The Mount Nelson Hotel, Cape Town
Dominated by the scenic wonder of Table Mountain, Cape Town has it all: long, empty, white sandy beaches, exotic botanical gardens, ancient and contemporary culture, gastronomic excellence, world-class wine and heavenly shopping. And its natural setting is breathtakingly beautiful. At the very tip of the African continent, where the warm waters of the Indian Ocean meet the chill of the Atlantic, it was justly described by Sir Francis Drake as ‘the fairest cape in the whole circumference of the earth’.
Lying at the foot of Table Mountain, but within reach of the buzzing hub of downtown, The Mount Nelson Hotel has been the key symbol of Cape hospitality since 1899. Affectionately known as the ‘Nellie’ by locals and regular patrons, this grand old lady has certainly seen some life over the years – and she’s wearing well! Originally opened to provide luxurious accommodation for passengers of the old Union and Castle shipping lines, the Nellie has lived her own tale of adventure, survival and endurance during the tumultuous events of South African – and world – history. Reputed for her elegance, luxury and service, the colonial Nellie feels like a cocktail combination of London’s Hurlingham, the Beverly Hills pink palace in Los Angeles and Nairobi’s Maithaga Club.
Resting in nine acres of mature landscaped grounds, the ‘English’ gardens are awash with the pastel colours and fragrance of roses, agapanthus, oleanders, honeysuckle and the curious Brunfelsia pauciflora – better known as the yesterday, today and tomorrow plant. Most of the 201 rooms and suites are based in the elegant main residence. The remainder are found in four architecturally significant buildings along the driveway, itself graced with giant canary palm trees, and are linked by a series of paths and sheltered courtyards.
All rooms enjoy views overlooking the magnificent gardens, with some facing the cloud-draped ‘Tablecloth’ Mountain. One of the most charming annexes is the cream-walled Edwardian Helmsley Building; a national monument today and originally built as a synagogue. Each room is named after an illustrious vessel, and the walls are chock-a-block with photographs of grand liners and military battleships – a curiously apt link between its owners, Sea Containers, and its heritage. Generously-sized suites in this wing have a refined country decor with chintzy fabrics and floral carpets in neutral cream and greens. Each suite benefits from a separate living and dining area, a walk-in dressing room and small kitchenette. The chestnut-brown marble bathrooms, liberally supplied with Ken Turner unguents, are well designed, incorporating a double vanity and separately enclosed loo and shower.
For George Bernard Shaw, who once remarked that ‘There is no love sincerer than the love of food’, Cape Town cuisine would be a gastronomic paradise. Locals evidently revel in their abundant supply of fresh produce, and healthy eating is de rigueur across the Cape. Throughout the day the Nellie has a spoiling choice of dining options, encapsulating the new food and wine culture of the country. Breakfast is best taken al fresco on the calm lavender-edged terrace of the elegant Oasis Restaurant. Overlooking the pool and gardens, you can sit back and watch the entertainment from the resident ibis, Guinea fowl and squirrels. Lunch is a lavish Mediterranean buffet in the same location after which – if you can still move – a beltbusting tea is served in the commodious flower-filled conservatory and terrace. Dinner at the chef’s table in the Cape Colony kitchen is both an education and an entertaining novelty. Recently introduced by the renowned Stephen Templeton – a leader in the field of culinary innovation – it reflects the chef’s and the hotel’s confidence to allow up to ten diners to indulge themselves with a peek behind the scenes. Stephen enthuses that, ‘Modern cuisine is not just about mixing different influences. It is more about an approach to food – the style of preparation, seasonality and freshness of ingredients.’ He believes that food must express its personality by allowing its true flavour to emerge. The influences used to enhance the principal flavour are considerable but are never too overpowering or confusing. He starts the menu with a shot glass of mango and chilli to awaken the taste buds. Then one of the dishes of the five-course extravaganza, such as an entrée of tuna pancetta, is prepared in front of you as a demonstration dish. All this against a backdrop of sous and commis chefs completing orders coming in from expectant diners in the Cape Colony Restaurant – and not a swearword to be heard all evening.
The Restaurant itself is the place for you if the heat and excitement of the kitchen are all too much – a serene oasis where the atmospheric centrepiece is an expansive trompe l’oeil landscape of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak. Regional gourmet delights such as smoked crocodile, Karoo lamb and ostrich fillets are typical of the fine dining choices, matched with the flavours of wellendowed wines from the local Stellenbosch and Constantia wineries.
A perfect siesta spot is on one of the thickmattressed sun-loungers in a quiet corner of the luscious gardens by the main swimming pool, where you can enjoy one of the Cape’s best views of Table Mountain without straining your neck. If you’re feeling energetic, there’s a well-equipped gymnasium and two pristine floodlit tennis courts next to the drive. If not, indulge in a massage or treatment in the body care centre. The last decade has proved to be one of the most challenging periods in the country’s turbulent political history. Much of the hotel’s success today is credited to the unfailing optimism of Swiss-born managing director Nick Seewer, who has steered the Nellie through by means of a passionate hands-on management style. In his unstinting concern for guest comfort he has slept in every one of the hotel’s rooms – when vacated, he assures me – and is treasured as a benevolent father figure and mentor by staff and guests alike.
The hotel offers a huge range of excursions all within an hour’s drive, that will surely tempt you out of the gates. The most popular sightseeing trip is perhaps the romantic cable car ride up Table Mountain at sunset. High above the roar of the city, you can gaze down at the panoramic view towards Cape Point and the jutting peaks known as the Twelve Apostles.
As the fresh south-easterly breeze known as the ‘Cape Doctor’ brings in fresh sea air and blows away the old stale air, it cascades over the mountain, refreshing walkers. It is hardly surprising that this spot is celebrated as one of the world’s top ten places for marriage proposals! Down below, the vibrant Victoria and Alfred waterfront has undergone a complete facelift over the last decade. It’s been transformed from industrial dockland to the leisure heart of the city, buzzing with shops, restaurants, museums and an aquarium.
Wine-lovers shouldn’t miss a tour of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Constantia with their ubiquitous vineyards. Interestingly, today’s grape cultivars are leaning towards fresher and lighter Sauvignon Blancs and spicy Gewürztraminers. Combining a trip with a delicious lunch in one of the stunning Dutch Cape homes such as Lars Maack’s Buitenverwachtching – appropriately translated as ‘beyond expectations’ – makes for a truly heavenly experience. Artists will be happy to know that Dr Shirley Sherwood, wife of the Chairman of Orient- Express Hotels, recognised for her worldrenowned botanical art collection, has organised a special course of botanical and flower painting master classes in the hotel, with visits to nearby Kirstenbosch gardens.
The Nellie will always hold a little extra affection in my memories, as it was here that I watched and then toasted the triumphant English rugby team on that sunny November day in 2003. The chivalrous support from the native Springbok crowd in the champagne bar was a boon to every nail-biting England supporter who agonised throughout the match.
When to Go?
January is midsummer in Cape Town and brings with it long hot days and balmy evenings. The New Year starts with a parade through the city centre on 2 January (an informal public holiday) known as the Kaapse Klopse or Minstrels Carnival. There are dozens of food, wine and flower festivals throughout the summer, and the popular open-air Maynardville Shakespeare Season held in Maynardville Park. The Jazz Festival is held in the middle of the month down on the waterfront, which also sees the start of the Cape to Rio Yacht Race – all in all, a busy month with something to suit everyone.