Phantom Forest Eco Reserve, Knysna, South Africa

Written on October 5, 2011

From Plett it’s an easy drive into Knynsa. We were now in full Garden Route territory, but the landscape was still nothing like what I had imagined – unpopulated expanses of rolling hills and carved gorges leading to the sea, green pasture land mixed with areas of replanted trees, more natural looking stretches of dense forest and scrubby brush. Certainly more “wild” or natural looking than the Wild Coast or than the name “Garden Route” implies. To the north, mountains separate this region from the Karoo high desert.

Township outside of Knysna.

Knysna is set on the banks and islands of a large lagoon separated from the sea by narrow headlands.

It’s a pretty setting marred by overdevelopment and sections that have been clear cut, sometimes replanted, sometimes not.

The lodge at Phantom Forest Eco Reserve, built from green materials, is set in the hillside trees overlooking the lagoon. A luxury Swiss-Family-Robison-meets-Africa feel with individual suites connected to the main lodge by boardwalks meandering through the tree tops. The attendant explains that the boardwalk maze is really a circle. If you get lost just keep heading in one direction and you’ll eventually end up back at reception. The main lounge and small pool area have fantastic views of Knysna and the lagoon below.

The rooms, unfortunately, lack the view due to dense tree branches in front of the windows.

The suites, tastefully decorated in neutral safari tones, are huge with a king bed on platform and a sitting area in from of the window.

Outside there is small terrace. The bathroom is equally spacious with a roomy tub set in a bay window from which you can star gaze on a clear night. There is also a separate large shower and, of course, the stone floor is heated.

Dining at Phantom Forest

Before dinner guests gather in the lodge lounge between 7 and 8 to relax and look over the menu. The six course affair includes a pre-dinner amuse bouche, soup, appetizer, palate cleansing granite, main course and dessert. With views overlooking the valley, we sipped on a glass South African Shiraz.

Brightly decorated  in a fun African motif

the lounge is also wired with Wi-Fi internet service, which is either a distraction in an otherwise tranquil setting or a blessing as we hurriedly booked our last night in Cape Town. With all our bookings completed, we can chill and enjoy our last six days in SA coasting into Cape Town at the end of the week.

Back to dinner. While looking over the menu we were brought a spoon with a bite sized arancini – a type of mushroom risotto served with a thin wafer and marmalade. Not a great start – the cracker stale and the fried risotto ball greasy. But this was to be the last of our disappointments.

After we made our choice of appetizer, main dish and dessert, the guests were brought to the tranquil safari camp themed dining room, done in neutral shades with low romantic lighting. A balanced mix of rustic Africa and European elegance.

The meal started with a spinach soup, as green a soup as I have ever seen, garnished with toasted coconut. For the second course (or third if you count the amuse bouche) we tasted the beet soufflé with a gorgonzola cream sauce garnish with an arugula and baby raw beet salad. The soufflé looked like a mound of melting ice cream and although much heavier than most soufflés it had a pleasing flavor and texture.

Don’s venison samosa was meaty with shredded venison inside a flakey pastry.

The mains were the most impressive course. The beef was exactly medium rare and served on a bed of rich whipped potatoes accompanied by a divine port sauce with chunks of grapefruit for a surprise twist and topped with crispy shoelace sweet potatoes. Don’s fish with asparagus, served with parmesan polenta, was simple and perfectly prepared.

While the chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream was maybe a little too plain, it was well done and hit the spot. Don’s lemon tartlet, on the other hand, was scrumptiously tart in a crisp, buttery pastry.

Breakfast

A crisp, clear, cool morning we breakfasted on the tree-top terrace just outside the dining room, a lovely setting surrounded by trees.

The fire pit in the center of the tables was unfortunately not lit, but they do offer lap blankets.

Breakfast started with individual carafes of French pressed coffee and a tray of baked goods – muffins, tiny scones and a cakelette finished with cream cheese icing. For the first course we ordered the fruit plate and oatmeal served with toasted coconut and a dram of Amarula liquor to warm the bones on a chilly morning. For the second course I ordered the morning special, calves liver and onions served on a fried potato cake garnished with crispy bacon. Maybe not my first breakfast choice but I couldn’t pass up liver and onions. Delightful, with a sweet confit of onion and smoky bacon complementing the earthy flavor of the liver.

My only complaint was that the liver was a tad over cooked for my tastes.  Mains were served with homemade white and raisin toast and a wonderful homemade marmalade and strawberry jam. A great beginning to an active day.

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