It may remain a mystery as to which room Agatha Christie chose to reside in while at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, but no doubt she would have been perfectly at home writing her mysteries in my suite, albeit considerably updated since she was there in 1922. I can also well imagine Sir Winston Churchill smoking his cigar while soaking in a steaming bathtub during the Boer War (1900-1902) as he wrote, "It is the most excellent and well-appointed establishment which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage."
No sea voyage for me this past May but after some 20 hours of flying, my suite at the affectionately named "Nellie" may go down in my personal history as one of most "quietly expensive," to quote Christie, of my extensive travels. It is set within 9 acres of old growth trees, lawns bursting with flowering plants, discretely placed tea tables and chaise lounges, fountains, and two heated outdoor pools. Life-sized bronze sculptures of leopards and lions by South African contemporary artist Dylan Lewis add a certain exoticism to the singular atmosphere of refinement. The fabled Table Mountain looms in the background and a bust of Lord Nelson himself, in whose honor the hotel was named, finds repose in the gracious lobby. Mount Nelson Hotel was novel when it opened its doors on March 6, 1899, and was the first hotel in South Africa to feature hot and cold running water! It is still unique and kept so by Belmond Ltd.
The soft pink facade invites the guests into one of those legendary sanctuaries that provides a peak into the past while being acutely attuned to present-day tastes and expectations of savvy travelers: the history is quite literally written on the walls of the wide and airy hallways through photos and paintings, and framed memorabilia. In my newly renovated suite, high ceilings and walls with intricate moulding greet me in the foyer with its adjacent powder room; oak floors provide a frame for locally crafted rugs in both the living room with its fireplace, and in the king-sized bedroom fit for a queen, windows, including the one in the master bathroom, opened to views of Table Mountain.
The spa, with its myriad treatments, is a mere stroll over the manicured lawn and behind the main house. A group of Garden Cottages with individual rose gardens, are enclosed by white picket fences.
Planet Bar is the place to be in the evenings, and in the chic and sleek Planet Restaurant, the award-winning chef whips up original dishes like the one I savored: salad with beets and sweet capers fermented in Japanese tea and tuna cooked on open coals, enhanced with Jerusalem artichokes and crispy bay leaf chips.
My favorite area of all, besides my divine suite, is the terrace where I took high tea. Think Raffles in Singapore or the Taj Hotel in Mumbai: all rattan and white linen. Taking tea at Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel is a Cape Town institution as is its Sunday Brunch. Dozens of guests sipped their tea while tapping their toes to the tunes provided by the pianist on the ivories of the baby grand.
In keeping with the quality of artfully crafted room interiors, the buyer for the Signature Boutique has culled the finest locally sourced traditional artisan crafts for sale. And within a short walking distance of the hotel is the fashionable Kloof street with trendy stores and restaurants; Museum Mile; the Victoria and Albert Waterfront flush with souvenir shops all waiting to be explored. And then there's always lovely Nellie with its monumental gleaming white multi-pillared entrance to signal a welcoming homecoming.
Exiting that entrance I felt somewhat disloyal to Nellie, as I was leaving him for another legend, The Blue Train. But a new adventure was due to unfold and there's something about train travel that has always delighted me: the sound, the pace, the journey. But the Blue Train was my first luxury train experience – only one of 25 in the world – and has been heightened to "iconic" status in South Africa where it travels on tracks that cut straight through its heart between Cape Town and Pretoria. Arriving at Blue Train's private lounge at Cape Town's central train station at 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, I mingled with 50-plus other guests and was served cups of tea and biscuits before we embarked on the 900-mile, 30-hour overnight sojourn.
With the "All Aboard" signal, my youthful butler, Alex, escorted me to my compartment. The door opened to a jewel box of expert design and exquisite craftsmanship: solid birch wood with anigre veneer paneling; intricate marquetry inlays; bathroom floors and vanities laid in rare Gialo Royale Italian marble and all fittings plated in 24-carat gold; crisp white bed linens on a comfy bed and twin lounge chairs and ottoman dressed in royal blue and gold fabrics – even the interior of the drawers were lined with quilted silk.
Rocking gently along as I walked the length of the train's 17 carriages, including 11 guests coaches, my thoughts returned to Agatha Christie. Perhaps a wee crime might be committed on this journey and I could solve it. Christie wouldn't be amused, I am sure. No such drama on this trip, however, just the redolent romance of famous trips past (this Blue Train is the "grandson" of the first built after WWII, which carried the British royal family in 1947) and memory of more recently celebrated guests such as Nelson Mandela.
The glass walls of the Observation carriage allowed for a panoramic view of the diverse African landscape while the bar car was most popular indeed, where I observed Aussies, Brits, Americans, South Africans and a smattering of other nationals making good use of the all-inclusive drinks and snacks.
An afternoon high tea in the well-appointed club carriage provided an array of tea sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, pastries, layered on tiered silver trays, and of course, featured South Africa's signature tea Rooibus.
The formal dinner and both lunches were five-star affairs served in the tony dining car. Again, my imagination ran wild as I was ushered to my immaculately dressed table with its sparkling sterling and crystal. What if Cary Grant were to mysteriously appear on the scene, after all, there was a vacant set opposite me. Eve Marie Saint would not have been amused! But after all, the train was traveling north by northeast and a whole different movie might have evolved! That scenario never materialized but the dining experience was superb anyway. The chef's expertise and the beautifully designed interior, and superb South African wines worked their magic to ensure a memorable experience.
The Blue Train made one 45-minute stop before we reached Pretoria: Matjiesfontein, founded in 1884 by the Scottish railwayman, James Douglas Logan, is a settlement in the Karoo district in the Western Cape province of South Africa. The tiny place reminded me of a Hollywood vision of a Victorian town. We were greeted by a bugler, driven around in an old bus for the five-minute tour, treated to glasses of sherry, a singalong, and then, if time allowed, a peek into the museum, or craft store or another drink at the bar. It was all rather surreal but a singular slice of yesteryear.
The Blue Train continued on its way to Pretoria. It turned out to be less of a mystery story and more of a romantic novella considering the number of honeymoon couples I met on the intimate journey.
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