Reinvention: Phinda Forest Lodge

WORDS Richard Holmes PHOTOS Dook

A reimagining of Phinda Forest Lodge champions local tradition and textures while ensuring a full immersion in the endangered sand forest of KwaZulu-Natal.

In 1994, when luxury safari operator &Beyond first opened a lodge in KwaZulu-Natal’s Phinda Private Game Reserve, it was ahead of its time. In an era of safari-pastiche and taxidermy-as-decor, &Beyond Phinda Forest Lodge offered a minimalist vision of what lodge design could be. Gone were the rough-hewn walls and thatched roofs, replaced by glass and wood and an immersion in the endangered sand forest. Here was a lodge that luxuriated in forest bathing long before shinrin-yoku became a buzzword.

But all lodges, prescient though they may be, need to evolve. And in 2023, it was time for Phinda Forest Lodge to step up to the demands of contemporary safari travellers. There was just one catch: to protect the sensitive forest ecosystem, the physical footprint of the lodge’s 16 suites could not be touched. For architect Jack Alexander, that restriction proved to be a lever for creativity. “A blank slate can be quite intimidating,” he says. “In some respects, it helps to have a few constraints to guide you.”

While restricted from extending the footprint, Jack had free rein to rework the interior of each suite. Clever realignment, placing the bathroom at the heart of the suite, and the extension of glass walls created a space where the guest journey – from the outdoor deck to the bedroom, dressing area and bathroom – maintained a visual link with the forest. “We wanted constant contact with the forest as you circulate in the space,” says Jack. He collaborated on the project with Debra Fox and Chris Browne of hospitality design agency Fox Browne Creative, who have been refining the &Beyond lodge aesthetic for three decades. “With limitations around changing the structure, we had to lean hard on texture,” says Chris. As a result, walls and ceilings are clad in traditional Zulu grass mats, and each of the original freestanding bathtubs has been wrapped in a basket of woven cane. Hanging lights take inspiration from traditional Zulu necklaces, while Wolkberg tiles offer geometric interest. Over the bedside tables, clever use of local grass hand brooms adds texture and context to pendant lamps.

While the physical revamp of the suites was constrained, the creation of new public spaces beyond the forest edge offered more freedom for the design team. “Coming out of Covid, luxury of space and abundance of choice became increasingly important to our guests – and Phinda Forest Lodge needed more guest spaces,” explains Brendan Streak, regional manager for Phinda Private Game Reserve. The standout new addition is the signature firepit. Edged with branches to resemble a bird’s nest overlooking the grasslands, it has both a gathering place and a landmark for arrival. “In safari lodges, the firepit is always the heart of the guest experience,” says Debra. “They can so often become a cliché, but Jack has created something quite remarkable at Phinda Forest Lodge.”

Set midway along a wooden walkway, the firepit also links the original lodge – upgraded with a refreshed bar and dining area – to the Gallery, a newly built lounge and gathering space. The Gallery is conceived as both a quiet retreat and a transient space. On check-in, it orients guests between vlei and forest, while a curated collection of artefacts creates a talking point prior to game drives. During the day, guests can page through natural-history reference works, or admire the collection of Zulu pottery. The Gallery also displays a remarkable work by the artist Cecil Skotnes: “The Assassination of Shaka” consists of 43 original woodcuts, with captions by Stephen Gray. Just 225 sets were printed, each numbered and signed by Skotnes.

Beyond the Gallery, an expanded pool deck and new build gym and spa speak to an increased desire for wellness travel, says Streak: “Traditionally, the safari experience is not especially active, but gyms seem to be making a comeback. All our big refurbishments now include bigger fitness centres, giving people the luxury of working out in a wilderness environment.”

It’s just one of the ways in which the world of luxury safaris is changing, as guests look to surround themselves with the sights, sounds, flavours and textures of a destination. And while the Big Five that roam Phinda offer plenty daytime distractions, the magic of the reinvented Phinda Forest Lodge is the absolute immersion during the hours in between. Shinrin-yoku or Zulu-Zen? You decide. | | |

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