Set within fertile farmlands, this old dairy farm, complete with milking sheds, a grain silo and a plethora of old stone buildings, was transformed to become the renowned Fordoun Hotel & Spa… an oasis of pampering, for mind, body and soul. Its location near Nottingham Road in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, ensures spectacular views across rolling hills and pastured valleys towards the distant Drakensberg Mountains.
Dating back to the 1800s the farm has been in the Bates family since the late 1940s, when Sir George and Lady Usher moved from England to their new home, where they established a thriving dairy farm. The picturesque hotel and spa were constructed from the farm’s original dairy and farmyard buildings, some of which date back to the late 1880s and were the homestead of settler William Taylor. The stonework and yellowwood beams have been carefully preserved and incorporated into the modern buildings, and the spectacular floatation tank was once a grain silo.
Each of the 22 luxurious and individually appointed double suites, with under-floor heating and sumptuous bathrooms, are decorated along diverse themes that highlight Fordoun’s historical past. We meet Sylvia Pillay who gives us a guided tour through some of the suites… first up is the dairy suite, with its pictures of award-winning dairy cows, little calves and original stone wall. Sylvia proudly points out a picture of her standing with Jon Bates at the Royal Agricultural Show in 2014 and tells us that she has been on the farm since 1954 and worked in the dairy for 41 years.
Next is the Indian suite, with seems somewhat out of place – that is until you hear the full story. This suite plays homage to the Indian community of Nottingham Road and Sylvia’s long history with Fordoun. The walls are adorned with old photographs that tell of her extended family, with siblings, grandparents and the like. ‘It’s just what I would expect from Fordoun’, I think to myself, this place where everyone is important, and each has a story to tell.
We walk past more stone walls, beneath the boughs of large deciduous trees and along a cobbled pathway snaking its way through a beautiful garden. These are the newer suites, where we will spend the night, and where the Sir George and Lady Usher suite is. Rich burgundy, classic furniture and floral cushions are accompanied by black and white photographs of Sir George trout fishing and Lady Usher with a prized dairy cow.
When one visits a so-called ‘destination spa’, one would think all the activities on offer revolve around the spa. In some ways one would be right – Fordoun offers such a diverse range of spa treatments, activities and spoils that one could spend every waking hour there. But on the other hand, one need not spend time there at all. There are walks and trails perfect for mountain biking, trail running or just ambling. There are dams that invite trout fisherman to cast a fly on one of the still water dams – preferably during the cooler winter months as they’re even more elusive during warmer weather.
And if you choose to leave the property and head into the Midlands there’s even more to choose from – from the adrenalin rush of the Karkloof Canopy Tour, a round of golf at either the Bosch Hoek or Gowrie golf courses to a scenic and more sedate hot air balloon ride. Or ‘shop till you drop’ retail therapy on the Midlands Meander Route, visit art galleries and view rock art, sip on locally made gin, taste a variety of craft beer, taste locally produced KZN estate wine and nibble on artisanal cheese. But you don’t have to venture far to get your taste of local produce, the Sky Bistro and adjoining bar take full advantage of the local fresh produce and artisanal products the KZN Midlands has to offer.
For me being at Fordoun was all about the spa. Relaxing on loungers, swimming in the heated indoor pool, basking in the saline floatation tank, and enjoying a full body massage with traditional Doctor Ndlovu’s nourishing African Potato (Hypoxis hemerocallidea) and Wild Dagga (Leonotis Leonurus) – said to relieve muscle tension and increase blood circulation. Whether my sense of well-being was from the expert hands of the lovely Andile or the fabulously fragrant oils, I would not know. But a repeat of both would be highly recommended.
Doctor Elliot Ndlovu, a traditional healer, herbalist and ethnobotanist, has a longstanding relationship with Fordoun’s founder, Jon Bates. Together they have developed a range of products made from indigenous plants traditionally used in the Zulu culture for healing. The plants are grown on Dr Ndlovu’s nearby farm and are then used to produce Fordoun Spa’s signature range.
During our visit we had the opportunity to chat to Jon Bates, owner and self-professed Patriarch of Fordoun Hotel & Spa. Between bites of tender and tasty Waygu beef burger in the Skye Bistro, he told about the origins of the farm and the ethos that drives their commitment to both conservation and the local community.
‘We decided that if we are to become a place of meaning and contribute to society, we have to have an environmental and a social policy here,’ says Jon.
He proceeds to keep us enthralled for the next hour or so with stories of and educational initiatives, crane conservation, chickens that live in caravans and the origins of purple beans… but the details of those are for another day.