Sunshine, Sea & Iconic High Tea at The Oyster Box Hotel
I’m a sucker for a love story and The Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga has its own little piece of romance woven into its history. The current owners, Stanley and Bea Tollman, of Red Carnation Hotel Group (The Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa and Bushmanskloof) actually fell in love over oysters at The Oyster Box Hotel in 1952 (sigh, right?). So, when the property came up for sale in 2006, they couldn’t miss the opportunity to purchase it and have the story come full circle.
A Changing Landscape
Having grown up in Durban myself, The Oyster Box Hotel was always the pinnacle of style along what was once a very remote and sugarcane-lined uMhlanga coastline.
I remember being driven to pre-school in Umhlanga from where we lived in Durban North – back then it was literally one solitary road flanked by undulating sugarcane fields as far as the eye could see. As with everything though, time and modernisation have closed the gap and nowadays that same road is lined with homes and businesses. Umhlanga is an uber busy hub that is flooded annually by holiday seekers looking to escape to the warm sands and sea.
The Oyster Box Hotel remains a sophisticated stalwart of the area and an extensive renovation from 2006-2009 brought it in line with the best hotels in the world. Modern eco-friendly and sustainable elements blend seamlessly into the hotel’s historic 5-star charm.
The Oyster Box started out as a tea room in 1952; with its location practically on the Umhlanga beachfront, it benefited from unspoilt views. To paint a picture, think fifties wrought iron patio furniture on a grass embankment shaded by outdoor brollies.
In 1954 the first version of the hotel was built and it has been a part of the coastline ever since. In the same year, the Umhlanga lighthouse was also built – it is positioned on the beach directly in front and forms part of the hotel’s story.
Oyster Box Style
The hotel itself is a testament to the era it was built in; black and white checkered terrazzo floors, curvy balustrades and arches give rooms shape and style. From a design point of view the aesthetic is hard to nail down but therein lies its charm – an eclectic mix of styles and signature pieces give it its uniqueness.
High backed leather chairs, a sweeping spiral staircase, lavish greenery and mirrored walls somehow come together. Things that shouldn’t work together just do and it exudes an opulent and glamorous feel while maintaining that fifties seaside holiday appeal.
Palm Court and High Tea
The heart of the hotel is The Palm Court, where high tea is served. It’s a sunken lounge area with a double volume sky-lit ceiling. Stunning candelabra-style chandeliers (reclaimed from London’s Savoy Hotel) provide an air of elegance, while palm leaf ceiling fans lazily spin in a mesmerising fashion. It’s all very boujee but in the best possible way.
Tea at The Oyster Box Hotel was one of my grandmother’s favourite pastimes; as a woman who always ate dessert first, and who’s lifestyle I aspire to emulate, high tea was always on the cards for me.
It didn’t disappoint. Covid has meant that the way tea is done has slightly changed but it’s no less of an event. Taking a seat in the plush cane lounge furniture (in the most beautiful vintage-inspired floral fabric I might add) we were promptly brought a selection of sandwiches (yes, cucumber included) and a glass of sparkling MCC.
Instead of having everyone dish up for themselves (not Covid-friendly) there are now members of staff that dish up for you, you simply have to point out what you want.
The team want you to try everything (a few times over), so have no fear of feeling like a glutton. They know you are there to enjoy it all and they are only too willing to oblige.
A central table groans under the weight of every sweet and savoury delight you can imagine.
A divine Caprese cream cheese tart was a highlight for me, as were the almondy melting moments, a chocolate cupcake with a mint and caramel filling and a flourless chocolate tart that was like eating a decadent cocoa cloud.
We loved that our cappuccinos came in thin-rimmed, dainty cups and we enjoyed every bite to the sounds of live piano music. There are a few places in South Africa that uphold this tradition to the highest standards and The Oyster Box is definitely one of them.
Off to the Pool
If the Palm Court is the heart of The Oyster Box, then the pool area is certainly the soul. With an infinity pool that runs alongside the beachfront, there simply isn’t a better spot to embrace Durb’s sunshine and latent humidity in all its glory.
The area sits adjacent to the iconic Umhlanga lighthouse and the pool area is fitted out with a red and white candy-stripe theme to mirror the landmark.
It’s impossibly striking, exuding fifties retro-glam – the combo is style personified.
All you need to do is lie back with oversized sunglasses, order a Tom Collins from the pool bar and soak up the sun. Which incidentally, is exactly what we did.
Our room at The Oyster Box Hotel faced the sea and the view of the ocean and beach below reinforced that holiday feeling. Furnished in cool blue tones, it was elegant and thoughtfully decorated, with a spacious bathroom and all the amenities we needed.
We enjoyed sundowners on the balcony and even watched a romantic beach proposal from our perch up high. With a beach teepee set up, red and white decor and ‘Marry Me’ in lit-up lettering across the beach, it was a romantic moment set against the backdrop of the hotel that will be part of another love story recounted for years to come.
Dining and Drinks
If you’re feeling social you can head up to the Lighthouse Bar to take in the sunset and incredible views. There is also The Oyster Bar, which is a lovely spot for a chilled glass of wine before dinner.
If you’re dining in at the hotel there are a number of restaurants to choose from, as well as the famous curry buffet. Word of warning though, if you indulge in the famous OBH tea, you are going to struggle to fit in another meal in the day. We desperately wanted to try the much-talked-about curry but just couldn’t manage it.
Later on in the evening we did order in some room service and the food was definitely the best in-room dining we’ve had anywhere. A serious ham and cheese toastie and chicken strips – perfect comfort food after a long day of sun and pool time.
Breakfast on the Terrace
Breakfast is another fabulous affair at the OBH and you can tell (by the balloons attached to the chair of a table celebrating an event) that it’s a popular choice for locals. We surmised that it’s such a go-to choice for two reasons, firstly, the fact that it’s served on the pool terrace, which feels celebratory by nature and secondly, the fact that the service is just superlative.
The meal is incredibly generous and the team really are like a well-oiled machine. The breakfast buffet has also been altered for Covid and you no longer dish up for yourself but are able to choose all the same goodies from a menu. I daresay I preferred it this way as we could just sit and take in the surroundings instead of hopping up and down.
We enjoyed oysters (of course!) with MCC, the most divine granola and yoghurt, fresh smoked salmon with avo and then a cooked breakfast.
It’s wise to give yourself a bit of time for this gourmet brekkie to settle, if you jump in the pool too soon you may end sinking to the bottom like a stone! To offset that, an idea is to take the hotel’s direct access down onto the promenade that runs the length of the beach and walk it off.
Celebs and one Famous Skebanga
The hotel has played host to some of the world’s biggest stars from actual royalty like Prince Harry, to Rio Ferdinand, Charlize Theron, Nikki Minaj and just about everyone in between. It’s no doubt that it’s the choice for high rollers – the setting is sublime and the service is unmatched.
We made use of the gym facilities during our stay, checked out a second courtyard pool, had a look around the spa, popped into the cinema and caught a few notes of a choir prepping for a conference performance later.
The hotel definitely offers everything both the business, leisure or a holidaying family could need.
Walking through the hotel grounds, the tropical nature of the greenery really struck a chord. Used to a backdrop of mountainous fynbos at home, the pink frangipani, bright orange hibiscus and delicate orchids growing naturally on swaying palms really made me feel as though I was in some far-flung tropical destination. It kind of made me want to rush off to the bar and order a piña colada immediately (not a bad thing at all). As locals, we dream of overseas holidays to remote islands, when really we have destinations that are just as gorgeous right on our doorstep.
Take a leaf out of this tabby cat’s book. Skabenga, as he is known to his legion of fans (yes, he has a global audience and his own Facebook page), arrived as a stray at The Oyster Box Hotel over a decade ago. He is treated like royalty, dines on amazing food and finds the best sunny spots to hang out in. Like him, you may find it very hard to leave.
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