Having first set eyes on the beauty of Port Alfred in 2008, family man Martin Bekker fell in love with the quaint Royal St Andrews Hotel originally built in 1924, jumping at the chance to buy it the minute he realised it was available.
Through passion and perseverance, this visionary who has a great love for his wife Linda’s lasagne and a good Sauvignon Blanc, hopes to turn this piece of the Sunshine Coast into a destination attracting visitors all year round.
When did you first visit Port Alfred and how did you decide to invest in the Hotel and the community
We first visited in 2008 and on each visit, we frequented the Highlander Pub and The Thistle Restaurant. The friendliness of the local community and the quaint hotel caught our eyes and our hearts. So when I heard that the hotel was for sale, I jumped at the chance to buy it. The pub was always busy and if you hadn’t booked your Christmas dinner the year before, you had no chance.
Needless to say, I quickly understood why when we visited Port Alfred during December, we would find new shops and businesses and on returning in April, they were gone. Port Alfred is very cyclical and most start-up and existing businesses find it difficult to sustain themselves during the off-season as there is not enough critical mass in the local community to carry them during the rest of the year.
What’s the dream for the Royal St Andrews Hotel and the community as a whole?
My dream is to expose as many people to Port Alfred as possible, contributing to a change in perception, turning the area into a destination and not a “pass through” or a little spot on the map.
When we started renovations in 2012, the economy was in a slump with many projects nearing the end, and no prospects on the horizon. My brief to the professional team was that we would only use local suppliers, service providers, contractors and labour for the project to ensure that the local community benefitted.
As we went along, I realised that spending a small fortune and doing half a job is not going to do it. I then took the decision to go the whole hog and turn it into a world-class establishment with a state-of-the-art conference centre and an additional 50 rooms to the 10 we already had including a Spa to bring more people to our beautiful town all year round and not just during holiday times.
The Royal St Andrews Hotel, where old-world charm meets world-class facilities.
10 Heritage rooms were restored from the old hotel, with a further 50 Luxury rooms added in the new wing of the hotel.
Our Luxury rooms with contemporary décor finishes.
The Royal St. Andrews boasts a luxurious state of the art, sound proof, on site conference centre known as the Edinburgh Hall. This venue can be divided into 3 smaller venues, ideal for wedding receptions, corporate functions and or private functions.
We’ve had many harsh criticisms from naysayers as well as boycotting by the “old regulars”, but that’s life – change is hard, but it can be positive. We provide 88 direct jobs at the hotel, not to speak of the knock-on-effect on those families as well as on our local suppliers.
I can already see the benefits as we are now becoming the conference venue of choice with companies, government departments, motor industries, tyre manufacturers, the insurance industry, the medical fraternity, Agri EC and the IEC, all utilising our venue for their conferencing. Many have returned more than once!
Previously tour busses passed Port Alfred to Port Elizabeth and East London, but we have now secured a number of major tour operators to do stopovers at the Hotel, exposing their international guests to the area, as well as a vast number of national tourists who never visited the area before.
In restoring the heritage side of the building, what is the task or project that stands out most, and why?
When our boys were born, Linda put her career on hold and became a mother, mom’s taxi, housewife and carer of the boys. When we started the renovations, she had been out of the working world for twenty years and found it quite daunting. Not to be left behind, she entered into a very intense 10-week short course in interior design with UCT.
I was immensely proud to see her growth, passion, and the return of her self-confidence during this time. She knew exactly what she wanted and insisted that as much of the original salvageable furnishings be restored, utilising the services of local craftsman and businesses in the community.
Our reception area offers various seating options for visitors to relax and enjoy a good book or newspaper.
What is your view on tourism offerings in the Eastern Cape. What advantages do we have to offer on a local and international level?
Traditionally national tourists come to the coast during the summer months to enjoy the beach and sunshine, but what people don’t often realise is that the winter months are actually the best time to visit the area. We have beautiful windless sunshiny days and an average sea temperate that is 6 to 8 degrees warmer than during summer months, a fact we don’t market enough.
I do feel that the Eastern Cape is the most underexposed gem in South Africa. Where in the world can you walk for miles on the most pristine beaches with only your own footsteps behind you, experiencing the most beautiful dunes, finding the delicate Paper Nautilus shells, watching the dolphin’s playfully surfing the waves whilst the whales breach in the background. Also, international tourists fly in to see the Big Five by going to the Kruger National Park, having to take medication to protect them from malaria. But here in the Eastern Cape, visitors can view the Big 7 in malaria-free game reserves.
Also our communities know the value of tourism and making people feel safe and welcome. I am truly excited about the fantastic effort Sunshine Coast Tourism and especially the tourism manager, Sandy Birch, is making to expose the area. Our own marketing team also share interesting facts and stories about the area on a weekly basis via our Facebook page.
Numerous people (international and up-country) have mentioned to me that they hadn’t realised the Eastern Cape had so much to offer and many of them have already visited and will be returning again, not to mention the amount of people that expressed an interest in purchasing property here and have already done so.
What is your favourite view/lookout point in Port Alfred?
Definitely the view just before and after sunrise from my deck at home overlooking the golf course, the sea and the dunes.
An early morning Spring sunrise from Kelly’s Beach in Port Alfred.
What is your favourite ‘short break’ holiday?
My favourite short holiday would definitely be to visit any game reserve. I have favourites spread throughout South Africa and Africa, with the Central Kalahari Game Reserve a favourite in Botswana. When we visit Zimbabwe, we enjoy Mana Pools and in Tanzania, the Serengeti National Park, to mention a few.
What is the ultimate family-time holiday for the Bekkers?
Another definitive answer for this one – it would be to have both my boys visiting with us right here in Port Alfred.