Six years ago, during a wild road trip in a van full of bloggers, I spent a night at the Royal Hotel in Bethulie. I was enchanted: Bethulie is a charming, tiny South African town and the Royal Hotel was one of the quirkiest guesthouses I’d ever stayed in. I vowed to go back someday and spend a little more time.

Bethulie at sunset
Sunset on a hilltop in Bethulie, captured during that 2015 road trip.

Fast-forward to 2021. Bethulie, on the border of the Free State and the Eastern Cape, is about halfway between Joburg and Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), East London, and the Sunshine Coast. Hence, Bethulie was a perfect stopover for the first night of our Blogitect Road Trip.

I booked a room at the Royal Hotel, intending to get an early start out of Joburg so Thorsten and I would have plenty of time to explore Bethulie that afternoon. (It’s a five-and-a-half hour drive.) Alas, the road had other plans for us. We were a bit late leaving Joburg and then got a flat tire, delaying our departure from Gauteng by several hours.

We didn’t make it to Bethulie until sunset, so my dream of properly exploring this little town will have to wait a little longer. But we did manage a lovely evening at the Royal Hotel and a quick morning walk around town.

An Evening at the Royal Hotel, Bethulie

You might think you’re in the wrong place when you first arrive, because the Royal Hotel does not look like a hotel from the outside. It’s a long, narrow, white building with a red roof and no signage, easily mistaken for an old-fashioned schoolhouse or horse stable.

Exterior of the Royal Hotel
The Royal Hotel’s unassuming exterior. Don’t be fooled — there’s magic inside.

It really is a hotel though, and has been since the 1870s. (It was a trading post before that.) But this hotel is not your average small-town inn. Thanks to Anthony Hocking, who bought the Royal Hotel in 2005, it’s a House of Book Magic.

Book magic in the Royal Hotel
Book magic inside the Royal Hotel.
Records in the Royal Hotel
There’s vinyl magic, too. And sailing ships made of matchsticks.

Anthony owns a lot of books — about 180,000 of them — and about 20,000 records. I suppose he needed a clever way to decorate those long hallways and decided to use what he had.

Anthony Hocking at the Royal Hotel in Bethulie
Anthony Hocking, the Book Wizard himself.

The result is delightful: rustic wooden floors, simple furniture, an unlimited music playlist, whispered ghost stories, and the delicious smell of old books.

Thorsten and the books
Thorsten and the books.
Cat among the records at the Royal Hotel
A vinyl-loving cat.

We arrived just in time to catch the end of a live music performance (a rare occurrence in 2021) by musician Henriel Veldtmann, a Bethulie local who recently returned to town. Henriel and his band, the Fragments, had been touring South Africa shortly before covid hit but had to put their big dreams on hold — like so many other artists and musicians — due to the pandemic.

Henriel Veldtmann performs at the Royal Hotel
A socially distanced concert at the Royal Hotel — I think there were about six people in the audience. Henriel’s last song was a lovely ballad about coming home to a small town.

I also watched Henriel perform at the Royal Hotel during my first visit in 2015. (Here’s a photo.) It was great to see him again.

Dinner at the Royal Hotel is traditional boerekos, or South African farm fare, and the staff heaped our plates with fresh bread and butter, meat stew, cheesy potatoes, and home-cooked vegetables. We managed one beer each, a quick chat with Anthony and Henriel, then crept back to our room and collapsed with exhaustion.

Fun fact: The church bell in Bethulie sounds off every half-hour, even at night. I personally love it in the same way I love the Muslim call to prayer. But sensitive sleepers might want to bring earplugs.

En-suite room at the Royal Hotel
Our simple but exceptionally comfortable room.

We dragged ourselves out of bed early and took a quick stroll around Bethulie, admiring the small-town architecture. I took pictures of the buildings and Thorsten sketched them.

The Blogitects in action: My photo and Thorsten’s sketch. We need to do more of these — this pairing happened by accident. You can see more of Thorsten’s sketches at @thethinking_hand.

The time-keeping church.
The previous night’s rain made for some nice reflections.
A tiny pub in Bethulie
Tiny pub in a tiny town.
Old movie theatre
An abandoned bank building.
Luckily supermarket
This store also appeared abandoned when we walked past, but LUCKILY it opened about an hour later.

We walked back to the Royal for a hearty English breakfast, chatted to Anthony some more, then packed up and went on our way.

Bethulie played an important role in the Anglo-Boer War and there are several interesting historical sites in and around the town. We didn’t have time to visit them but this fabulous post by travel writer Roxanne Reid has a great list and lots more information about the Royal Hotel.

On our way out of town we managed to visit one more tourist attraction: The D.H. Steyn Bridge, which crosses the Orange River between the Free State and Eastern Cape provinces and is the longest road/rail bridge in Southern Africa at 1121 meters.

Thorsten and Phyllis on the D.H. Steyn Bridge.

The Orange River: Another accidental Blogitect pairing.

Then we ventured out into the Karoo, toward South Africa’s southeastern coast.

Until next time, Bethulie. Next stop: Bathurst.

The Royal Hotel is at 22 Voortrekker Street, Bethulie. Call 071-683-7767.

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