The grand old dames of luxurious hospitality

South Africa’s iconic heritage hotels

By Stef Terblanche

South Africa has many fine hotels to suit every taste and every budget, among them some of the world’s top hotels. But there are some among them that simply stand out… because they have been around so long and have become fabulous icons in the world of hospitality and sustain a proud heritage.

These iconic hotels are not necessarily better, more luxurious or more expensive than others. They are icons because they have been around for many decades, evoke a certain kind of nostalgia, are steeped in history, have become landmarks, and have for many years provided outstanding accommodation and services to their patrons, many of whom who loyally return to them year after year.

But these hotels don’t only pamper their guests in comfortable and luxurious style. September being Heritage Month in South Africa, it’s important to note that these hotels all have a rich and direct living link with our history and heritage.

We set out to visit a number of these iconic old hotels, however, be advised that our sample list of hotels is by no means complete – there are many more such hotels in South Africa that easily fit the description. We simply don’t have enough space here to cover them all.

The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel

Cape Town

Mention the words ‘iconic hotels’ and for most South Africans and indeed for many people around the world, Cape Town’s fabulous ‘Pink Lady’, the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, will be the first to come to mind. Set in a beautiful large garden at the foot of Table Mountain, this stately old hotel is a haven of old-worldly charm, much history, excellent service, fine dining, and peace and tranquillity, even though it sits right on the edge of the bustling CBD.

Winston Churchill called it “a most excellent establishment”. The famous Beatle, John Lennon, meditated in its lush and beautiful grounds. And in its 120-year history many other famous people stayed or dined here, from statesmen and royalty, to Hollywood stars and other celebrities. Sitting on the sunny terrace or strolling through the gardens with only the sweet fragrance of rose gardens, pigeons and squirrels for company, it’s hard to believe you are in the heart of Cape Town.

Situated on busy Orange Street opposite Government Avenue and the top entrance to the Company Gardens, the hotel has a unique and fascinating history dating all the way back to 1743 when the property on which the hotel is situated belonged to Baron Pieter Van Rheede van Oudtshoorn. The baron died during his return to Cape Town to take up the position of governor. After his death the property, which was then known as ‘Oudtshoorn Gardens’, was sold and in 1795 the Reverend Fleck of Cape Town’s Dutch Reformed Church purchased the main house where the hotel is now located.

In 1806 the property was let to an auctioneer, William Maude, and it’s said during this time slaves and horses were auctioned here. In 1843 it was bought by Sir Hamilton Ross, and it became his family’s home until it was purchased in 1890 by Sir Donald Currie, the shipping magnate who owned the famous Union Castle Shipping Line. It was Sir Donald’s dream to build a hotel in Cape Town as stylish and elegant as London’s most fashionable hotels, to cater exclusively for the Castle Line’s well-heeled First Class passengers.

On 6 March 1899 the Mount Nelson Hotel opened its doors for the first time. It was the first hotel in South Africa to offer hot and cold running water and was widely applauded for being “even better than its London counterparts”. On 3 March 1899 the hotel’s first advertisement in the The Cape Times newspaper, proclaimed: “This large and splendid hotel, beautifully situated in the Gardens at the Top of Government Avenue, in the most Airy and Healthy part of Cape Town, offers to Visitors all the comforts of a First-class Hotel at Reasonable Charges”. It’s a claim the hotel is still able to make to this very day!

But then, on 12 October 1899, war interrupted as the Second Anglo-Boer War started. The British used the Mount Nelson Hotel as a headquarters from which to plan their military campaign in the Boer republics to the north. Three commanders of the British forces, Lords Frederick Roberts, Herbert Kitchener and Redvers Buller were familiar figures in the hotel corridors. It was at this time that a young Winston Churchill, then a war correspondent for the British Daily Mail and Morning Post, stayed here before he was later captured by Boer forces.

Some interesting legends and stories exist about the hotel. For instance, why is it painted pink? Well, the second manager of the hotel, an Italian by the name of Aldo Renato Tagliavia, decided to celebrate the end of the First World War by decorating the hotel with a cheerful coat of pink paint. The trend towards pink hotels became popular throughout Europe for the next few decades, and so the colour stuck. Last year the hotel celebrated its Pink Centenary, one hundred years since Armistice Day, and a definitive ‘Mount Nelson Pink’ paint has now been developed by paint experts.

Unlike its name suggests, the famous Lord Horatio Nelson who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, never stayed here, but he visited Simon’s Town twice. A year later the property was advertised in The South African Gazette as ‘Mount Nelson’, a name inspired by Lord Nelson and Table Mountain. It’s said there’s also a treasure buried in the grounds under the laundry chimney designed by Sir Herbert Baker, which is a national monument, so no-one can dig it up.  And the wooden chairs in the Sherwood Room were originally used as deck chairs on the Union Castle ships. The landmark stone-columned gates on Orange Street were installed in 1925 to welcome the Prince of Wales.

Apart from Churchill, John Lennon and the British lords during the Boer War, other famous people who have stayed at or visited the hotel, include the Prince of Wales in 1925, the author and creator of Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1928, writer and explorer Laurens van der Post, the Dalai Lama in 1999, and Hollywood stars Leonardo di Caprio, Colin Farrell and Charlize Theron, among many others.

The hotel has 198 individually designed rooms and suites as well as a number of garden cottages decorated with oversized couches, fireplaces and Venetian mirrors. Also on offer are heated pools, a children’s club, painting classes, tennis coaching and yoga. An institution in Cape Town since 1989 is the serving of afternoon tea and cake on the Windsor Table in the Hotel Lounge.

You can dine on fine food and listen to piano music in The Lord Nelson Restaurant located in the elegant Sherwood Room which was the original dining room when the hotel first opened in 1899. You can also enjoy lighter or poolside meals at the Oasis Bistro or enjoy cocktails in the Planet Bar. In 2008 the hotel opened its acclaimed Librisa Spa in a historical Victorian house. (Editor: The writer has fond memories of living for some years in a house that now forms part of the spa!)

The Lord Milner Hotel

Matjiesfontein, Western Cape

Some 230km from Cape Town driving along the N1 highway towards Johannesburg, you will unexpectedly come upon an oasis in the Karoo dessert, consisting of a tiny village and a railway station. At its centre you’ll notice a castle-like building with turrets, atop of which fly the Union Jack and South African flag. The place is called Matjiesfontein, and the building with the turrets and flags is the famous Lord Milner Hotel.

Despite its remote location, it is a place to which notables from around the world have flocked for more than a century, including the famous author Olive Schreiner, Lord Randolph Churchill (father of Winston), the mining magnate and politician Cecil John Rhodes, the famous English cricketer George Lohmann, and the poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling. This is where they came for rest and solitude, to be pampered, be rejuvenated by the fresh country air, and to go for meditational walks in the surrounding open veld. It became something of a Victorian institution in the wide-open African veld.

The hotel has another unique history. It had scarcely been built in 1899 when, in the early stages of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War the hotel was commandeered by the British forces to be used as a military hospital and their Cape Western Command. Among the esteemed military leaders of that war who were quartered here, were General Haig and General French.

At the height of the war some 10 000 British soldiers were encamped around the hotel and the village, including famous regiments such as the 17th Lancers, the Coldstream Guards, the Highland Brigade and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles. General Haig used the old laundry opposite the old village jail on the riverbank as his officers’ mess. Stroll across the surrounding veld today and you are likely to come upon relics from that war.

Here some of the infamous members of the Jamieson Raid’s Reform Committee were given refuge after their raid went horribly wrong and controversial war crimes hearings were also held here. The Jamieson Raid embarrassed Her Majesty’s government, resulted in Cecil John Rhodes having to step down as prime minister of the Cape Colony, members of the Reform Committee were sentenced to death but were later spared, Rhodes’ British South Africa Company had to pay £1 million in compensation to the Boer Republic of Transvaal, and it helped trigger the Anglo-Boer War.

The hotel and the village owe their existence to the legendary Scottish railwayman, James Douglas Logan, who founded Matjiesfontein in 1884. He built several cottages, including the historic Douglas Cottages that stand at the back of the hotel, and Matjiesfontein soon became established as a fashionable Victorian health spa. Olive Schreiner, who is most famous for her novel, The Story of an African Farm, was so impressed that she asked Logan “to keep a house there for me”. He did, and she spent many happy times living in it. Today it is known as the Olive Schreiner Cottage, part of the hotel complex, and stands next to the Post Office on Logan Street, the historic main street of the village. In 1899 Logan built the double-storey Milner Hotel. The extravagant Royal Lounge of the hotel today portrays the life of James Logan and other famous Victorian personalities who stayed here over the last century.

James Logan died in 1920 and is buried in a little cemetery 10km from Matjiesfontein, next to the grave of George Lohmann, the English cricketer who spent the last years of his life in the healthy climate of the Karoo. In 1968, the famous hotelier David Rawdon, bought the entire Matjiesfontein village. Rawdon is well known for having established Rawdons Hotel at Nottingham Road, the equally iconic Lanzerac Hotel in the Stellenbosch vineyards, the Marine Hotel in Hermanus where many people from Britain and elsewhere came for their annual holidays, and The Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet, also covered in this article.

Rawdon performed extensive renovations and furnished the hotel and cottages with his large collection of antiques gathered during his world travels. He reopened the hotel in 1970 and renamed it The Lord Milner Hotel. Both as the Milner Hotel and the Lord Milner Hotel, it was named after Lord Alfred Milner, who was the governor of the Cape during the Anglo-Boer War. In 1975 the entire village of Matjiesfontein was declared a National Heritage Site, largely due to Rawdon’s efforts. In 2013, the Rawdon Family as custodians of Matjiesfontein, concluded a five-year partnership deal with The Collection by Liz McGrath for the renovation and management of the Lord Milner Hotel.

The Lord Milner Hotel is a graded three-star heritage site hotel with 15 classically furnished historic standard double rooms, and historic luxury and single rooms. Its sprawling and well-established garden is a true oasis of green in the surrounding arid Karoo. At the Laird’s Arms guests can enjoy a drink and a pub lunch as well as the honky-tonk pianist performing there. Apart from the hotel and Logan Cottages, accommodation is available in the Reston Villa, once the home of Logan’s son and his family;  the Old Museum Suite, a classic historic cottage on Logan Street close to the hotel and next to the Laird’s Arms, and the Swimming Pool Suite on the site of Matjioesfontein’s erstwhile Water Works.

Finally, the town lies on the main railway line between Cape Town and the north and has its own well-maintained station. It was the building of this railway line that brought Logan here, gave rise to Matjiesfontein, and resulted in the Lord Milner Hotel. The original station opened here on 1 February 1878 as the building of the railway made its way north. The present elegant Victorian building opened in December 1890, and it was in its cellar that the Jamieson Raid reformers hid out, being regularly fed whiskey by Logan.

There’s plenty more of interest in the village, such as the Marie Rawdon Museum or the Transport Museum, or touring the area in an old red London double decker bus, exploring the surrounding area, or driving to nearby places of interest such as Sutherland, Laingsburg, the Anysberg Nature Reserve, Ladismith and Calitzdorp.

Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor

Cradock, Eastern Cape

Cradock in the Eastern Cape came into existence around 1814 as a sub-drostdy (magistracy) and military fort, one of a series of forts to demarcate the frontier between the Xhosa people east of the Fish River and the settlers of the Cape Colony to its west. The town, however, never saw any conflict during the Frontier Wars and today it is a lovely, bustling town set in tranquil country surroundings, and filled with many lovingly restored examples of its early architecture… Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor taking pride of place among these.

The Victoria Manor hotel was originally built as a private dwelling in 1848, the same year that the famous artist and explorer Thomas Baines visited the town. But it soon began doing business as a hotel and by 1852 it was being advertised in the local newspaper, The Cradock News & Mercantile Advertiser, as The Victoria Hotel. Today it is one of the oldest hotels still operating as such in South Africa. During its early heyday it attracted famous guests such as author Olive Schreiner and mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes, but towards the end of the previous century it had become quite rundown and had fallen off the map of grand old hotels of South Africa.

That’s when Sandra Antrobus, the wife of a local farmer with a passion for history and restoration, stepped in. Her story actually begins much earlier with the restoration of Die Tuishuise, which translates as ‘townhouses’. In 1983 she learnt that five historic little cottages on Market Street were to be demolished. She had previously been involved in the restoration of Schreiner House, now a museum, and knew she had to rescue them. Which she did.

But she didn’t stop there and to date has restored nearly 40, many of which now form part of Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor. Each has been lovingly restored to its original condition and are furnished and decorated as they were in their erstwhile heyday. They quickly became very popular with tourists from near and far.

These cottages started life during the 1840s as the humble abodes of artisans involved in the transport industry of the day – wagonmakers, saddlers, harness makers, wheelwrights and blacksmiths. Not only was the town on the wagon route to the north, but it was also an important assembly and departure point for the wagon trains of the pioneering Voortrekkers, farmers who were relocating to the north to escape British rule and establish their own republics. Many of these cottages were also used as ‘tuishuise’ or townhouses by farmers of the district when they came to town for Communion, hence their current name. By the 1920s, however, the railway line and the car had replaced the wagon on the Great Northern route, the artisans fell on hard times and many of the cottages fell into disrepair.

Meanwhile the Victoria Hotel’s fortunes went the other way- for a while at least. When diamonds were discovered in 1869, it brought increased traffic passing through the town, and with it business for the hotel. At this time the hotel was lavishly refurbished and some of the beautiful Victorian pressed ceilings can still be seen. To some extent the ostrich feather boom period between 1890 and 1914, but more so the later wool boom – Cradock being in the heart of sheep farming country – and the liquor law reforms of the 1950s, saw the hotel doing brisk business and it was treated to another facelift. Sadly though, this time some of its original features were lost.

But by the 1990s air travel had become the major travel mode, modern highways bypassed many country towns, and the Eastern Cape region’s economy was taking strain. Thus, the old Victoria Hotel lost its former glory and became little more than a noisy bar and nuisance to Sandra’s popular cottages on Market Street. So, she bought the hotel, restored it to its former splendour and incorporated it with her cottages into Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor. For her tireless restoration efforts in the town, Sandra was awarded the Simon van der Stel Gold Medal for restoration in 1993.

Like so many other old iconic hotels in South Africa, the Victoria Hotel was also commandeered by the British forces during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Its cellar was used to house Boer prisoners of war, but today it serves as a charming pub. Victoria Manor is now also used as the reception area and restaurant for the entire complex.

The B&B cottages of Die Tuishuise are each named after famous people who had links with this town, grew up here or even lived in some of these cottages. They include the internationally acclaimed poet and scholar Guy Butler, the author Etienne van Heerden, author Olive Schreiner, novelist Iris Vaughn,
Töger von Abo Flemmer, a Dane who lived in Market Street in the early days and captured wild animals which he sold to the zoological gardens in Europe, and Harry Potter. No, not the Harry Potter of books and movies fame, but the original real-life Harry Potter who lived here, died in 1910 at the age of 47, and is buried in the town’s cemetery.

Apart from being pampered and basking in the stylish and historic environment of Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor, there’s plenty more to do in and around Cradock. The town hosts the annual Karoo Food Festival (end of April) and the Schreiner: Karoo Writers Festival (June). You can visit the Schreiner House Museum, the Oude Kasteel, or first parsonage, the Great Fish River Museum, the cemetery with its many interesting graves, go on a tour of nearby Lingelighle Township with its proud liberation political history and many attractions, the Cradock Spa, go river rafting, visit the Mountain Zebra National Park, and much more.

Apart from Die Tuishuise cottages the Victoria Manor Hotel has sixteen en-suite bedrooms decorated in period antiques. Typical Karoo dinners are enjoyed in the Albert dining room, or you can relax at the cosy pub. There is also a small splash pool where you can cool down after a long journey, or enjoy some relaxing treatment in the Health, Beauty and Wellness Centre.

For more information or bookings call +27 (0) 48 881 1322 or +27 (0) 48 881 1650, or email to info@tuishuise.co.za, or visit the website at www.tuishuise.co.za.

Cathedral Peak Hotel

Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal

While it reminds one of some of those grand old hotels high up in the Swiss Alps minus the snow, the setting of the Cathedral Peak Hotel in the foothills of the Drakensberg could not be more beautiful or dramatic. And in winter the mountains do have snow! This elegant hotel with its stunning surroundings has become something of a South African institution with locals and visitors from around the world.

While South Africa is blessed with so much beauty in so many parts, the Drakensberg and environs must surely count as among the most beautiful. And this is what caught the eye of the hotel’s creator, Albert van der Riet, back in the early 1900s. Captivated by the beauty of the mountains and the vibrant fauna and flora, his eyes played over the valley, and he imagined a secluded hotel that would be closer to the mountains than any other hotel at the time.

He acquired the land in the mid-1930s, trained local labourers and set about building a road to the site he had chosen, put in infrastructure, and with local stone and rock began to build his hotel. In 1939 the doors of the partially completed 43-room hotel were opened and guests started enjoying guided walks through the berg (as locals call the mountain), horse rides, and evenings of dancing and entertainment in the hotel’s lounge. After World War II, as the world began to enjoy itself again, the hotel really started to thrive. Over the years Albert and his growing family continued to expand the hotel, and Cathedral Peak Hotel was making a name for itself around the country and all over the world.

After Albert’s passing in 1987, the hotel remained a family business, with his son William and his wife Belinda keeping this great legacy going. Now their eldest son Byron and his wife Samantha, are set to become the third generation to run the hotel.

Although much of a more contemporary nature has been added over the years, the hotel still retains much of its original splendour. This year it is eighty years since it first opened its doors. Today the hotel
accommodates its guests in 104 spacious rooms, from interleading family rooms to private honeymoon suites and the exclusive, secluded Presidential Suite. The sophisticated dining room offers an extensive buffet and superb cuisine, personally supervised by the hotel’s first-class chef, and an after-dinner drink and game of pool or darts can be enjoyed at Harry’s Late Night Bar. And for those charming afternoons of watching the mountain peaks bask in the last rays of sunshine, there is no better place to be than Albert’s Cocktail Bar with its large window offering panoramic views.

There’s plenty to do up here in the mountains, from swimming in the cold and heated pools, hiking and climbing, playing tennis, horse riding, trout fishing, mini-golf, volleyball, archery, quad biking tackling the climbing tower, relaxing in the spa, getting fit in the gym or just lazing in the steam room. There’s also a picturesque 9-hole golf course with alternate tees for an 18-hole game. In-house entertainment keeps kids and adults alike busy.

The surrounding mountains are a treasure trove of scenic hikes for both serious hikers and casual walkers, mountain bike trails and outdoor climbing. Home to thousands of rock paintings by the original San inhabitants, the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 2000, and the hotel provides free daily guided hikes with friendly guides who know just where to find the best art, geological features and views. There are also excellent conference facilities and a charming stone chapel with magnificent views is the perfect setting for a memorable wedding.

Many well-known people and celebrities have spent time here getting away from it all, among them the Prince of Iran in 1942/43, the British Actor Idris Elba, Derek Watts of Carte Blanche fame, Shaun Pollock the South African cricketer, Bruce Fordyce the multiple winner of the Comrades and other marathons, and Springbok rugby greats Henry Honiball and Joel Stransky, as well as the entire Sharks rugby team.

For more information or bookings call +27 (0)36 488 1888, email info@cathedralpeak.co.za, or visit the website www.cathedralpeak.co.za.

The Sunnyside Park Hotel

Johannesburg

Over the years many locals have come to know the hotel’s terrace by the pool as the lively setting where they meet for lunch or after-work drinks. And guests from around the country and abroad have come to treasure it for its excellent hospitality and service in a historical building set in lush gardens in the heart of Parktown, one of Johannesburg’s oldest and most eloquent suburbs.

The Sunnyside Park Hotel is the essence of heritage hospitality and occupied a fascinating place in the country’s gold mining history, the restoration period after the Anglo-Boer War, the formation of the Union of South Africa, and has been a much-loved favourite ever since.

It is one of the most important historical buildings among many in Parktown, which was where the early mining magnates, or Rand Lords, all had their stylish late-Victorian mansions. The original house was a large suburban villa designed in 1895, by Frank Emley, a well-known pioneer architect in Johannesburg, in the Neo-Queen Anne style and was built as a small country estate for the American Mining Engineer Hennen Jennings who was employed by the Corner House (Rand Mines).

After Jennings’ arrest for his involvement in the Jamieson Raid, he returned to the United States. During the Anglo-Boer War in 1901 Lord Milner moved into Sunnyside Park, using it as his official residence as he found Pretoria too hot. As the first Military Governor, then High Commissioner for South Africa and Governor of the Transvaal and Orange River Colonies, Milner oversaw from here the post-war restoration of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. As such the ballroom and lovely gardens were the centre of the Johannesburg and Pretoria social scene.

Milner’s successor, Lord Selbourne, moved the Official Residency to Pretoria and only used Sunnyside Park in the summer months. He sponsored the Selbourne Memorandum – the document that led to the formation of the Union of South Africa. However, Sunnyside Park continued as the Residency with the advent of Viscount Gladstone as Governor General of South Africa. The building gradually fell lout of favour, and in 1911 was sold to the School of Mines, which became the University of the Witwatersrand, who used it as a women’s residence until 1930. It then became a private hotel, the land was sub-divided, and several portions sold for houses. In 1964 it became a licensed hotel and has flourished as such ever since.

Although much of the building has been altered over the years, the stone plinth, original arched entrance, the double storied bay window with the two triangular gables and all the wooden windows on the ground floor have been retained. With the addition of the second story to the east wing the importance of the formal section has been diminished but the corner turret and the tall chimneys were raised maintaining the spirit of the original design. In 1990 Sunnyside Park was declared a national monument.

It was in the Sunnyside Park that the Duke and Duchess of Connaught stayed when visiting Johannesburg on their tour to open the first Union Parliament. Apart from its famous early residents, during its period as official residency Sunnyside Park had many other famous visitors, including British Prime Minister Joseph Chamberlain and the poet and writer Rudyard Kipling.

Today the hotel offers 152 guest rooms. With several conference venues, its Ballroom is the largest venue, taking up to 230 people. There is a small cigar lounge adjoining the main lounge. The grand high-ceilinged colonial-style lounge with its fireplace provides a wonderful ambience, especially in winter. The hotel’s picturesque gardens with tall oak trees still bear touches of the English horticulturist that Lord Milner brought in to design them over a century ago. To these have been added a unique African touch with sculptures made by the Africa Ya Rona sculpture community, whose aim is to promote contemporary stone sculptors of Southern Africa. The hotel is ideally situated close to major highways, a Gautrain station and the Johannesburg and Sandton CBDs.

For more information or bookings call +27 (0) 11 640 0400, email to info@sunnysideparkhotel.com or visit the website at https://sunnysideparkhotel.com/.