THE OYSTER BOX HOTEL IN SOUTH AFRICA … MEMORABLE IN MOST EVERY WAY
Our three-day trip with Rovos Rail which began in Pretoria ended in South Africa’s popular coastal city of Durban. Just a short ride from the rail station and we arrived at our hotel situated on the glorious Umhlanga Rocks Beach in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Now there are hotels with personality and character, and then there is The Oyster Box … memorable in most every way.
We had very high expectations for this multiple award-winning hotel, considered by many to be the top hotel in South Africa on one of the country’s top two beaches. Would it live up to its reputation? The Oyster Box, with a charming personality all its own, did not disappoint. As I entered the hotel with its dramatic sweeping staircase in the center of the elegant reception area, I was enchanted by my surroundings … an eclectic mixture of stately old world colonial charm and vibrant new contemporary pizzazz. Beauty, art and intriguing eye candy, from bold, dynamic paintings to whimsical ceramic pieces and eye-catching mosaic murals, are in every niche and corner of The Oyster Box … so much so that I felt like I was a guest in a private palazzo whose owners had a passion for collecting local and European art.
A little investigation confirmed my thoughts. While this art collection represents the personal tastes of the previous and current owners, it has been carefully curated by local contemporary art dealer, Michael Stevenson, and represents many pieces by South African artists, including local Kwa-Zulu-Natal artists. Moreover, I felt each piece in this fascinating art collection had been strategically placed for that “wow” factor, or at least to catch the attention of the passing guest, as so often I couldn’t resist stopping to admire the art while enjoying its humor or reflecting upon the artist’s message and technique. Both the stunning art and the striking decor of The Oyster Box speak enthusiastically to a seaside theme or to the beauty and vibe of South Africa, accented with a charming touch of Mediterranean elegance and café culture. Like the best hostess in town, The Oyster Box has personality – lots of it.
In fact, the adoration of its owners, Bea and daughter Toni Tolman of the Red Carnation Collection, is visible in spades throughout the property. Their devotion and personal attention to the major renovation which The Oyster Box underwent in 2006 has delightfully rejuvenated and revitalized an aging grande dame of a hotel while respecting the original charm and attractions of this luxurious beachfront property. Transformed and updated, The Oyster Box is now an elegant 21st century hotel where design and decor marry beautifully with form and function. For example, I love how the old-world chandeliers combine with large glorious windows to create the vibrant luminosity of the hotel’s large and airy two-story Palm Court where a spectacular breakfast buffet is served in the morning and a High Tea later in the day. The mood is warm and inviting, creating the kind of atmosphere that made me just want to relax and linger. From soothing sea blues to vibrant reds, color complements light in effectively setting the mood at The Oyster Box.
With its glorious views of the Indian Ocean and the hotel’s signature “personal touch” service – you can just feel the devotion of the staff to anticipating your every need – it is not too surprising that The Oyster Box has attracted the attention of luminaries from around the world. Indeed, Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco had their wedding party at the hotel in 2011 and Executive Chef Kevin Joseph created a special dish in their honor, Oysters Charlene … oysters baked with creamed spinach, curried lentils and asparagus.
Adding to the charm and gracious hospitality of The Oyster Box was the personal welcome we received from Skabenga, the hotel’s mascot Tabby cat.
In a country which loves animals, Skabenga’s importance cannot be passed over. A large handsome prince of a cat, Skabenga (Zulu for “Hooligan”) will assess whether you like Tabby cats, and if he decides that you do, he will make sure to capture your attention when you arrive. Plus, somehow this intuitive cat will come and plant himself firmly en route of your final departure from the hotel to make sure you say your good-byes to him. Definitely devoted to his hotel mascot role and to making you feel welcome and at home in his home, Skabenga is clearly beloved by the hotel staff and undoubtedly by most of the guests as well. After all, where else in the world does the mascot cat hold court at his own annual birthday party?
Lest you think that The Oyster Box is all about art, decor, five-star service, superb beach location and an endearing cat, let me tell you what else excited me about The Oyster Box …
~ The Umhlanga Lighthouse … The Oyster Box has always been the official custodian of the iconic red & white Umhlanga lighthouse which sits on the beach within view from many windows of the hotel. Built in 1954 to warn ships away from the dangers of the rocks, the arrival of the lighthouse on the beach scene coincides with the renovation of an existing restaurant into the original Oyster Box hotel. And the hotel’s proximity to the sea offers its guests the opportunity to sleep by the mesmerizing sound of the Indian ocean waves crashing upon the beach – and crash they do! In fact, the hotel’s fabulous beachfront rooms and suites with spacious balconies and terraces must owe their popularity in part to the dramatic nature of these waves. I loved our room with its striking view of the Umhlanga lighthouse which we could enjoy, not just from our comfortable balcony, but also while lying in bed as we looked out through open French doors onto the balcony and the ocean beyond.
~ The views of the Indian Ocean … throughout the hotel are a very appealing feature. In particular, these eye-catching views can be enjoyed from the Terrace Restaurant, some of the bars, and even the Palm Court.
~ Breakfasts in the Palm Court … featuring fresh oysters & chilled champagne, are as much a work of art as they are an invitation to indulge in the good life. So many types of fish, charcuterie and international cheeses as well as a vast selection of freshly made pastries and fresh fruits and vegetables to choose from, not to mention the whimsical house-made marshmallows and other sweet treats. While you can enjoy breakfast in the gorgeous 2-story atrium, Denis and I chose to eat outside on the Terrace and, not too surprisingly, feast our eyes on the infinity pool, beach and ocean just in front of us.
~ Cocktails & dinner … Which of the three distinctive bars, each with its own personality, to choose to begin the evening and which of the three dining options to select — both are challenging questions at The Oyster Box. We started our evening with cocktails and conversation in The Oyster Bar and, once mellow, moved on to the Ocean Terrace Restaurant to enjoy the fabulous Curry Buffet featuring 11 types of curry with a vast assortment of accoutrements such as mango pickle. Each & every dish on the buffet is simply cooked to perfection with delicate blends of spices and fresh herbs, from the local favorite of prawn and chicken to the dal and the vindaloo. I know because I tried them all! Savoring these divine curries is truly a memorable way to spend the evening, but I do suggest coming with a very good appetite.
~ Pampering the guests … While I have to admit that I’ve already mentioned the hotel’s dedication to service, not just to responding to the needs of their guests but also to anticipating them, I want to add that I felt very pampered when just after I sat down to breakfast, a friendly face appeared to put a comfy pillow behind my back. And once again when I was offered a steaming cup of hot coffee to take away with me as I was reluctantly departing from the breakfast where I could have lingered on for hours enjoying the view and sipping the perfectly brewed coffee.
~ Call it the “addiction factor “ … The Oyster Box is the kind of charming hotel which draws families back time and time again. Clearly it has a multi-generational appeal with its hip and trendy, yet warm and traditionally elegant ambiance, rendering it the kind of place to which people want to return. You might say there is a seductive aura of relaxation about the place. Guests are there to enjoy the good life and unwind, which is just what we did.
Someday soon I hope to return to this legendary South African hotel, not only to see more of Durban and Umhlanga Rocks Beach and to enjoy the good life at this most memorable of hotels, but also because I really need another taste of champagne and oysters for breakfast, more days filled with mesmerizing views of the Indian ocean, more nights of falling asleep to the dramatic sound of the waves, and, of course, another visit or two to the The Oyster Box Hotel’s Curry Buffet.
The Oyster Box is part of the unique Red Carnation Hotels Collection, and a sister hotel to the 12 Apostles Hotel & Spa where we enjoyed the views of the Atlantic Ocean along with divine cocktails and a delicious dinner. For more information, please visit www.oysterboxhotel.com and www.redcarnationhotels.com.
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