APRIL 2013 – An award-winning wellness and wildlife retreat set in the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, Karkloof Spa is a sanctuary of relaxation and rejuvenation. Its world-class spa centre is the most spacious in Africa, yet it feels both intimate and exclusive, with an internationally experienced team of Thai therapists offering expert treatments to soothe and revive. The lodge offers a luxurious retreat from urban life and the chance to restore and recharge body, mind and soul.
Within 20 minutes of leaving the city traffic behind, nature takes over. The road winds through dappled trees, grasses sway and the views and valleys emerge. Flat-topped acacia trees appear and then the dirt road gives way to a shallow river crossing – the first of three on entering Karkloof’s reserve. The sound of water is everywhere at Karkloof and is part of the healing journey that subtly begins to calm and soothe the traveller on arrival. A ride on a golf cart through the 3 500 hectare reserve takes you quietly on the gently winding road to the main lodge, nestled discreetly up on the hillside with a view over the winding river towards the 105-metre-high Karkloof Falls, the highest waterfall on the property. Rhinos graze peacefully and warthogs skitter about, tails held high, as you swoosh past. The bustle of urban life is forgotten and your journey has begun.
Once deep in the valley, the route winds steeply up a hill until the road curves around and above the spa itself, nestled in a hollow of land surrounded by ancient rock figs, with the outline of its grass-covered roofs the only clue that there’s a building below it. A testament to its eco ethos, the spa was built with the help of the community and designed to blend in with the environment – an aspect that has delighted the animals as much as it has intrigued visitors from all over the world, as it’s not uncommon to find antelope or even a giraffe nibbling new shoots while standing on the roof. What lies beneath is a first-class, Asian inspired spa, conceived by owner Fred Worner, who has experienced first-class spas worldwide. As many travellers now do, he always books into a hotel that includes a spa as part of its offering and he has translated much of his extensive travel research into this property, giving it the edge over many others. But most importantly, great care has been taken to ensure that the guests feel that service is as exceptional as it is unobtrusive.
When planning the spa, he took great care to make sure that all the thoughtful touches he remembered from his own favourite spa experiences were included here. It’s no wonder then that Karkloof’s spa concept is nothing short of perfection. What makes it unique is its sheer size – yet the organic shapes and structures as well as the natural materials used throughout make it welcoming and warm. It spreads out over a vast area that’s interconnected with thatch-covered pathways, giving time for reflection between massages, sauna sessions and leisure time in the expansive hydrotherapy area with its bubbling Roman bath, hot and cold Kniep pools, aromatic steam rooms and sauna. Six treatment areas reflect the landscape: Savannah, Wetlands, Forest, Tranquillity, Reflections and Thai Sala – space that reflects the Asian indoor/outdoor aesthetic so well. Each of these areas is covered by a ‘living roof’, literally grassed over and blending seamlessly into the surrounding environment – so much so that the spa is barely visible from the valley below.
And while the spa may be fully booked, guests never feel a lack of spaciousness because all the peaceful treatment areas, tranquillity rooms and pools are so spread out. Even the manis and pedis are done in a separate wing, where an airy manicure and pedicure lounge with fold-back doors reveals expansive views out over the reserve. The gentle sounds of water and the wildlife setting have been absorbed into the design wherever possible, adding a healing presence.
The lodge itself is within walking distance of the spa, but spa day packages allow the visitor to fully enjoy the reserve while maintaining the privacy of the lodge residents. With 500 hectares set aside for walking, bird watching, hiking or mountain biking and a further 3 000 hectares to explore on guided game drives, Karkloof offers guests the option to do as little or as much as they want.
No expense has been spared at Karkloof’s boutique lodge, with its mix of African colonial decor where a blend of antiques and contemporary pieces is offset by hand-blown glass, woven kilims and Venetian mirrors. Guests head for the outdoor lounges to relax with a sundowner or gather in the cosy library or around the crackling fire before dinner. The romantic restaurant, headed by chef Ciaran McCarthy, offers two menus – a lighter health menu of delicious and beautifully presented raw foods or a more indulgent gourmet menu. Both are complemented with wines from the superb wine list. Of course, no one minds if you mix the two! But for those who wish to detox or to continue with a holistic spa experience, the raw food menu is an absolute treat.
The private, individual villas are a short stroll from the main lodge and once under the canopy of stars it feels as if your time at Karkloof has already been a fulfilling journey for the soul. Walking up the wooden walkway and across the veranda to the front door of the villa with its welcoming interior softly lit for the evening, it becomes evident just how much thought has gone into the guests’ stay. A complimentary bar is stocked with a selection of refreshments and drinks, and silk-bagged tea and an array of Nespresso espresso choices mean that you never have to call for room service to interrupt your private reverie. A flatscreen television is discreetly hidden and for those who still need to keep in touch with the outside world, there’s complimentary wireless access. Walk through into the spacious bathrooms with a large bath and shower and a view outdoors. Oversized beds with plumpedup duvets and pillows are perfectly placed to experience sunrise. It’s no wonder that Fred Worner’s favourite tip for guests is to open all the windows and pull back the shutters at night (you might hear the animals grazing nearby but you’ll be quite safe!), snuggle under the duvet and wait for the sunshine to kiss your cheeks in the morning. The sun rising over the flat-topped acacias and slowly warming up the valley below is a blissful sight.
A short game drive in the valley followed by an invigorating walk to the Karkloof Falls before breakfast is the most exhilarating way to start the day. The walk begins in natural forest and continues over the river and rocks on a recycled wood-fibre walkway to protect the undergrowth. The path culminates at the foot of the dramatic falls that pound the rocks below. In summer, the rock pools invite refreshing swims and picnics can be set up with ease. The game drive takes you past a fish eagle’s favourite lair and through ever-changing vegetation to the valley where zebra, giraffe and a host of animals sun themselves in the early morning rays. The mist-belt forest is home to the unusual samango monkey and Knysna loerie, and the mix of dolomite cliffs and open grassland with three rivers flowing through it gives the visitor a wide range of game-viewing possibilities and activities.
There are no fixed schedules at Karkloof Spa, so if the birdlife is fascinating or guests have spotted something special on the game drive, there’s no need to be concerned. All meal times are flexible at the lodge – meals are something that Fred believes should be organised entirely around the guest’s schedule – as are the spa treatments. And with an early-morning dose of fresh air and exercise, breakfast is always a languid affair on the decks in the shade of the trees before you head to the spa for more soporific treatments. The intuitive Thai masseurs – so intuitive, in fact, that they can adapt their massage style to suit your emotional and physical needs – spend some time getting to know you and then gently work their magic. Tensions disappear under their nurturing hands, and the combined effect of water and steam slowly works to invigorate the body and restore balance. A session with one of these therapists is best followed by some reflective time in the pools, followed by a session in the tranquillity room with its beautiful outdoor views. And so the cycle continues – one that can be enjoyed throughout your holiday or as a day spa visitor.
A stay at Karkloof is indeed a journey of peace and tranquillity, a healing balm for the soul. So it’s no surprise that Karkloof’s holistic approach – to its guests and in its commitment to environmentally friendly practices – has garnered praise from all corners of the world; visitors have been astonished at the sense of timelessness that is quickly experienced in this gentle bushveld retreat where Fred believes that ‘luxury is a palette of choices set within the bounty of open spaces.’
Voted ‘Leading African Wellness Retreat’ by Amarula Best Retreats in Africa Award 2009 and Tatler’s ‘Most Exciting New Discovery for 2009’. Now a proud member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux.