The Small Hotel builds knowledge of the wine estates and food offerings in the region through its Small Guide. Picture: MICKY HOYLE
The Small Hotel builds knowledge of the wine estates and food offerings in the region through its Small Guide. Picture: MICKY HOYLE

The Victorian house that is now The Robertson Small Hotel has stood on a quiet street for more than a century. It’s all grey and white, cool and collected.

Refurbished in 2016, this tasty reimagining of the family-owned hotel has raised the glamour quotient in the winelands town of Robertson, two hours drive from Cape Town.

Abigail Rands has made the most of her wide network of designer and creative friends to add multiple aesthetic extras.

There is keen attention to detail, including a custom-made soundtrack by Cape Town’s Roastin’ Records (think Van Morrison and Radiohead), and the hotel’s scented candle created by House of Gozdawa and inspired by smells from "the Karoo veld and Robertson herbs". Room keys are adorned with chunky Pichulik chains.

Guests are provided with The Small Guide, an eye-opening collection of insider activities that can be booked in the area. There are visits to wine and olive farms, distilleries and a honey producer. Most trips offer more than ordinary visitors would experience, like a personal tour or a tractor ride and braai with Farmer Redbeard.

The Em Bar with its handpainted tiles by Michael Chandler. Picture: MICKY HOYLE
The Em Bar with its handpainted tiles by Michael Chandler. Picture: MICKY HOYLE

 Another extra is original contemporary art for sale, provided through collaboration with Cape Town’s SMITH gallery. Work hangs in all spaces. Appreciative guests can purchase something they’ve contemplated on a room wall and have it sent home as a reminder of holidays past.

Rands explains that the house was once owned by an inimitable woman known as Em. The exotic palms scattered Dr Seuss-like around the garden are her handiwork; she was also known to take medicine with a glass of spirits.

Rands’s father worked in the wine industry and visited Robertson often. He "fell in love" with the house’s old world character and saw the potential for a small luxury hotel. A 10-room country hotel opened seven years ago with suites in a new poolside building, in the stables and in the manor house. But the decor was more traditional.

"Before Dad passed away he asked me to give the hotel all the love and attention it needed," Rands says. "In 2016 we did a full refurbishment. We focused on the small details and worked with artists to create bespoke pieces for the hotel."

Original contemporary art in hotels is nothing new, but the opportunity to purchase a piece from a room or wall is unusual, and quality varies wildly.

Designer Sophie Ashby and SMITH curator Amy Ellenbogen placed each piece. There are up to 45 works in the hotel at any one time and Ellenbogen travels to Robertson every other month to personally hang new pieces.

"Often [in hotels], art seems to be an afterthought," says Ellenbogen. "Interior designers will spend large amounts of money on sofas but they’re not prepared to go the extra mile when actually hanging things on the wall."

At the Small Hotel, however, the team recognised the opportunity to speak to art lovers unsure just what they should be buying. Art provides an "extra luxury cherry", as Ellenbogen puts it, for high-end clientele who expect travel to enrich their lives. The work has that extra nod of approval that a gallery space usually confers.

Prices do not exceed R50,000 for a work, and Ellenbogen has had to consider which artists would benefit by consigning work to a small country hotel.

"I think artists are terrified to put work up outside of the gallery space purely because how does somebody know it’s for sale?" Ellenbogen says.

Part of The Small Hotel’s solution is a neat catalogue in rooms and communal spaces, which provides all the details. Again, it is perfectly designed, much like the Small Guide: loose leaves of information that can be replaced if work sells.

Sales are modest, but not insignificant: about 10 works have been purchased since the hotel reopened in September 2016. Renee Rossouw has sold a number of pieces. Anna van der Ploeg, one of whose works has devil thorns stitched onto paper, has also done well.

I think artists are terrified to put work up outside of the gallery space purely because how does somebody know it’s for sale?

The works, some of which are abstract, are not at all tied to place. "I am hopeful that this relationship might lead to possibilities for artists that we work with to come to Robertson and create work influenced by the town," Ellenbogen says.

SMITH has found the collaboration "a slow burner, but a good burner" and will reassess things after the contract expires at the end of 2017.

"But from a financial perspective, does it make sense to put up these gallery spaces within hotel spaces?

"The short answer is: not yet," says Ellenbogen.

"I don’t think the South African public is ready for it; they’re not used to being able to buy art within a hotel space. I think the international market gets it straight away."

SMITH has also partnered with the Rands to provide art for the wine-tasting space at the family’s Twee Jonge Gezellen farm in Tulbagh.

The Small Hotel is an asset to Robertson in other ways: it builds knowledge of the wine estates and food offerings in the region through its Small Guide. Ellenbogen, who previously saw the town as more "outdoorsy", thinks the hotel has activated a sleepy hollow and brought in different kinds of visitors.

People who appreciate wildly inventive gin and tonics, awash in peppercorns, lemon grass and Cape craft gin, and good, locally sourced produce will be happy.

They are the sort of people who will wander the cactus garden and see local plants reflected in hand-painted tiles on the bar, and who will enjoy tasting wine with an estate owner or wine maker. And of course, they will appreciate the hotel’s stylishness.

"Occupancy has increased a lot over the past year," says Rands. "I think people are looking for real small-town experiences."

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