I had to wait a couple of weeks before settling down to form sentences out of my scribbled notes; to down the mélange of thoughts, for otherwise, this would have been an over exaggerated gush-fest. Too many superlatives; even for me. For a city I had almost zero knowledge of, aside from its much publicised… social inequalities, and one I had equal parts intrigue and trepidation for visiting, Johannesburg surprised me. Would the remnants of a fallen Apartheid still be evident; the violence and recent xenophobic attacks, prevalent; the rich/poor divide, so in your face that heading back to the Four Seasons each night, the epitome of frivolousness, be too much to bear.
Like most preconceptions, I had it all wrong. My experience of Jo’burg, and granted it involved a delicious 5 star hotel and being taxied from food market, to art district to restaurant, and back, was excellent. I’d love to return, and urge anyone pencilling it in as a one-night stopover en route to safari or elsewhere, to linger in this oft neglected city a little longer. I came here for the opening of a new hotel, and left wanting to spend a few more nights in both.
1700 metres up on the hillside of Westcliff and footed by the world’s largest man made forest and sprawling zoo, Four Seasons has certainly secured a prime spot for its first South African outpost. A convenient half hour’s drive from the airport – a journey peppered with amusing roadside placards shouting out the daily newspaper headlines: Birds Flying On One Wing; Moms Are The Bomb – it sits among the tree-lined, mansion-heavy residential area of ‘parks’ on land previously occupied by The Westcliff hotel. This freshly-renovated grand estate of white, dove and cream, winds up and around eight acres of landscaped gardens and courtyards, with an abundance of pink and white roses and lush greenery, vibrant in the autumn sun. Chauffeured golf carts are on hand to whip guests back and forth from room to spa to room to bar, terrace restaurant and back again and a mighty glass lift sits midway to transport them directly to the restaurants and terrace bar.
117 rooms take up an area that could easily encompass double, resulting in spacious suites across all rates, while a manor house reception cum lounge, spa, with masseuses that pummel with just the right amount of pressure, two pools, three restaurants and a suntrap après spa terrace ensure there’s plenty to entertain. Number 504, the more than ample Deluxe Room I called home for two nights, had that immediate ‘aah’ factor (aided no doubt by the macaroons, fresh flowers and fruit that greeted me, though prolonged by the sumptuous décor, fine views and deliciously thick robes.
Four Seasons is known for its custom-designed beds and mattresses of moreish comfort, with a ‘just right’ that would please Goldilocks on her most contrary of days, and as such, aided by the softest down duvet and pillows, sleeping is an absolute joy, and getting up for the sunrise swim you were full of enthusiasm for the night before, an arduous task. Deep, enveloping blues and purples make for instant relaxation, while the terrace overlooking an abundance of trees, zoo with elephant in view, and the dawn and dusk to and fro of flocks of long-beaked Hadeda Ibis, hints at the adventures to be had outside the hotel walls.
For a sobering dose of history, there’s Constitution Hill, and for more light-hearted fun, there’s a world of street food, craft beer, art, fashion and vintage shops to explore. Neighbourgoods Market, a disused factory-turned-industrial chic multi-story space in Braamfontein, is the go to for fresh supplies and Saturday brunch (9am-3pm), with everything from homemade fudge and freshly cracked coconuts, to cheese, organic wine and biltong; the must-try flame-grilled Balkan cheeseburger, and the all chanting entertainers at Sumting Fresh, serving up what my friend described as one of the best chicken dishes he’d ever had. Upstairs a craft beer bar and terrace to while away an afternoon looks over to a building-sized mural of Nelson Mandela.
A 10-minute drive over to the Maboneng district is Market on Main, another foodie paradise surrounded by clothing boutiques and art galleries, where I found a comfortable, people-watching spot in the courtyard, supped on a cool Bavarian-esque, South African Swagga Weiss beer, tucked into a pulled pork sandwich from Jozi’s Smokehouse and ate my first Koek Sister, one of the most delicious, warm, cinnamon-spiced, coconut coated, churros-cross-donuts I’ve ever had. Fuel enough for the two hour tour of the city’s street art with resident hipster ‘Bones’, which kicked off with a poignant reminder of how quick the city has transformed in recent years: ‘five years ago, you wouldn’t be able to walk from here to the bridge without being mugged,’ he tells us, pointing to a 100m stretch; possibly the worst thing to say to a bunch of tourists at the start of a tour. Graffiti is celebrated here and actively encouraged; ergo it’s really good, with artists being invited to adorn walls with their colourful and oft political statements.
Stanley 44, quite possibly my favourite of the markets, boasted a beer yard serving up live music, local craft beers on tap and spicy prego rolls under the shelter of trees; vintage home shops selling far more covetable items than my weekend case would allow, and the Bean There Coffee Company roastery specialising in single origin Fair Trade beans, and which Agent Cooper would enthusiastically declare serves a ‘damn fine cup of (Ethiopian) coffee’.
With the abundance of exciting consumables outside, there’s danger you won’t have appetite for the deliciousness on offer at the hotel. The Flames terrace restaurant serves up a fine feast to break the fast, with juices tailored to your tastes, buffet of cereals, fruit platters and meats, and a reasonably-priced a la carte menu. It’s at its best at lunch, when the coals are stoked and the traditional South African braai – ostrich kebabs, steak, lamb chops, fish, all grilled and served up alongside platters of native oysters, adventurous salads, pap balls and spicy salsas – is accompanied by an impressive craft beer card. The terrace continues to buzz into the night where lounge seating and uninterrupted city sights, including the lit up Telkom tower, Africa’s tallest building, make it the perfect spot for a nightcap.
Up another level, literally and figuratively, View, a sleek restaurant primely positioned to make the most of the sights, is the special occasion booking. Overseen by Executive Chef Dirk Gieselmann, shy in comparison to his confident, statement dishes, the menu looks and tastes sublime, while the sommelier’s selection allows you to tour South Africa’s wine regions. Mozambique prawns with ‘carrots in different textures’ was punchy, fun, and more importantly delicious; the tomato consommé, quite possibly one of the most unassuming dishes I’ve been presented with, was the flavour equivalent of La Tomatina. While my fellow travellers tucked into exquisite looking springbok loin Wellington, I gently forked through a lovely soft buttery skate; as they cracked into a chocolate pastilla, I worked cheerfully through my clock face of local and French cheeses.
With only an hour’s time difference, and night flights each way, jet lag didn’t feature, enabling us to comfortably squeeze a long haul trip into a short haul timeframe. It may have been the intrigue of a new hotel that took me to Johannesburg in the first place, but it’s a newfound love for the city that’ll have me heading back. Though, it would be awfully rude not to hit up the Four Seasons while I’m there…
Rates at Four Seasons The Westcliff, Johannesburg start from £270 per room per night based on two people sharing. For more information, visit www.foursesasons.com. Tel. 27 (0) 11 481 6000.
South African Airways offers double daily overnight flights from Heathrow’s newest Terminal 2 to Johannesburg, and easy onward connections to over 30 destinations in South Africa. Book now on flysaa.com or call 0844 375 9680.