Durban - The Oyster Box has become as much a beacon over the Umhlanga Rocks shoreline as the candy-striped lighthouse whose rays she basks in, casting her own bright light across the waves and leaving her indelible red kiss on the sand.
The Oyster Box has long been an historic landmark, a socialite’s home in the 1950s hosting film stars and scribes turned into an upmarket hotel, whose star waned, while caught in financial shark nets of the then struggling economy; but for the last decade it has been manned by able journeyman and general manager Wayne Coetzee.
Coetzee refused to stand by and watch this legendary Grand Dame of the sea lose her lustre and her leverage. He deliberately approached another leading lady, Bea Tollman, renowned for saving and restoring international historic properties to their former glory.
And how Bea has waved her mermaid wand in turning the Oyster Box into a veritable Pandora’s Box: from the moment one sets foot under the bougainvillea canopy and glides onto the glossy chequered tiles of the mirrored reception, one serendipitous discovery unfurls after the other…
We “swanned” in on a Sunday, not your quietest day of the week. This is the day locals pour in to the sought-after Ocean Terrace for High Tea and Brunch and thus a marvellous opportunity to observe not only the delectable array of Bea’s fabulous food festooning every buffet table, but also the colourful array of fashionable people and foreigners devouring it all.
You have worked up an appetite before the porter’s immaculate white glove has touched the lift button. And it is not only your olfactory senses that are under siege, wonderful blues music wafts up from the Palm Court, merging with live jazz floating down from the Chukka Bar (The Stuart May Band serenade you on Saturdays) and as you ascend each floor you feast your eyes on flashes of local art, whimsical marine mosaics and strategically placed sculptures all colluding to lure you back down stairs again.
The Oyster Box is not a vast sprawling edifice, having been intended as a home, and it lends itself to hedonistic intimacy and conversations with other fascinating, dare I say, high society guests. “Aren’t you that famous tennis player?” (said to legend Abe Segal) led to an enthralling breakfast conversation with a charming sports fanatic and Cape citrus farmer, who has made an environmental global impact with his invention of an orange peel wax fly deterrent.
The swimming pool area, for which this alluring establishment has won such high acclaim, is relatively small by Fairmont or Scott Fitzgerald standards, yet what she may lack in square feet, The Oyster Box makes up for in sheer pizzazz and exquisite attention to detail: cocktail-bearing attendants and piles of the latest magazines await you on deck; the classic gazebo bar is within a stone’s throw; an abundance of candy-striped red towels straddle the chaise lounges; and the mere proximity of an endless ocean stretching before you creates the decadent illusion of being on board ship, you can literally roll over and reach out for a Margarita...
Like riding in the wake of film stars’ lipstick on Oscar night, one floats along the swathe of sophisticated scarlet stretching from the pool deck to the vermillion verandas and glossy red leather and Persian bedecked upper bar, as eagerly as Mary Poppins with her overnight bag in hand.
And if you are not hypnotised by the music and the views, you will be mesmerised by the reed fans lining the ceilings of the conservatory and colonial court en route. Probably an idea borrowed from the tropics, Bea has ingeniously orchestrated an automated system, whereby long lines of ornate woven fans, synchronised in their movement, sway above you as elegantly as dancers – swaying even faster after a few G&Ts…
Another typical Red Carnation trademark is that every unique room, including the library, has a plethora of magnificent coffee table books and rare, hand-picked antiques all relevant to the hotel’s location, in this case nautical, speaking volumes for the cultural passion vested in this property.
Our duck blue suite, with a breathtaking lighthouse view, was to say the least sumptuous and anything but minimalistic – oozing imported fabrics, French mirrors reflecting the sea, collectible art, a mahogany four poster and, best of all, handmade chocolates depicting the distinctive Oyster Box lighthouse, delicately placed on our 100 percent Egyptian Cotton and goose down pillow.
The affable staff are equally impeccable in their crisp colonial uniforms, dispensing warm smiles and confident assistance at every turn. If Nespresso machines and Flat screens are five star mandatory, then certainly an in house cinema is not.
Needless to say, the Oyster Box has what other hotels have not.
Abe Segal, being a film freak since the age of eight, was determined to try out Bea’s Hollywood haven: it was naturally a toss-up between a war movie or a western and he settled for Zulu, given we were sharing Shaka’s home turf.
It is imperative you pack in your daily exercise along the promenade or wallow in the sauna in the award-winning spa, because forget about skipping meals at The Oyster Box. You will succumb to every restaurant on the premises, including the classic blue Grill Room, where the fresh crayfish and King prawns are in a league of their own. Simply open Bea Tollman’s best-selling Cookbook, where many of her recipes are the signature dishes on executive chef Kevin Joseph’s titillating menus, and salivate over what lies in store.
My favourite was the New York Rib Eye Steak and Coleslaw, so sublimely superior to the conventional meat and chopped up mayonnaise mush – and the presentation on the plate rivals the art on the walls.
There is indeed something “matadorial” about the mere sight of red, which gets your blood pumping, tongues wagging and shoes tapping, in epitomising 1930s panache.
The Oyster Box encapsulates this, as slickly as a pearl on your ring finger. - Saturday Star