A grand dame set against a backdrop of the majestic Table Mountain, the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel is a luxury establishment built in the late 19th century to accommodate the first-class passengers of luxury ocean liners that docked at the Cape. Sir Donald Currie – shipping magnate and owner of the Union-Castle Shipping Line – enlisted the services of the London architectural firm Dunn and Watson, who relied on the talents of prolific architect Sir Herbert Baker to accomplish the task in Cape Town. Baker’s influence can be seen in the detailing but it is only the laundry with its tower, boiler room, drainage works and pantry that were actually known to be designed by him. There are no known existing plans as the hotel’s archives were tragically burnt in a fire in the early 1990s.
The new hotel building opened in March 1899 and comprised of four stories with over 140 rooms which were considered plenty at the time. Adding to the sophistication, the hotel was ahead of its time in using electricity and offering hot and cold water. The dining room opened out onto a conservatory, with a musicians’ gallery at the other end. The walls were oak-panelled and the moulded plaster ceiling has reliefs that depict South Africa. The private dining area known as the Lord Nelson room was the hotel’s original writing room. Here you will find a bust of Lord Nelson carved out of the original timber of the HMS Victory (Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar).
When the South African War broke out in October that same year, the hotel was used as headquarters for the British to plan their campaigns. Lords Roberts, Kitchener and Buller were all in residence at some time. At the end of the First World War in 1918, the Mount Nelson Hotel’s second manager (an Italian by the name of Aldo Renato Tagliavia) decided to celebrate the end of the war by decorating the hotel with a cheerful coat of pink paint – and so began the hotel’s affectionate nickname The Pink Lady.
Over the years, the hotel has hosted a number of esteemed guests including Winston Churchill (then a war correspondent) who described the hotel as: “…a most excellent and well-appointed establishment which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage”. When the Prince of Wales, as part of his royal duties representing his father George V of England, paid a visit to Cape Town in 1925, the new entrance was named in his honour. 57 knee-high Canary Island date palms were planted to line the entrance avenue and most still stand today. (Incidentally, when Bill Clinton visited Cape Town in 1998, a condition of him staying here was cutting down some of the 70-year-old palms for security reasons. Needless to say, the Hotel Management turned him down.)
Sadly, an electrical fire in 1993 caused extensive damage to the hotel to the value of R38 million, resulting in it having to be closed for six months. The Orient-Express group restored and extended the hotel, acquiring three historic buildings adjacent to Palm Avenue, which were fully restored and converted into guest accommodation, increasing the total number of bedrooms and suites to 201. With Apartheid now over, tourism could again thrive.
In December it was announced that LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) ‘the world’s largest luxury group’ had bought it. How this will affect the “Nellie” will be the next chapter in its long, illustrious history.
Join us as we do a historical tour of the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel on Thursday, 15 August 2019. Shipping columnist and lecturer, Brian Ingpen tells the story of how this iconic hotel was founded and shows us highlights of the hotel’s marine pictures, models, memorabilia and even furniture. Gaby Palmer, the hotel’s PR manager, will show us archival material not on public display and give a peek behind-the-scenes, including the laundry with its unique Herbert Baker chimney. Afterwards, there is the chance to have a sit-down lunch in the Lord Nelson room, not generally open to the public.
Be transported to the golden age of the glamourous ocean liner, and learn about Cape Town’s past.
Date: 15 August 2019
Cost: R250 pay pre-Tuesday, 13 August then R350 each
Afterwards, there is the option to stay on for a sit-down lunch for R400 in the Hotel’s Lord Nelson private dining room.
Venue: Belmond Mount Nelson, 76 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town
Pre-booking essential: Kate Crane Briggs firstname.lastname@example.org | 072 377 8014