21 May 2010

Places I have been - # 1

While I was chomping on my very yummy, home-made muesli this morning, I picked up a Gourmet Traveller and began browsing the recipes.  There are so many fantastic recipes in that magazine, but this time it was an article that caught my attention. The journalist was reporting back on the best hotel he'd ever stayed in.

The article sparked a distant memory... I've always wanted to write about the 'places I have been'.  So I thought I'd write about one a week.  Starting to-day.

Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe), Africa - August 1973.  Leopard's Rock Hotel - Vumba Mountains - the BEST hotel I've ever stayed in.

Not the poshest, but definitely the best.  I'll tell you why.

We were very young.  I was very pregnant with our first chickadee (he was born in November) and we were a very long way from home, with very little money. I would freak out if one of my kids did the same thing!  We knew the writing was on the wall for Rhodesia and we wanted to visit the country before it became too dangerous.  So, we packed up the old Corsair and made our way up.

It was a grand adventure and I'll tell you more about it over the next couple of weeks, but to-day I want to talk about our stay at The Leopard Rock Hotel.

In those days it didn't have a casino and wasn't nearly as grand to look at.  It's had a major refurbishment... they had to, it was hit by mortar fire in the early 70's (see what I mean about needing to visit while it was still safe?) and the grounds are just stunning.

We hadn't made a booking and arrived late in the afternoon of the 5th August expecting to be turned away (I remember because we had to book a trunk call to Johannesburg to wish my dad a happy birthday and it cost us a small fortune).  I waited in the car while 'my man' made enquiries.  Far from being turned away we were (quite literally) welcomed with open arms.  The hotel was practically empty!

By the time our luggage was lugged upstairs by the tall, very dark man with a huge white smile and shining eyes, our room had been opened to air and there was a small crystal decanter of sherry with two glasses on a little table.  The welcoming note that stood beside it had been handwritten and was personally addressed to us.  A little silver tray of Lindt chocolate blocks, and a bunch of freshly picked flowers stood alongside. I don't know about you, but we've never been welcomed in this fashion by any other hotel.

We were informed that the drums would beat to announce the serving of dinner on the terrace and then we were given a quick guided tour so that we would feel 'at home' in this vast castle of a hotel. We were introduced to everyone we met.  By the end of the tour we were 'friends' with all the staff and the few visitors.

We were blown away!  To this day we both still speak of this experience.  We have never forgotten the friendliness of the staff and management.

Our bedroom looked over the beautiful gardens, down over the majestic slopes of the Vumba Mountains and we watched as the mist drifted in over the tops of the thorn trees.  The sounds of the drums beating duly summoned us down to dinner.

'Our' waiter met us at the door, a huge smile on his friendly face!  "I am your waiter while you stay with us.  If there is anything you want, ever, please ask me and I will get it for you."  Wow!  He was true to his word.  I didn't drink tea or coffee in those days (wonder where my kids get their pickiness from?), but I did drink hot chocolate, Milo and Ovaltine.  This sweet man would not rest until he had coaxed me to drink something 'for the pickannini' and he'd always come around at least twice more than he probably should have, with the chocolate basket.  "Please, take a big handful."

When we eventually got upstairs to our bedroom, we found the curtains drawn, the lamps on, the beds beautifully and very precisely, turned back with a hot water bottle stratigically placed for maximum comfort.   Everything in the hotel was always absolutely spotless.

The next afternoon, we arrived home from our drive a little earlier than we'd expected and 'our waiter' met us at reception to inform us that afternoon tea was being served in the drawing room.  Scones and cakes, fresh cream and home-made jams!  All beautifully served. With a big glass of Milo for me!

Given that we'd been camping and staying in game park 'rooms' up until then, we truly thought we'd died and gone to heaven.

Our stay at The Leopard Rock hotel went on in the same vein.  They told of us of the best places to visit and what to stay clear of.  When I arrived home one night feeling totally and completey car sick after a day of wending our way around tight bends in the deep mist, 'our waiter' came  to our door to find out why we weren't coming down for dinner.  He insisted on bringing something up to our room for us.  Hey, who else has ever given a hoot about whether or not we've come down to dinner?

My man plays the guitar and one night while he was playing in our room (very quietly and I promise we had no neighbours to bother) we became aware of quiet singing outside our door.  I'm not quite sure who was the most surprised when I opened the door.  The small group of people outside our door, or me!  It took a lot of persuasion to get them to hang about and they wouldn't come into our room to listen, but we did leave the door open and we all enjoyed the evenings music together.  We sat on the floor just inside our room and they sat on the floor just outside our door - all very proprietal. 

The morning of our last breakfast together has stayed in my mind forever.  'Our waiter' did not want us to leave.  He plied us with food and drink and then insisted on fetching the chocolate basket so that I could make sure I had 'sweets for the pickannini, for the long journey'.  They stood on the stairs of the hotel and waved goodbye until we could not see them anymore.

We have never forgotten them and the kindness they showed us. We think about them each time we read about the terrible goings on in that amazing country and we hope they are safe.

I'd love to take my chickadees there one day, some time in the future.  No doubt, it won't be quite the same, but the views are still amongst the most incredible in the world.  To-day you can 'fly-in and fly-out'.  Things have changed.  As they do.

April Blackbird

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