The Alphen Boutique Hotel
by Meagan Dill
The Alphen Boutique Hotel, situated in the picturesque Constantia winelands in the Western Cape, is home to a rich history that spans hundreds of years – a history so deeply intertwined with South Africa’s history as a whole that the two are virtually impossible to separate.
The story of Alphen begins in 1753. Prior to this, the land that would become Alphen was part of the Groot Constantia estate. When the owner of the estate, Simon van der Stel, died in 1712, the estate was split up and the various parts were auctioned off in 1716. However, it was in 1753 that a man named Abraham Leever (affectionately known as the “Monsieur from Amsterdam”) built the present homestead.
Many decades and many owners later, this estate eventually became the property of the Cloete family. Today, 150 years later, Alphen is still owned by their descendants. The land itself has plenty of stories to tell – from the slave quarters to the Mill House and the various buildings built in completely different eras are a physical testament to the historical significance of the land.
The Cloete family, too, has an interesting history, which seems appropriate indeed considering their long-term involvement with such an interesting estate. The first Cloete to own Alphen estate was Hendrik Cloete and this name would be passed down in the family through generations. This particular Hendrik Cloete was clearly not a one for dawdling – after all, his rather unique way of starting his day left no room for sleeping in. Forget the cries of roosters or even the brightness of the rising sun – instead, he employed a fiddler to wake him each morning with song.
His son, also named Hendrik Cloete, is credited with establishing the Constantia wines. Those interested in wine will know that Constantia has a reputation for producing extremely high quality wines. After all, if it’s good enough for the kings of France and England (who did, in fact, consume wines from this area at the time), then the man who originated this wine certainly deserves to be toasted.
One generation down, the name “Hendrik Cloete” was anglicised to “Henry Cloete” as this particular son decided to adopt the British way of life. Surprisingly, one area to which this life philosophy did not extend was marriage. His wife was Delina van Warmelow, an Afrikaner lady who was a spy for the boers during the Anglo-Boer war. She used her position to her advantage by eavesdropping when Henry entertained British officers, including such high profile individuals as Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts.
Van Warmelow would then smuggle uncensored documents with important information to the boers in the Transvaal, storing the documents for transit in cleverly constructed devices such as suitcases with false bottoms and empty dolls. At the end of the war, a tin box of incriminating letters was buried somewhere on the grounds of the Alphen estate. To this day, the box remains undiscovered.
Another important figure in the history of Alphen is Dr James Barry, who was the first surgeon to perform a caesarean section in South Africa. He was a regular visitor, often accompanying Lord Charles Somerset, the Governor of the Cape. During this period, Dr Barry was involved in an armed duel with Josias Cloete, a good friend of his, as they were both supposedly vying for the affections of the same woman. Unusually, neither was hurt in this duel. Many years later, when Dr Barry died at the age of 71, everything became a lot clearer when it was discovered that Dr Barry was, in fact, a woman who had obviously spent decades of her life posing as a man. The duel, of course, had been a ruse, designed to refute rumours of a relationship between Lord Somerset and Dr Barry – rumours which proved to be not so very far from the truth, after all.
To delve into each and every one of the numerous historical yarns that Alphen has would surely be enough to fill a book – but suffice it to say, the many prominent visitors to the estate throughout the centuries make it clear that this is a destination truly worth seeing. The likes of Mark Twain, Captain Cook, Cecil John Rhodes, George Bernard Shaw, Jan Smuts, and Sir Thomas Cullinan – to name just a few – have all visited the Alphen estate.
Today Alphen stands as proudly as ever and is the ultimate five-star destination for anyone wishing to experience a slice of genuine South African history while enjoying complete luxury.
Photograph by Nicole Danielle