GONANA: EMBRACING LOCAL BEAUTY
WORDS: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
Gonana Guesthouse – the flagship property of the Gonana Collection in the quaint old fishing village of Paternoster – is the creation of Swedish entrepreneur and interior designer Jonas Sandström. It not only reflects his passion for crafting lovely spaces, but his inspirational vision for life in South Africa.
Gonana – the name of Jonas Sandström’s travel agency and guesthouse on the Western Cape Coast – comes from the isiZulu word ‘embrace’ and perfectly reflects the enthusiasm with which he has not only engaged with the country in which he now finds himself but the energy with which he sets out to make a difference.
In almost everything he has tackled, this Swedish-born maverick is something of a path finder. Over the years, he has been a businessman, a concept developer, the owner of three health centres, a restauranteur, an interior designer and even a travel guide.
But, it was as an adventurer and traveller that he found himself in Cape Town 22 years ago.
Jonas admits that he quickly fell in love with the city and extended his ticket to lengthen his stay. Two days before he finally boarded his plane to return to Stockholm, he bought one of the oldest houses in Sea Point – Lord Nelson’s old hunting lodge – which he transformed into a guest house. He bought a second grand old Green point home a few years later.
He is forthright about how much he likes the locals. “South African people are genuine. They can be really angry, very sad or extremely friendly. Even when we go through difficulties in this country, we help each other out because we understand that there is very little that we can do about most things. South Africa is a really unique country and what we have to offer for tourists is special – our fauna and flora, the ocean, the cultural heritage, our food and our wines. It is just a fantastic country.”
But he also becomes exasperated by South Africans’ tendency to embrace European design and brands rather than proudly displaying their own.
“We can do so many things with our own design and that’s why people are coming here. They are not coming to see European things. They already have those. They want to see something different,” he points out.
When it comes to his guesthouses and the restorations he has completed, Jonas believes in supporting local businesses, artisans, crafters and farmers. In his honesty bar in Paternoster, you will find local beers from the Darling and Paternoster Breweries.
“I’m always looking for other brands that the guests haven’t seen. I appreciate being able to help those companies to grow, because, if nobody buys their goods, they can’t employ people and local businesses go down,” he says.
When it comes to restoring older buildings with their own stories, Jonas is equally mystified as to why South Africans tend to always move on and build new instead of improving what they already have.
“Look at Johannesburg. They built Sandton when they should have stayed in the city and decided to make it a stunning one. South Africans are always on the move. I think we should stay where we are and improve things. We need to reclaim our cities.”
Sitting behind high walls does not solve crime, he believes. Instead, it is important to be involved in finding solutions that help all. “When we started out in Paternoster, the village was known for its petty crime. I decided this was not acceptable. Every crime, no matter how small, is still a crime. So, we started a neighbourhood watch. I was the chairman. We have not had any petty theft for over a year now. I always get engaged in things. When I talk to local people, they tell me they should get involved – and when they do, something always happens.”
DESIGNING FOR CHANGE
The same applies to him. Initially living split between Cape Town and Stockholm, he and his partner eventually bought a home in Darling, also on the Western Cape Coast. Jonas tells how they regularly visited Paternoster at a time when the old fishing village was far less popular than it is today. Eventually they decided to buy a house there.
His partner accompanied a real estate agent to the village to find a suitable property but soon called to inform Jonas that he couldn’t find anything in the right position.
“But he also said here was a nice big house on the beach – but then, he thought we should create a guest house. I replied that we had decided not to do that again. He told me to just come and see it. I did that. After walking up on the old balcony there, I thought okay here we go again.”
The house came with a quirky history. Named Whale Song for the vocal humpback whales that regularly patrol the coastline during the summer and spend time in nearby Beks Bay, it was owned by an Irish couple that lived in Cape Town and used it as a holiday party house.
The connection to the whales – and to the biblical story of Jonah and the whale – sealed the deal.
The renovations were extensive. The garden was removed and replaced with indigenous plants, the chlorinated pool swapped for a salt water one, the building was extended, the windows opened up and a new water system fitted.
“People said we needed to put in aluminium windows. I didn’t like that because aluminium is not a living material. I would rather sand and varnish the windows every year and give jobs to the locals in the village. I always go my own way,” he explains.
He also decided to build the kitchen cabinets using cost- effective, recyclable plywood and added chicken mesh into some doors reminiscent of vintage South African decor. This resulted in a few raised eye brows from the builders but, ultimately, these very detractors have proudly shown others pictures of the completed spaces.
As an interior designer who has not only completed a number of resorts and homes but also hosted several interior design shows on Swedish television, Jonas had a clear design plan from the outset – keep it simple and timeless.
“When I do my interiors, I don’t change them. When I’m done, I’m done. I try to do things as timelessly as possible and that was my thinking here. I only use natural materials such as baskets from Malawi and South Africa which feature on the walls, in the rooms and in the kitchens.”
The same goes for the carpets which are simple and locally made.
Another non-negotiable is the absence of television. ” I don’t think you should go to Paternoster to watch television. You can do that in Cape Town. I think that television, and screens in general, are disturbing. They take our energy and our focus away. Even if the television is off, you still see the screen. So, instead of television, we have a lot of nice coffee table books and monthly magazines.”
Should guests still want watch television, they can use the complimentary Wi-Fi to stream on their own devices.
His message is clear – go back and find yourself. Walk on the beaches
and enjoy the amazing nature in Paternoster. “The beaches are so clean. There’s no plastic on the beaches whatsoever which I think is fantastic.”
A HEART FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
One of the name tags that Jonas wears particularly proudly is environmentalist.
The Gonana Guesthouse was specifically designed to embrace sustainability – something that he says he has incorporated into all of his business ventures and has, to some extent, even implemented ahead of its time.
Again, it’s as much about what he cares about as it is about spotting emerging trends – in this case, the demand for clean energy and the need to tread lightly on the planet.
“I was in the gym business for ten years in Stockholm during the nineties. I introduced yoga at the gym in 1993. As you can imagine, people had never thought of that. So, I have always been an early adopter.”
He admits that there were sceptics when it came to the use of solar at Gonana – but says that this ultimately has worked in his favour.
“We opened three months before Covid. I had decided that we should go solar because that is the only way for the environment. Now that there is no electricity due to load shedding, this has become a unique selling point. When the hotels in Paternoster go down and everything becomes pitch black, there are only two three houses still running – Gonana Houses, Gonana Guesthouse and the Gonana Coral Villa.
The recycling and re-use of grey water from the guesthouse in the gardens and toilets has also proved a big success. Rainwater is also collected to top up the pool.
“It’s what we need to do. South Africa must stop talking about hotels with flowers and green lawns. That belongs somewhere else where it is raining. We should embrace indigenous plants that are actually made for this climate. I go crazy when I see all these golf courses pumping out water. We need that for our agriculture, to grow food. That’s what we need water to do.”
For Jonas, sustainability goes way beyond marketing an eco-friendly guesthouse.
“For me, sustainability extends to our bodies and what we eat and drink. Eat the right things, not ultra-processed foods. If you want to eat sugar, then don’t do so in excess. If you want to eat fat, then eat butter and olive oil. That has always been my way. In my restaurants, I have never served Coke. I have always supported local food because I think if you support only international companies then they get to own everything and decide what you should eat and how you should live. I have always been about supporting local but thinking globally.”
For Jonas, there are many options when it comes to helping to restore the planet – but he firmly believes that cutting back on travelling is not necessarily one of them despite the bad press that persists when it comes to airline emissions and jet streams.
“People can and should travel because, if you don’t, you will never understand different cultures. We need to be more aware of each other. If we don’t travel, we become more and more insular as we could see during Covid. This is dangerous.”
He is also a strong believer that tourism, and the earnings from this, incentivise the maintenance of game reserves, the conservation of wild animals and the well-being of the local communities surrounding them.
The guesthouse that Jonas created is a celebration not only of creativity and beauty but a reflection of the beautiful coastline.
CREATING A LEGACY FOR THE FUTURE
The original Gonana Guesthouse has six double rooms, one triple room and one studio. It is characterised by high ceilings, skylights and huge sash windows that let in plenty of light with views of the ocean or the mountain. Each room has its own private veranda for lazy evenings with a glass of wine.
The heart of the guesthouse is the enormous upstairs lounge overlooking the sea where a cosy fireplace warms the room on chilly days. The signature driftwood communal breakfast table (which belonged to the previous owner and connects to the house’s colourful past) is a great place for cementing friendships.
Acacia House and Aloe House – two fully furnished small houses were added a year ago. They offer self-catering facilities and sea views. Jonas says that he built these with outside fireplaces in indigenous gardens to cater for South Africans who wanted to braai during their seaside holidays.
He also bought the oldest fishing villa on the Bekbaai side of Paternoster. He re-imagined and completely renovated and refurbished the existing old villa into what is now the Gonana Collection’s Coral Villa and built three more self-catering studio apartments.
This three en-suite bedroomed villa has a spacious communal lounge with an open fireplace and dining area, a fully equipped kitchen and bathrooms with walk-in showers and solar geysers. Its garden, with a braai area and an outside breakfast area, interacts with the surrounding fynbos garden and allows glimpses of the Bekbaai beach just 50 metres away.
The new studio apartments – the Scallop, Oyster and Mussel Studios each sleep three with home comforts such has 100% organic South African cotton linen, fully equipped kitchenettes and bathrooms with walk-in showers and solar geysers.
The Scallop Studio has a private terrace with built-in braai and dining table. All three studios overlook the secluded indigenous fynbos garden with a pond and a fountain. There are private, outdoor showers and a unique kolkol – a South African made, four-seater “bathtub” heated by a wood fire for the winter months.
Now that the first guests are arriving to enjoy the new facilities, the question has to be what is next on Jonas’s list?
He replies that he would like to open a café featuring Swedish fare – but he is not convinced that Paternoster would be the ideal setting.
The Swedes traditionally take time out for afternoon coffee and pastries. Known as “fika’, this means taking time out to sit and catch up with friends over coffee rather than grabbing quick caffeine fix as most South Africans want to do.
Having owned seven restaurants in Stockholm, Jonas knows all about the restaurant business. “You really need to be hands-on every day, so we are thinking of opening up something in Cape Town. A Swedish bake is very different. There is much less sugar and much more taste – and a much bigger variety. It’s really nice stuff. We’re quite famous for that in Sweden and we meet every day at 3 o’clock to drink coffee and eat some bakes. It’s extremely important that you sit down and talk.”
Jonas says that Swedish people drink the most coffee in the world, joking that it is probably to keep them awake during the cold, dark winters.
Jokes aside, though, for Jonas it is again about attention to detail – especially the important ones such as staff and service.
In Paternoster, he is currently involved with a project called Hoopsig – working with a group of 10 young people from the village who will be fully trained so that they can find jobs in the hospitality industry.
The 10 young people selected will work at two restaurants, learning how to serve guests, move plates and pour wine correctly – things that his time spent reviewing various resorts via his travel agency have shown to be lacking in many places in South Africa.
The standard of service and how business owners and managers interact with their staff is something about which he feels particularly strongly.
“Some owners here in South Africa really need to pull up their socks. They need to work with their staff, to work as teams. You can’t just put 20 waiters into a restaurant with no knowledge. They may never have been to a restaurant themselves. How can you give good service if you don’t understand the experience? “he asks.
The same goes for hotels or guesthouses – staff who have never travelled or who are from poor neighbourhoods will not understand the importance of small, seemingly in consequential issues. Again, it is about understanding the experience.
As with everything that he embraces, Jonas is fully invested. At Gonana, he takes pride in supplying his staff with comfortable 100 percent cotton white shirts and giving them the option of working barefoot.
“So, it’s a type of uniform but a cool one. It’s not as if they run around in small aprons looking like maids from the sixties,” he points out.
He is particularly proud to read the feedback from visitors in Gonana’s guest books. “The staff gets 10 and that’s why I have built a team. Everyone is on the same level. When I go up there, I also clean the toilets and help fix the garden. We do everything together. It’s much more complicated – not just one person shouting at others. But the feeling in the house is good because of that. If the staff is not happy, then you don’t want to be there and won’t come back,” he concludes.
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