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April 04, 2016

Why This South African Hotel Is a Celebrity Hotspot

Text by Maria Louis. Photographs by Sejal Purohit

One of South Africa’s most distinguished luxury properties, The Oyster Box, in Umhlanga is cherished not only for its scenic location, but also the seafood it is named after

As soon as I hear the name The Oyster Box, a wave of nostalgia washes over me, as I recall Oyster Tuesdays at a now-defunct seafood restaurant in Mumbai. But this legendary hotel on Umhlanga’s prestigious beachfront is cherished for much more than the seafood it is named after. Dwarfed by the towering presence of its more flamboyant neighbour, the Beverly Hills Hotel — which boasts glorious views of the scenic surroundings from its staggered balconies and terrace restaurant — The Oyster Box holds its own as one of South Africa’s most distinguished luxury seaside hotels. It is a distinct favourite of world-renowned celebrities like the Manchester United soccer team, Princes Harry and William and King Goodwill Zwelithini, of the Zulus.

It’s no wonder then that when South Africa-born Princess Charlene married Prince Albert of Monaco, she chose to hold a second wedding reception at this getaway, with direct beach access that permits intimate conversations with the Indian Ocean.

A large part of the hotel’s charm lies in its history and heritage. Originally a cottage called The Oyster Lodge that was used as a navigational beacon, it was built in 1863 using Burmese teak, corrugated iron and reinforced concrete. The cottage and overgrown grounds were sold to Ken O’Connor and Kay O’Connor (Hill), his sister, in 1952. They started a tea garden, which changed to a restaurant, then The Oyster Box hotel in March 1954 on the site next to the lighthouse.

In 2006 the property came up for sale. The then owner, Wayne Reed, was keen that The Oyster Box passed on to a family who would continue the hospitality, traditions and values with which it was so synonymous. Stanley and Bea Tollman (founder and president of Red Carnation Hotels) bought the property. Although rundown, it was their intention to restore the legendary hotel to its former glory. The greatest challenge, for them, was to do so in a way that was authentic to the period in which it was built and, simultaneously, to usher it into the 21st century. What we see today is a seamless transition and a fitting tribute to their vision.

From the grand, revolving door at the entrance to the foyer with its black-and-white terrazzo tiles, wrought-iron balustrade, original inlaid hand-painted tiles and friezes collected by Kay Hill during her regular travels to Spain and Portugal, a number of the original features remain intact. Work began in October 2007 and was completed in September 2009. While a lot of the old has been retained, the hotel has, for the most part, been rebuilt. The main building complex has undergone a number of architectural changes since the 1940s.

The characteristic black-and-white chequerboard floor has been reinstated throughout. The atrium, Palm Court, is now at the heart of the hotel with all the other areas rippling out from it. An entirely new floor level was added to create additional banqueting space, with business and meeting facilities, along with the impressive new Lighthouse Bar overlooking the iconic red-and-white lighthouse and the Indian Ocean. No wonder this is a popular destination for weddings!

Inspired by the hotel’s original, colonial architecture, and with chandeliers bought from the Savoy Hotel in London, high tea at The Oyster Box, popular for birthday celebrations, is a lengthy and leisurely affair with a live piano providing the perfect accompaniment.

Who can resist a table laden with sumptuous treats, from freshly baked scones, pastries, quiches and cakes to finger sandwiches and savoury snacks? All pastries and baked goods are prepared by the executive pastry chef, Joanita Venter, and her team.

Guiding beacon

Ever since the iconic lighthouse on Umhlanga’s beach was completed in 1954, it has been the subject of paintings and memorabilia. White with a red band at the top, the circular concrete tower stands 21 metres above the beach and has a focal plane height of 25 metres. Built to replace the Bluff lighthouse, which was commissioned in 1869 — but had to be abandoned due to its rapid deterioration, it stands guard to some of the most treacherous waters of Southern Africa. Not only does it warn ships of the hidden dangers, but the flashing light also welcomes the ships sailing into the safety of Durban harbour.

The Umhlanga Lighthouse has never had a ‘keeper’, as The Oyster Box hotel, which was the first beach cottage in the area, has been the official custodian. In fact, before the lighthouse was built, the red roof of the hotel was used as a beacon by ships at sea to indicate their proximity to the land. Although the lighthouse controls were once kept in the hotel office and monitored by the staff, they are now with Durban’s national port authority, though The Oyster Box still remains its ‘custodian’. The hotel even celebrated the 60th birthday of the lighthouse recently by distributing cake and wine to passersby on the beach.

Something fishy

A celebrated symbol of taste since it first reopened in 1947, the hotel is renowned for its exceptional cuisine. Helmed by executive chef, Kevin Joseph, the restaurants of The Oyster Box work towards combining local flavours with global trends.

The Ocean Terrace patio, with its vantage point across the Indian Ocean, serves a bistro-style menu and features a traditional wood-fired pizza oven as well as a tandoori oven. Favourite dishes include freshly prepared pizzas, freshly-caught seafood and old favourites from The Oyster Box of yore. “The curry buffet in the Ocean Terrace restaurant continues to draw people in droves from all over the country and beyond, thanks to its wide selection of meat, fish and vegetarian options, prepared using delicate blends of Indian and Durban spices and fresh herbs. But it’s the chicken and prawn that’s the hot favourite,” insists chef Larry Ramadeen, whose family traces its roots to India.

The stylish Oyster Bar is a popular pre-dinner or sundowner stop where you can enjoy chilled champagne, freshly-harvested oysters from the hotel’s own oyster beds and their signature cocktail, the Umhlanga Schling. The recently opened Oyster, Salmon & Sushi Bar, under the experienced hand of sushi chef, Wenxiu Liu, takes the venue to new heights. It is as popular for business meetings during the day as it is for live music and cocktails in the evening.

Where there’s fish, there must be a cat lurking nearby, and so there is! Skabenga (hooligan or vagabond in Zulu), the resident cat at The Oyster Box, has made the hotel­ — Umhlanga’s ‘grand old dame’ — his permanent home for over 10 years. It all started when he wandered onto the property as a stray and was fed tasty (read, expensive) titbits by the guests — and he never left!

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