A day at the races at the height of the English Season – panama hats, breezy summer dresses, champagne corks popping iwn marquees and a track so deliriously green it deserves a Queen’s Award for greenness. This must surely be Glorious Goodwood in late July.
Well, no. In fact, it’s the middle of January – one of Britain’s most joyless months – and this Edwardian-style spectacle is being played out a hemisphere away from Goodwood’s racecourse. It also possesses a backdrop unrivalled anywhere in the world: Cape Town’s Table Mountain.
Kenilworth, a smart inland suburb tucked behind the mountain’s colossal bulk, is home to South Africa’s oldest racecourse and is the venue of the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, a 1,600m equestrian encounter that celebrates its 155th event in 2016. Cape Towners love their horse racing, but as I discovered last January, it deserves to be on any visitor’s must-see list.
Photo: Getty Images
Queen’s Plate day is a fizzing part of the Cape’s social calendar in the middle of the hot South African summer. Away from the magnificent equine specimens on display, what sets the day apart is a fashion parade of the human variety. As with Glorious Goodwood and Royal Ascot, there’s a dress code for racegoers that takes its cue from a time when the race was known colloquially as the “blue and white cup”. As the locals get down to some serious betting and schmoozing, you might be tempted to stay on the sidelines – but that would be a mistake.
Before heading out, I felt I looked the part in a neatly ironed white shirt, blue pinstripe linen jacket (slightly crumpled) and M&S white trousers. But then came the moment when we learnt the results of the prize-winning best-dressed contest. Fashion scouts had earlier been scouring the crowds for the “front-runners”. I’m not sure whether bets were taken but I never got out of the stalls. Timeless elegance and haute couture were the winners on the day.
• A weekend break in Cape Town
In the paddock, the throngs disappear and genteel sophistication takes over. As the thoroughbreds glide past, the Cape Town establishment is out in force, lost in sporting concentration. It’s a scene that would grace any of the world’s classic meets – but look up and you’ll witness the eerie “Tablecloth” clouds creeping over Table Mountain before cascading into the evaporating heat.
The Queen’s Plate was the culmination of my recent trips to South Africa to explore whether it’s possible to relive the English Season “out of season”, in our winter months. A central Cape Town address is obviously essential and the Edwardian grandeur of the Mount Nelson Hotel – the Raffles of South Africa – is hard to beat. Opened in 1899 to cater for the Union Castle Line’s well-heeled first-class passengers, today’s 121-room hotel is a cluster of buildings, many with balconies, including the beautiful former Helmsley hotel.
The serenity of its “Mediterranean” gardens belie a bellicose colonial history. Within months of its opening, the hotel was taken over as the British HQ for the duration of the Boer War, its rooms occupied by Kitchener, his staff and a young war correspondent called Winston Churchill. When the war came to an end, it was painted a celebratory pink, which it has remained to this day.
The “Nellie” is unique, occupying a site between Table Mountain and Company Gardens, the colony’s first market garden established by the Dutch in 1652. As the sun’s rays streak across Table Mountain, an early evening swim in its glassy pool overlooking the bougainvillea-clad cottages of Sydenham Terrace – why Sydenham of all places? – is an unforgettable experience.
Less than half an hour’s drive away is the Newlands cricket ground, where England will play South Africa in early January. It is one of an elite group of historic grounds – including the Adelaide Oval and, of course, Lord’s in London – that lay claim to being the most beautiful in the game, in this case with Table Mountain looming behind once again. Opened in 1888, it will deliver another “English Season out of season” moment when throngs of cricket-lovers from Britain descend.
Missing the Chelsea Flower Show? There’s an inspiring destination some two hours’ drive from Cape Town that offers nature’s own flower show and goes beyond every garden-lover’s fantasy. To reach it you must take the motorway east that speeds you past the vast, sprawling lowland area of government-built townships – this is South Africa, after all. It’s tempting to behave like “the boy in the bubble” by steering clear of Cape Flats, a concrete maze of “non-white” shacks that came to be known as “apartheid’s dumping ground” in the Sixties; in truth, it would be a distortion to close your eyes to the immense social challenges that still need to be addressed here.
However, as the city’s suburbs recede, the journey around False Bay grows with every mile into one of the world’s great drives. You soon realise that Cape Town is not the only place to have a table mountain. There are dozens of them, all with their own “tablecloth” clouds. Hugging the precipitous coastline, the road funnels between a monstrous wall of orange-tinged rock on one side and a vibrant seascape, close to where the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean collide, on the other.
My destination lay not far from the southern tip of Africa. Grootbos Private Nature Reserve straddles the near-perfect crescent of Walker Bay, famed for its whale-watching in the South African winter and spring months. Its owner, Michael Lutzeyer, is a maverick, conservation-minded entrepreneur who, to my mind, is a great advertisement for South African tourism by promoting the natural beauty of Grootbos as a discreet destination for luxury travel.
Everything about Grootbos is special: Britain boasts nearly 50 indigenous flowering plant species while Michael’s 6,000-acre estate contains more than 10 times that number. On its gentle seaward slopes stretch miles of fynbos – “fine bush” in Afrikaans – as well as thousands of proteas, South Africa’s national flower, farther inland on dramatic higher ground.
The star attraction is its ancient forest of milkwood trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. Their twisted, contorted branches and delicate mosses create a fairy-tale, Tolkienesque setting. You can explore the whole lot on foot, by safari jeep, on horseback or even fly over it from the estate’s private airfield. Alternatively, you can simply sink into a summer sofa and consume the views. There’s a deep sense of peace and quiet as you gaze across the majestic panorama of Walker Bay from your secluded luxury lodge. Again, the “English Season” takes hold – like the best summer’s day you’ve ever had, energised by sparkling light.
On my last day, I’m invited with other guests to a “boma” under the milkwood trees. The enclosure is illuminated by tree lanterns and the chefs have all emerged from the main lodge restaurant to conjure up five-star dining from an outdoor kitchen. The branches sway in the night-time breeze, throwing up fantastic shadows. There’s good conversation and laughter, and a palpable calm about the place. The staff have formed a choir and towards the end of the evening they gather to sing African folk songs, some sad, others full of ribald humour. This is where the “English Season” stops: a BBC Proms choir at the Albert Hall it isn’t, but as we settle into our chairs to listen, fine Cape wines weaving their spell, we’re drawn to a happiness and love of life that’s genuinely infectious.
A 16-day South Africa escorted tour, with a Kruger National Park safari trip, costs from £1,999 per person. Includes return flight and internal flight, accommodation and all guided tours with an experienced tour manager. Valid for travel between January and November 2016 0333 005 9001; telegraph.co.uk/southafrica-tour.
Mark Skipworth travelled with British Airways (ba.com), which offers direct flights to Cape Town from Heathrow, with return fares from £705. Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) also flies direct from Heathrow.
Where to stay
The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel at 76 Orange St, Gardens, Cape Town, has a convenient location. Cross the road and you enter the city via the Company Gardens, a delightful stroll that takes you past museums and shaded lawns into the bustling centre. The hotel’s grounds e urban surrounds (0027 21 483 1000;belmond.com/mount-nelson-hotel-cape-town; doubles from £265 including breakfast). To read the full review and to book, go totelegraph.co.uk/mountnelson