It’s all too easy to be seduced by the splendour of South Africa. With postcard-worthy beaches, adventure by the bucketload, and spectacular food and wine, not to mention world-class safaris, there’s good reason it was once dubbed a world in one country. But while it’s all too easy to be seduced by the splendour of Cape Town and its accompanying winelands, it’s not the only part worth exploring. It might be a little trickier to get to these days since direct flights from London to Durban disappeared with the pandemic, but the western province of KwaZulu Natal, bordering the Eastern Cape in the south and neighbouring Mozambique and Eswatini in the north, is ripe for exploring. Thanks to the dramatic landscape of the Drakensberg Mountains, historical Boer War battlefields, and the surfers’ paradise beaches of Durban, KZN offers a South African holiday worth booking over Cape Town. In the first of our two part series on the region, we explore Durban’s iconic hotel The Oyster Box.
Arriving via a short transfer from Johannesburg, head north to the Durban suburb of Umhlanga and The Oyster Box Hotel, a chocolate box of a property resplendent in red and white candy stripes, perched above Umhlanga Rocks with accompanying views of its famous lighthouse and the waves of the Indian Ocean crashing below.
Part of the Red Carnation group of properties – which also includes Cape Town’s Twelve Apostles and the magical Bushmans Kloof in the northern Cape – The Oyster Box has long been the pinnacle of South Africa’s hotel scene. Its rooms, suites and villas are surrounded by luscious tropical gardens with an air of exclusivity in the air; not surprising given the list of celebrity clientele who have walked through its doors since first opening in the 1950s. Take a right from the lobby down towards the Chukka Bar and the walls are lined with signed pictures of royalty, Hollywood and real.
Our two story garden suite, greenery shrouding its private plunge pool terrace from any prying eyes, overlooked the hotel’s central garden pool, fringed with their iconic candy striped umbrellas. With an elegant downstairs sitting room, two bathrooms and bedroom upstairs with balcony, it also has the addition of an option third floor connecting the suite next door to supersize the accommodation, something rather popular it would appear with those aforementioned celebrities. French doors open out onto the terrace, though with the full size pool just metres away it’s tempting to head straight there. With classically decorated style complete with contemporary comforts, rooms have the best of both worlds; expect a chocolate on your pillow at turn down, bespoke toiletries from B. Africa and beautiful cotton robes, available in the gift shop no less.
The Oyster Box’s dining offering – as expected – is second to none. Start the day with breakfast on the Ocean Terrace from one of the most spectacular buffets we’ve even seen; mountains of rainbow hued tropical fruits, enough pastries to put a bakery to shame, oysters fresh from the hotels own beds and melt-in-the-mouth fresh smoked salmon, charcuterie and local cheeses, a waffle station – it’s a veritable cornucopia. The High Tea served up in the bright and airy Palm Court is a dream. From elegant finger sandwiches and savoury bites, to cakes Bruce Bogtrotter would devour, fresh scones with the full works, washed down with a tea menu as long as your arm or a glass of sparkling wine from their very own Bouchard Finlayson vineyard; coming in at less than £20 it’s astonishingly good value for money.
If that wasn’t enough, the Curry Buffet at The Oyster Box is famous worldwide. Serving up at least 11 different curries daily, including meat, fish and vegetarian, as well as starters, accompaniments, fresh homemade pickles, chutneys, sambas and raitas, and a hard-working Tandoori oven, it’s a must for any curry lover. The fiery hot Beef Vindaloo is not for the fainthearted, but we fell in love with the delicately flavoured prawn, apricot and raisin curry (and couldn’t help returning for seconds).
After dinner one can retire to the library to indulge in some local history, accompanied with some dulcet jazz, or drop into one of the hotel’s bars – The Oyster Bar next to the ground floor terrace or the rooftop Lighthouse Bar f- or a signature cocktail; The Umhlanga Sling is a concoction of sugar cane muddled with fresh pineapple, mint, and topped with crushed ice and mango juice. Be sure to pause on the way up to take in the hotel’s incredible collection of African art lining the walls outside the bar, with some fascinating pieces worth a gander.
As far as a base to explore Durban goes, you could do worse. It’s a city worth spending a couple of days in, with a small but vibrant restaurant scene; we loved the bistro style 9th Avenue Waterside overlooking the harbour, and The Chef’s Table in Umhlanga. The famous Golden Mile of beaches is home to runners and surfers alike, while for souvenirs you can’t beat Victoria Street Market for its Zulu art and handicrafts, like traditional beadwork and wooden cutlery. On the way out of town, it’s worth heading to the atmospheric Valley of a Thousand Hills home to a number of cultural villages inviting you to learn more about Zulu culture and heritage. It’s easy to see why we fell head over heels for The Oyster Box, despite the slightly dreary weather we encountered during our visit. It’s chocolate box aesthetic is beautiful, with the dining and service to match.
The Oyster Box Hotel
2 Lighthouse Road
Laurel was a guest of South Africa Tourism. For more information visit www.southafrica.net.
Hotel & Flight Fact Box
British Airways flies from London to Johannesburg from £682 return www.britishairways.com
South African Airways flies from £190 return www.flysaa.com.
&Beyond Phinda Mountain Lodge Suites from ZAR 14,000 (around £660) per person per night based on two sharing on an all inclusive basis www.andbeyond.com.
The Oyster Box Garden Villas from ZAR 9380 (around £440) per night on a bed and breakfast basis www.oysterboxhotel.com.