What once used to be a power station in the middle of Thesen Island, Knysna is now a boutique hotel and spa, with a commanding view over the canals that weave throughout the island. Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa has 24 bedrooms, two restaurants, conference facilities, all the mod-cons, and a whole lot of energy.
“We saw an article on the Turbine plant in Business Day one morning over breakfast and Geoff and myself decided to go and have a look,” says Dandre Lerm-Engel, one of the owners of Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa together with Geoff Engel. “When we walked into the building we both just looked at each other and knew that we wanted to develop it into a hotel.” The project took three years to complete, with a painstaking attention to detail that is clearly evident and gives the hotel a phenomenal energy that befits its power station past. The building is a heritage site, so the inner-workings of the turbine are still on display throughout – furniture is artfully placed amongst the pipes, gears and levers, with bright pops of colour adding a touch of quirk and liveliness.
Professional and warm, the staff of Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa are just as lively as the décor, going the extra mile for guests with seeming effortlessness. When we were visiting the hotel, a couple from the UK were in South Africa celebrating their anniversary and were full of praise for the Turbine Hotel team who had kept their anniversary celebrations going by baking the couple a cake and showering them with bubbly. “Caring for our guests come naturally,” says General Manager Chris Schutte. “We empower all staff to listen and take note of guests’ celebrations. When there is a request, we don’t say no, we make a plan.” Chris puts the fantastic attitude of the staff, which adds an unmissable vibrancy to the hotel, down to the team being filled with “passionate people who are led by example.”
The kitchen team is led by Executive Chef Ursula Nieuwoudt, who graduated from the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine in 2004 and credits Chef Leon Nel from the Silver Orange Bistro for teaching her how to think outside the box. “Chef Leon is certainly one of the most creative chefs I have met. His restaurant is located on a citrus farm in the North West Province, so we were able to personally pick the produce and turn it into a beautiful dish. The 4½ years I spent here truly moulded me into the chef I wanted to be,” says Ursula.
In 2008 Ursula moved to the UK to gain international experience at The Hilton Hotel London Tower Bridge, and then became personal chef to a well-known Italian horse trainer. When she returned to South Africa, she decided to move to Knysna. “Coming here on holiday as a little girl, I have always had this fascinating connection with this town and the ocean. It’s here at The Turbine Hotel that I finally found my place as a chef, to create and produce my style of modern and classic dishes that come together with beautiful and fresh, sustainable produce.”
“From early on, I knew that I got great joy from creating food to please my friends and family. I was inspired by my late grandmother and mother, who shared their skills and secret recipes that had been passed on through the family for generations.” The Turbine Hotel’s mix of South African and international tourists are the beneficiaries of this generosity, with à la carte meals served at Island Café throughout the day, and light bites on offer at the new Gastro Pub, which flows out from the cosy bar onto the sunny deck outside.
“Our guests enjoy our relaxed dining experience, but still want the 5-star service and food,” says Ursula. Breakfast kicks off the day leisurely, with inventive hot dishes on offer such as Salmon, potato and feta cakes, Brioche French toast stuffed with cheddar and ham, Chocolate waffles, or just a perfectly poached egg drenched in hollandaise on top of crispy bacon and wilted spinach. Lunches are simple but delicious: gourmet burgers, salads such as Curried broccoli and cauliflower, Green bean and smoked salmon, and Smoked springbok and melon, with Sticky lemon chicken wings, Prawn skewers and Chargrilled lamb chops also on offer for those who want something a little meatier. For supper, guests can enjoy Asian duck, Slow-roasted lamb shanks, or Limebuttered chicken supreme for mains, with Grilled tiger prawns and carrot fritters, Moroccan chermoula chicken and Glazed duck salad for starters.
The Gastro Pub menu keeps it casual yet imaginative with their pub-style selection of mussel pots and snack baskets of calamari and chorizo served up alongside on-tap craft beer and artisanal cider. “Knysna gives me the feel of lazy summer holidays, eating fresh and yummy food in beautiful surroundings, and I think that it definitely reflects in my food,” says Ursula. Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa is a unique space that truly captures the essence of South Africa’s hospitality industry – location, quirkiness, relaxed dining, all served up with a huge helping of warmth.