Mount Nelson: historical & now

February 2, 2013 in SOUTH AFRICA | Comments (42)

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Picture 1 of 19

The grand driveway

Mount Nelson: 209 rooms & suites, 3 restaurants, spa, 2 tennis courts, 2 swimming pools including one for adults only, large gardens with sculptures, lawns, trees  & flowers.

Beloved Mount Nelson – a landmark in the “mother city” for a century.  At the top of an impressive palm lined drive, its various buildings (in 6 different wings) ramble through a lush garden in quite an eye-bashing pink.  This was the very pink mixed to cheer people up in England after the second world war and was exported to Cape Town,  inseparable from the memories of Mount Nelson’s regal history.

The hotel was built by the Union Castle Line – which brought the mail and all the important travellers to Cape Town. There was no democracy then and all the rooms were very class conscious – great rooms for first class passengers and other tiny rooms for steerage…  (surviving these days as cute single rooms).

Since those early days they have incorporated more elite accommodations taking over a doctor’s residence, a couple of whole streets of authentic Cape terrace houses and the old Helmsley Hotel, with its ostentatiously large suites. Only this Helmsley wing of the hotel is not pink – it is dunnish beige – again part of history as being 100 years old it is a monument that cannot change its skin. I was upgraded to a huge old fashioned (“junior”) suite in this wing, and saw some bright newly renovated junior suites in the Oasis Wing. Altogether 30 brand new rooms with modern feel and a touch of nostalgia. The real old Mount Nelson dowagers might not like that decor.

This hotel is history and perfect for those that appreciate the old ways, even while it is a popular meeting place for the new South Africans. It feels “real” …. .

Table Mountain looms up above the hotel. The “table cloth” feels close and dramatic as the clouds lying flat on the top waterfall wispily down the rocky sides rearing 1000 metres up. There is a complimentary shuttle to the cable station for rides up to the top. And those with a sea-lust can make use of a shuttle to Camps Bay (on demand / when available…). Camps Bay is perhaps 8-10 minutes’ drive from Mt Nelson taking the stunning pass over “Kloof Nek”.

A landmark resort in the city…

Mount Nelson is more than a city hotel, it is very much a resort. Two pools include a shady romantic pool for adults only. A whole street of the old Cape Town has been incorporated into the spa. There are also two tennis courts somewhere out of sight on the large lush property – you see the odd tennis ball bashing guest dash past. Then there are three restaurants.

The gracious old Cape Town is reached down the grandiose avenue past stately parks, museums and government buildings. It’s also a mere 50 metres from the start of trendy upper  Cape Town emerging in Kloof Street and Long Street, with low key relaxed restaurants and boutiques, crafts and businesses. This is where the actors, writers and IT people hang out. I heard them talking business, company image, and the like, dressed in shorts and sandals.

It makes you realize that Cape Town is not just a holiday destination; it is a relaxed and functioning city – with a spirit of optimism and fantasy. Though of course I really don’t know what it feels like for the millions out there on the Cape flats.

Rooms and more

The British have been loyal customers of Mount Nelson since way back and have not all rushed off to the Waterfront. Only recently, the Americans have discovered it and their numbers are increasing fast…

I remember yellowwood antiques from my last hotel inspection here in 1998 or so. Now the luxury rooms I was shown and the Junior Suites had been renovated. They danced a way between the neutral tones that have dominated five star décor in recent years and silver that added brightness without declaring war. Many suites still more traditional.

I was upgraded to one of the Helmsely suites. My suite was very traditional in style and no views to speak of  (my dayroom on the other hand, a single room in main wing had fab views of palms and mountain and was lovable).

I wandered around my larger suite not knowing what to do with all this space. I had 5 doors to the outside including a security alarmed terrace. The wind (a south-wester that had been uprooting trees for a few days) was making metallic bashing sounds into the night….and I wondered whether to tell housekeeping I had no tea and coffee making in my antique cabinet, or to watch the TV that rose with a groan out of a treasure chest when I pressed a switch, and played a loop of gorgeous Orient Express promotions that had no superstitious shadows behind the perfection…

Mountain facing rooms in the main wing and the Green Park wing have the iconic views. A wing of Classic Suites looked nice from the outside … at least the roomy garden terraces.

But if I could choose I would stay in the Garden Cottage wing, which is a former street called Sydenham (?). That’s for lovers of the old Cape Town – one and two bedroom cottages in authentic style, just over way from the adults only pool.

As mentioned above – 30 fresh and sparkling rooms have just become available with the reopening of the Oasis wing. They are uplifted by views of the swimming pool and Signal Hill – and original art from nearby Michaelis art school.

Locals to high tea and other culinary things

In the new South Africa the colonial days are still honoured especially at afternoon tea time – high tea. For 185 rand – a large sum by local people’s budgets – you get to eat as much as you like from a long table of sandwiches and cakes, and I noticed the guests were mostly local in all colours of the rainbow, though of course there were tourists too.

The tourists were casually dressed but the locals were smart modern people, putting Stockholm youth in the shade when it comes to worldliness. I overheard this conversation:

“She has only 200 friends on Facebook. She will never get a job. You need to have 2000 friends. You don’t have to know them. But you need to network. Everyone is their own brand these days…!”

The afternoon tea was almost the same price as the marvellous breakfast at the Oasis restaurant – which consisted of a buffet of granolas, seeds, yoghurts, fruits and an extensive choice of hot items (price 195 zar) but the afternoon tea had very little savoury choices, and those there seem to have been included without any heart and soul (and no fear of sugar or love of herbs and cheese).

By the way the pastry chef at Mount Nelson has won a prize, so – don’t listen to me…

Still, my lunch at lobby veranda restaurant was much nicer I thought for only 140 zar – a vegetarian curry with the freshest taste of newly toasted spices, served with the lightest most mouth pleasing samoosas …

I also had a very generous starter of smoked trout at reasonable price which served as a meal at that pleasing restaurant on the veranda – with view of the park and a big tropical flower as reminder that I was far from the snows of Stockholm. It was 30 deg and you have to love the heat to sit on the veranda.

I did not try the other destination for locals – the Planet restaurant. I looked over it empty in daylight, which is perhaps not fair, for in daylight the balls depicting planets hanging from the ceiling look a little plastic instead of hauntingly mysterious.  The carpet is an expensive custom-made rendering of the heavens with a real star chart.

I tried the pleasant Oasis Restaurant at breakfast – but it promises to be tantalizing for other meals too – its old buffet concept has made way for a la carte Mediterranean inspired menu with some local classics like Cape Malay chicken curry.

In a nutshell

•    Orient Express hotel
•    Historical, beloved by the British and now Americans. Dining here trendy with young local professionals
•    Resort with lovely views, 3 restaurants, big green gardens,  tennis, 2 pools (1 for adults only), spa
•    30 newly renovated rooms in Oasis wing (junior suites and deluxe rooms)
•    Quaint historical garden cottages and some very roomy older suites
•    Close to Kloof Street & Long Street and lots of choice of reasonable dining
•    Afternoon tea generous (albeit not so sophisticated) but fabulous cheesecake
•    Historical Cape  Town with Parliament and museums and oak-shady parks, easy walk (advisable only in daytime)

1.    Rambling and spread out
2.    Hemsely Wing has no views and is high quality old style
3.    Verandah and garden  hot in summer  even in the shade – (misses the seabreezes of the waterfront)    (it was 30 degrees)

How to get to Mount Nelson

30 minutes by car from Cape Town International Airport

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