Where Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, are staying while visiting Cape Town is being kept closely under wraps. It’s thought to be an official residence but if so they’re missing out on the best hotel in town that’s hosted Nelson Mandela, John Lennon and one of the Duke’s ancestors.
The Belmond Mount Nelson stands at the end of a grand palm tree lined avenue, reached through a colonnaded entrance, that was created ahead of the Prince of Wales’s visit in 1925. From the saluting guard at the entrance to the top hatted doorman at the front door, guests will have the unmistakable feeling that they’ve arrived at somewhere special. A sugar pink building with white gingerbread trim, the glorious shade dates from just after the First World War when the then general manager decided to paint the hotel a cheerful hue in celebration.
With its enviable position at the foot of the iconic Table Mountain, Cape Town’s most recognisable landmark, there’s no mistaking the location when staying at the Mount Nelson. Should guests wish to hike or cable car to the top of the famous flat topped mountain they couldn’t be better placed. And they’ll find the buzzy Kloof Street right on their doorstep. Both the stunning beaches and wine regions of the Western Cape are an easy car ride away from the hotel.
The warm climate from November to May has long made this Coastal South African city and the Mount Nelson a magnet for visitors escaping colder climes. The eye catching gardens, filled with verdant trees and bright flowers, were first developed in 1843. Now they include two outdoor swimming pools – one family oriented and the other for guests aged 16 upwards.
The Mount Nelson was opened in 1889 to provide a suitably first rate hotel for first class passengers disembarking from the Union Castle luxury liners at Cape Town. There was nothing of its standard in the area at the time and it was the first hotel in Cape Town to offer hot and cold running water. The owner also happened to own the Union Castle Shipping Line. The wooden chairs in the Lord Nelson restaurant today are the original deck chairs used on some of the Union Castle ships.
But the hotel’s name derives from much earlier. When the property was advertised for let in the newspaper in 1806 it was referred to as “Mount Nelson”, thought to be a reference to both Table Mountain which it stands in the shadow of and the then ubiquitous Lord Horatio Nelson who died the year before.
A young Winston Churchill stayed at the hotel as a war reporter during the Boer War and deemed it “a most excellent and well appointed establishment which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage”. Almost a century later, and a few months before his death, John Lennon checked in under the pseudonym Mr Greenwood. Staff remember him as exceptionally tidy and said he mediated on Table Mountain.
The hotel has seen some intriguing dramas over the years. The imposing grandfather clock that still stands in the lobby is said to have enraged one guest so much with its loud chimes at midnight that he hammered two six inch nails into the hands. The clock remained silent for 20 years until another guest repaired it (these days, the chime is a lot quieter). Guests were also reputedly outraged by Sherlock Holmes author and keen spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle holding public séances in his room.
More recently, Nelson Mandela dined regularly at the hotel. Margaret Roberts a waitress at the hotel for over 30 years remembers he had a favourite table in the restaurant and he would always chat to all the staff including in the kitchen.
Afternoon tea at the Mount Nelson, fondly nicknamed “tea at The Nellie” by loyal locals, is an institution. So popular is the tea that the number of sittings per day has been increased from one to four. A morning tea and an evening tea have been added as well as a second afternoon sitting. The morning tea is a little lighter and the evening tea features more cold cuts like smoked ham and biltong and a selection of cheeses.
Even the standard Deluxe rooms at the Mount Nelson come with a sitting area and most have balconies. The impressive number of suites range from Junior to Presidential, the latter featuring 1930s Baccarat crystal light fittings and a desk dating back from when the hotel opened in 1899. The spaciousness is evocative of the colonial guests from the northern hemisphere who often stayed for months at a time – bringing their own bone china and fine crystal with them. And many present day guests stay for a week or more.
Offering the ultimate in luxurious seclusion, there are eight Garden Cottage suites housed in perfectly restored Victorian cottages, each set in its own rose garden with a white picket fence, and right next to the adult’s swimming pool. The sumptuousness is further emphasised by the décor of toile wallpaper, Venetian mirrors, four poster beds and working fireplaces. Not surprisingly they are highly sought after by honeymooning couples and guests seeking privacy.