When I told my teenage niece I was going to stay at the Saxon hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg, she said she loved the place.
It’s not as if she’s actually been inside; she hung around outside waiting, with a friend (and others) on the off-chance that they could spot singer Justin Bieber, who was staying there at the time.
That’s the thing about the Saxon. It’s as much about what you get as about what you don’t get. You don’t get to go inside unless you have a booking (to stay, for a meal or for tea). You don’t hear people closing doors all around you or stomping through the hallway when you’re in your room. Staff are courteous and friendly, but not quite as personal or forthcoming as at some other boutique hotels — which you either like or don’t. The word that fits like a pair of well-tailored white gloves is “discreet”.
This might not mean that much to someone who’s not high profile, but it sure would count for a whole lot when you are.
From the long driveway to the hotel, there’s space — sprawling, manicured lawns, water features and pools in the front and at the back. The rooms (or rather suites) are said to be the biggest in Johannesburg. An entry-level luxury suite is 80m².
Our stay starts with high tea in the piano lounge. There’s also champagne or orange juice. You get to choose your tea from the Yswara range, which is 100% African and has the most evocative names, like Ooni of Ife (rooibos and lemongrass), Thousand Hills Majesty and Shaka Zulu (rooibos and chilli pepper). When the tea arrives, it’s in a transparent teapot and heated over a tea candle, which ensures it remains hot throughout.
Together with the tea come, first, little shaped sandwiches, cut as attentively as the fresh lawn outside. Then there are fresh scones and cream, and after that the pièce de résistance — small desserts, so delicate and symmetrical that a sense of wonder is evoked.
Most hotels in Johannesburg are inclined towards business, and it’s the same at the Saxon. Discussions, meetings and networking play themselves out in little clusters outside on the patio, inside the piano room and over dinner or breakfast.
There’s the Eighteen05 whisky lounge, where small gatherings of people congregate at night. (From this month the hotel is offering whisky taste experiences, which consist of a three-course dinner paired with whisky and includes exclusive use of the lounge for R2,000/person).
The leisure traveller is as at home as much as the business traveller. The spa section is very popular, not only with ladies of leisure but also with businesswomen who are visiting the city as well as those living in it. It is being rebuilt, though the usual treatments (apart from hydrotherapy) are still being offered at a relocated venue, in one of the villas.
The new spa will have more treatment rooms (there weren’t enough), and is set to open in October. The rebuilt spa will offer a range of top-end products, and recently added La Prairie (from Switzerland) as well as QMS and Elemis. A signature hammam treatment (a Turkish bath) and Himalayan salt treatments will also be available.
I found I was able to de-stress in our own private pad. The bathrooms feel like minispas with the oodles of premium Molton Brown bath products. The oversized gowns, oversized bath, oversized bed and oversized rooms give a sense of abundance. But it’s not opulent.
If you’re looking for plated gold, marble and baubles, this is not the place. Designed by Stephen Falcke (who’s going to handle the hotel’s soft revamp over the next couple of months) it’s more low key, with shades of beige and a theme of growth and fertility throughout the sculptures and design.
The word “budget” doesn’t feature in this experience but, for some, it may be a once-in-a-lifetime stay for an anniversary, honeymoon or celebration of a new job.
For lovers of wine, there are also two private wine cellars — one for red wine, the other for white.
Part of what defines the hotel is its heritage. Auto & General magnate Douw Steyn changed what was his house into the boutique hotel, which hosted the late president Nelson Mandela while he completed his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Steyn now lives in a palatial home in Steyn City near Fourways, but the drawings on the walls show prominent people who’ve stayed or visited. They include the Clintons, actor Kevin Spacey and talk show host Oprah Winfrey. It all adds to the sense of (recent) history of the place.
Food is a big drawcard in a top-end hotel. David Higgs made a huge mark at the restaurant Five Hundred at The Saxon, and when he left a few months ago to prepare for his own venture — he’s opening Marble in Rosebank in July— it left a void.
But no name could be bigger in local top-end dining than Luke Dale-Roberts, who now has a permanent restaurant in the hotel after a hugely successful run as a pop-up.
I head upstairs just to look at the restaurant, where you can enjoy an eight-course meal (R1,330 without wine pairing, R1,600 with tea pairing, R1,900 for local wine pairing and R2,100 for international wine pairing). The door handles look like Oscar statuettes (à la Academy Awards). It is run by head chef Candice Philip, but Dale-Roberts is in daily contact and often comes up from Cape Town, where he runs the iconic Test Kitchen and Pot Luck Club. His Johannesburg restaurant, open Thursdays to Saturdays, is booked weeks in advance.
The Qunu Grill (named after Mandela’s home town) is also a top-end dining area, though more accessible. It’s not a cosy restaurant, nor is it a place where you fixate about portion size. But the food is delicious. Service means that when you get up from the table and return, your serviette has been neatly folded. Executive chef at the Saxon Werner Snoek has just released his new menu for winter.
Breakfast is a sumptuous affair that even offers fresh oysters or sushi. You can have anything, but it’s about the perfection of the basics: the freshest fruit you could hope for, the best orange juice, the best hot chocolate, and the best croissant.
There are 53 suites in the Saxon hotel, and the average room costs R5,600-R6,500/night, depending on the season. Of course there is also space for small corporate functions, near the “basket room”.
After breakfast, we are whisked off to Shambala Game Reserve, which is 2½ hours from Johannesburg in the Waterberg region of Limpopo. In the immaculate Mercedes-Benz are water, mints, Charlotte Rhys spectacle cleaner and hand lotion; some face spritzer and enough chargers for the cell phones for a small army. No music, no chatter. Relief.
The game drive on the 12,500ha reserve starts immediately on arrival at the reserve. No dragging ourselves in a car to the lodge; from the word go we’re transferred to a four-by-four and our guide gets going. It takes an hour to reach the lodge, and in that time we see a rhino walk past, freshly bathed in mud. We also see ostrich and warthog. Then another rhino walks past with a calf. Zebra and wildebeest hang around together in the serene expanse. The farm has between 600 and 700 animals, including 10 elephants, and plans for more.
When we reach the lodge, we’re greeted with fresh, damp towels and Moët & Chandon champagne before we head to our chalet, one of eight at Zulu Camp. The camp houses only 16 people a night.
Lunch is the freshest fish (in a game lodge?) and later it’s off to a massage at the spa (world class) followed by a minicruise around the dam on a pontoon, from which we see hippos bathing. On the drive back we come close to several elephants. Because there are so few guests, a person is not competing for sighting and the disturbance is minimal.
The lodge area is small, and intimate around the boma area. Five other women are staying the night, so there’s happy chatting in the background, with everyone taking in the calm view of the river. The fire of the boma is started hours ahead of the braai, just like a good braai-master would want.
The units have an elegant safari look (again with some help from designer Falcke) and are kitted out with that oversized bath and those Molton Brown products.
Shambala feels like an impromptu-weekend-away destination. It’s not the kind of place where you spend days on end looking for game; it’s the time-efficient version of a luxury safari. It won the World Travel Awards Africa’s Leading Private Game Reserve award this year, and though it’s been around for several years has been open to the public only since 2014.
On the way out of the reserve we pop in at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation. It was given in 2001 as a lifetime gift to Mandela to thank him for all he had done. Now it’s rented out often to corporates and African royalty. There’s a helipad as well.
The centre has six bedrooms and a presidential suite. There’s a small conference room. In one room there’s an old TV set and VCR, as it was used by Mandela.
Today it costs R75,000/day to rent and can accommodate 12 people, which was explained to me as good value when calculated per person.
• The writer was a guest of the Saxon and Shambala