If Ellerman House Boutique Hotel’s walls could talk, they would undoubtedly have many stories to share. In fact, so would the people who’ve walked down these exact same stairs, from Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey, Roger Federer and South African musical legend Johnny Clegg, who played his final show in their BAR ROC. This historically rich mansion has been collecting stories for over a century. And I was about to collect my own…
It almost feels like the entrance of Ellerman House swallows me as I follow the glossy polished wooden floors to pad down the plush carpeted stairs. I’m trying to watch my step but distracted by the art that adorns almost every inch of the walls. My head keeps twisting to admire it. The art here is really overwhelming, begging you to stop and stare, but your eyes cannot take it all in.
My colleague Katharina and I almost missed the turnoff when driving up here because the building looks quite ordinary from the street. It seems to blend into the other buildings, tucked away in the corner of a steep hill.
Of course, ordinary still means extraordinary, as this part of the city is one of Cape Town’s most affluent neighbourhoods. But once we’re ushered into the Edwardian mansion, the grandeur of this place becomes very apparent. In fact, it’s disorientating at first.
Teleported in Seconds
I feel like I’m stepping onto the film set of the Bridgerton series, trending on Netflix at the moment. Although I’m wearing a flowy summer dress, I kind of wish I was instead donning a 19th Century ballgown, just to complete the picture.
We make our way through the narrow corridors, brushing shoulders with staff. They immediately pause what they’re doing and greet us as if we’re long lost friends. This set the tone for what was to come, as the heart of Ellerman House really boils down to these people, so discreet yet always at your beck and call for whatever your heart desires.
Mother Nature’s Art
We step outside after walking through the hotel, and I suddenly feel teleported to the French Riviera. The mansion’s elevation treats you to truly breathtaking ocean views. In fact, it looks a little bit surreal. Almost like someone painted this setting and that it could be one of the many paintings hanging on the walls.
The verandah, indigenous terraced gardens, and glittering ocean view compete with the art for your attention, and I immediately wish we could stay an extra day.
I warn you now that one day is not enough in this paradise. You need to spend at least one full day at Ellerman House. Then, of course, the city begs you to explore the pristine beaches, vibrant culture and hospitality, high-end boutiques, and entertainment galore Cape Town is renowned for.
Story Behind the Name
I was curious about the meaning behind the name Ellerman House. Who was Ellerman, and why did this magnificent mansion get to have his name? After chatting with the staff, I started piecing together the story behind what is now one of the most luxurious boutique hotels out there.
Originally called Florida House, it was built in 1906 and exchanged ownership a couple of times over the years. Finally, Sir John Ellerman took ownership. He was also the resident who stayed at the property the longest, second to the current owners, the Harris family. He was apparently an interesting character, and I’m sure there are many more stories I could’ve listened to if my stay was longer than one night!
That House on the Hill
Paul Harris, a South African banker, first learned about the house when he bought the house across the street. “That house on the hill” caught his eye, and he was curious about what it looked like on the inside. However, he ended up moving to Australia before he had the opportunity to walk through the front door.
However, one day in 1988, his sales agent phoned him to say that Ellerman House was up for auction that very next day and whether he’d be interested in making an offer.
He did. And, well, the rest is history.
Back to its Roots
When Ellerman House was first polished and manicured to its current glory, the gardens were more European, with rose flower beds and lavender. However, since this entire building celebrates South Africa’s finest wonders, the Harris family decided to return to their South African roots, literally.
They decided to plant indigenous fynbos that would thrive here with minimal effort and allow the outdoors to be a continuation of the South African stories told indoors.
The Great South African Landscape
Ellerman House Boutique Hotel has over 1000 works on display. As you can imagine, it can be tricky to see them all in one stay! However, because they understand that true art enthusiasts will want to delve deeper in to the artworks’ stories, they offer in-house art tours with a private guide to help you get the bigger picture.
An Art Journey
Our art tour guide for the day, Richard, is energetic, brimming with interesting anecdotes as he takes us through the house, really painting a picture (pun intended) of South African history and the story Paul Harris wanted to tell with his carefully curated art collection.
Each section of the house has a different theme or story he wants to tell. The Portrait Gallery, for example, features portraits by Irma Stern, Pieter Wenning, Gerard Sekoto, and many more.
I could write pages and pages about the artwork we got to see at Ellerman House, but I really think the only way to get the full experience is to spend a couple of hours in the presence of one of their expert art tour guides like Richard. It really does just bring these artworks and their stories to life.
The Passage of Time
One of my favourite parts of the house is the ‘Passage of Time’ corridor by Thomas Bowler, which I walk through to reach my room. During our art tour, our guide Richard chuckled when he referred to it as “The Instagram of the 1800s”, as it showed snapshots of Cape Town as it was back then. In this corridor, you’ll find over 20 original watercolour artworks by Bowler, recording many important events in Cape Town’s colonial history.
Paul Harris wanted to do just that with the art collection. He did not simply want to put up pretty pictures. Yes, they certainly are something to admire! However, he really wanted to tell a story of South African history.
On that note, although I did not get to meet him myself, I was quite taken by how the staff would all rave about him. A humble guy, passionate about showing off the finest South Africa has to offer to guests from all over the world. He allegedly often strolls through the house in his tennis outfit, chatting to guests and staff.
I think it’s this family bond between the owner and staff that makes you feel like you’re a true guest, not just renting a hotel room.
A Celebration of Contemporary Art
Venture out into the gardens and down a staircase to the Contemporary Gallery. Celebrating artists such as Wayne Barker, Louis Maqhubela, Angus Taylor, and Phillemon Hlungwani, these artworks explore issues experienced in post-modern South African society and pushes the boundaries.
While exploring this gallery, ask your art guide to point out Paul Harris’ very own piece of art that he wanted to sneak into the collection!
While walking back through the house, I spot a little pantry stocked with snacks, freshly baked cakes, brownies, and a coffee station. Often referred to as their ‘Sugar Shack’ or ‘Naughty Corner’, I’ve heard about this part of the house before. I quickly duck through the door to run my eyes over it all, mentally making notes of what I’ll come and sample later.
The No-Rules Rule
At Ellerman House Boutique Hotel, nothing is too much to ask. They live by the ‘no-rules rule’, bending backwards to ensure your experience is flawless. You notice this immediately, which is also what you miss most when you leave. From the flawless turndown service to how quickly someone suddenly appears before you realise you need them.
I get the sense that they see themselves as family. After the past two years of not being able to operate like usual, I also get the feeling that they’re eternally grateful to be back in action and ready to serve with a smile.
A Shrine to the Nectar of the Gods
Okay, now this is the part where I got really excited. An oenophile myself, I was giddy with anticipation of seeing Ellerman House’s wine gallery in real life. I’ve ooh-ed and aah-ed over images of the famous carbon fibre corkscrew wine rack. Little did I know how many other stories and gems this gallery has…
An Interactive Wine Experience
To say it blew me away is an understatement. At first, you might not see these details carefully inserted into the architecture and interior design. And, of course, the human-sized corkscrew steals all your attention at first.
But our sommelier Lovejoy, who truly lives up to his name, shows us around, starting at the impressive lights above the wine tasting table. “It’s meant to look like grapes, but after a couple of glasses, it also starts to look like wine glasses,” he jokes.
Then he runs his hands across the one wall, explaining how each block is terroir from different South African wine farms. I inspect it closely, and sure enough, it’s soil! With GPS coordinates and the wine farm’s names indicated on the bronze frame.
He moves his gaze down, pointing to show us the Fibonacci sequence engraved on the floor before moving to the brandy wall. Here, bottles of brandy show the transition of this tipple throughout the years. Lovejoy kept showing us more, even taking us into the bathroom to point out that the entire wall is a timeline of the South African wine industry.
Pinotage Wine Vine
Then he showed us another fascinating artwork. At first, you think it’s a real pinotage vine put up against the wall. However, Lovejoy explains that it was cast in bronze using dental technology.
Dental technology? Yes, you read that right. They used it in order to get all the fine details on the vine. It really is a spectacular piece of work! He also pointed out boulders from the Cradle of Humankind, hollowed out so that you can make fire inside, warming up the room on colder days.
Just when I think we’ve explored every part of this wine shrine. Lovejoy takes us down a narrow staircase. We’re greeted by a champagne cellar stocked with Dom Pérignon.
He even pointed out two ancient bottles of wine intended for Napoleon Bonaparte that survived a shipwreck. Another piece of history, preserved and shown off to those who will appreciate it.
We keep going, more wines awaiting us in the narrow underground cellar. I check the labels as we pass the bottles, all South African wines, while Lovejoy shows us a couple of extra-special bottles.
Blind Wine Tasting
We make our way back up, ready to sample the wines. Lovejoy has noticed my appreciation for the wines, and he, therefore, decides to make our wine tasting a blind one.
This tasting experience is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It has as many surprises as you experience perusing the house. Carefully curated by Wade Bales, a famous South African wine connoisseur, the wines we got to sample was exclusive as it can get.
My favourite is a Breedekloof Chenin Blanc that melts on my tongue like a bite of creamy Crème brûlée. I’m dead wrong about the cultivar as well, expecting such a buttery taste to be a chardonnay.
Wine. Art. They’re both something that Ellerman House celebrates on another level. If you’re staying at Ellerman House, the art and wine experiences are non-negotiable. Even if you never really considered yourself an expert in either, this place will foster an appreciation for both. And if you do appreciate fine art and wine, well, then you’ll be in seventh heaven.
Another highlight during your stay at Ellerman House will be sundowners and canapes at BAR ROC. This famous sundowner spot welcomes us with a drinks trolley and staff filling our glasses and serving canapés. It’s the perfect way to end a spectacular day and get your camera ready as you’ll want to take plenty of photos during this golden hour.
Dinner is another artwork of its own. As it’s a pleasant evening, we decide to dine outside on the verandah. Their selection of fine dining dishes will take you on a taste journey that will feel like time slows down. Still, you’ll wish every bite could linger just a little longer on your tongue.
Your Home in Cape Town
When you go to a place like Ellerman House, luxurious accommodation is a given. However, what stood out to me in my Deluxe House Room, where I stayed was, again, that it felt like a house and not a hotel. Each room at Ellerman House has its own unique charms, including (you guessed it) art.
My room has a balcony overlooking the pool and the glimmering Atlantic Ocean, without a doubt one of the best views in all of Cape Town. The mini bar is also anything but mini! Full bottles of gin, brandy, and whiskey await you, as well as a range of consol jars, jammed full of snacks.
These little touches is what makes you feel so at home. Like this is your space and your space only.
Ellerman House. The name fits. It’s not called the Ellerman Hotel for a reason and is a far cry from the more clinical hotels I’ve stayed at before. It’s that feeling of a home, of being invited into a family member or friend’s home. Those with an extra special mansion as a home, of course. With the generosity to share all their wealth and treasures with you.
Any traveller, especially those looking for an ultra-exclusive escape, who appreciate art and wine, will find a home at Ellerman House.
And like their hashtag, everything is designed to make you want to #NeverLeave.
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