Text Naomi Larkin Photographs Naashon Zalk, Phantom Forest Eco Reserve
The metal gate to Phantom Forest Eco Reserve carries a caricature of a pot-bellied pig blissfully passed out in a hammock, its head skyward. It’s unlikely to be an appropriate summation of how you feel when you arrive. Rather it’s a portent of how you will feel when you leave.
Chances are you’ve chosen this destination, on the outskirts of Knysna in the Western Cape, to rest, rejuvenate and to just escape from the stresses of work and life. There are no TVs, Blu-rays or radios. Cellphone reception is intermittent and Wi-Fi is only available in the Eyrie – a kind of common room, which is a walk of varying distances from the suites. You have to leave your car in the parking just beyond the pig’s gate at the bottom of the hill, so there’s no driving on the agenda. No one can telephone or somehow ‘buzz’ you in your room. If this doesn’t sound like a romantic, relaxing, reflective dream-come-true getaway, then stop reading now. Because if you do spend a decent amount of time at Phantom Forest Eco Reserve, you are going to be that pig. You are going to unwind to the point of nonchalance. You will find yourself prone, in a hammock, eyes closed. And then there’s the belly aspect – the food. Lots of it. Try as you might, there’ll be daily feasts with stuff you just can’t resist eating.
When owner Kit Stewart first saw this spot comprising three biospheres in the 137 hectares– rare Afromontane forest, Cape coastal fynbos and estuarine wetland – there were no roads, buildings or infrastructure to support what is now a 14-suite lodge. ‘I thought, I can do this but I’m not a hotelier and I have to run it my way,’ she says. Electricity, a road, water reticulation, and private sewerage plant – ‘that was a challenge’ – all had to be installed. And, she wanted to do it with as little an impact on the land and forest as possible, hence the ‘eco’ tag to the name. Accommodation is divided into three categories: Classic Tree Suites, Upper Tree Camp and Moroccan Tree Suites, all linked by a boardwalk laid out in a figure of eight through the forest. (Kit owns 16 hectares on a slope. The rest, which guests have access to, is run as through a Trust.)
Conservation techniques were utilised in the build. No wet cement was allowed near the ground. Instead a ‘foot’ was put into the earth with a pole on top and stones and boulders laid around it. Much of the lodge’s furniture is made of vegetation not native to South Africa such as wattle. Poplar, also an alien, was used in the construction of the buildings. And, as part of her ongoing commitment to conservation and ethical practice, Kit insists that as much as possible of the edible produce be organic and bought locally.
The lodge has been built ‘with a lot of thought,’ she says. As a result, the area is ‘generally back to where it was. That’s how little an impact it’s had’. The wood and shingle treehouses are rustic in style. Walls are clad with bamboo sleeping mats from Malawi and furniture is simple, but Kit has ensured the right touches enable a luxurious experience. These include glass-walled bathrooms so, even as you shower or bath, you are surrounded by bush; big, comfortable beds; and that rare commodity, privacy. As Kit sums it up, luxury here is about being able to ‘sleep in great sheets, to have great coffee, to not care about your emails within a day. To listen to nature, to hear a tree creak, to hear birds. You suddenly start to hear things. There’s no television, radio and extraneous noise so the body starts to heal itself.’ The spa – dubbed the Body Boma – is integral to the healing experience. Within the wooden huts, also with large glass windows to maximise the forest calm, exists a ‘timeless place of peace and tranquillity’ where you can enjoy treatments such as a Kalahari Khoisan salt and rooibos body scrub, massages, or a Theravine facial.
But it’s not all about being earnest. It’s clear a lot of fun was had in creating the lodge, and the festive Moroccan-style dining and chill spot, aptly named the Chutzpah, has hosted many a shindig. Painted in bold purple, aqua and loads of gold, with cut-out tin and coloured-glass Moroccan hanging lanterns, deep blue silk curtains, crimson cushions, lattice-covered windows, low tables and bright, sparkling glass and tile mosaics of geckos and snakes, it’s a happy space. The outside pool is a zigzag shape that becomes a U. It’s deep. Nicely deep, and perfect on a boiling hot summer’s day. The gazebo at the Chutzpah, with its exotic tent-style interior and swinging loveseats, provides the shade necessary for an afternoon nap. Hours can pass, spent on a comfy sun lounger outside overlooking the awesome view below, out across the Knysna Lagoon towards the Heads and the bustling highway into Knysna, on the beloved Garden Route.
Breakfast and dinner are normally served in the Boma area with both open-air and indoor options – surrounded by forest. The dappled light on the breakfast table as the rays of sun find a way through the trees is nothing short of charming. Grey loeriesand butterflies flit past. The forest is a tangle of vines and trunks, and the floor below is a carpet, in multiple tones of brown, of fallen leaves. Big, fat spider webs are suspended between trees with twigs caught in their sticky threads. There is joy in having the time and place to pause, smile and revel in nature.
A walk through the reserve is a must. It’s an ethereal experience: quiet except for gentle birdsong, with thick vegetation and tall trees carrying names like white pear and monkey plum. You almost expect to see a hobbit or a fairy resting on a fallen log. Like all good getaway destinations, food plays a big part in the Phantom Forest experience. Executive Chef Robyn Steyn and her team dedicate hours to creating imaginative modern dishes ‘with a twist’ and the menu changes daily. Pan-seared beef fillet with leek and Gorgonzola bread and butter pudding, asparagus and sweet onion red wine jus or sticky soya glazed quail with yin-yang wasabi mayonnaise and a crunchy Asian salad exemplify this diversity. Her Moroccan fare is particularly delicious.
Despite Phantom Forest Eco Reserve being named Africa’s Leading Green Hotel by the World Travel Awards for three consecutive years, Kit says she’s not finished yet. She’d like an observatory at the top of the hill. There’d be no light pollution and the stars would be at their most visible, she says. ‘A tower in the forest, turreted to the top of the tree canopy to climb or cross a wiggly-woggly bridge to it would be a nice-to-have. And I know that would make any visitor feel close to heaven.’ But for now, visitors who stay at Phantom Forest Eco Reserve will simply have to settle for a ‘blissed out’ state on departure.
This article originally featured in the August 2014 issue of House and Leisure