A French-accented retreat in South Africa’s wine country

Alexander Matthews on the exclusive escape you’ll want to return to again — and again.

Any writer will tell you that literary festivals are the best of times and the worst of times.

The best because as you go from one panel discussion to the next, you’re getting a heady dose of inspiration and titillation. And where else would get to tuck into scones with bestselling authors while you eavesdrop on lit scene gossip?

But festivals are also the worst because if you’re an introvert like I am (and like many writers are) you’ll find the relentless interaction with people utterly exhausting – almost enough to make you apply for a six-month writing residency in the Bering Straits.

The Franschhoek Literary Festival, held every May, is the grand dame of South African literary festivals. It’s given a distinctly bookish flavour to a village far better known for its mouth-watering combination of food, wine and hospitality – all wedged between towering mountains in the heart of the Cape Winelands region.

Ever since French Huguenots arrived here more than 300 years ago, fleeing from religious persecution, Franschhoek – “French Corner” – has been a place of refuge. While visitors are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to places to lay their head, my absolute favourite is La Clé des Montagnes – a collection of private villas on the outskirts of the village.

I’ve been blessed to stay here for two festivals, and on both occasions La Clé has offered a marvellous respite from the busyness of the weekend. Overlooking rippling blue mountains, each of its four villas combines five-star hospitality in elegant, characterful and homely spaces decorated by Sarah Ord.


La Gallerie’s garden and pool.

La Clé is certainly not just ideal for tired-out writers attending a festival: this is a place perfect for family get-togethers anytime of the year – but particularly in December when the days are hot enough for the kids to plunge into the pool.

I stayed in La Galerie (sleeps 4) – which has dark gray walls adorned by an array of artworks. You’d be hard pressed to find a more sophisticated set of rooms in Paris.

Then, Le Colonial (sleeps 8): a vibrantly colourful blend of Moroccan and east African influences, and a nod to the aesthetics of Out of Africa.


La Colonial’s living room.


La Clé is not just about good looks and nap-worthy sofas, though: what made an impression on both visits was the calibre of the staff. The team of butlers are discreet but always helpful – always ready to light a fire or pour you a glass of the establishment’s crisp bubbly.

If you don’t feel like making use of your villa’s kitchen (where you can also request a chef to whip something up for you), the village, with its myriad eating options is only a short stroll away. Your butler can also arrange visits to a few of the 40 plus wineries that sprinkle the valley. Tempting as all that gourmandising may be, you’d be forgiven if you chose to snuggle up with a good read on your verandah and listen to the sleepy sounds of the valley instead. Bliss.

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