The first thing that strikes you on arriving at Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel, affectionately known as ‘the Nellie’, is the smell. A heavy summer’s rain has meant the nation’s unique and exquisite flora and fauna has erupted in an intoxicating and riotous display: sweet jasmine, lilies and honeysuckle, all dazzle the senses once you make the slow drive up the gradual slopes of the Cape Peninsula National Park where the Mount Nelson is ensconced.
This ‘grand dame’ is one of Cape Town’s most historic and famous hotels. It’s easy to see why the pale, pink-painted hotel attracts big names past and present. From the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie to Robbie Williams and Kate Moss, there’s a casual and discreet, genteel air about the place, one in which you could imagine losing yourself in and nobody would ask any questions. Businessmen in expensive loafers rub shoulders with old ladies here for the famed afternoon tea, whilst young couples take romantic strolls through the perfectly manicured gardens, past sculptures and strange, pre-historic birds with curved beaks: it’s as if nothing has changed for 100 years – and why would you want it to?
Entering the foyer of the hotel is to step back in time as guests once did when they stepped off the Union Castle steamships at the turn of the 20th Century – and there are many pictures to testify to this. Set in nine acres of beautifully tendered gardens, with the Mother City’s famed Table Mountain providing a backdrop, it’s the perfect respite in a sprawling, urban metropolis. There’s an elegant grandeur to the tasteful colonial-era architecture. If you splash out on a suite then you’re guaranteed a room the size of a small London flat and if you’re very lucky, a view of Table Mountain itself.
As a first port of call once you’ve settled in, I recommend the afternoon tea. It’s hard to resist. At roughly £15pp it strikes me as something of a bargain compared to what you’d pay at an exclusive London hotel and without wanting to sound uncouth – it is an all you can eat affair. Situated in the Lounge from 2pm onwards, you watch in mouth-watering excitement as the waiting staff and chefs begin to set up the table: finger sandwiches, courgette fritters, mushroom empanadas and smoked lamb focaccia on one side of the table; whilst petit fours, chocolate gateaux’s, Victoria sponge cakes, apricot tarts and individual sweets, sit on the other. An excellent selection of locally supplied teas are also available – the classic Rooibos is highly recommended for the authentic experience. Eaten on the terrace on a warm spring day will give you one of those abiding memories of Cape Town, as much as anything else you might experience here. Once you’ve eaten all you can manage, one of the best walks to be had in the city is just across the street from the hotel.
The Company’s Gardens is one of the oldest and most beautiful parks in Cape Town. Originally created in the 1650s by the region’s Dutch settlers, it was initially designed for growing produce to re-provision ships serving the spice routes to India and the Far East. Later designated for public use, some of the delights include South Africa’s oldest cultivated pear tree, a rose garden, an aviary and several of the city’s best museums and galleries.
An ideal walk to is to take a left along Darling Street once you reach the end of the gardens and then take another left onto Long Street, taking in the cafes and shops before hooking another left onto Orange Street which takes you back to the pillared entrance of the Mount Nelson.
If you want more of a challenge then I recommend traversing the Lion’s Head mountain. It’s a 5-8 minute drive from the Mount Nelson to the start of the trail and it doesn’t suffer from the coach loads of tourists scurrying to see Table Mountain. One of the best things about Lion’s Head apart from its relative tranquility is its 360 degree view as you make the ascension up to the summit. It takes about two hours to get to the top and it does get tricky the nearer to the peak you get – metal ladders and chain links are all needed to reach the top – but the views are worth it. Just remember to take sun cream. The sun’s rays are unforgiving as I later found out. Perhaps, though, the walk sounds like too much effort. If you want to stay in the confines of the hotel, there’s always the swimming pool or the hotel’s Librisa Spa in which to unwind.
Dinner was served in the relatively new Planet Restaurant. You don’t have to be Agatha Christie to deduce the theme they’ve opted for here. A decidedly more modern affair, the restaurant brings the hotel racing into the 21st century. A five course tasting menu will set you back a mere R330pp (£23) or R580pp (£40) including a different wine with each course – I highly recommend the latter option. The wines are excellent throughout the meal and a sommelier explains each one in detail. My favourite was a 2011 Pinotage – a cross between a Pinot Noir and a Cinsaut. Its deep, smoky flavour perfectly complimented the grilled lamb loin and barley salad.
Leaving Mount Nelson is the hard part. Though something tells me I’ll be returning to the grand old dame again in the future. And hopefully it won’t have changed one jot.