My God, they've given you the maids' rooms!" So said Graham Viney, the noted South African interior designer when he learned we were staying on the fourth (and top) floor of Capetown's majestic Mount Nelson Hotel. Viney is overseeing the hotel's refurbishment and expansion. Maids' rooms they may have been, but save for the slightly lower eight-and-a-half-foot ceilings, the rooms on the fourth floor are every bit as inviting and spacious as those on the first three. The Mount Nelson, or the "Nellie" as locals call it, has been a Capetown institution for almost a hundred years, playing host to many of the city's social and political events. Originally built as accommodations for the ship passengers of the long defunct Castle Line, the Mount Nelson was purchased in the late 1980s by James Sherwood of the Orient-Express Hotels. After a 1993 fire caused extensive water damage and forced the hotel to close for six months, Sherwood hired Viney to re-do the Mount Nelson from top to bottom. And a handsome job he has done, creating an ambience of luxurious comfort with the feeling of a gracious, private English home. Lovers of chintz, come forth; it is here in glorious abundance.
Set in nine acres of lush gardens on the lower slopes of Table Mountain (so named because its top is so flat that voluminous clouds frequently flow over it, creating a tablecloth effect), the Mount Nelson adjoins the gardens established in 1652 by the country's founder, Dutchman Jan Van Riebeeck. A tree-lined walk called Government Avenue is across from the hotel's entrance and links the Mount Nelson with many government buildings and the city's center. The end of apartheid in 1994 prompted a dramatic increase in tourism, and to meet demand the Mount Nelson acquired four adjacent historic buildings. In 1996 these were converted into sixty-four garden suites, bringing the total to 226. Painted the same cotton candy pink as the hotel, the suites boast their own heated swimming pool and beautiful gardens planted with lavender and iceberg roses. All rooms are air-conditioned (though this is needed only during South Africa's summer, from January to March) and are equipped with all the amenities one would expect, including a refrigerator and international direct dial telephones with voice mail. The color television has an integrated video player, and a variety of movies in several languages are available for rent. A second heated pool serves the main hotel, and there are two flood-lit tennis courts, a fully equipped gym and a beauty salon.
Of course, service is what separates great hotels from merely good ones. At the Mount Nelson it starts when you are smartly saluted by a uniformed guard as you cross under the hotel's Prince of Wales archway. Decanters of Port and sherry await you at check-in, though after a 14-hour flight from Miami (the only way to avoid a stopover in Johannesburg), the welcome words of "Your room is ready" are infinitely more intoxicating.
The hotel's Grill Room is one of Capetown's most famous restaurants. Its Edwardian decor invites you in and its international cuisine tempts you with local game and produce. An adjacent lounge offers aperitifs, after-dinner drinks and dancing. It is here as well as in the Lord Nelson Bar where one can enjoy a fine cigar. Though there is a somewhat limited selection--from Cuban H. Upmann Coronas starting at 45 Rand (about $10) to Cohiba Especiales at 120 Rand--you will find something to your liking. The barman was unaware of the cigar boom in the United States, but did note there seemed to be more cigar smokers these days.
Last August, the Mount Nelson opened The Cape Colony Restaurant, which is decorated in colonial style with handsome murals by artist Simon Brady. The extremely comfortable restaurant serves what is called "Afro-fusion" food--spicy and excellent.
So fortified, explore the incredibly beautiful wine country in the Stellenbosch area some 30 minutes away. Most of the wineries have tasting rooms, and by American standards, the wines, given their quality, are very inexpensive. I thought Gyles Webb's award-winning Thelema wines (under $10 for a bottle of his 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon) were about as good as it gets. Another winery, Vergelegen, is well worth a stop for several reasons: its handsome Dutch Colonial manor house, the giant 200-year-old camphor trees and gardens, the museum, tasting room, gift shop and quite passable restaurant. If interested, you could easily spend an entire week just touring wineries.
You can feel exciting winds of change in Capetown, expectant and hesitant at the same time. Explore and experience the city, then return to the comfort and calm of the Mount Nelson Hotel to revel in what you've seen.
The Mount Nelson Hotel
76 Orange Street
(27) 21-23-1000; fax: (27) 21-24-7472
Rooms from $380