For your country living and cottagecore dreams, a weekend in Irene is just what your wanderlust ordered

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Aerial view of African Pride Irene Country Lodge. (Image supplied on behalf of Marriot Bonvoy)
Aerial view of African Pride Irene Country Lodge. (Image supplied on behalf of Marriot Bonvoy)
  • The pandemic has changed the travel landscape, either halting plans or completely canceling them.
  • While many remain reluctant to travel far and wide for leisure, some South Africans are taking advantage of local staycations at hotels or Airbnb’s in lieu of full holiday getaways.
  • What this means is that the local tourism and hospitality scene has been hit on its pressure points and is now making efforts to revamp their experiences.
  • This is why Marriott Bonvoy - the travel marketplace and award-winning travel program from Marriott  International - has released a redesigned version of its mobile app in anticipation of increased desire and demand for travel later this year.  

As a coastal girl from the Eastern Cape, there's nothing that makes my heart churn rich butter more than being surrounded by nature's most effortless gifts. 

I'm happiest outside, at the beach, with blades of grass meeting my soles, and with the sun kissing my face or back. So, of course a weekend at a country lodge in Irene beckoned me with the same vigour our government puts restrictions on alcohol sales when Covid cases get too out of control for them. 

My stay at African Pride Irene Country Lodge (Autograph Collection) was an experience that makes up part of a new offering by Marriott Bonvoy. This is a travel marketplace and award-winning travel program from Marriott  International. Marriott Bonvoy has released a redesigned version of its mobile app in anticipation of increased desire and demand for travel later this year because you know... it's just safer to stay put for now. 

READ MORE: Following a turbulent year, it's okay to put your goals on hold and focus on survival 

As someone who's stayed at several hotels around the country, a program such as Marriott Bonvoy makes sense. After accumulating several points, this program and app promises to get rid of those pesky things we're not too fond of about hotel stays; checkout at 10am, carrying your plastic key with you wherever you go, and so on.  

However, during my recent stay at the Irene Country Lodge & Spa, these pesky things were still very much part of the experience because I have not yet climbed up the membership tiers yet. 

But before we get into all of the details about the Marriott Bonvoy app, let me talk you through my 2-night stay at African Pride:  

Amenities

My friend *Maria and I were booked into an executive suite. This suite is spacious, has 'old money' interiors, and is the perfect playground for anyone who loves mirror selfies (six whole mirrors!). Oh yes, there's also a shelf furnished with a full series of encyclopaedias, which reminded my friend and I of our days of using encyclopaedias for school projects because we're uhm.. that old. 

The hotel staff put in an extra bed in the lounge for Maria when she arrived not too long after I checked in. I mean, did I mention that the suite is really spacious? 

Not forgetting the fact that this is your view throughout your stay. It's especially charming when you wake up to it.

irene country lodge
Image: Writer's own 

On the second night, my friend checked out as she had a prior family commitment, so I did what I do best - indulge in solo dinner and unwinding. For me, this also entails watching TV or series. 

READ MORE: I went on a solo staycation at a hotel because sometimes self-care can be frivolous

Perhaps in true country living form, the TVs in the suites are not Smart TVs, so no Netflix or Showmax unless you use a laptop. So I watched one of the oh-so-arb channels one usually finds on hotel TV. 

No, the stay was not spent inside our suite throughout.

There is the lodge's Camdeboo Spa, where Maria enjoyed a body massage, which she said "did the job" for her back pain. I opted out of a body massage this time around (the third wave has me a little on edge about certain experiences). 

There is also the River Bar, Silver Rise Lobby Lounge, Meadow Green Restaurant, a pool, conference rooms, outdoor fireplace to make smores, jogging trails, a bird sanctuary, and the Irene Farm.

irene country lodge staycation
Image: Writer's own 

While we enjoyed access to all the dining areas (including an indoor fireside chat) and the spa, I really do wish we had been given the option to explore the Irene Farm and the bird sanctuary.  

Of course, the pool would be delightful over the warmer seasons.

irene country lodge staycation

irene country lodge staycation

irene country lodge staycation
Images supplied on behalf of Marriott Bonvoy 

The lodge was bustling throughout the weekend, with three special occasions (including a wedding) happening on Saturday, plus guests checking in throughout each day. 

Dining 

Upon arrival on Friday afternoon, we were offered lunch. This offer was taken up as a late lunch, as I was still on my corporate clock until around 5pm. Aesthetically, the timing was spot-on for a late lunch, as the sun descended on our table for warm lighting and a picturesque backdrop against the lake.  

For Covid safety, the menu is digital - you scan and open it on your mobile device. 

You are given the option to either order from their a la carte menu or to do the buffet. We both picked from the a la carte all-day menu, which is undoubtedly the best way to go. I opted for a casual chicken burger and salad, and my friend ordered fish & chips - you know, easy Friday dining.

Both were well-prepared, tasty, and crisp. 

staycation
Images: Writer's own 

For dinner, we ordered from the a la carte menu again. This time, both going for beef fillet, mash and veggies; and scallops as a starter. Again, the chef delivered deliciously. 

irene lodge staycation
Image: Writer's own 

This dinner was accompanied by a brief, rushed wine tasting that serves the purpose of determining which house wine you'll have with your dinner.

We were also offered an additional bottle of bubbly and we requested that this be a Brut MCC. We were given sweet, fruity Prosecco instead, despite Brut options being available on the menu. Needless to say, we returned the bottle and no Brut was offered to us.  

As for desert, the crème brûlée was as it should be; with a satisfying crack of the spoon and warm enough for a winter night. 

We slept in on Saturday and therefore missed breakfast. 

Lunch came in the form of a picnic by the lake, which we were driven to by golf cart. The picnic basket comes equipped with a blanket, cushions, sweet and savoury treats and a... bottle of water.

However, the cold meats weren't fresh. Maybe we were unlucky?

As a result, my suggestions for this picnic offering are as follows:

- The basket should come standard with a beverage option; wine/bubbly or juice, and the water merely be additional to the standard provided drink.

- In winter, a flask containing the guests' warm drink of choice should be in the basket.

- Saucers 

irene country lodge staycation
Image: Writer's own 

For my solo dinner, I decided to check out the buffet. I was impressed by the Covid safety measures put in place - patrons do not dish up for themselves as we would in previous times at a buffet, and there's a screen serving as a barrier between the food and the people. 

I had rice, lamb stew and veggies. I then picked up two mini cheesecakes for dessert.

I must say, the buffet offering is not as well prepared as the a la carte dishes. Perhaps due to the fact that the menu is cooked in bulk.

Well, at least the dining area is given a personality by the jazz musician playing live covers of golden oldies as he meanders through the tables.   

READ MORE: A staycation could be what you need to determine you and your partner's baecation compatibility

Service

We were well looked after during our stay, but my friend and I both felt as though overall, the staff are not flexible; even unfriendly at times. 

Because I had work on Friday (which I announced upon arrival), we were inevitably running late on our itinerary. However, the one activity we missed on Friday night - smores by the fire - was not offered to us for the following night on the basis that we couldn't get around to it on Friday (at this point, they did not know my friend was leaving on day two, so the offer could have still been made). 

On Saturday afternoon, I had to call to ask about the picnic and despite it being scheduled for 1pm, it was not ready when I finally called reception about it at 2pm. 

On Sunday, although the lodge was graceful with their checkout time, the driver seemed overall reluctant to grant me my two small polite requests during my trip back to my apartment. I mean, he did oblige - partially so -  five minutes into the trip, he changed the station I asked for, and I just didn't bring it up again. 

But when you offer a service to someone, your reluctance to grant it shouldn't be so evident to the recipient of the service that they fear addressing it will result in an unpleasant spat.

irene country lodge staycation
Image supplied on behalf of Marriott Bonvoy 

Will I be returning? 

African Pride Irene Country Lodge - with all its fireplaces, lush beds, and picnics for two - is most suitable in winter if you're going with a romantic partner. 

As for its scenery and outdoorsy grandeur - as a single person who enjoys experiences with friends - I would love to return in summer or spring, see the farm, the bird sanctuary, jog in the late afternoon, and sip bubbly by the pool. 

Also, as someone with aspirations of one day living off the grid in the countryside, planting her own veggies, cows as pets, and wearing off-white ensembles, being at Irene Country Lodge made me feel like I'm a step closer to it.

READ MORE: Embrace the cottagecore aesthetic by bringing the outdoors inside with these 5 tips

But I'll also reiterate what I said in a previous hotel review about the hospitality industry seemingly only tailoring their offerings to couples; 

"This might have something to do with the fact that the hospitality sector at large generally doesn't curate experiences for solo patrons (I go back to the TV channel situation again) and that's something that needs to be accommodated for in the future." 

As for the service, I hope it's better next time.

Now, about the Marriott Bonvoy app 

The Autograph Collection's African Pride - where we stayed - is not the only place where you can enjoy Marriott Bonvoy perks. 

As the centerpiece of the company’s mobile-first mindset, the Marriott Bonvoy app ensures guests receive the best available rate; enjoy programme benefits such as exclusive member rates and accruing points for  stays; and enables members to customise their experience. 

Featuring new travel shopping options based on inspiring destinations and to more of Marriott’s vast travel  offerings, such as premium vacation rentals from Homes & Villas by Marriott International as well as  destination tours and activities, the app now offers members even more personalised recommendations and  offers so members can maximise their points earned both while traveling and even when they are not. 

The app will make it easier for guests to choose a contactless option for check-in and check-out, easy access to  mobile keys, and the ability to request services and amenities via chat and mobile requests.  

Volker Heiden, Area Vice President Sub-Saharan Africa, Marriott International says; “The pandemic has made  travel bookings a much bigger decision – consumers will be looking for the maximum value – both in monetary  terms but also in terms of the experience for them – what they get out of a holiday personally.

"For us to give guests a sense of recognition, added value and welcome will become even more important. Existing members of our travel programme, Marriott Bonvoy, already benefit from this – in terms of upgrades,  and exclusive member offers and experiences. Rewarding our most regular, most valued guests underpins  everything we do – and this will become ever more important for us and for our guests as travel returns.”  

irene country lodge
Image supplied on behalf of Marriott Bonvoy 

While nearly a million people used the app to become members of Marriott Bonvoy in 2020, travellers not yet  ready to join (for free) can still search and book stays easier than before.

“The pandemic has accelerated the trend of digitalisation in the travel sector. Digital platforms, which have  long been the preferred source of content and commerce for Millennials and Gen-Z, will increasingly become  a source of both inspiration and sales embraced by all generations. The enhanced Marriott Bonvoy Mobile app is a must-have travel companion. It simplifies the travel planning process, allows for a frictionless experience before and during your stay and gets smarter the more you interact with it,” said Neal  Jones, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Marriott International, Europe, Middle East & Africa.

“The Marriott Bonvoy Mobile app offers travellers access to so much, whether it is the breadth of our global portfolio of 7 500 hotels among our 30 brands or home rentals, to destination experiences and customisable content for  travel inspiration. Through tailored offers, members can learn how to earn hundreds of thousands of points  just by booking stays, booking a StayPass to work from a hotel or going about their daily lives.”

READ MORE | Meet the woman who's visited 57 countries alone after taking her first solo trip 10 years ago

The app is currently available in seven languages; English, Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin. Four additional languages will be added later this year including Italian, Russian, Portuguese, and Arabic.

The improved app experience launches first on Apple’s iOS operating  system which accounts for most Marriott Bonvoy app users, followed the Android operating system later this  year. 

To enrol for free or for more information about Marriott Bonvoy, visit MarriottBonvoy.com.

Additional information and images provided on behalf of Marriott Bonvoy

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