By Brian Hayward.
While the Garden Route might attract much negative attention for being overdeveloped and commercial, a mere 10km along a dusty dirt road off the N2 at Storms River will lead you to an isolated paradise with some of the most breathtaking natural vistas in the country.
Voted the runner-up in the best B&B category countrywide by Getaway magazine in September, The Fernery and its staff have good reason to stand tall. All the staff are local and have been trained up by owners Meg and Frans Gerber over the years. Despite the good service and delicious five-course meals indicating the skill of trained professionals, Meg assured me all her staff were not proteges of a top chefs or products of hotel schools, but rather locals - some of whom had no formal education higher than a Grade 7. "Every month we bring in a chef to teach the kitchen staff a new menu or dish," she said. "We have heard chefs can be quite temperamental and working with loyal staff is something which is very important to us."
The four-star lodge is built on a cliff overlooking the Sanddrift River mouth and the ocean in a gorge filled with the sounds of cascading waterfalls and crashing waves.
Opened in the early 2000, The Fernery began as luxury chalets with a day-centre and restaurant bourne more of necessity after the Gerber's primary business of exporting ferns became well-known amongst inquisitive locals and visitors. The lodge was also a project 10-years in the making - taking four years to plan and a further six to execute - finally opening as part-home to the Gerbers and part luxury B&B accommodation to visitors in 2004.
One of the reasons the lodge has maintained its sense of secrecy is because it is very much off the beaten track - some 9kms of bumpy dirt road off the N2 which runs past Storms River and onto Plettenberg Bay.
Arriving at the lodge late on Friday night my wife, Taryn, and I were rather tired and disorientated and it was only upon opening the curtains of our suite the following morning that we were taken aback. Large windows overlooked a brilliantly unspoilt gorge where waterfalls crashed far down and the river meandered into the sea. From the balcony of the lodge one is greeted with the spanning vistas of the ocean on the one side and forested, bushy cliffs on the other. "Who needs the forest walks and other activities when you can just sit back and enjoy views like this," I wondered.
Regaling us with stories on the origins of The Fernery - an off-shoot of the larger Forest Ferns company which exports in the region of 600 tons of fern each year to markets abroad for use in bouquets of flowers and other such floral designs - Frans explained the rationale behind the multi-layered lodge. "After discussing plans with the architect, we began building on the cliff side but ended up with the area for the front door obscured by a large rock," he said. "So we decided to build another level."
Going with the flow worked in their favour and has resulted in a multi-layered labyrinth where the turn of each corner leads to either the sauna, gym, lookout deck, pizza room, pool deck, kitchen, sitting room, wine cellar or adjacent dining area where meals are simply an accompaniment to the beautiful views. Each room makes the most of the natural views with large floor-to-ceiling windows allowing in as much natural light as possible while wooden finishings give the illusion of a building at one with nature.
The opening of The Fernery coincided with the opening of the luxury Dolphin Trail - the brainchild of Frans - where guests, starting at the Tsitsikamma National Park at Storms River, have their luggage portered for them while exploring 17kms of coastline and over-nighting in four-star chalets along the way after enjoying surprise forest picnics, finishing up at The Fernery.
Much has changed since the Gerbers settled on their farm, an inheritance from Meg's dad who realised its potential after the building of the Storms River bridge in the 1950's. "When we first moved here in 1985 from Johannesburg we had no electricity and no running water," said Meg.
Now, accommodating more than 500 Dolphin Trail hikers each year and many more foreign and local tourists at The Fernery Lodge, about 90 thousand litres of water is treated daily for both visitors and for The Fernery nursery where ferns are grown from spores for the local market.