The Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa on Thesen Island is the perfect base to explore Knysna, its history and its nearby attractions on the Garden Route, writes Kate Turkington
I’ve slept in some weird places in my time – a Peruvian cave, an Irish gypsy caravan, a haunted Scottish castle and a leakyTibetan yurt – but never before in a boiler room.
But let’s go back a bit in history first.
The place: Knysna, in the southern Cape. The time: 1804. The visitor: George Rex, rumoured (but never proved) to be the illegitimate son of “mad” King George III of England.
Far from resting on his royal laurels, George saw potential in a little island just off the mainland. Although it was merely a sand bar that could be reached only at low tide, he not only founded a port but also a flourishing timber business, which exported Knysna’s hardwoods all over the globe.
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Time passed, and the Thesen family from Norway then moved to the island in 1870. They established a power station, which used wood chips to generate the electricity that powered Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, and which was part of the Eskom power grid for many years.
But environmental concerns about the felling of the indigenous forest finally put an end to the mill in the 1980s. Developers took over and transformed Thesen Island, as it was now known, from an industrial site into a glamorous, internationally acclaimed marina development.
That is how I came to be sleeping in a boiler room – because the former mill with its turbines has now been transformed into the chic Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa.
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Much of the original heavy machinery could not be moved. However, the new owners and operators, Geoff Engel and Dandre Lerm-Engle, rose to the challenge by incorporating it into the hotel’s unique design. The original wood boiler and other equipment have been fully restored and today blend seamlessly with the bright warm colours, funky yet comfortable furniture, and state-of-the-art bedrooms. Each room is individually decorated and themed to showcase Knysna’s rich cultural and historical diversity.
In addition to recycling the original structure and re-using as much of the existing building materials as possible, CMAI Architects implemented the latest eco-friendly methods such as solar water heating, heat pumps, energy-saving light fittings, rainwater harvesting and water-saving fittings.
Locally born and raised Diana, a duty manager at the Turbine, told me how she had brought her grandmother and mother, both of whom had once worked at the mill, to visit the new hotel. “They couldn’t believe it. And when they saw some of the original handwritten records now displayed in the hotel, they looked for their names in the wages ledger. When they found them, they cried.”
The hotel boasts 24 bedrooms and suites, an Amani African Spa and a 90-seater Island Café, plus a tapas bar. It sits plumb in the middle of Thesen Harbour Town, which appears as a cross between The Truman Show and a Lego toytown. Perfect little houses perch on perfect little jetties where perfect little boats are moored beside perfect little canals. Shops, restaurants, residential houses and flats rub shoulders stylishly on 19 interlinked islands and numerous canals. The whole development was awarded Blue Flag status in 2013.
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Knysna is an excellent base for exploring the world-famous Garden Route. Get active on hiking trails, quad or mountain bikes; go horse riding, sailing or fishing; enjoy some of South Africa’s best beaches; or visit potteries, artists’ studios, famous restaurants and craft markets. The Garden Route National Park, which connects the Tsitsikamma National Park’s ancient forests and coastline with the Wilderness National Park via a chain of lakes and areas of protected fynbos, is a delight at any time of year.
A short drive from Knysna, towards Plettenberg Bay, is a tiny corner of the Garden Route National Park called The Garden of Eden. It’s right on the N3, so don’t drive past it. A half-hour, one-kilometre easy stroll along wooden boardwalks and over bridges crossing clear water streams, through dappled sunlight, will take you into a fairy tale forest of ancient giant Outeniqua yellowwoods, verdant moss, lush ferns and birdsong. You may even spot a shy duiker, an otter or a chameleon.
* Disclaimer: Turkington was a guest of The Turbine Boutique Hotel & Spa. Rates range from R1 570 to R2 095 per person sharing and include breakfast. Prices rise slightly for peak season, from December 14.
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