Acknowledged as the Grande Dame of hotels in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal, The Oyster Box has earned its reputation as the best 5-star hotel in South Africa, not only by virtue of its numerous award-winning accolades but also by its world-class hospitality, as attested to by generations of local and international guests. Review by Des Langkilde.
As a local, having lived and worked in Umhlanga, and the nearby town of Ballito, for over 15-years, The Oyster Box has become ingrained in my memory-bank of fond occasions. I proposed to my wife Beverley here in 2000, celebrated several wedding anniversaries and her 50th birthday here, and spent countless hours with business colleagues and friends in The Oyster, Lighthouse, and Chukka Bars over the years.
Having subsequently relocated to Cape Town, I thought that I knew everything there is to know about The Oyster Box and almost turned down an offer from Red Carnations PR practitioner, Tumble Weed Communications, to be hosted for a night during a mid-November trip to review some tourist attractions along the KZN South Coast region.
Am I glad to have accepted the invitation? You bet! Because there’s a lot more to the Oyster Box than locals ever get to experience. During all my years of living in Umhlanga, I’d never actually stayed over-night at The Oyster Box Hotel, and I discovered an inner-sanctum of secrets that only the privileged few, who stay as guests, ever get to experience.
Welcome to the Inner Sanctum
Unless checked-in as guests, locals never get to see the Oyster Box’s inner sanctum consisting of orchid festooned private gardens, water ponds and fountains, hidden bench-recesses, and guests-only swimming pool with sun loungers, where cocktails, canapes, and high-tea can be enjoyed in secluded privacy.
This is where the hotels’ award-winning wellness Spa and private gym are located. Although I did not have time to experience the fitness centre, it is, apparently, open 24 hours, and well-equipped with state-of-the-art treadmills, exercise bicycles, a cross-trainer, power plate, multi-exercise tower, free-weights, medicine balls, yoga/exercise mats, pilates balls, and LED TVs. There’s even a refreshment station.
Superior Garden Villas
The inner sanctum is also where the hotels’ garden facing rooms and Superior Garden Villas are located, and I was fortunate to be allocated a corner suite of the latter for my too-short stay.
To say that the garden villas are luxurious and well-appointed would be an understatement. Entering the villa suite, one passes the private plunge pool, through fully retractable roller-doors into the lounge and bar area, past the guest bathroom, and up the stairs to the master bedroom with an opulent en-suite bathroom and a terrace overlooking the gardens.
Downstairs, in the lounge area, both settees can be folded down to sleep children or young adult guests.
Additional features that come standard with the Superior Garden Villas include:
- Full daily breakfasts
- Complimentary mineral water, tea and coffee making facilities
- Fresh fruit and flowers
- A selection of current magazines and books
- Individually controlled air-conditioning
- Ceiling fans
- Flat Screen Satellite TV with over 25 channels to choose from
- Movies on demand
- In-room CD/DVD players
- B | AFRICA natural in-room amenities, luxurious bathrobes and slippers
- Housekeeping service twice daily
- Iron and ironing board
- Soap and Pillow menus
- Two direct-dial telephone lines with voice mail
- Complimentary high-speed WiFi
- Heated towel rails
- Well stocked mini-bar
- In-room safe
- Beach gear – sun umbrellas, beach bags, balls, bats and suntan lotion (collected at reception)
Glitzy High Tea
A firm favourite of locals is the tradition of high tea at the Oyster Box. A tradition that goes back to 1952, when the original owners Ken, and his sister, Kay O’Connor started a tea garden, which became a restaurant, and then The Oyster Box Hotel, which opened in March 1954.
Served in the elegant Palm Court and accompanied by the dulcet notes of a piano player, high tea is comprised of a decadent array of cakes, desserts and tarts, freshly baked by the talented in-house pastry team.
Apparently, the reason why the British upper classes named this traditional repast ‘High Tea’ is due to the fact that it is consumed while seated in high-backed chairs at a table laden with plated delicacies. In comparison, ‘Afternoon Tea’ was taken by the commoners whilst seated in low, uncomfortable chairs or sofas whilst sipping on their ‘cuppa’ tea, and, for the fortunate few, while munching on home-baked biscuits.
Wining & Dining
Then there is the food and wine – an aspect of hospitality for which The Oyster Box is world-renown. The hotels’ numerous restaurants include the Palm Court, the Ocean Terrace, the Grill Room, the Chef’s Table, and the Private Wine Cellar, where fresh seafood, incredible steaks and the hotels’ famous curry feast can be enjoyed.
Joining my guests for dinner, Dean Hammerich and I opted for the curry buffet served in the Ocean Terrace restaurant, while Dean’s partner for the evening, Tracy Du Toit, opted for sushi from the ala-carte menu.
The extensive selection of curries includes meat, fish and vegetarian options, along with authentic Tandoori chicken, papadums, roti flatbreads, and a wide array of achar pickles, and other condiments.
Paired with a bottle of excellent 2012 vintage Bouchard Finlayson Hannibal, the red wines’ hints of cherry, Hannibal flowers and spices proved a perfect accompaniment to the curries. My favourite dish from the selection was the Durban-styled lamb curry, while I found the Vindaloo beef curry to be overtly hot with overuse of chillies, and dry in texture. Dean favoured the chicken and prawn curry, while we both enjoyed the dessert.
After dinner, while walking back to the villa for coffee and night-caps, my guests admired the inner sanctum’s secrets, which they too, as locals, had been unaware of.
Following their departure, I went for a midnight swim, a dip in the villa’s plunge pool, and a relaxing bath; delaying sleep to enjoy the sultry night and 5-star amenities to the full.
Breakfasts, served on The Ocean Terrace at The Oyster Box are an extravagant affair, with options ranging from sparkling wine and oysters, to ala-carte menu, and an extensive continental and hot English breakfast buffet.
The oysters are harvested from the hotels’ own oyster beds, while a glass of sparkling wine with freshly squeezed orange juice provides the perfect accompaniment to the ultimate al fresco breakfast.
The Last Straw in Sustainability
With sustainable tourism being a subject that I am passionate about, I was pleased to see that The Oyster Box has added its own initiatives to counter the blight of single-use plastics that litter the Indian Ocean and its otherwise pristine beaches.
The hotel provides biodegradable paper straws if requested. In addition, red buckets are offered to hotel residents as they head for the beach. Every bucket of rubbish collected from the beach and returned to the reception is redeemed for a drink voucher – either a free cocktail or a milkshake.
The Oyster Box also practices sustainable tourism on the property in a number of other ways:
- Heat expelled from the hotel’s air-conditioning system is used to warm the water of its 14 pools
- Solar heating is used to heat water in The Spa
- Greywater from showers, baths and hand basins is used for flushing toilets
- Rainwater is harvested and stored in large tanks for use in the gardens
- Performance glazing has been used on windows and doors to assist in maintaining constant interior temperatures and reduce noise
- Energy-efficient lights and lamps have been installed where possible and sensors on bedroom sliding doors switch off air-conditioning immediately when doors to balconies and terraces are opened
- A sophisticated building management system controls the major service installations throughout the property to ensure maximum energy efficiency and control at all times
- Indigenous, Waterwise Plants and trees have been planted in the extensive gardens to minimise water usage
- The bulk of the hotel waste is separated and sent for recycling.
Little Known Oyster Box Secrets
Here are a few things you probably didn’t know about The Oyster Box:
- The original cottage called ‘The Oyster Lodge’ was built on the grounds in 1863. Made of Burmese Teak, corrugated iron and reinforced concrete, the structure was originally used as a navigational beacon.
- In 1952, the Cottage and overgrown grounds were sold to Ken and Kay O’Connor. They started a tea garden, which became a restaurant, and then The Oyster Box Hotel, which opened in March 1954, on the site next to the lighthouse.
- In 2006 the property came up for sale. The then owner, Wayne Reed, particularly wanted the Oyster Box to pass on to a family who would continue the hospitality, traditions and values for which the hotel was synonymous. Stanley and Bea Tollman (the Founder and President of Red Carnation Hotels) purchased the property.
- The building of the new Oyster Box Hotel began in October 2007 and was completed in September 2009.
- The grand revolving door at the entrance was originally from the Royal Hotel in Durban, while the familiar wrought-iron balustrade and original, inlaid hand-painted tiles and friezes, were collected by Kay Hill on her regular travels to Europe.
- The three imposing chandeliers in The Palm Court were bought on auction from the old Savoy Hotel in London.
- In 1953, the current hotel owner, Stanley Tollman put a bet on a horse called ‘Flash On’ that won the prestigious Durban July that year. To commemorate this win, a suite at the hotel is named after the horse and the jockey’s colours are displayed in the Durban July function room. Legend also has it that Tollman bought his wife’s engagement ring with his winnings!
- The original owner of The Oyster Box, Kay Hill-O’Connor owned racehorses that run in ‘The July’.
- The hotels’ General Manager, Wayne Coetzer used to be the custodian of the Umhlanga Lighthouse in front of the hotel (after 18 years at the helm, Wayne resigned from his post at the end of November to join Vergelegen Wine Estate in the Cape as Managing Director). For many years the lighthouse controls were housed in his office, and are now under the permanent management of Portnet.
- Commissioned in November 1954, the Umhlanga Lighthouse was completed in an impressive 4 days and 19 hours. Designed by the Office of the Chief Civil Engineer and constructed by the System Harbour Engineer, the tower’s 21-metre height can be seen for miles, with the range of light exceeding 24 nautical miles.
- The Oyster Box has a resident cat called Skabenga, who has been living at the hotel for over ten years. His birthday is celebrated in October; he has his own Facebook page and even a storybook for children!
- The hotel is pet-friendly which means that small pets travelling with their owners get 5-star treatment as well.
Well, now that I know more about The Oyster Box than I did before, and its secrets, now shared, are secret no more, all that remains is for you to experience the hotels’ 5-star hospitality, facilities, and amenities for yourself. And you can do that by booking on their website at www.oysterboxhotel.com.