‘Durbs’, as the surfers call it, is where South Africans head most holidays to kick off their shoes and unwind, drawn by the warm Indian Ocean, year-round sun, and famously laid-back attitude, here are the best hotels in Durban.
Durban’s easy mix of Zulu, Indian and European cultures is part of the appeal, with muthi markets, moated temples and water theme parks popular with visitors. For those who want more, two UNESCO World Heritage sites – the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park – along with Anglo-Zulu War and Boer War battlefields and game parks, are a few hours’ drive away.
Umhlanga’s lovingly restored Oyster Box Hotel is pure romance, from the retro murals and checkerboard terrazzo floors to urns of ferns and massed anthuriums, and a sweeping staircase to truly sumptuous suites (request a four poster). Take afternoon tea under the chandeliers of the Palm Court (saved from London’s Savoy), sip cocktails on the sexy red leather barstools of the Lighthouse Bar, and savour Seventies specialities (lobster bisque, steak tartare) in the Grill Room. Or brave the curry buffet (11 varieties with all the trimmings) at The Ocean Terrace above the waves.
Beneath the striking green ‘solar shield’ that keeps heat out and lets light in (‘aha!’), the aha Gateway’s suites are simple, functional and comfortable – all you’ll need in what is essentially an ‘accommodation wing’ for Durban’s Gateway Theatre of Shopping. Between exploring the upmarket boutiques (the complex is home to the city’s top designers), and chilling at coffee shops (don’t forget aha’s own Fig Tree Café), let down your hair at the be.UP Park, with climbing walls, interlinked angled trampolines and aerial play. There’s action karting on the roof, and year-round snow slides and fun at Snow Wonderland.
All the predictability and professionalism Hilton clients like, in the heart of the city. Perfect if you’re attending an expo or conference at the International Convention Center next door, but several decaying blocks from the beach – until these are developed, don’t walk, grab a cab. Chill at the outdoor pool above the city, or in the spa. The Big Easy Wine Bar & Grill by South African golfing great Ernie Els stocks a good selection of home-grown wines. Tuck into a steak there too, or move across to Vasco’s Restaurant, for African-inspired stews or spicy treats from the tandoori oven.
Alongside the grand old beach hotels like the Oyster Box and Beverly Hills, business developer and movie mogul Anant Singh (Sarafina!, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) has used big-screen vision and created The Pearls – two gleaming towers of glass-walled apartments, and a third with an elegant hotel – The Capital Pearls – above Umhlanga’s first boutique shopping mall. You have 60-odd shops, 16 restaurants, two spas, a gym and a pool literally at your feet. Plus a fine stretch of beach.
Six luxury suites in what was a grand private home in the heart of Umhlanga, and a self-catering suite, provide the kind of comfort and personal care (limo service, your cocktails by the pool) that prompt well-heeled regulars to make it their ‘home from home’. Executives and honeymooners vie for The Buffalo presidential suite, with a canopied extra-length kingsize bed and Jacuzzi bath.
Set right on Durban harbour in what was once the city’s red light district, this is a celebration of a colourful past, brought up to date with comfortable beds, air conditioning, satellite TV and a spa where once there were sweaty strip shows. Wodka Restaurant and Bar, with now on-trend bare-brick walls, has one of the only teppanyaki stations in town. And just around the corner is The Chairman, the city’s coolest jazz bar.
An inviting sprawl of white walls and orange roof tiles above the beach at Shaka’s Rock village, 40 minutes north of Durban, announces a place to unwind and watch dolphins (almost daily!) and whales at play. The six ensuite guest rooms are big and airy, in shades of beach sand and sky. Ask for the top floor Landlord Suite, with 180-degree sea views and a private staircase to the pool terrace. Six golf courses, a mountain bike park and horse riding are nearby.
When Anne and Evan Mexson’s children left home to study, the couple converted their sprawling two-story Umhlanga home into a six-room B&B. They haven’t skimped on furnishings (colonial wood and cane) or bedding, and neither do they skimp on breakfasts, which carry most guests through for a long morning on the beach (just a short walk away). A slew of restaurants and coffee shops will take care of the rest of your meals.
Seven suites, individually styled, all overlook the indigenous garden and pool. Ask for the Ocean Breeze, with direct and private poolside access, but all come with the works – flat-screen TV, safe, ensuite bathroom and shower big enough for a private party. Hosts Heidi and Dominiek will help you plan your activities, from beach days to shopping at nearby La Lucia Mall.
Sun International have created a fantasy Zulu Kingdom in the hills of the North Coast centred on a 24-hour casino and a theatre, The Rockwood, which stages constantly changing musicals showcasing some of the country’s top performers. The cream and blue accommodation décor is perhaps more corporate than kingdom, but provides a quiet retreat from the slots, lights and extravagant carvings and woven textiles elsewhere.
This is a relatively recent development on the beach at Umhlanga, and with floor-to-ceiling windows in some of the 10 bedrooms, and cane armchairs and loungers on the deep verandas outside, you are constantly lulled by the sounds and smells of the sea. Canelands is big on service of the friendly, not just efficient, kind and that extends to the spa and Two Shrimps restaurant. The menu changes with the availability of fresh ingredients, but you won’t go wrong with the ‘Catch of the Day’, or ‘Signature Seafood Platter’ with langoustines, linefish, king prawns, crispy squid and mussels, garlic butter and peri-peri sauce.