“It’s especially peaceful here,” explains Liz Biden, co-Chair of The Royal Portfolio, swamped by surrounding carpenters, electricians, and builders in the final month before launching Waterside Lodge. As is typical of Liz, she manages to exude calm in a creative storm, brilliance shining through the dust clouds of planning, design and construction, time after time, property after property.
Liz and her husband, Phil, have built a premium hotel portfolio that includes The Silo, La Residence, Birkenhead House, Royal Malewane and The Farmstead. Confronted with the deafening lockdown silence that rippled through the tourism sector, they felt they had done as much as they could in terms of upgrades and reparations. They found themselves at an intersection.
“Phil and I have been together since we were 17. He is the financial mind, and I focus on the intuitive and the aesthetic. We purchased the Waterside land from Kapama in 2013, and Thornybush managed the camp until 2020. The lease came up at a time that everything came to a standstill. Given the proximity to the infrastructure of our camp at Royal Malewane, we realised we had to seize the opportunity,” she says.
“I am a tree fanatic. Each possesses its own story and character, having stood so strong for many years creating shade and a place for the birds. When I go on a drive I don’t look for animals, I look for trees, and it’s the trees that drew me to Waterside. One of the first things I did when we started work was to plant an additional 100 fever, tamboti and thorn trees to welcome more birds into the camp. We even named our new spa ‘Reflections’ because, after the pandemic, we felt we had found the perfect location for guests who needed a place to rest and reflect.”
In typical Royal Portfolio character, the rooms are strikingly bold and abundantly generous and their aspect is strategically considered. Previously the rooms used to face each other, so the first task was to make them private, and double the size. Now each room faces the bush, with a heated swimming pool – using a new innovative sustainable solar technology that runs throughout – and a watering hole that runs past many of the rooms. Raised berms mean that guests with friends or family can weave between the rooms along adjoining paths but always retain utmost privacy.
“This is not a lodge, it’s a sanctuary, a retreat, a connected village.”
Answering the call to accommodate a wider audience than couples and groups, Waterside makes additional provision for multi-generational families as there are few options in the bush that offer this intersection between luxury and family. The design of the rooms has been intelligently considered to allow for this flexibility – some rooms stand alone while others interconnect to be close to each other or for families to share.
For those that bring their children, the younger generation can meet in the kids’ room to play games, watch movies and hang out together. In an industry which caters largely to adults – few lodges accept children under the age of 12 – this (in-person) social networking for teens and pre-teens is a rarity. There is also an outdoor sleeping platform for stargazers too, a feature to ensure a lifetime memory of the Kruger’s natural wonder.
In another unique differentiator, Waterside’s rooms are unapologetic in their colour, a deviation from the typical cretestone walls of safari lodges.
“I live in such amazing colour in my own home, and it makes me happy. I felt that guests would love it too. Injecting a flush of modernity, we decided to recruit a young, charismatic and dynamic team to match the cheeky and playful addition to the Royal Portfolio family,” Liz explains.
The lodge is managed by the experienced and attentive John Morgon. Nikolas Vounnou, a former Game Ranger of the Year, heads up the guiding team with palpable devotion and energy, having completed the highest qualification in ‘track and sign’ that is possible in the country, and having trained for over a decade under Juan Pinto, one of the best names in the industry.
Executive Chef, Archie Maclean will be joined by Group Executive Chef, Zaid Adams, and Cheslin Cornelissen, who was originally Head Chef from the globally acclaimed Silo Hotel. One can only expect the food to be the best yet from The Royal Portfolio.
“I think we have built an amazing culture here. Even when some of our team leave to try another work experience, we are so delighted when they want to come back. It proves how we see our connection as important, as a family. Victor, who runs our Human Resources department, is entirely invested to help every single person to reach their potential. I think that’s what anchors our team, and draws them back. We care,” Liz says.
“This business is all relationships and our work with agents over two decades have been so worthwhile. We are already 50% full and we haven’t completed the camp yet. With Royal Malewane it took three years for guests to come, and then come again. We see that as the ultimate reward – the loyalty of those that keep returning to The Royal Portfolio.”
Family is important to the Bidens and to The Royal Portfolio. It’s a thread that has been stitched into the brand’s tapestry. Phil and Liz’s son and daughter work within the business, one as Managing Director and the other running The Royal Portfolio Foundation.
When asked which of the properties within the extended family she prefers, Liz answers, “It’s impossible to favour one child over another because they all have their own identity. When you visit the bush, you are surrounded by wildlife. At Birkenhead House, you have an unmatched vantage point on the cliff over Voelklip with a vast panoramic of the coastline and the sound of the sea. The Silo is a unique property – sitting in the Willesden Bar, with those phenomenal windows as the city lights up in the evening and chandeliers cast their shadows. It can feel like New York, and yet we are in Africa. Around the world, it’s amazing that everyone seems to know The Silo. It’s done so much for our portfolio.”
“The Royal Portfolio is unique because we have a circuit. There are so many beautiful experiences and immersions – bush, sea, gourmet and city. Many others want to, and have tried to, replicate the circuit, but it’s not easy to find the right properties in diverse locations, and then offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences while ensuring it’s your brand and your style.”
Genealogy, is that familiar illustration representing family relationships in a conventional tree structure, the family tree. It’s apparent that this family continues to branch out, growing from the same soil and root system, withstanding unpredictable and changing seasons, blossoming into bold colour, undeniable in its magnificence.