drive past it again, we will all have stories to tell about staying there.