Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse: Meet Me in the Mountains

Autumn at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse

By Renate Engelbrecht

Wednesday, Jun 12

We left the Audi Q3 35 TFSI that got us to Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse hanging and hiked up the hill. Stepping lightly between grass sprigs bedazzled with early autumn dew and the most beautiful Everlastings I’ve ever seen, I was once again convinced: The KwaZulu-Natal Midlands is underrated and needs some proper ambassadors to tell the world about its magic. (Me! Pick me!)

Everlastings in the berg

It was the beginning of May and as we drove across the KwaZulu-Natal border (in style, might I add). The Audi, which took on long tar stretches, potholes and dirt roads like a pro, was filled with an air of celebration. We were headed to the Midlands for a proper English Country Garden wedding, after all. Plus, well, it was the Midlands! Whenever Wikus and I get to travel to the Midlands, we add an additional day or two to our trip. It is one of the places in South Africa where we truly experience a sense of peace. This time, staying at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, it was that and so much more.

Built up to what it is today by well-known South African chef, Richard Poynton and his wife, Mouse, the mountainside retreat is family-owned and run. It’s a Drakensberg oasis, so to speak, that lets the senses run free. Many refer to it as a romantic culinary retreat, with much of the experience revolving around Chef Richard’s farm-inspired, gourmet meals. Yet, there is so much more to Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse than just its cuisine.

Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse from the lake

Stay a while

Wikus and I continuously fall for the characterful comforts of older houses. Wooden floors, fireplaces and high ceilings always lure us in, which is why it was no different with Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse. Their accommodation comes with so much character and having heard the story of how it all started, we could not help but appreciate it so much more.

Classic Room Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse

The farm, Cleopatra, has been in the Poynton family since the 1940s, when Chef Richard’s grandfather, Fred Poynton, bought it. He’d been a pioneer sugar farmer in Empangeni in the early 1900s and used to flee from the intense Zululand heat during the summer months. That’s how he stumbled upon Cleopatra, a true mountain retreat away from the heat. Here, he could indulge in cooler weather and trout fishing.

Fast forward a couple of years and Cleopatra became Chef Richard and his wife’s escape too. They initially ran Granny Mouse Country House in Balgowan, but later sold it and moved to Cleopatra permanently. In 1997, they started building Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, which was officially opened in September 1998. As they say: “The happy memories continue to this day.”

Classic Room bathroom

The Classic Room was our haven for the duration of our stay. It is a spacious room with a closed porch that allows for beautiful views across the gardens. We spent much of our time in front of the intimate lounge’s fireplace. The accommodation is true to the sentiments of the farm, boasting sandstone and various vintage elements that make it authentic.

Classic Room

The property boasts numerous other accommodation options too, with their recently revamped Cleopatra Homestead being at the top of my bucket list for a family reunion. It boasts a beautiful, old-world, farmhouse charm with lovely English touches and it can sleep up to sixteen guests.

Nature that nourishes the soul

With the end of April, beginning of May offering up some of the best weather in the Midlands, we didn’t hesitate to explore on foot. While there wasn’t much time to spare, we got to do the farm’s shortest hiking trail to view Cleopatra from the top. After breakfast, we couldn’t resist taking the Audi Q3 35 TFSI up to Highmoor, which came highly recommended by Belinda, Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse’s manager. Highmoor is said to be a five-minute drive from Cleopatra, but with the potholes, it could take a little longer than planned. Still, it’s definitely worth it. A winding road which cuts its way through a steep, but beautiful valley, takes you to the top of the mountain. In fact, there are only a few places in the Drakensberg where one can drive onto the top of the Little ‘Berg, with Highmoor being one of them. For someone who enjoys nature and who wants to experience the Drakensberg from a unique angle, this is a must-see. P.S. Remember to take some cash if you want to explore further on foot, as you will need to pay entrance fees and there is an additional charge for a map featuring the different trails.

Lakeside at Cleopatra

In addition to the surrounding areas, the gardens at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse are incredible in itself. The outstretched lawns and English-inspired garden patches hidden behind hedges are perfect to escape to with a book and a glass of bubbly. In front of our room, there were also stylish loungers with striped cushions where one could lazily sip on a glass of wine while looking out over the gardens and into the mountains. To our right, the lake in front of the restaurant also made for lovely vistas and a romantic atmosphere. Autumn leaves took advantage of the breeze, drifting down slowly and landing gently on the water, causing small ripples glistening in the late afternoon sun. Magical moments like these are what I’ve come to live for in the Midlands. Moments I will not only cherish, but moments I will return to Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse for, time and again.

Cuisine with character

Of course, Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse would not be what it is today without Chef Richard Poynton’s culinary mastery. He’s worked with many famous overseas chefs over the years (some of whom only became famous in later years) and he’s known for cuisine not only enriched by butter and cream, but also through a passion for history and heritage. His food tells the stories for him and experiencing even just one of Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse’s dinners, is a must.

Dining and elements at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse

Wine with family ties

Dinner at Cleopatra is a theatrical affair and it kicks off with drinks at the cosy lakeside bar. Here, you will find a crackling fire and candles dripping with wax as guests arrive for a pre-dinner tipple. Depending on your preference, you’ll either be guided to the bar, or to the underground wine cellar, with an entrance door clearly marked: Cellarium. Copper pots and other one-of-a-kind ornaments around the bar area – all curated and thoughtfully placed by Chef Richards’ wife, Mouse – make for the perfect conversation starters. So does the cellar downstairs, where you’ll find all kinds of wines, including Cleopatra’s very own – Thorne & Daughters. Wine has always been an integral part of Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse and in 2012, Chef Richard and Mouse got to produce their own in conjunction with their son in law, John Seccombe. After many years overseas, John – who is married to the Poyntons’ daughter, Tasha, returned to South Africa with the dream of making wines that express the magic of the South African winelands. Now, he produces beautiful wines from old vineyards sourced all over the Western Cape, including Gabriëlskloof. The ‘Thorne’ in the wine’s name is a family name from John’s side – over 300 years old – and ‘Daughters’ refers to Richard and Mouse’s granddaughters, Wren and Imogen.

Wine

READ: LE RICHE CELEBRATES 25TH VINTAGE RELEASE

Memorable menu items

After picking a wine to pair with your dinner, guests are ushered into the restaurant, where Chef Richard’s kitchen – a well-oiled machine – serves up various courses of delectable cuisine. We loved the Thai Butternut Soup with Toasted Sesame Seeds, Coconut Cream and a scattering of Fresh Parsley and the Rillette of Confit Duck on a bed of Creamed Spinach and a Pan-Fried Potato Cake, finished with a Reduced Orange and Date Jus. Dessert came in the form of Cleopatra’s ‘Fa-mouse’ Créme Brûlée, served with a tot of Van Der Hum.

Duck confit

The dinners normally consist of about six courses, written out on a blackboard in the bar area, and they always commence with Ibhansela Encane – Zulu for ‘a gift from the chef.’ This gift comes in the form of dangerously fresh bread rolls with rich, creamy butter and guests are always warned not to overindulge.

The breakfasts are also a delectable treat, with the Vanilla Yoghurt Pannacotta with Blueberry Compote and Muesli Crunch being a definite favourite during our stay.

For those who are romantic at heart, who cherish sentiment and nostalgia and yearn for tranquility, Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse is that and more. In fact, it’s been exactly that to so many before us – even to Fred Poynton, who packed up everything (including chickens) to indulge in the mountain air for three months of the year.

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