Fleur Huijskens & Nicole Boekhoorn
Sterrekopje, Franschhoek, South Africa


Few are the places in South Africa’s fertile Cape Winelands that don’t elicit wonder and amazement. From ‘aahs’ to ‘oohs’ and the occasional ‘whoa’, the region’s scenery puts a spark in the eye and a smile on the face. And to many, gazing at mountains that tower majestically over sweeping plains breeds a desire to scale, if not dominate, their surroundings. But descend into one of the valleys that run through this extraordinary part of the Rainbow Nation, and you’ll find there’s a gentler way to view this landscape.

I know this because, as I stroll barefoot through an untamed garden overflowing with romanticism, the presence of mountains on all sides evokes a much more tender sensation within me. I feel embraced, protected, looked after. Perhaps it’s easier to let your own guard down when there’s a guard of ancient rock all around you. Just one nearby elevation stands out. It’s an unassuming hill, above which stars will soon begin to twinkle. A starry hill – ‘Sterrekopje’.

“It almost feels like you’re being cradled here in this sort of womb, especially at nightfall, when a pinkish hue sets over the mountains,” says Fleur Huijskens who, alongside her partner in life and love, Nicole Boekhoorn, welcomed the first guests to their ‘healing farm’ in March 2022, after some two years of renovation works. “We’re just a few minutes from Franschhoek, but you get this sense of being totally in your own little bubble.”

We’re sitting in a pair of deep armchairs by a fireplace in the open kitchen as I look over my shoulder. The chef, Edwin, is preparing dinner for us from behind a pile of freshly harvested vegetables that look as if they’ve slid right out of the bottom section of an illustration of a healthy-eating food pyramid.

Of the 50 hectares Sterrekopje comprises, some seven form a produce garden, and each day I follow the invitation to pluck berries or pick flowers with a childlike joy. There are no menus here; instead, Edwin consults with me on my current cravings and creates homegrown and seasonal meals that nourish both body and soul. And, although the farm is very much about living healthily, I happily oblige as Marlon, our waiter for the night, suggests a glass of sweet lavender cordial from the estate or another of Chenin blanc.

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“We hope that through what we offer here we get you out of your head, and back into your body,” Fleur goes on. “Because when you’re able to reconnect with your body and listen to it, everything is fine, and nothing will be in excess. You can have a glass of wine. And you can have your morning coffee. But we’re so disconnected from our bodies and from nature that we have coffee just to keep going. It’s all about doing and going. Here, we’re about pausing.”

I can tell she has a point when speaking to a young family from New York who, after the arrival of their second-born, have temporarily settled into one of Sterrekopje’s 11 sanctuaries and suites. What they were hankering for in a trip to the Western Cape wasn’t the thrill of adventure, but the soothing of a slower pace. It’s something that Nicole herself spent a long time looking for.

After successfully running a company for seven years – an endeavour that left her feeling somewhat unfulfilled – she went soul-searching and retreat-scouting.

“Some retreats were amazing and back to basics, but the accommodation was very simple. Others were high-end luxury wellness hotels, yet staying there felt clinical and impersonal. Why couldn’t there be a place that feels profound, but has a very comfortable setting at the same time?”

That place, it turned out after an international search, was an ageing 17th-century farmstead outside Franschhoek, which, if given some love and attention, showed potential to be truly one of a kind.

“I’m good at helping Nicole translate her vision when it comes to the concept and philosophy behind Sterrekopje,” says Fleur, taking a sip of tea made from an aromatic local fynbos herb called buchu. “And then there were others who were really good at implementing our ideas for the garden and the interiors, which were inspired by destinations from India to Egypt and from Kenya to Morocco. The entire farm was really a collaborative effort, and everyone we worked with was either a friend already or has become a friend in the process.”

The work paid off: Fleur and Nicole’s eye for interiors has earned them the acclaim of the world’s leading interior design publications. But what makes Sterrekopje so easy on the eyes isn’t an adherence to design rules or a knack for chasing down the latest furniture trends at Salone del Mobile. Instead, there’s something unexpected wherever you look, an element of play and joy that manifests in boldly patterned fabrics, large-scale murals or, in a particularly original instance, a fringed parasol in the bathhouse. In my personal sanctuary, this spirit is encapsulated by an impressive painting of a circus performer with two albino pythons around her neck.

“That painting is by a local artist called JP Meyer, who’s very funny and charming,” says Fleur. “We wanted to inject a bit of humour into the space. A lot of guests walking in would never expect to see this kind of painting, not least because the colours are quite naive. But it’s the contrast between an artwork like that and everything else you see that makes the interiors so cool.”

Contrasts also feature across Sterrekopje’s grounds, for which Fleur and Nicole invited renowned gardener Leon Kluge to create what could be called a productive playground. Strewn around the estate, you’ll find an orchard, vegetable patches, ponds, a sunken garden and a boating lake, interspersed with a yoga yurt, tree swing, water features and countless secret nooks designed for reading, resting and recharging. One sunny morning, Leon takes my fellow guests and me on a walk around the grounds and, despite having been on the farm for a few days, I see countless corners I hadn’t yet discovered.

“When we began working on this project, the pandemic had the world in its grip,” explains Leon as we stroll around the herb garden, the fragrance of parsley and rosemary wafting in the air. “But for us, it presented an opportunity to lose ourselves in this project, and we’re very proud of how much work we got done with just a few people in a short period of time.”

Amazingly, in spite of the tremendous amount of thought and labour that have gone into Sterrekopje’s gardens, I find that they still exude a sense of wilderness and free-spiritedness, as if one day they had simply grown into their perfectly imperfect, unconstrained shape. This quality, I understand, reflects Leon’s signature style.

Some of the garden’s appeal is arguably also down to the animals that call it their home and belong to the Sterrekopje family. There’s the cheeky duo of pet pot-bellied pigs, Croissant and Frangipani, who use every opportunity they get to roam around the grounds (and, I hear, occasionally find their way into the main house in search of belly rubs). Between them and Sterrekopje’s chickens, dogs, cats and a couple of wonderfully sociable cows, Frances and Georgetje, loving interaction with animals and therapeutic cuddles are very much the order of the day.

“There’s an animal rescue in Rayton that has a lot of pigs and cows,” says Fleur. “When we got Croissant and Frangipani, I called them and said we’re getting cows, and explained that we have someone here to help us with the animals. I asked whether he could go up to Rayton for a few days to learn from the sanctuary. We made a donation and he was there for a week.”

More than anything, the animals offer a real-life quality to the farm, and their being such a part of the family is as endearing as it is authentic.

“We didn’t want anything esoteric or wishy-washy,” says Fleur, “because the natural surroundings are beautiful as they are. You feel it when you walk through the garden, hike up the hill or get your hands dirty while harvesting. It’s so special to see how what you have on your plate was grown. All these amazing experiences are immediately around us, and South Africa really lends itself to this sort of thing, to re-establishing our connection with nature, which is in essence our connection with ourselves.”

This holistic approach to well-being is deeply rooted in the belief that we have a hand in fostering our own happiness, and that more often than not, the simplest and most grounding ways to spend our time can return us to a place of peace and poise. But Sterrekopje encourages guests to receive care given by others as well. At times, the most luxurious benefits of any stay in a hotel (although this place is much more than that) are the well-judged attentions afforded to us by members of staff. And the best service of all is always personal, empathetic and sincere.

It’s the kind of care I receive during my stay, though rather than it being a ‘service for sale’, Sterrekopje calls its experiences – which range from breathwork to qigong and hypnotherapy – rituals. Each day of a stay here includes one such ritual, and I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favourite. My private yoga class with teacher Chantalle awakens body and soul for the day that lies ahead. My intuitive massage with therapist Josephine releases tensions and emotions. And during my cleansing ritual, again with Josephine, she lathers me up on a warm hammam stone table, exfoliates my skin and runs me a fragrant wildflower bath infused with mineral salts.

As I lie in the enormous, solid-marble bathtub, glimmers of the late-afternoon sun direct my gaze through the gaps in the blinds to the flowerbeds beyond. Features of my body that sometimes cause me concern, such as the small bulge of my belly, feel sweet and lovely now that I’m being treated with such devotion. Like the other therapists, Josephine has clearly found a calling in her profession and I struggle to remember the last time someone at a hotel cared for me with such genuine tenderness and almost motherly warmth.

“When we hire, we don’t sell jobs,” Fleur tells me. “We sit down with someone to figure out what their passion is, what they can contribute, and what they would like to bring in of themselves. From there, we can create something. And we make it very clear that it doesn’t matter if you’re a housekeeper or the head chef – we all make or break this place. Like all staff, housekeepers also speak to guests, and everyone who stays with us has a different experience. There are always one or two people you connect with naturally.”

It’s clear that connection is something that Fleur and Nicole want to run through every aspect of a stay at Sterrekopje. So is creativity, whether you join baker Augusta in making a loaf of bread topped with your favourite seeds, or ceramicist Jade in the arts centre for a lesson in pottery. This uncomplicated, no-limitations approach to a retreat is refreshingly new and all the more remarkable here, because as a wellness destination the African continent overall isn’t as established as Asia, for instance. But with their uninterrupted vastness, welcoming locals and agricultural heritage, the Cape Winelands make for an excellent place to slow down and allow oneself the deep, restorative rest this healing farm proposes.

That said, Sterrekopje isn’t a retreat in the traditional sense. It’s less about doing, and more about being, a ‘we won’t push you onto a meditation pillow or put you on a strict diet. Who are we to tell you what you need?’ approach.

For me, it’s about allowing some time to listen to myself and my needs. How do I feel when I wake up? What do I crave? How do I want to spend my day – and how do I not want to spend it? It takes time to make time for the things that matter, and my hosts, Fleur and Nicole, are aware of this.

“Our house is on the grounds, so you could say we live above the shop,” says Fleur. “Of course, we have to practise what we preach, and finding the right balance between giving and receiving is crucial. It’s when you’re rested that everything starts to flow again – your creativity, your libido, and so on. We are what we do. There’s no intention of building an empire of a hundred Sterrekopjes. At the end of the day, we’re just doing something we love here.”


Photography by Inge Prins and Elsa Young, courtesy of Sterrekopje