Cape Town in summer. Surely that conjures dazzling images of tanned beautiful people in multitudes that would leave a Vogue photographer in tears? Beaches with sand the colour of molten bikini wax. A tingling cold denim-blue ocean collapsing into a waxy sunset as more limited-edition Chenin Blanc tumbles into your fishbowl-size wine glass as you sit gazing at Table Mountain…
The dreamcatchers must have been having an off day when it comes to this Smith pair’s escape. It’s November, the start of high season, and Cape Town resembles a wet Sunday in North Wales. A howling South-Easter makes our car lurch down the freeway towards the centre of the Mother City like a street drinker towards an unguarded off-licence. Even Table Mountain has a dung heap of cloud planted squarely on top of it that is thicker than a Stringfellows doorman.
Rain turns from petulant drizzle into bilious torrent as we check into the modest, 10-bedroom former residential home handsomely converted by Jo Campbell and her partner. These two Brits from the rainy north sensibly decided a few years ago to up sticks and head to the furthest tip of Africa. Derwent House, located in the upmarket, residential neighbourhood of Tamboerskloof, is so discreet that it comes across positively bashful from the outside. Adjacent to Gardens, this patch is a jumble of video stores, Vietnamese restaurants and handsomely curvy, vaguely art deco Thirties apartment blocks that look like they would be perfect in LA as retirement homes for ageing Hollywood stars.
Our bedroom at this boutique bolthole is on the small side but is demurely decorated in muted hues of greys and browns that create a simple, but homely sensation. There is a fine view from the window looking down upon the swimming pool: a sizable beast, complete with waterfall, hugged by wooden decking and some slinky black sunloungers. As the turbulent skies darken for a Saturday night on the town my other half and I enjoy a ferociously good shower that creates a steam mist throughout the room that even Shackleton would have lost his bearings in.
Dinner is just down the road at the beloved Societi Bistro on Orange Street. It’s a candle-lit warren of rooms where we make the most of South Africa’s reputation for seafood by attacking giant plates of oysters from the west coast of the country and a gobsmacking long-fin tuna-adorned Niçoise salad. Staggering back along the nearby nightlife hub of Long Street a few hours – and cocktails, beers and tequilas – later, we discover there is free port and brandy awaiting us in Derwent House’s living room.
Gazing at paintings of solemn African faces painted by Mandela himself, and slumped in the modish brown leather sofas and easy chairs, we decompress over coffees and a night-time treat of free carrot cake. Meanwhile, even at this late hour, other couples are lazing unselfconsciously in front of the fire tinkering with their Macs. For vague edification, we plunder a pile of dog-eared travel guides to South Africa. The longer we spend here in this bush-meets-boho setting, the more we realise that Derwent House, is less a guesthouse, more like spending a weekend house-sitting for an alpha couple who are regularly jetting off to finalise blueprints for an art installation pieces in Zurich.
Back in our room, we find the obligatory on-pillow chocolates but also, more intriguingly, a rolled-up scroll. Mrs Smith suggests rather unromantically that this must be our bill. Or a reminder that the port and brandy really was free. Instead, the small pamphlet reveals to us sunset and sunrise times for the next day, also flagging up celebrity birthdays and famous events that occurred on this date in history. I’m not sure what sends me to sleep first – the earlier tequila shots, or knowing that today 12 years ago, Chinese engineers successfully dammed the Yangtze River – but either way, we both slip into slumbers within seconds.
Uncharacteristically, there’s no let-up with the storm-sodden weather the following morning, but the offer of a sublimely good cooked breakfast – despite a power cut for half of Cape Town – is of no small compensation. Taking our morning coffees onto the balcony, Mrs Smith observes that how different the daytime atmosphere of Derwent House is. Couples bustle in and out, huddling over maps, plotting road trips up the Garden Route into the vineyards of the Western Cape. It feels like this is a hotel for people who want to get their missions accomplished with speed. This veranda now feels less suited to slow G&Ts with John Cheever types, more a rendezvous for hatching plans on how to make the most of the Mother City and its surroundings.
We depart from Derwent House for a trip up the lonely West Coast of the country, where bijou fisherman’s villages lie undisturbed and unironically rustic accommodation is the only option. Cosmopolitan Cape Town may be considered by many to be a sunny, liberal bubble at the edge of South Africa. And if Derwent House is anything to go by, it’s a stylish bubble that one hopes, even with power cuts and bedside trivia, won’t burst for many years to come.