Arcadia: view from a deck.
A resort a few hours from Cape Town, has become an agent of ecological and social change, writes Alison Stewart.
Is this paradise? Sun setting across the Atlantic, pink and gold mountains, the calls of orange-breasted sunbirds, fragrant indigenous vegetation, distant Cape of Good Hope disappearing into dusk, our own luxury freestanding eyrie with ridiculous views perched on the edge of a 1500-year-old milkwood forest.
Not paradise, but close to it. This is Grootbos (big forest), a 2500-hectare private nature reserve two hours' drive from Cape Town that newcomers could be forgiven for thinking is merely a sophisticated five-star luxury eco-lodge, the ultimate weekender.
Plant species include the king protea.
It is certainly that but this award-winning botanical wonderland, with its 27 freestanding suites, two main lodges and a separate villa, is also ecotourism as high art - nature conservation, responsible tourism and community development all rolled into one sleek package.
Grootbos, says English botanist David Bellamy, "is the best example of conservation of biodiversity I have ever seen".
It had modest beginnings. Owner and founder Michael Lutzeyer bought a farm in 1991 which included the Grootbos indigenous milkwood forest. He envisaged bucolic family holidays beyond the Cape's Hottentots Holland Mountains on the fertile Overberg plains, but his vision changed. He saw the potential for luxury ecotourism and bought seven more farms, registering the land as a private nature reserve.
With the help of botanist Sean Privett, who became Grootbos' first fynbos (indigenous plant) guide and conservation manager in 1997, the Lutzeyers restored the indigenous fynbos. Now Grootbos is home to 760 species of plants, including six that are new to science, and is a precious gem of floral diversity.
There are two lodges on the property - the original Garden Lodge with its 11 freestanding suites is a stone, thatch and timber retreat with mountain and sea views. It is luxurious but still family-friendly, near the 17-horse stables and rabbit, duck and bird-breeding play area.
The newer Forest Lodge is an architectural masterpiece of contemporary design - 16 enormous luxury suites with panoramic views, all designed for total relaxation and pampering, spread along the ridge between ancient milkwoods.
A Grootbos suite.
We inhabit number 36, which, like the others, has a massive sitting room with log fire, enormous bedroom with canopy bed, similarly sized bathroom, walk-in wardrobe, large deck with outdoor shower, and underfloor heating.
But all this elegant largesse is dwarfed by what is outside the floor to ceiling glass - hazy mountains to left and right, pristine fynbos tumbling down towards the dunes of Walker Bay and the town of De Kelders, a world-renowned spot for land-based whale watching. The whales hug the shore to calve between July and November.
To our left, along the cobbled paths that wind between the milkwoods and fynbos, is the main lodge with its breathtaking wingspan roof. It perches like a giant raptor preparing to launch itself across the Atlantic, which sweeps from nearby Cape Agulhas, Africa's true southernmost point, to False Bay and Cape Town.
This impressive building represents a forest with its columns and timber structural roof. Furnished in earth tones, its high-ceilinged spaces include restaurant, lounges, outdoor decks and an infinity pool.
At first glance, Grootbos looks costly, especially for locals not blessed with a strong foreign currency. But it operates as a fully catered lodge with a wide variety of activities included - more of an experience than an accommodation package.
Included are meals and guided safaris, either by foot, horse or four-wheel-drive, guided walks through the milkwood forest, whale watching, and guided exploration of the nearby Klipgat Cave, which gives insight into prehistoric times, changing climates and sea levels during more than 60,000 years. Then there are the social responsibility tours - more on these later.
Extras include air and boat-based whale watching as well as shark cage diving at nearby Gansbaai - reputedly the "white shark capital of the world".
Chef Duane Lewis uses local organic produce for lovely meals at Forest Lodge's Red Indigo Restaurant and Garden Lodge's The Garden.
Apart from being passionate about conserving biodiversity, Grootbos also supports the local community, providing an example of the positive impact tourism can have - which brings me to Grootbos' strong belief in social responsibility.
Michael Lutzeyer, aware that his luxury resort sat in uncomfortable proximity to local poverty, created the Grootbos Foundation in 2004 to run Grootbos' environmental and social development program. Goals were to conserve the area's biodiversity and create sustainable, nature-based livelihoods in surrounding communities.
The Green Futures Horticultural and Life Skills College sprang from this. It trains local unemployed young people to work in horticulture, landscape gardening and eco-tourism. Grootbos' guides are graduates and it's well worth taking the sustainable tour. Bongani Mjokwemi, 24, a senior guide well-versed in fynbos and the Grootbos ecosystem, says the program has given him the chance to "live my dream and follow my passions".
Another Green Futures graduate, Anecke Valentine, shares her comprehensive knowledge of Grootbos' complex ecosystem on our four-wheel-drive nature safari. We are fortunate that Christoff Langland is our Klipgat Cave guide. To him, Grootbos is "a magical, ever-changing place . . . They say once you have been touched by Africa, you will always return."
Grootbos also trains 12 local women each year in food production. Their produce - delicious fynbos honey, fresh daily eggs and milk, a bounty of fruit and vegetables - is used for Grootbos meals and surplus goes to the women as well as a soup kitchen.
Michael Lutzeyer has also built a world-class sporting facility for locals including a FIFA-grade football pitch.
There are other programs including sponsoring nest boxes on nearby Dyer Island and a tree-planting program.
All of which explain why Grootbos has no complex security system - the local people look after the place they consider part of their lives.
The writer was a guest of Wesgro.
South African Airways has a fare to Cape Town for about $1850 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly Qantas to Perth to connect with SA to Johannesburg (11hr 30min) and then to Cape Town (2hr 10min); see www.flysaa.com.au. Australians can stay up to 90 days visa-free.
Rent a car and drive along the R44, one of South Africa's top scenic coastal routes. You will go through Gordon's Bay and Kogelberg Nature Reserve. Visit the African Penguin breeding colony at Stony Point, Betty's Bay, then the seaside town of Hermanus. At Kleinmond take the R43 to Grootbos.
Grootbos suites from R1645 to R4450 ($178-$483) a person a night sharing, includes full board and land-based activities. A six-suite private villa with chef, butler, activities and guide comes from R40,000-R70,000 a night. See grootbos.com/en/home/
More information: wesgro.co.za