From A to Baleno
A WEEKEND ESCAPE UP THE GORGEOUS GARDEN ROUTE TO KNYSNA'S THESEN ISLAND WAS MADE EVEN MORE PLEASANT BY ZIPPING THERE IN SUZUKI'S LATEST HATCH OFFERING, THE BALENO
I'm officially fed up with my thirsty, gas-guzzling SUV. So, I’m now in the market for a little run-around that’ll take me from A to B in city traffic in relative comfort without burning through a lake of petrol every day, but which will also perform well on long-distance jaunts to the far corners of the country.
Yes, I know most hatchbacks tick all those boxes nowadays, but how many also have the required space for the camping equipment, bags, boxes and other humans I tend to lug around on my travels? And, of those, how many won’t end up costing me a limb?
Not many, is the short answer. But, after a trip up the Garden Route to Knysna, I can attest to one that does in fact qualify with flying (and which comes in various metallic) colours is Suzuki’s sprightly Baleno.
Suzuki, in all their wisdom, decided it was a good idea to let me have a thorough, weekend-long test drive of one of their models. And what better route to properly assess a vehicle’s capabilities than on the celebrated meander between Cape Town and Knysna?
After loading the generous boot with the substantial chattels of my significant other, I was surprised to see the Baleno able to swallow my scant possessions too (something other hatches have failed to do – and it’s definitely down to the space available, as the size of her luggage is a constant). In fact, there was plenty room to spare. Suzuki claims the loading bay is 355 litres, which is considerably larger than that of other hatchbacks in this segment, and increases to an impressive 1 085 litres when the seats are folded forward.
We set off down the N2, and the Baleno tackled Sir Lowry’s Pass without skipping a beat. Granted, it required some down-gearing for overtaking, even on flat plains, but what 1.4 doesn’t? And while 68 kW and 130 Nm of torque might seem a bit sluggish, the Baleno’s light weight means it still got the heart rate going when pedal was put to metal. Cruise control engaged, we happily tore through the Overberg, and the ride remained soft and solid throughout, the suspension hardly betraying inconsistencies in the road. Even around the hairpin bends near Buffels Bay, it hugged the road reassuringly, and the steering remained soft and responsive.
Inside, the Baleno comes with all the bells and whistles you would expect from Suzuki: keyless start; an infotainment system with radio, CD and Bluetooth, plus USB and aux ports; steering wheel toggles; a striking blue-backlit instrument panel with all the necessaries; centre console, storage tray and cupholders; and, importantly, a ton of legroom for backseat passengers. Overall, the interior is nothing flashy, but still fairly attractive and practical. The exterior is aesthetically pleasing, and exudes a decidedly Suzuki air of understated style and practicality.
The Garden Route is usually quite a long and tiring drive, but – and I don’t mean to blow its horn too much – the Baleno made short and pleasant work of it. We arrived at the hotel on Thesen Island still feeling rather fresh.
Knysna has been through hell. The town was ravaged, houses destroyed and lives ruined by ferocious fires – the likes of which South Africa hasn’t seen in decades. What warmed the heart, though, was to see the country pull together in support of Knysna and its people, with manpower, donations and various other means of assistance flooding in from all over. Vitally important to Knysna’s rebuilding, though, are tourists and visitors continuing to spend money in and around the beautiful village to stimulate its economy.
We opted for the Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa, a phenomenal piece of construction situated on the lovely Thesen Island on Knysna’s postcard-worthy lagoon, and surrounded by water on three sides. They converted the old power station into a charming hotel with quirky industrial finishes, and even the former plant’s original machinery was beautifully restored and transformed into unique, artistic features inside the building.
Bare bricks, whitewashed walls and steel columns are complemented by bright splotches of primary colours seen on chairs, rugs and the old machinery itself. If you had to imagine what a five-star power station adorned with intriguing and evocative art, splashes of colour and spotless surfaces would look like, and you replaced the grimy, overalled engineers with well-heeled concierges and bushy-tailed clerks, you’d come close to picturing the lobby of The Turbine.
The rooms (17 standard, six luxury and a self-catering Lagoon Suite, plus a honey-moon suite) are stylishly appointed and individually decorated, but unpretentious, and definitely worthy of their five-star rating.
Checked in and hungry after the long drive, we made our way down to the Island Cafe, which forms part of the hotel and looks out over Thesen’s stunning water canals. If the diverse à la carte menu doesn’t tickle your fancy, there are plenty of other options on the little island, including a pizza at Col’Cacchio’s, some of Knysna’s famous oysters at Tapas & Oysters, or, for something a little fancier with a Mediterranean twist, try Sirocco. We dined like kings on succulent steaks at the Island Cafe and then retired to our split king-size bed where we slept like babies.
The next day, we drove our ‘ray blue’ Baleno up to Knysna’s famous Heads, and took a few obligatory selfies from the various viewpoints that look over the estuary and the treacherous lagoon mouth; the majestic Heads standing sentinelon either side.
The rest of the day was spent at a languid pace. We sampled a few excellent brews at Mitchell’s Brewery (the first real craft brewery in SA), had a mind-blowing massage at Turbine’s spa, and then watched some sport in the Gastro Pub and Deck before going on a late-afternoon boat cruise on the lagoon. This time, we got to see the Heads from below, while the wonderful guide and skipper gave us a thorough history lesson on all things Knysna.
A weekend is certainly too short for everything there is to do in and around Knysna: forest tours, bicycle trails, fishing trips, kayaking and even SUPing – all of which can be organised through the Turbine Adventure Centre.
That just means we will have to go back again and again, until we’ve done and seen everything, and if the money we spend there helps to make a small contribution to Knysna’s rise from the ashes, then all the better.
Book your stay at the Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa on opulent Thesen Island.
From R1 450 per person sharing.
044 302 5746