She can’t have been more than five or six. With single-minded determination she lugged what looked to be a wrought-iron holder for a vase or wine bucket almost as tall as herself, up to the top of the short flight of steps of the Oasis breakfast terrace. Carefully she dragged it over to a small open space. She disappeared back down the steps. Soon she reappeared with a second and then a fourth and then a fifth. Occasionally she stopped to consult her companion of the same age. Together they arranged them into a circle with a space in the middle. Finally they climbed into the space and chatted away like a couple of old maids in a front room. No one tried to stop them, or interfere or tell them they couldn’t. It was just a part of a day during which two small children were allowed to play in a way that small children do in the benign, tolerant, kindly bosom of the Mount Nelson Hotel.
If a hotel is to be judged by the kindness and charm with which guests, whatever their age, are put at their ease, then the Mount Nelson is a great hotel.
If a hotel is to be judged by the grace and cheerfulness of its staff, then the Mount Nelson is a great hotel.
If a hotel is to be judged by its smooth professionalism, then the Mount Nelson Hotel is a great hotel.
Forget for a moment that the Mount Nelson is a part of a large international group, that it has been a landmark in the hospitality industry for over a 100 years, that any number of celebrities from John Lennon to Henry Kissinger, from Leonardo di Caprio to Nelson Mandela, from Margaret Thatcher to Mary J Blige, have come and gone through its doors. Let’s look at the Mount Nelson as it is now. How does it treat me?
And when the man tending the roses says to me ‘Good morning, Mr Fort. Is it good day for you?’ I think, yes, it is a good day, and yes, the Mount Nelson treats me very well indeed. It’s nice to be recognised. It’s nice to be treated as a human being, with a face and an identity, not just as a number.
The making of a great hotel begins, and, in a sense, ends, with the attention to an almost uncountable number of tiny details. Is the fruit juice served at breakfast really freshly squeezed? (Yes). Are the sheets changed daily? (Yes) Is the coffee really good? (Yes). Is the glass of the doors into the reception hall and the knobs on the doors properly polished (Yes)? Is the glass of the doors into the reception hall kept clear of handprints? (Yes) And are the knobs of the doors, polished? (Yes) Is the baggage transferred to your room as instructed? (Yes). Is there enough surface space in your bathroom to put down your toothbrush, toothpaste, creams and potions and all the other paraphernalia of the modern toilet? (Yes) Do the staff know who you are? (Yes). Does the water drain out of the basin in the bathroom easily – this is a particular concern of mine (Yes). And so on and so on.
For a stay to be without even the faintest flutter of anxiety or impatience, the attention to all these details, and to a million others, must be flawless and consistent day after day, for guest after guest. And after two stints at the Mount Nelson, I can say my brow remained unfurrowed, my sense of trust absolute, my pleasure seamless.
It helps that the Nellie – you can always tell how affectionately a hotel is regarded by whether it has a nickname or not – has been around rather longer than most hotels. The origin of the estate dates back to the 18th century). The building and its gardens owe much to Sir Hamilton Ross, who bought the property in 1843. In 1899 Sir Donald Currie, owner of the Union Castle Shipping Line, acquired it and opened it as a hotel for the Union Castle’s First Class passengers. Possibly unhappily for Sir Donald, the hotel also opened just in time for the Boer War, and with a typical eye for the comforts of the top brass, the British made the Mount Nelson its headquarters.
Since then, year has succeeded year, with the Nellie acquiring the patina of history, of affectionate use. Its distinctive colours of icing sugar white and pale raspberry fool pink was devised by the hotel’s second manager, Aldo Renato, to celebrate the end of the First World War. It is now known as Mount Nelson Pink. The hotel changed hands again in 1988, when James Sherwood and the Orient Express took it on. They have continued to lavish time and investment in keeping the Mount Nelson steadily on course.
Tea of imperial grandeur may be served on the Windsor Table in the lounge, but the Nellie it hasn’t remained moored in the past. It has all the luxury notes of a thoroughly contemporary hotel, too – the Librisa Spa, the gym, conference facilities, cool bar, award-winning restaurant, the eco-friendly courtesy car. There are two pools, one for tranquil repose and the other for rather more energetic family groups. And let’s not forget the environment: all the kitchen waste now goes for compost.
I stayed in a garden suite, in one of a short terrace of beautifully reconstructed 19th or early 20th century cottages. The rooms had that sense of old fashioned, deep-litter comfort about them. They are immaculately kept. The fixtures and fittings were of a piece with the building. The bathroom was the size of many a hotel bedroom. The bed was among the most comfortable I have ever slept in. The linen was very fine. There was space and order. One television rose up out of it’s hiding place at the end my bed at the touch of a button, something that gave my daughter endless pleasure.
But to my mind, important though these things are, they are the surface manifestations, not the essence of the place. The essence lies in the Mount Nelson’s spirit, in its style, its character, in its people.
It may be my age, of course, but there is something monumentally reassuring about the Nellie. It’s a reminder of a grander, more expansive era. Of course there are bigger, brassier, glitzier, more spectacular hotels, just as there are smaller, quirkier, more dashing boutique hotels. But, there are few that have the Nellie’s sense of grace and solidity, of repose and confidence, of knowing implicitly what makes each guest comfortable and happy, whether they be five or six, or at the other end of the age spectrum.
The Mount Nelson is like a mighty liner, cruising majestically on; grand, stately, serene, irresistible.
Mount Nelson Hotel, 76 Orange Street, Cape Town, Republic of South Africa, 8001
Tel: +27 21 483 1000 Fax: +27 21 483 1001 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org