Local, Travel

West Coast Wander: at home with history in Hopefield

Georgia East
In a four-part House and Leisure miniseries, writer and food stylist Georgia East travels along the West Coast in search of unique stories and recipes. Here she explores the lesser-known destination of Hopefield which, in turn, inspired this recipe for poached pear pavlova. Read the previous entries on St Helena Bay, Velddrif and Elands Bay.
To those who consider the Cape West Coast to solely consist of beaches, breakers and backpacker’s accommodation, the small town of Hopefield may come as a surprise. Although known mostly for its annual flower show, Hopefield is home to another attraction – the Commercial Hotel. Hopefield is located inland and was originally known as the gateway to the West Coast, as the only access to Vredenburg, Langebaan and Saldanha Bay was through the town itself. Closely resembling any number of Karoo towns, Hopefield is now considered a hidden gem, attracting a different crowd to that of the better-known coastal destinations. The town, founded as a Dutch Reformed congregational settlement in the nineteenth century, is immediately recognisable by the ostentatious church that presides over its centre. However, its ornate metalwork and gilding does little to distract from more suburban sections of Hopefield. It's home to residents from myriad backgrounds, all living in houses that represent a different design movement, and you can trace the history of the town through the decades just by studying the architecture. Here and there, iconic South African farmhouses have settled their stoeps alongside grandiose Victorian matrons, while modern business blocks and crumbling Fifties facades make up the main road. A small café stands open on Sundays, selling home-baked lemon meringue, melktert and Hertzoggies alongside fizzy drinks and cigarettes – the whirring of an electric fan and the muted drone of an Afrikaans news station the only sounds piercing the lethargic heat of the afternoon. You could be mistaken for thinking you’d stepped back about 40 years, the sudden desire to switch off your cellphone only adding to the time warp. Most alluring of all is the Commercial Hotel, a Mid-Century monolith of sepia facebrick and sky-blue plasterwork, kept intact since its last renovation in 1973. Bought by the Meltzer family in 1919, the hotel itself is now most recognisable as one of the branches of the successful Commercial Hotel brand – popular for both business and pleasure during the second half of the twentieth century. The original decor and features from the hotel’s Seventies heyday have remained unspoiled, from the brass light switch covers, parquet floors and heavy Scandinavian armchairs to the balcony’s slasto paving, wire patio furniture and signage for the children’s dining room and the ladies’ bar. The latter is currently undergoing a revamp, but does boast a handcarved bar and authentic Mid-Century bar stools. The hotel was taken over by Jacques van der Westhuizen after his mother inherited the building in the Nineties, and the care that he has lavished on it is evident in his attention to detail and appreciation for authenticity. Many of the Modernist pieces have been sourced from flea markets and a particularly retro credenza was purchased from friends. Town residents have donated trinkets such as a Commercial Hotel teapot and Jacques displays some of the larger donations in the hotel’s private museum. Simply stepping through the hotel’s double doors and into its carpeted lobby is enough to evoke images of polyester pantsuits and pointed collars – it’s no wonder Jacques is often approached for the use of the hotel for various films and photography shoots. Further up the road, a small brindle dog lounges on the sunlit pavement in front of the local deli veranda. The small stoep is packed full of enormous cabbages, bunches of spinach and beetroot, all grown organically in the area. Here, under the heavy wooden rafters, fresh eggs can be purchased daily and Hopefield’s famous West Coast honey is available when the local bees cooperate. Honey is a major form of revenue here, with one of the town’s most popular businesses being Simply Bee – a brand specialising in the manufacturing of honey and beeswax-based beauty products. In homage to the honey, August of each year sees Hopefield putting on a comprehensive wildflower show to showcase and celebrate their largest tourist attraction – the Hopefield Fynbos Skou. Walking tours are held, businesses get involved and a farmer’s market is held in the town centre – a tradition not all that dissimilar from the church fêtes and grand bazaars of yesteryear. Hopefield may no longer be considered the gateway to the West Coast, but for those seeking small-town nostalgia, it is surely the capital of the entire stretch of coastline.
Find Georgia’s recipe for poached pear pavlova, inspired by the flavours and history of Hopefield, here.