Rediscovering Durban’s grand dame, the Oyster Box Hotel

Every city of substance has an iconic hotel to match. Durban is no exception.


The Oyster Box: Oh what a joy it was to be back – and not least because I had just emerged sweat-stained and spider bitten from the wilderness. I had joined my family stomping through the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi nature reserve: For five days – with heavy backpacks and without phone or watch – we had skirted past moody elephants and grass-chomping rhino; for five nights we had lain under starry skies, jagged sleep interrupted by an hour of standing watch by the campfire. It had been revelatory, exhilarating – a disconnection, a reconnection, a reset.

But I was ready now for some creature comforts, for a breather before my travels resumed. And what better place than The Oyster Box Hotel, perched on a ridge of subtropical coast on the fast-urbanising fringe of Durban? The last time I had stayed here was in 1995 – when South Africa’s democracy was shiny and new and I was buzzing from the thrill of my second ever plane trip. My memories of the hotel are hazy (I was six-years-old at the time, to be fair) but I just remember it was cosy and grand and lovely.

I’ve been wanting to come back ever since, especially as it had, in 2006, been bought by the Tollman family, renowned for their Red Carnation Hotels– a stable which includes the Twelve Apostles in Cape Town and The Milestone in London. In the years that followed they’d poured oodles of money, love and style into the property.

It has undoubtedly paid off. Entering the airy public spaces of the hotel is like stepping onto the set of a Wes Anderson movie. With pith-helmeted porters, stripy beach loungers, creamy pillars and gurgling fountains, the establishment certainly reeks of the auteur’s nostalgic whimsy – -. You almost expect Grace Kelly to sashay down a staircase or Dick Burton to blow cigar smoke in your face in the Persian-carpeted Lighthouse Bar which has wide views of the iconic Umhlanga lighthouse that stands like a sentry right in front of the hotel.

There were no screen heartthrobs in evidence as I headed to my room (even though Idris Elba had apparently stayed not long before my visit). I opened the French windows and was greeted by the roar of the ocean as it pounded the beach barely 100 metres away. It proved a soothing soundtrack to the task of taming my email inbox (grown unruly from five days of inattention). Later, I walked through the verdant garden to the stairs that led down to the beachfront. Miles of promenade, a paved ribbon parallel to the sea, unfurled on either side of me. Joggers and walkers bustled past in the gathering dusk. I went down beyond it to the beach, which curled round towards the distant towers of Durban’s downtown. The water rushed up, silky and warm, soaking my feet.

After a shower and a change, I headed to the Oyster Bar, where rattan fans slapped languidly overhead, and sampled the hotel’s signature cocktail – a super-fruity, cane spirit-driven concoction, the Umhlanga Schling, which pays homage to the sugarcane fields not far away. It was a tad too sunny and sweet if dry and dirty is more your thing. Afterwards, we headed to the Ocean Terrace’s beachy indoor area. As Durban is the nation’s capital of curry I eschewed laidback options (like the wood-fired pizzas) to give the curry buffet a try. What a spread: 11 dishes, many of them straight from the tandoori oven, sizzled in front of us. I loved the subtle Singapore fish curry and the lamb vindaloo in particular, but they were all impressive – combining feistiness with full-on flavour.

The only dampener was our grumpy waiter who took ages to bring us our wine (a South African Chenin); though he did, at least, brighten considerably after a quiet word with the manager.

Needless to say, the plump comforts of the vast bed back in my room were a universe apart from the rocky ground I had slept on the previous night. I woke up when it was already light, the morning hazy and sparkling. After a beach walk, I went to the terrace overlooking the pool, passing the Palm Court’s tables laden with fresh fruit, pastries, wheels of cheese and cold meats. Breakfast unfolded leisurely: first one coffee, then another while I read the newspaper, and then an omlette from the hot section. Later, I couldn’t resist visiting the pancake and waffle station for a syrup-soaked waffle. When in Rome, after all.

The bell clanged, announcing dolphins. Guests chatted excitedly, pointing as the pod sliced through the shimmer. On they went; and it was time for us to go too. We left reluctantly. I wanted to sink into one of the comfy seats of the cinema for a screening (there are movies daily), pen a diary entry in the book-lined Clock Library, have afternoon tea in the Palm Court or a treatment at the spa (ranked best in Africa at the World Spa & Wellness Awards). But there is only so much one can do over a one-night stay. And The Oyster Box, thank goodness, is not going anywhere.

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