MAY 2013 – India’s hospitality icon, Taj Hotels and Palaces, has come to town, recently unveiling its first hotel in Africa. Two historical landmarks were joined together and restored to perfection, giving visitors a chance to enjoy the vibrant heart of the city, Taj style. We take a look behind the scenes and find out why Capetonians and guests are so excited about the unveiling of the five-star location.
It’s a breathtakingly still dusk on a balmy autumn evening and the terrace of the Taj’s Presidential Suite – a private eyrie in the sky above Cape Town’s elegant stone cathedral and historic parliament buildings – is quite possibly one of the most stunning rooftop hideaways in the world. It’s the place to be as Table Mountain’s early evening outline is offset by a sky that changes from a warm amber to a deep indigo in a matter of minutes. As the city’s lights begin to twinkle below and the magical transformation of the night sky silhouettes the stone pines on Signal Hill where flickering torchlight can be seen as climbers mount the peak to witness the moon rise, it’s easy to understand why this vantage point, dominated by the ancient slopes of Table Mountain, was once the heart of the historic city and is one that has captivated generations of travellers ever since.
It was here that sailors stopped off on their long journeys to Asia in the 1600s to refuel and enjoy the fresh produce harvested from the neighbouring Company Gardens. And it was here that Archbishop Desmond Tutu welcomed Mandela and that South Africa’s new constitution was written. In fact, as the characterful flower sellers around the corner in Adderley Street will tell you, not much has changed in this historic precinct. But no-one expected any less of the Taj Resorts & Palaces as the news spread of their arrival (Taj Cape Town is proud to be the brand’s first hotel in Africa) and Capetonians eagerly awaited the unveiling of their muchloved landmarks – the old Reserve Bank and Board of Executors buildings – that were veiled in scaffolding for months. They knew that they would eventually have their own version of a romantic Taj property, and trusted the brand to restore the heritage buildings with immaculate attention to detail.
Today, the Taj occupies both historic buildings with absolute ease, with its Heritage Suites fashioned from the original structure and neoclassical detailing of the old Reserve Bank, giving each one a slightly different character and size, and with a touch of India coming through in the decor. Especially commissioned floral carpeting pulls together a palette of muted turquoise and olive greens, offsetting the deeper tones of polished woodwork and leather throughout. These spacious suites are above the original banking hall – complete with its gracious pillared interior, barrel-vaulted skylight and original minstrel galleries where musicians and singers used to serenade esteemed banking clients. Now transformed into the elegant hotel lobby and reception area with a bar and lounge on either side, where guests can meet friends or business associates while having a drink or sampling the custom-blended teas that are a highlight of traditional high tea, it’s become the gracious hub of the new city hotel.
But what’s most exciting for guests and for Capetonians (in a city that is fast becoming one of the food capitals of the world) is that the Taj offers three new choices. Oysters, seafood tapas and champagne flow freely at the Twankey Bar, quaintly named after the statue above the old wooden door on the street corner facing the entrance to the oak lined avenue leading to the Gardens. Mint, the all-day dining restaurant with an impressive 900 wines in its glass-lined cellar on the focal wall, is a light and airy space leading off the elegant lobby and opening out on to St George’s Mall that offers a taste of café culture. But it’s the hallowed Temple Chamber dating back to 1896, in the newly refurbished Board of Executors building, that’s had the town talking. Today, it’s the romantic new location for the Bombay Brasserie restaurant, sister to the legendary London icon and a favourite with international celebrities.
The high-ceilinged Chamber – once frequented by the Barristers of the Supreme Court – is now lit with three striking blue crystal chandeliers that reflect the softest light in Venetian mirrors lining the historic wood-panelled walls, creating an intimate interior. Rich wallpaper and soft peacock-embroidered chairs in a shimmering silver fabric add to the opulence. It’s the city’s new hot spot with tables booked weeks in advance. Behind the scenes, Executive Sous Chef Harpreet Kaur watches as her diners take in the beautiful setting and begin to listen to the choices on her authentic fine dining menu. There’s the roasted yellow corn soup with turmeric popcorn and the melt-in-the-mouth salmon flavoured with Bishop’s weed for starters or ‘first impressions’ as she calls them. Or there’s the choice of lamb shanks, chicken tikka or fish or chicken curry (all heavenly), and the surprisingly interesting black lentils and kidney beans, and an absolute must: the spinach and feta combo. Desserts are surprisingly good, with the Masala tea crème brûleé rating as one of the best in town. Kaur is passionate about Indian regional cuisine and has spent 10 years mastering the flavours of traditional recipes while cooking for Taj’s top restaurants and even for the former Indian Prime Minister. She comes to Cape Town directly from the Masala Kraft Restaurant in the flagship Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai and is wowing guests, who are already planning their next visit as soon as they can get a table… although it might be wise to book the seats alongside the show kitchen, where they can eat their way though the most sublime tasting menu. It certainly takes the agony out of choosing just a few of Kaur’s subtly spiced dishes!
Business travellers should expect nothing less than state-of-the-art technology throughout from the exclusive Taj Club Lounge on the second floor to the full conference and banqueting facilities on the upper floors. The Club Lounge is a business traveller’s dream, with its dedicated butler to handle all business or leisure arrangements so that a short stay in the city is planned wisely. Delicious canapés, pastries and drinks are available all day in the lounge area, which, with secure lift access, is a convenient and private meeting place for business travellers. Each suite also has a multimedia hub with internet-enabled flat screens making the suite office area a fully functional business hub if needed. Conference facilities in the BOE building have extraordinary views – some still have their original brass-swivel windows. The Tower Rooms, also on this side of the building, have equally expansive vistas over the cathedral towards the mountain. More contemporary in style than the classic Heritage Suites, here it’s possible to laze in the bath and take in the view across the suite and out through double glass sliding doors, making any business stay feel more like a leisure choice.
And after you’ve finished a day’s work or leisurely hours spent exploring the Cape Peninsula, therapists at the Taj’s Jiva Grande Spa are ready to offer ayurvedic speciality massages, authentic Indian therapies or signature treatments, all of which treat the body and mind holistically. But Jiva’s best-kept secret is that its ayurvedic physician or Vaidyas, Dr Hemauth, gives in-depth consultations to guests and can assist with a full treatment throughout their stay. Yoga classes and meditation also make a change from lengths in the lap pool or a work-out at the gym. Bina Patel, co-founder of Jiva Spas and vice-president of Spa Operations and Development, says that ‘in its simplest form, Jiva Spas encapsulate the Ayurveda, or science of longevity. Its principles have been practised in India for about 6 000 years and are also practised in various forms on several continents, probably dating back to when the continents were joined.’ She points out that it’s the only spa brand in the world where ‘everything that touches the body is completely natural, from organic cotton, sun-bleached fabrics and oven-baked pottery, bamboo fibre, soy cotton and so on, making up 200 customised products.’ Even the dye in the pattern on the curtains is organic and entirely natural.
But the insider scoop is undoubtedly the Taj’s discreet Presidential Suite. It’s not just the sheer size of the glass-lined sanctuary on the rooftop – no less than 440m2 on two levels – but the absolute privacy and security that appeals to those who enjoy all the benefits of excusive-use within the hotel environment, including professional staff, excellent business facilities and gourmet cuisine. There are a few features of the Presidential Suite that somehow manage to exceed penthouse expectations: it’s not the spacious living area with surround-sound music or even the gym, the sauna or the private spa room adjoining the luxurious master bedroom and dressing room, but the drop-dead glamorous bathroom with uninterrupted views of the mountain that’s the showstopper. The four-metre-long bath encased in imported chocolate-brown marble with rain showers up above is the modern-day equivalent of the granite bath Cecil John Rhodes commissioned at the turn of the previous century for his stately residence on the other side of the mountain. The Taj bathroom is simply the designer option, but equally grand in proportions and unashamedly indulgent.
As is the expansive terrace upstairs, with its crackling open fireplace at one end bringing a little of the African bush atmosphere to the elegant urban setting, and a handcrafted wooden table of oversized proportions at the other – the perfect spot for sundowners or dinner under the stars.