The boutique hotel is on our short list for a whale spotting getaway in South Africa.

Overall Impression Staying at Birkenhead House was like staying at a friend’s elegant well staffed beach house. While the interior and accommodations were attractive and art filled and the meals convenient it was the vistas, sea breeze, surf sounds and access to outdoor site specific activities that I especially enjoyed at the boutique hotel. During our stay we made time to explore the coastal area near Birkenhead House and a bit of Hermanus, the well known whale watching town.

Breakfast on the bay facing deck after a two-hour early morning walk into town via the water fronting nature path that passed by the hotel became a favorite outing. During our visit, we would walk from the residential area where the hotel is situated just as the sun was about to rise with barely enough natural light to see the path and make our way to the center of Hermanus 8 kilometers away.

Late afternoon would find us sitting on our room porch or on a lounge chair at the same ocean facing deck where we had breakfast hoping to spot whales. We were fortunate. On our first attempt we saw brides whales off season in the dim light of the setting sun. We confirmed the sighting the following day on our walk into Hermanus.

We had a pleasant stay in Hermanus in great part thanks to the comfortable beachfront accommodations at Birkenhead House, its intimate and elegant ambiance on the outskirts of town, our upstairs spacious rooms with a partial ocean view (no air conditioning), on site meals in pretty settings, internet access and luxury amenities. The boutique hotel is on our short list for a whale spotting getaway in South Africa.

Children Guests 12 years and older were welcome at Birkenhead House and families with children of all ages were welcome at Birkenhead Villa. We saw no children during our stay.

Class Of Accommodation Five Star waterfront boutique hotel

Connectivity There was ADSL internet access from our rooms.

General Manager Shane Brummer

Handicapped Access No

Length Of Stay Three nights

Location On the outskirts of the town of Hermanus in the Western Cape between the Klein Rivier Mountains and Walker Bay.

Owned-Managed Liz and Phil Biden, owners of The Royal Portfolio.

Pets Allowed No

Size There were 11 rooms at Birkenhead House and five rooms at Birkenhead Villa in the 2,803 square meter property with 55 staff.

Year Opened-Renovated The property was established June 2003.The latest renovations work at Birkenhead House was in 2011 when The Boutique store was built; the staff repainted outside areas and re-creted the dining room and lounge walls.

Lobby And Common Areas In 1992, Phil and Liz Biden bought the land where the former Birkenhead Hotel used to stand before it was demolished to build a holiday home. Over time they added the property to their existing hotel properties La Residence in Franschhoek and Royal Malewane in the Thornybush Reserve near Kruger National Park. Phil Biden and Micheal Dall conducted the architectural work of the property; Chris Young developed the building and Liz Biden and Ralph Krall handled the interior design.

The hotel’s contemporary style was designed to be “an artful mix of classic beach house style and quirky opulence” with furnishings and artwork added for “arresting and eclectic” effect. While the common areas shared a uniform decorative style each room was different in size, location within the property, views, layout and furnishings.

From the main entrance where we handed our car to a valet parking attendant we walked into a shady courtyard. The hotel was divided into three main and interconnected areas, Back House, Middle House and Front House which faced the bay. The interior décor was contemporary, accented by artistic designs, sculptures, water features, antiques and bright colorful fabrics. The ambiance was casual elegant. The staircases to our rooms were candle lit in the evening. There was original South Africa artwork by Beezy Baailey, Gregoire Boonzaier, Trevor Coleman, Philip Erskine, Kerri Evans, Shasha Hartslief, Ken Howard, Keith Joubert, Charles Kamangwana, Peter Kuhfeld, Speelman Mahlangu, Lucas Mahome, Maketo, Adolpho McQue, James Mooney, Hennie NIemann Jr., Sheila Nowers, Neil Rogers, Jill Berolowitz, James Butler, Guy du Toit, and Egon Tania.

Bathroom The bathrooms in both rooms were similar in design and layout although some decorative elements varied. A lattice work panel provided privacy from the reception area. In my bathroom, to the left of the entrance there was a toilet, a large shower with a glass wall and no door and next to it there was a bathtub. There was a bright red lounge chaise in the middle of the room and an armless chair next to the clawfoot bathtub. Across the room were twin Corian sinks atop a wood base painted red with individual mirrors hanging on the wall. The bathtub showed signs of wear at the bottom. A large window and French wood and glass doors provided access to a corner covered terrace. For privacy it was necessary to close the shutters as neighbors from adjacent buildings could easily see into the room and bathroom. The sounds from the reception area could be heard in the bathroom and terrace. There were two frameless Deziree paintings on the bathroom walls.

Room We stayed in rooms 7 and 8, two adjacent and interconnected first floor (one floor up from the ground) Superior Rooms reached via separate staircases in the Middle House section of the hotel. The pool courtyard facing rooms had a view of the ocean in the background. There was no air conditioning although if we opened the doors and windows the ocean breeze and ocean sounds filled the room. Room 7, 44 square meters large, and Room 8, 48 square meters large, were similar although the color themes, furnishings and layout varied. When we arrived there were rose petals strewn about the rooms, beds and even in the toilets. We liked the handsome and spacious rooms and bathrooms.

Each room was divided into four distinct areas, a bedroom, a bathroom, a covered terrace facing the pool courtyard (and ocean in the background) and a covered terrace facing the property entrance, open courtyard, reception and Birkenhead Villa.

Travertine tiles covered the floors, faux aged putty colored walls matched the floors, and shutters covered white French doors and windows, in lieu of curtains, facing the front, side and rear of the building. There was a partial fishbowl effect in both. When in the bathroom and terraces neighboring buildings and spaces had a view into the room, making it necessary to retreat into the interior of the room for privacy; in the case of the bathroom it was necessary to close the shutters. There were fresh flower arrangements in the rooms (and in the common areas and dining room tables). There was a modern free form arrangement in one of the rooms. At turndown there were tea candles at on the tables, in the bathroom and on the steps of the staircase leading to our rooms.

My corner room, Room 8, reached via a dedicated staircase adjacent to the fitness and spa treatment rooms, was slightly warmer than my neighbor’s room. With the ocean facing terrace open the room temperature was pleasant and I much enjoyed the surf sounds (although I felt a bit uneasy sleeping with the door open at night). If I sat in the terrace adjacent to the bathroom there was little to no breeze and I could clearly hear conversations of staff, guests and neighbors near my room.

The bedroom itself was furnished with a tall (a stepping stool was provided to access the bed) queen size four poster bed with a duvet in lieu of a bedcover. The fabric at the ceiling of the bed matched the large cushions on the bed. Rectangular night tables, one with a marble top and the other in red, framed the bed. Two brick red comfortable armchairs and a table between them (with a sherry crystal service on a tray) occupied the the foot of the bed. A table with stools took up the corner near a luggage bench. As in my neighbor’s room there a number of amenities: as fruit bowl, iPod dock, large flat screen Samsung television and DVD player, minibar, two-sided closet.

There were two patterned rugs, one near the armchair and the other in the center of the room. We each used a glass topped rectangular table and cushioned armchair that faced a rectangular mirror (there were two other large mirrors in the bedroom) and the wall as an impromptu desk. To the left of the desk there was a elegantly lined mini refrigerator with complimentary soft drinks, bottled water, beer, and wine. Atop the refrigerator there were miniature bottles of Gilbey’s Gin, Bacardi Rum, Amarula liqueur, Smirnoff Vodka, and KWV Brandy. The middle section of the armoir housed a Sony DVD player and satellite receiver. The glass top of the armoire held an ice bucket with a half bottle of Viliera Brut Method Cap Classic wine and two glasses.

A blond wood cabinet in the corner with a glass and wood door housed snacks (Lays Potato Chips, two nougat candies, three glass containers with two kinds of nuts and dried fruit). The uppermost shelf had a tray with crystal bottles of liquor and a half bottle of 2008 Middlevlei Estate wine pinotage. Another shelf had a tray with mosquito repellent and a blow dryer. Ceiling high built-in closets took up the space on either side of the bathroom door. Mauve colored curtains covered the opening in lieu of doors. Both sides had hanging space, house branded winter and summer bathrobes in synthetic fibers and slippers; one side had an electronic safe and a laundry basket.

Many of the walls had framed and glass covered artwork in the same theme and style signed “Samuel.” White shutters covered the windows in the bedroom and bathroom. Shuttered doors next to glass and wood doors (identical to the ones in the rear of the bathroom leading onto a covered terrace in the back) led onto a eight foot wide by 18 foot long covered veranda which faced the central pool courtyard, the roof of the property, the neighboring property and the bay. A small round table and two white rattan chairs provided a place to linger and enjoy the ocean breeze and view. Guests and staff in the pool area often glanced up at the terrace. A divider on each side, with mirrors, separated the terrace from that of the neighboring room. My travel partner’s terrace was slightly longer and similarly furnished.

There was also a larger partly covered terrace in the opposite side of the rooms. Mine occupied the corner while his was in the middle, adjacent to mine. In one side of my terrace there was a cushioned adjustable lounge chair identical to the ones in the common areas as well as a set of white rattan furniture (a small sofa, two armchairs and a table). A door connected the two terraces, making it possible to enter each other’s rooms through our terraces via the bathrooms. This meant we had to stop at the terrace door and announce our presence or call in advance for the sake of bathroom privacy.

I liked the rear corner terrace because of the extra space it added to the room as well as the access to my partner’s room without having to descend my staircase and climb his every time I needed a battery or charger or just felt like chatting.

Food And Restaurants The hotel offered meal inclusive accommodations, an option we found appealing. Dining on site meant we could eat at our leisure and had no need to drive into town at meal times. Meals were served outdoors weather permitting facing the ocean and the bay at the rear of the property, in the pool courtyard or indoors in the hotel interior dining area, especially in the evening. We had breakfast on the water facing deck, lunch in the pool courtyard and dinner indoors. Breakfast consisted of a small buffet and made to order eggs with sides. We ordered lunch and dinner, served plated at our table, from a limited selection a la carte menu that changed daily. The hotel staff strived to offer menu items centered around Mediterranean seafood with an Asian and African influence.

The breakfast buffet featured two kinds of juice, hot beverages, several types of deli meats, smoked salmon, sliced fruit (pineapple, watermelon, strawberries, and blueberries), croissants, muffins, and cereals including delicious homemade muesli. My travel partner sampled that day’s egg special, Eggs Benedict atop a croissant, and enjoyed it. I liked the smoky flavored bacon side.

We had lunch in the interior pool courtyard because it was too cold to sit on the water facing deck. The chef introduced himself and brought a blackboard with the day’s specials. I sampled the prawns in butter and garlic (not a favorite), the hamburger with caramelized onions and fresh cut French fries and the mango sorbet with a glass of Tokara 2011 chardonnay recommended by our server. My travel partner had the samosas for starters, calamari salad for a main course and Lemon Posset for dessert with the same wine. Lunch on Tuesday was the Chef’s Salad, a green salad with cucumber, carrots, herbs, red olives and three lamb chops. My partner had a chicken Caesar. For dessert we went off menu. He ordered the Cake of the Day (banana caramel with chunks of fudge) and I had fudge (a favorite) and chocolate cookies.

Dinner dishes we sampled included Prosciutto with melon and Fried brie salad for the first course; cob with gnocchi in a tomato sauce, pork tenderloin with Moroccan spice, and an apple crumble with vanilla ice cream for dessert. Another night we had spring rolls for appetizers followed by lamb chops and wild mushroom risotto.

There were house wines available at meal times. Pairings were the work of Sommelier Ricardo Roux.

Amenities Amenities were plentiful including Molton Brown full size and travel size toiletries, slippers, fruit plate, complimentary mini bar, sparkling wine, complimentary laundry, satellite television, complimentary WiFi in the rooms and a computer for guest use in the computer room. Full board guests received meals, snacks and house beverages including wine. There were rose petals strewn about our rooms and bathroom on arrival and fresh flower arrangements in our rooms and around the property. There was 24-hour room service. There was also complimentary transfer to town and back following walks along the Fernkloof Nature Reserve into Hermanus.

Facilities The property had three pools, two treatment rooms, fitness room, dining room, gift shop and sea facing lounge.

Fitness Center And Spa Rooms There was a Cardio Gym work out area with treadmill, weights, cross trainer and cycle exercise machines. Two rooms with a total of 18 square meters of space, behind the fitness area, were set aside for guest treatments.

Pool There were three pools, two in the inner courtyard where we had lunch and one in the rearmost area of the house or Front Deck, facing the ocean. The bay facing Front Deck eternity pool was my favorite because of the view and the possibility of sighting whales. It measured 5.35 meters by 2.5 meters by 1 meter. The Two Level eternity pool was 4.4 meters by 2.92 meters by 1.3 meters at the top and 8.1 meters by 2.92 meters by 1.3 meters at the bottom. There were lounge chairs and umbrellas in the pool areas, making them especially inviting.

Other Due to a water shortage in the area the hotel asked guests via notes in the rooms to watch their water consumption. One day during our stay, a huge mist arrived midday and enveloped the property and the area, covering the sun and cooling temperatures.

The house was sandwiched between two beaches. Voëlklip (Afrikaans for bird stone) was to the left of the house as we faced the water and Nanny’s or Kamma Bay Beach was to the right of the house. We saw many more bathers and beachcombers in Voëlklip. The water, someone said, was very cold and both beaches were said to have strong currents requiring bathers to be cautious and aware.

The property was named for the HMS Birkenhead, one of the first iron-hulled ships built for the (English) Royal Navy. On 26 February 1852, while transporting troops to Algoa Bay, the frigate was wrecked at Danger Point near Gaansbaai on the outskirts of Hermanus. Because there were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers the soldiers allowed the women and children to board the boats to safety. Only 193 of the 643 people on board survived. Over time it is believed, the Birkenhead Drill of Rudyard Kipling’s poem came to describe courage in the face of hopeless circumstances.

During the whale watching season (June to December) southern right and other species of whale (Eubalaena Australis) may be seen in Walker Bay. The whales were dubbed “right” whales because in the past they were commercially viable to hunt. In 1935, because the species was close to extinction, they received international protection. Although on a previous visit to the town we saw right whales this visit was during the off whale watching season and there were no southern right whales in sight.

Cleanliness Excellent

Date Of Review March 2012 September 2009

Reviewers Article by Elena del Valle

Photographs by Gary Cox

Service Our rooms were serviced twice daily. We first encountered Shane, the manager, when he drove to pick us up in town following our nature walk one morning. Kristi and Ricardo Roux took turns looking after logistics. Servers were Styx (always had a ready smile), Chris, Gcobisa, Luyanda, Sindile. There were several other friendly young ladies at the front desk and gift shop.

Would You Stay There Again? Yes

Contact Information

  • Address:
    • 119 on 11th Street
    • Voëlklip, Hermanus, 7200
    • South Africa
  • Phone:
    • +27 028 314 8000
  • Fax:
    • +27 028 314 8015
  • Website:
  • Email: