The Oyster Box Hotel - A shimmering pearl on the Indian Ocean
Situated on the lush tropical coast of KwaZulu-Natal province, the iconic Oyster Box Hotel (a member of LHW) is one of South Africa's most recognizable and awarded luxury properties. The historic white edifice is a well-known landmark on Umhlanga's pristine beachfront, and overlooks an equally famed lighthouse on the Indian Ocean. Originally the site of a modest 19th century beach lodge, this prominent hotel was first opened in 1954. After being acquired in a rather derelict state by Red Carnation Hotels in 2006, an extensive renovation project saw the premises meticulously restored and expanded, opening its doors yet again in late 2009.
The surrounding neighbourhood has a village-like feel and consists mainly of a few other hotels, luxury condos, shops and restaurants. A well kept winding promenade runs along the shore, where runners, families and tourists can observe beautiful vistas of the sea and the distant Durban skyline.
Arriving at The Oyster Box is an elegant affair - you're warmly welcomed by amicable doormen dressed in white safari suits (complete with pith helmets) and shown to the eclectic lobby. Entering through a huge reclaimed antique revolving door instantly transports one to a bygone era of maritime glamor. Inside a myriad of congruous decor elements highlight the hotel's intrinsic interior design.
There are 86 rooms and suites, all with various aesthetic themes and amenities - from expansive sea-facing suites to secluded garden villas with private plunge pools. Although this is technically not a boutique hotel, it certainly feels like one, as impeccable attention to detail prevails all around. The owners' carefully curated collection of artworks, antiques and sculptures adorn the entire building which adds a precious personal touch that fondly reminds of a home, rather than hotel.
My classic sea-facing room was part of a new extension constructed during the refurbishment, even though you'd never guess it. The inviting Cape Cod-style interior featured an uplifting yellow color scheme with botanical fabrics and mirrored surfaces, which cleverly devised an illusion of space. Of course, my favourite part was the private balcony overlooking a manicured green lawn and the shore beyond. A small but stylish bathroom featuring their exclusive B | Africa products and finished in timeless white and brown marble completed my luxury lodgings.
This hotel affords guests a multitude of options when it comes to food and beverage destinations. Its grand central atrium, known as The Palm Court, is the dramatic stage for their celebrated afternoon tea spread. An incredible selection of sweets, savories and other delicacies (all made onsite) are extravagantly displayed in the centre of this lavish yet unpretentious environment. Hence its reputation of being one of the finest places on the continent for taking tea.
The Ocean Terrace, their all-day eatery, is an intricately decorated Moorish-inspired dining hall in tones of turquoise with beautifully latticed walls. The space spills over onto an expansive al fresco patio, where views of the beach and a sparkling swimming pool flanked by crimson umbrellas and eye-catching pinstriped sun loungers lure you outside. This is where you head for a sensational breakfast feast featuring an epic array of local and international favourites. No wonder epicures flock here - come to think of it, that may be for the endless supply of oysters and bubbly... I also recommend having their famous Curry Buffet, which showcases a lip-smacking array of authentic masalas and sambals.
A hotel of this calibre is expected to offer a signature fine dining experience, and The Oyster Box does not disappoint. Gourmands have been reserving their seats (and pleasing their palates) at The Grill Room for nearly 70 years! This intimate, classical restaurant is a sophisticated culinary haven that still present traditional encounters like their Guéridon service (food prepared at your table) and an authentic 1920’s Hors d’ Oeuvres Trolley, serving delectable ‘old fashioned’ appetizers. Also, their skillful Maitre'd, Hendry Pakiri, who oversees operations here, has worked at the hotel for over half a century - I can understand why he's never left...
For drinks and snacks there are three trendy bars to choose from. The perfect place for seaside sunset vistas and cocktails is The Lighthouse Bar - with its vibrant plantation-style interior and wraparound veranda, it's often frequented by stylish locals. For oysters and sushi or pre-dinner aperitifs, guests can relax at the fittingly nautical Oyster Bar. Here colonial wicker ceiling fans, a handsome marble bar counter and patterned settees create a breezy atmosphere that'll keep you anchored for a while... Finally, for the loyal pub patrons, there is the punchy Chukka Bar. This tiny taphouse has a lively energy and is conveniently located right off the front entrance of the hotel.
Once you've checked in at The Oyster Box, you literally don't have to leave the property for anything. Apart from the gorgeous surrounding natural environment, the hotel boasts a variety of different leisure facilities. These include a 24-seater cinema, library, gym, swimming pools and a purpose built state-of-the-art spa.
I recommend booking your signature treatment in advance, as this accoladed sanctuary is in high demand. With its 6 tasteful treatment rooms, a marble-clad oriental hammam, plunge pool and dedicated tranquility lounge, hedonists can truly indulge in this sanctum of calm situated in a secluded corner of the jungly gardens.
I spent several hours sun worshipping and lazing around the azure blue swimming pool, confined by luxuriant palm trees. A sprightly troop of monkeys that call this perfect paradise home provided hours of free entertainment. These playful primates have also served as inspiration for several murals and mosaics by gifted artist, Jane du Rand, around the property.
Another permanent inhabitant, and unofficial mascot, of this charming hotel is its furry feline proprietor, Skabenga the cat. Although illusive at times, I was determined to meet this famous furball before my departure. During my last evening I spotted him looking cool as a cucumber on his favored sofa in the foyer. Unfortunately, he wasn't in the mood for an unscheduled photo shoot and refused to strike the right pose for that perfect picture - so I borrowed an image from the hotel. I now follow him on Facebook - and find myself enviously admiring his flawless portraits!
Having looked in at the hotel on several occasions over the last few years, I gathered an idea of the service culture at The Oyster Box. This time, as an in-house guest, I was not surprised that the staff lived up to my steep expectations. There appears to be a tangible camaraderie amongst the employees here - from waitrons to gardeners, chefs and housekeeping personnel, everyone seems to pursue the same common goal: to maintain this exceptional hotel's status as one of the best on the continent. Since its acquisition by the Tollman family, the already reputable level of hospitality excelled exponentially, and firmly established this property as something truly special.
I remain thoroughly impressed by this distinctive yet easygoing beachside retreat. The hotel manages to deliver an unassuming and luxurious first-class experience that is near impossible to fault. When I said goodbye, I realized with a smile just how rare this remarkable place is, and that my return would be inevitable. Its sincere persona and memorable identity founded on an endearing heritage and humble beginnings undeniably makes The Oyster Box a shimmering pearl on the Indian Ocean.
* I was kindly invited by the hotel and my 3 night stay was partly complimentary.
All opinions and photos are my own © Traverate 2017