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This quaint hotel provides an opportunity to experience a nugget of Cape history in a hotel which easily boxes above its "3 star" weight group. The Houw Hoek Hotel was previously called the Houw Hoek Inn; and historically has been known by a range of other names: Haue Hoek, Houdhoek, Houhoeck, Houhoek and Houthoek (more later on the etymology of the name).
We had driven past it many times on the N2 on our way from Cape Town to the Overberg, the Eastern Cape and many other stops; and decided it was time to spend a night there. So, we phoned them up and got a booking for our family of 4 children and 2 adults, for R1100 for a night in a family room.
The Houw Hoek Inn/Hotel is situated below the Houwhoek Pass (about 100m below the N2 National Road), from which it gets its name, in between Botrivier and Grabouw; and above the Jakkalsrivier stream which cuts through the pass. This gives it a magnificent mountain backdrop. In the garden stands a massive Bluegum Tree, possibly the oldest in South Africa; which was planted in 1848 by the Beyers family on the birth of their 5th child, Maria. There's no sign indicating where reception is, but for those in the know, the bluegum tree guards the entrance to it. Just above the N2 is the Houw Hoek Farm Stall. The drive from Cape Town is about an hour long, assuming you time your drive to miss the traffic at Somerset West (which we advise).
Henry the Ghost has frequented the Houw Hoek Inn for the last 50 years; usually being seen in the first floor passage, in rooms 3 & 4 (which thankfully are now store rooms) and around the reception area. I asked one of the staff about Henry, but it seems his legend is fading, as the staff member knew nothing about him.
There are numerous activities to keep one entertained for a couple of days.
The hotel has 2 swimming pools, a mini golf course, volleyball, squash, tennis (1 court), mountain bike trails and a small dam with boat rides. The mountain bike trail doubles as a hiking trail:
The kids will love the jungle gym, jumping castle, water slide and the trampoline. There is a games room with foosball, arcade games (1980s style with Donkey Kong), table tennis, board games, a pool table, air hockey and toys for the tiny tots. The games are a bit worn, but usable. Children under 7 must be supervised in the games room.
The hotel has 5 conference facilities, all air conditioned, which has space for 250 attendants.
The hotel offers free WiFi. We were warned that it wasn't good where our room was (room 44), but our experience was that it was in fact ok - bandwidth intensive operations like Netflix it struggled with, but web browsing and downloading emails worked fine.
The meals prices weren't included in the price we paid, and this needs to be factored in when comparing prices across different hotels. The breakfast was the usual one would expect from a 3* hotel - cereals, yoghurt, fruit, bread, spreads, eggs made to your taste, sausages (pork & beef), beans, coffee, tea and juices. The buffet was served until 10am. Dinner was also satisfactory, the steak is a winner, and there are a wide variety of desserts.
Be sure to try the pies made on the other side of the N2 by Houw Hoek Farmstall.
We stayed in a family room, 44 - we thought it was a 6 sleeper, but in fact it was a 5 sleeper, with a double bed and 3 single beds - this worked out fine for us, as our infant was happy to sleep in the double bed with us; beds were comfortable. The room was clean, it had a flat screen TV, with a limited number of DSTV channels, including one kiddies channel. For colder weather there were a few logs of wood and firelighters. There's a small bar fridge, cupboards, a chest of drawers and phone. The room had a private bathroom with a bath and a separate shower. Outside there was a stoep with a plastic table and plastic chairs, but no view.
Parts of the hotel date back to 1779. The staff let me know that the oldest part of the hotel is the bar area.
Prior to 1830 when Sir Lowry's Pass was completed, travellers would ascend the dangerous Hottentots Holland Kloof, and then be on the "Greenlands" Plateau, where Grabouw is; after travelling east they would then descend off the Greenlands Plateau down the Houw Hoek Pass. In 1811 one William Burchell documented his trip as follows (see 'Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa, Volume 1'): "We came to a short but rugged range of mountains, where, by an execrable road, we ascended the rocky pass of Groot Houhoek, or Houwhoek. This place is much dreaded by those who have to pass it in wagons: though not so steep, it is more difficult than the Hottentot-Holland Kloof, and being in the Great Eastern Road, it cannot be avoided. unless by the Kleine Houwhoek, another pass in the same range, which, however, is said to be even worse than this."
In 1830 Colonel Charles Michell completed Sir Lowry's Pass, replacing the dangerous Hottentots Holland Kloof. Nine months later, in April 1831, Michell finished building the Houw Hoek Pass, as part of the same project. In 1846, Houw Hoek Pass was reconstructed by Andrew Bain. However, the pass as built by Bain had a climb up to the mountain above Bot River, and a steep dangerous descent down to Bot River.
The Houw Hoek Inn got a liquor license in 1834, making it the oldest licensed hotel in South Africa. The hotel was situated at a tollgate set up by the Dutch East India Company, when they were still ruling the Cape, with the Cape Wagon route passing by the hotel. Later, the railwayline was built and the train would stop at the Houw Hoek Inn at precisely 12h30, on its way from Cape Town to Caledon. Shortly after the Anglo Boer War, the road was rebuilt to follow the railway line, thus avoiding the mountain top. To cater for the requirements of the increase in motor vehicles the road was rerouted in the 1930s back over the mountain summit.
In 1976 the Houwhoek Pass, in its current structure with 4 lanes, was completed.
In 1860 the hotel was renovated with an upper floor being added.
To get a feel for its history read this piece by Lawrence Green, as quoted from his book: "A Taste of South-Easter":
"Hotel grading has killed many picturesque hotels in the Cape districts, those romantic old coaching inns of the transport roads. Among the survivors is the Houw Hoek Hotel, said to be the oldest of them all. It stands in a wooded hollow close to the giant Bluegum tree. This was once a famous halt for travellers bound from Cape Town to Caledon. Lady Anne Barnard enjoyed boiled chicken "fit for an emperor" at this inn. Lady Duff Gordon commented favourably on the absence of fleas. She paid nine shillings for dinner, bed and breakfast. When the railway came to Houw Hoek the innkeeper served meals to passengers on the platform. Inevitably the absurd story was told of the soup being so hot that the customers had no time to eat the rest of the meal. They were not such fools! Many country hotels of the transport days started as thatched, wattle and daub winkels; corrugated iron and matchboard lining came later. Only the more prosperous owners had a piano or billiard table. Light was supplied by enormous paraffin lamps. Floors were of mis or stamped earth. You might find such a place almost hidden in the mountains beside a willow lined stream. The barman would sell you anything from a mouse-trap to a pair of sheep-shears. If you looked into the stables you realised that for years the guests had arrived in Cape carts or on horseback. The combined hotel, shop and post office has not disappeared, though the furnishings are probably more luxurious than they were in the days of my youth. How well I remember the gin bottles serving as water carafes, the little thread-bare towels, the enormous carved sideboard in the dining-room. Now and again, close to a modern hotel, you can see the old place still serving as an annex".
In 2016 the hotel was sold for R42m to Drew Danford and Robert Haarburger. Quite a large sum!
There are differing explanations as to from where the word Houwhoek originates. To quote from the book "Falling into Place: The Story of Modern South African Place names": "The meaning of Houdkop probably corresponds to one of the surmised meanings of Houwhoek Pass in the Western Cape, which was also spelled Houthoek in 1712. On the steep pass, drivers would call out 'Hou!' (stay, hold) to their oxen or horses, or else they would have to hold them as they took the hoek, or corner. In the same way, Houdkop means that drivers would have to hold the kop, or head, of an animal to the pass. However, in Afrikaans, houtkop with a t - which is pronounced the same - means ''wooden head', which is an insult, very often racist. And so Houdkop would have been likely to cause offence to people who did not know the correct etymology."
On the other hand, GS Nienaber's theory is that Houwhoek derives from the word Hou(w), which is the Khoi name for cattle (who farmed there), and thus it means "cattle corner".