Inspiration from Adversity

The devastating fires of 2015 breathed new life into a classic

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Blink and you’ll miss it. A modest sign outside a metal gate on the cliff top just before the Chapman’s Peak toll plaza is the only clue to the existence of one of the Western Cape’s most dazzling holiday venues.

From the car park, a shuttle takes you down a steep, winding road. As the noise of the traffic fades and the hum of the cicadas takes over as the sea breeze rises to meet your face, you begin to readjust to a new rhythm. By the time you reach the hotel, you have already begun to adjust to the timeless, magical realm of Tintswalo Atlantic.

As luxury hotels go, it’s not dripping with opulence or ostentation – it’s something completely different. Sitting on the deck, taking in the view – and what a view: the eye ranges from the waves lapping the pebbled beach, across the sparkling, ever-changing waters to Hout Bay harbour, sweeps across the craggy shapes of the encircling mountains and plunges into the endless vista of the open Atlantic ocean beyond – you soon realise that Tintswalo Atlantic has achieved a classical balance. Every element of the built environment harmonises with the natural surroundings. It’s like having coffee inside a symphony, or a poem. Despite being in Cape Town, you feel light-years away from any urban crush. No wonder it’s one of the Cape’s most sought-after venues, currently booked up three months in advance.

It’s hard to believe that just two years ago, this scene of unparalleled tranquility had been transformed into an inferno. Fanned by strong winds and fueled by extreme temperatures, fires swept down across the mountain from Chapman’s Peak and burnt the entire hotel to ashes. Paradoxically, that very destruction has brought about a transformation that has seen Tintswalo Atlantic soar to new heights.

General manager Ryno du Rand recalls the occasion: “Everything burnt down in an hour and a half. Being located on San Parks property, the hotel was constructed to fit in with the environment. All the structures were made of wood, so it lit up like a torch.

“It was a huge shock for all of us. All our staff have been here since the beginning, and suddenly the special place that we had created was gone. The next day, walking around the site, when you could see the devastation, the reality sunk in. Everyone was very emotional.”

However, owners Lisa and Warwick Goosen, and Gaye and Ernest Corbett did not take the setback lying down. Summoning the staff for a meeting, they encouraged everyone to cherish their memories of what had made Tintswalo special and to use that energy to rebuild the place. “Straight after that,” continues Ryno, “we all wrote down everything that we remembered of the lodge. We thought about what we did well in each department – what guests had commented on, what worked well in that space, and what we would have liked to improve. Eventually we had a huge document as a basis for reconstruction. It was very special. Each staff member was involved, the team work was amazing, spirits were high.”

So it was that the fire turned out to have a silver lining.

“When we started the original lodge, we always had an idea of what we wanted it to become, but as time passed, it turned out different to what we had anticipated. The spaces that burnt down gave us to the opportunity to fix what was wrong. It’s not often that you get a second chance like that. Now we could recreate the lodge exactly according to what the clients want.” Ironically, Tintswalo Atlantic owes its existence in the first instance to fire: the property was previously occupied by a camp site that burnt down. The hotel was originally intended to be built at the Round House in Camps Bay, but when the Goosens chanced upon the place during a walk on Chapman’s Peak, they changed their minds and entered into a 25-year concession agreement with Sanparks.

“We have the option to renew, if not, the buildings can be removed without leaving any footprint. The original lodge was built in a forest of huge, protected milkwood trees: we had to build underneath and around them, which was quite a tricky process.

The fire allowed us to rebuild from scratch and use the space to our best advantage. Of course, we had a big tree replanting project, replacing hundreds of trees. Our thanks go to Just Trees in Paarl, whose generous donations made this possible.”

As a token of this rejuvenation, the birds are returning. Previously, Tintswalo had a reputation for exceptional bird-watching, but the conflagration robbed the birds of their nesting placing. “After the fire,” Ryno recalls, “I felt especially sorry for the owls. I remember driving up just before sunset and seeing six owls huddling in the burnt bushes. However, we are seeing more sightings now. There were also Cape clawless otters living under the buildings, and about five have returned so far.” The fresh start also afforded Tintswalo Atlantic the opportunity to make improvements from an operational point of view. It seems that the hotel had fallen victim to its own success, becoming so popular that it was unable to accommodate all the people who wanted to stay there or visit for meals. “Things had reached the stage where people were becoming annoyed with us,” recalls Ryno, “because they wanted to come here but we were always full – so we improved our kitchen and enlarged our living spaces to accommodate more clients. Now we sleep 24 guests and can host up to 40 diners per meal at any given time.” Unsurprisingly, Tintswalo Atlantic has also become a very popular wedding venue. “People are blown away by the location,” grins Ryno. “It’s become the place in Cape Town to get married. Before we couldn’t have more than 60 people for weddings, but now we can fit in about 100. We’ve learnt from experience and have it down pat. Each wedding is different, and we’re extremely flexible to the bride and the groom’s needs.”

It becomes clear that this attention to personal service holds the key to Tintswalo’s success. “We really look after our guests,” Ryno emphasizes. “We’ve got a very good word-of-mouth reputation. From a marketing point of view, it’s been a case of identifying the type of clients that like the hotel and maintaining the relationship from then on. Wherever those clients are coming from, you make sure that you deliver. Thanks to this ethos, our guests always come back, so our repeat business is very good.”

While talking to Ryno, I kept an eye on the staff as they went about their duties. Immediately striking was a style of service that combines unobtrusive discretion with attention to detail – the staff never bother you, but are always on hand to top up your drink!“ The staff are our greatest asset,” agrees Ryno. “The guest feedback always compliments the staff. Return guests will remember their individual names – it’s part of the reason they come back.” At the same time, precisely because so many guests like to return, it’s necessary to prevent the experience from becoming stale. As Ryno comments, “

The nature of our business demands constant improvement. We always have to offer something new. One of the areas we identified for improvement was the kitchen. We’ve just employed a fantastic new chef who has very ambitious plans. Front of house is also receiving training – we’re sending one of our staff on a sommelier course. We intend to acquire a reputation for offering fine dining as part of our total experience.”

As the only hotel to be situated in the Table Mountain National Park, Tintswalo Atlantic is completely integrated with nature, but it is also thoroughly connected to the local community.“When we were rebuilding the lodge,” Ryno illustrates, “we identified various community projects in Hout Bay that we supported. In particular, the National Sea Rescue Institute helped us a lot during the fire, so in exchange we repainted their building on the inside.

Every year, to commemorate the year we burnt down, we do a fund-raiser, selling tickets for tables and donating all the proceeds to fire-related charities. At the last one, we managed to raise enough money for the NSRI to buy a new boat.” As part of its ongoing commitment to raising fire awareness, Tintswalo is also supporting the Thula Thula project in Hout Bay. Working with the fire department, they are actively training youth on how to prevent fires. This helps raise awareness about fire in the township, where fires are commonplace. In this way, Tintswalo is helping to preserve the uniqueness of the Hout Bay area for years to come.

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