Soaking in sunshine and history at Taj Cape Town

T he lobby’s an unusual shade of gold. Sure it has the usual five-star accoutrements — majestic chandeliers, plush sofas and a bar tinkling with expensive crystal. But, what makes Taj Cape Town’s lobby so instantly soothing is a lot more basic — structure.

A cathedral-like space with high ceilings, a barrel-vaulted skylight and dramatic lines, it’s clearly been created with a passion that borders on the obsessive.

So, it’s hardly surprising to learn the original architect James Morris, who designed the grand old Reserve Bank that now houses the Taj lobby, was an exasperatingly pernickety man. Intent on glittering Capetonian sunshine in the main banking room through the year, he bullied the Astronomer Royal into measuring the position of shadows in the skylight for every month of 1929 so he could design the skylight appropriately. He then imported Portuguese marble columns, commissioned a sculptor to create four medallions of lions for the façade and even organised special tiles, complete with spares “in case an aircraft crashed into the building”.

Recklessly flamboyant architecture of this sort creates memorable spaces. It’s also notoriously difficult to replicate. The Taj didn’t even try.

Instead, Tata’s Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, along with Eurocape (an Irish property investment company) spent two years and over $69 million, meticulously restoring the old South African Reserve Bank and neighbouring Temple Chambers buildings for their new 177-room luxury hotel. A ponderous clock from 1932, balconies for the mistrals that once entertained the public during banking hours, gates of detailed bronze… they’ve all been retained, giving the building a depth, character and gravitas that could never have been achieved by any contemporary structure, no matter how extravagant.

Recently inaugurated, this is Cape Town’s ‘oldest new hotel’. Set in the heart of the city’s historic downtown area, it’s surrounded by monuments representing much of South Africa’s turbulent history — from the Slave Lodge (now a museum) to St George’s Cathedral, from where Archbishop Desmond Tutu rallied the masses and demanded equality.

In tune with contemporary South Africa, the hotel is designed to be welcoming to one and all — hence the two main entrances, the Temple Chambers’ doors on Wale Street, and the South African Reserve Bank entry off St. George’s Mall, a pedestrian road that bustles with street artists, cafes and colour. There’s also street access to its coffee shop Mint and The Twankey, a seafood, champagne and oyster bar.

Of course, two buildings, no matter how steeped in history, aren’t ever big enough for the kind of full-scale, decadent luxury Taj hotels concentrate on. Hence, a more modern tower rises from the fabric of the heritage buildings, culminating in the gargantuan Presidential suite.

We watch the sun spilling a thousand shades of red and orange over Table Mountain, as it sinks away from the terrace of the suite, over glasses of chilled champagne and succulent smoked salmon. Then it’s time for dinner at Bombay Brasserie, where the menu balances tradition and plucky experimentation. Roasted corn soup served with fluffy turmeric popcorn. Tandoori Norwegian salmon flavoured with Bishop’s weed. Baked Alphonso mango yoghurt.

After a few days of incessant pampering, we’re getting dangerously spoilt. Our rooms, set in the heritage suite are luxuriously charming, with dignified pastel furnishing, chocolates and pillow menus.

Our 24-hour butler, who — to our delight — is called ‘Lovemore’ plies us with chamomile tea and gossip, in the Business Lounge every evening, when we stagger back after yet another party or dinner bristling with heady South African wine.

We hear Paris Hilton and her entourage occupied our rooms during the World Cup. But, don’t let that put you off. Especially if, like us, you have a fondness for drinking creamy Amarula cocktails in a lobby that glitters with cheerful South African sunshine, amid echoes of a colourful history.


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