Some of my most memorable holidays were those where we used our accommodation as base to explore the surrounding area, which is why a meander through the KZN Midlands sounded quite appealing. I was surprised at how much the Midlands had to offer and we found it very hard to finally decide where to go and what to do. We were opting for a relaxing, romantic weekend and the KZN Midlands gave us so much more. We would have loved to explore all five of the Midlands Meander routes, but between delightful 6-course dinners, early morning strolls among grazing thoroughbreds and relaxing in floatation pools, we barely got to explore one. A good excuse to return, if you ask me.
As we drove through the Narnia-like gates at Hartford House, we were transported into a time of high teas on outstretched lawns and promenades with lacy umbrellas. I felt like I had been magically positioned in the heart of the recent Bridgerton series on Netflix. Hartford House is located on the Summerhill Stud Farm on the Midlands Meander and in addition to the unique experience it offers, it also comes with an interesting history.
Granted to the Moor family by Queen Victoria in the late 19th century, Summerhill Farm was later sold to the Ellis family – a famous racing family who owned it from 1939 to 1990. It was around the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison that Mr. Ellis and his Hillcrest residing opponent, Mick Goss, decided to swop houses. The two lawyers apparently shook hands on the matter while standing at the urinal during a short interval in a court case they were involved in. Mick’s brother, Pat Goss (who was involved in the launch of Rand Merchant Bank and who currently owns Umngazi River Bungalows and Spa on the Wild Coast), bought Summerhill together with Mick, but Mick later bought him out. Summerhill became a well-known thoroughbred stud farm, with people from all over the country coming to view the horses. Eventually, Mick’s wife Cheryl suggested that they make their home a hotel, which is how Hartford House came to life. Sold early in 2020, Summerhill Stud Farm and Hartford House is now owned by Henning Pretorius, a vegetable farmer from Skeerpoort and also the owner of Capital Stud (one of the largest horse breeders in South Africa). The 1000-hectare farm is currently home to 350 warmblood horses and about 200 thoroughbreds.
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On arrival at Hartford House, we indulged in late afternoon libation at the hotel’s recently renovated, Colonial-style bar and found ourselves gobsmacked at the brilliancy of its décor and atmosphere. While indulging in a glass of Chardonnay, I could not wait for a pre-dinner bath, though as the Victorian-themed Moor Room – our room for the evening – awaited with a humungous bathroom boasting large windows overlooking the gardens from a stone bath. The 1875 Manor House was built by the farm’s very first owners, the Moor family and so Room 18 has fittingly been named after them. It is filled with unique Victorian-inspired touches – from matching wallpaper and curtains to the king-size bed’s impressive headboard and the romantic fireplace. It also comes with a foyer, which makes it feel even more luxurious. The Moor room is also the only room that can be booked within the Manor House.
A day at Hartford was not enough. We took the time we had to explore and experience as much as possible, but to really become part of the past that is so evident at this Midlands destination, you really need to stay for two nights at least. Then you’ll have time to stroll through their magnificent gardens, plunge in the pool, have afternoon tea at the Tijnhuis between Koi ponds and butterfly luring flowers and read a book in the Victorian lounge. At Hartford House you need to allow yourself time to walk the circle route that passes meadows with grazing horses; to meet up with some stallions in the stalls and to prepare for dinner on the porch that elegantly hugs the manor house with chess-style tiles and recently added glass windows.
Speaking of dinner… Hartford House’s Executive Chef, Paul Antolik (who grew up in Pietermaritzburg) recently moved back from Tanzania where he acted as a Chef Trainer at a group of luxury lodges. The six-course meal he prepared with his team during our stay was certainly one of our highlights at Hartford. We indulged in stone-mill to oven artisan breads, grilled butternut and spaghetti squash with blue cheese, sage and pumpkin seeds, and a Blue Orange Farm Chicken Ballotine. This was followed by an impressive palate-cleansing sorbet and then we were offered a decadent Midlands Beef Fillet that came with spiced freekeh, grilled fig, mange tout, oyster mushrooms and a red wine jus. He had a student pastry chef prepare dessert, which was a delightful, light lemon tart. Dinner was concluded with delicious chocolate bon bons – the perfect end to a spectacular evening.
An early morning jog was in order after an evening of indulgence, but what was meant to be a jog, became a stroll among thoroughbreds, dreaming of owning a horse. Or five hundred of them! I found it refreshing that guests are offered the opportunity to explore the farm and its day-to-day activities and would love to return with our kids to show them the ins and outs of a stud farm.
Did you know? Hartford House is currently undergoing a multi-phase renovation, of which the first phase (including rooms 1 to 12 and room 18 and the manor house) had been completed upon our visit. This also allowed them to make some welcome changes to the hotel’s operational flow, which General Manager, Maretha Langenhoven, says makes a huge difference. Phase two will include the renovation of the lakeside suites and a whole new wellness centre, which will undoubtedly be worth the wait. There are also four new rooms being built. The interiors were done by Anne Venter and Elzabe Brent Architects and many of the Manor House’s furniture pieces were merely restored to its former glory instead of being replaced, which adds to Hartford House’s tangible history.
There is so much more to discover and this was merely our first of many KZN Midlands adventures.