It’s the iconic sound of Africa, the cry of the fish eagle that draws me from my blissful somnolence. Opening my eyes I’m rewarded with a visual feast. The mirror-still estuary reflects the blue sky and the tropical forests that cluster on the surrounding hills. Faintly I can hear the deep baritone thump of the distant waves as they attempt to enter the estuary. This is the Estuary Hotel & Villas, near Port Edward on the KZN South Coast. It's a place we come to about five times a year…and we’ve been coming here for over 10 years, and this is exactly why!
“Let’s go for a canoe,” Nicky suggests as I come fully awake after the all important morning coffee. We grab our canoe and paddle up towards the river that enters the estuary. It looks like a knife slicing a mirror as we cut through the water. A flash of colour. It’s the stunning Malachite kingfisher skimming above the water in search of breakfast. Every time we canoe up the river I feel like I’m entering a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, as the thick, indigenous coastal forest, complete with vines, and huge legavaans lounging on rocks, closes in around us. And it seems we are not the only ones who think this. Earlier in the year we were surprised when we came upon an entire village that had sprung up in the forest over night. A village with canoes, reed huts, dried fish hanging….we couldn’t believe it. It turned out to be a set built by Disney for their new movie Jungle Book. However it had no sooner miraculously appeared in all it’s intricate detail than it vanished again leaving only the jungle setting.
“What’s that?” says Nicky pointing ahead as we round the corner of the river. “Oh, my hat! I can’t believe it.” Sure enough there appears to be more buildings in the forest. This time it’s an old trading store and pump house. Once more it turns out to be a set for another movie.
After our morning canoe adventure we head down to the beach. It’s a short stroll and we are soon seated on velvet soft sand pondering whether we should heed the siren’s call of the smooth swells that are rolling up the shore. I love this beach - it’s beautiful white sand, framed by the estuary and lush tropical forests on the surrounding hills. It’s little wonder that there’s a wedding taking place on the beach. What a spot to seal the deal as guests seated on white trimmed chairs, sans their shoes, enjoy the ultimate cathedral under the endless blue sky.
“How about a beer at Bobbys?” I suggest after we’ve enjoyed our swim and are now drying like content lizards. This is one invitation that never requires repeating. Beach Bobbys is just a short stroll across the beach and soon we are seated on their lovely deck area where we satiate out thirst with an icecold draft beer and the requisite plate of wedges, while looking out for dolphins and whales in the sea.
Time here seems to fold in on itself as morning somehow becomes afternoon, and afternoon melts away into evening. It’s as though the tranquility of the estuary is reflected in the tranquility of time. As the sun begins to set and turns the estuary into a canvas of red, orange, and pink we stroll up to the Estuary hotel. This beautiful hotel, originally designed by Sir Herbert Baker, is set atop a hill and commands stunning views of the living canvas below it. What better spot to enjoy our sundowners.
“Hi, I'm Quinton,” the assistant manager introduces himself. “Would you like a snack basket with your drinks?” Now that sounds like a great idea. As we sit outside sipping our wine and enjoying a tasty snack basket of samoosas, calamari, chicken and other goodies we soak in the vista.
The soft orange light of the restaurant draws us in as outside the deep purples of early evening create a stunning living painting behind us. It's not just by chance the restaurant is called the Fish Eagle Restaurant. Here you feel like a fish eagle perched up high, and the cry of these magnificent birds often floats in the air.
Tonight we have options of the buffet or the a la carte. Normally I'd go for a la carte, but the buffet looks good, so I opt for that. The delicious looking beef curry is probably what sways me, and I'm not disappointed.
With great resolve I have small portions of the crumbed chicken, pasta and other items reserving myself for the curry. Aah…and how good it is. Succulent and spicy. My love with curry is reaffirmed. The chef TK comes out to see how we are enjoying our meal and I congratulate him on his curry. Here's hoping he keeps it up because I'd go back just for that, not to mention the best views on the South Coast.
As I lean back in my chair, satiated visually and gastronomically, I am left in no doubt why we keep on coming back to this amazing place. A blend of wild and modern, beauty and adventure, forest and sea, action and tranquility…and at the moment it’s tranquility that’s winning, as we head off to bed accompanied by the distant sound of the sea and the goodnight chorus of nighttime birds and insects.
For more info on the Estuary Hotel, check out their website here!
Sometimes the planets align and blessings truly do abound. Nicky and I have been invited to visit the Oyster Box, which recently was awarded second place in the Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards of the top Hotels in Africa. To say that we’re excited is an understatement. We’re like kids headed to a chocolate factory.
The weather has turned cold and a wind is gusting like a crazed banshee as we make our way towards Umhlanga. "Check in, there's a check in," the guard who has warmly welcomed us calls ahead on his radio. After entering through the boom we are directed to stop in front of the hotel lobby where a porter takes our bags, a driver takes our car, and a doorman welcomes us with a beaming smile.
“Meow.” Even the famed Oyster Box cat Skabenga is there giving us his regal, if not somewhat dismissive, welcome.
I look around to see if Zuma's cavalcade has arrived. But it turns out this welcome is for us. Now I know how those politicians and famous people feel. Maybe I should get into politics or dig up a long lost royal lineage. I’m enjoying this.
Entering through the doors is like stepping into another world. Outside the wind is gusting and dark, foreboding clouds are rolling across the sky. Inside there is quietness, warmth...and the royal welcome continues.
“Good afternoon,” Zanele says at the reception, “and welcome to The Oyster Box,” she says while beaming a huge smile at us. We have traveled extensively, we’ve stayed in everything from a sleeping bag on the dusty desert sand to a king-sized bed laid out beneath a canopy of stars. And in all these experiences there is one thing that is more important than anything else, and that is the people who make these special places happen. Sure the setting, facilities, and views are important, but all of these are nothing if the hospitality is not there. We’re getting bucket-loads of hospitality…not just service, hospitality…that authentic, meaningful service...and we’re still only at the checkin counter sipping a glass of sparkling wine. “The best is yet to come,” as they say in the classics!
“Could I show you around the hotel,” Zanele asks.
“Sure,” we reply. Why not have the royal tour too. And so we find ourselves soaking up the amazing, regal spaces of The Oyster Box. It feels like Back to the Future.
We’ve stepped back in time…Pith-helmeted footman open doors and usher us into glass elevators. Slowly turning fans from a long-past colonial era lazily stir the air, while live piano music mingles with the clink of glasses and the smell of fresh coffee and baked treats. We’ve stepped forward in time...Plastic cards grant us access to our room. Inside are luxurious, high-backed chairs, flat-screen TVs and vast ceiling to floor sliding glass doors. The sea is in our room.
“Let’s go and get some pre-dinner drinks,” Nicky suggests after we’ve settled into our room. We head up to the famous Lighthouse Bar where Basil brings us two draft beers and a delicious selection of snacks. We're seated on luxury leather chairs and the bright red shiny leather seats interspersed with old style brown leather chairs mingle to create a vibrant yet relaxing atmosphere. Outside the wind howls while the lighthouse's light stabs out into the ocean to warn the ships of the rocks…or is it possibly to invite them to this pearl on the rocks. The Lighthouse Bar must be one of the best places in KZN to enjoy sundowner drinks. And judging from how full it is on a Monday night, it seems like the word is out.
After mentally preparing ourselves for what we have heard is a gastronomical feast, we head down to the Ocean Terrace room to taste the famous Oyster Box curry buffet. The world-class hospitality continues as we are welcomed by the hostess, and then treated royally by the waitrons. We are seated beneath slowly turning fans on white cane furniture made luxurious by the addition of comfy aqua blue cushions. The white lattice roof and pillars, and tiled floor, create a fresh and inviting ambiance…but who has time for ambiance when a buffet of KZNs finest curries await.
I need to make a confession now…Being born and bred in KZN, curry is my thing. It’s my food of choice. My dying-wish meal. I can’t last more than a week without curry. In fact when we travel to other countries we often bring our own Durbs spices with us. And so I am in keen anticipation of this feast. The spread of curries is distressing! Simply because there are so many and I’m cursing I ate those snacks in the Lighthouse Bar. I should of fasted for at least a day in preparation.
Chicken and Prawn Curry, Butternut, Chickpea and Feta Curry, Butter Chicken Curry, Lamb Curry, Dhal & Brinjal Curry, Beef Vindaloo…and on and on the list goes. I can hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” playing. Heaven! A spicy heaven! As I tuck into my groaning plate I am not disappointed. The flavours are spectacular. My favourite is the Beef Vindaloo, with its rich spicy flavour, and soft succulent beef chunks. It’s an explosion of vibrant tastes that warms the body and soul.
“The secret is in where you get your spices,” Robert the chef tells me as I try and learn some tips. “We only buy ours from places that produce quality spices.” I’m distracted as he goes into detail…you can’t have a conversation between two people when there is a pot of delicious curry between you. I’m stuffed…but there’s always room in the reserve stomach for one more portion.
Satiated, and with a curry-induced glow of contentment around me, we head upstairs to check out the Oyster Box’s private cinema. An approximately 20-seater movie theatre set beneath a star-lit ceiling welcomes us. We are the only guests, and snuggled beneath warm, soft blankets and sipping a decadent hot chocolate we enjoy our private cinema experience.
“That feeling of being someone famous, a movie star, a king…I’m starting to believe it!” I think to myself as I slip into the silky soft embrace of our king size bed. Tonight I will no doubt have royal dreams.
Waking to the sound of the ocean is a treat. Waking to the sound of the ocean in the Oyster Box is treatment. I've purposefully left the shutters open causing the soft early morning light to paint the room golden. “They have a coffee machine,” I say while dancing a morning jig. What more could we ask for as we sip a fresh espresso appreciating the full, rich, spectacular experience - not of the coffee, well that too - but of the view from our room.
"Welcome I'm Jonathan," the waiter introduces himself as we arrive at the Ocean Terrace for breakfast. "I have a special table for you in my section." Aah, the special treatment continues! "Can I explain the breakfast to you?" he asks. And with our acquiesce he enthusiastically describes our gastronomical options.
"This is the cold section," he says pointing to a colorful array of fruits, cereals, pastries, cheeses, oysters…yes oysters!...and more. It looks like it should be in an art exhibition as the carvings, colors and creative displays tantalizingly draw one in. "And this is where you can choose a main meal," Jonathan continues. Once more we are regaled with a list of choices. I didn't realize eggs could be done in so many ways.
Seated at our table sipping a cappuccino, we do our best to be worthy of the tantalising options before us. The quiet chatter of a few other diners who are here mingles with the music and the sounds of the sea outside. The Oyster Box… “Well,” I think to myself, “Now I know how a pearl feels…it feels great!”
Some of the Oyster Box's well-deserved 2015 Awards...
Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards - Voted No. 2 in the Top 25 Hotels in Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor: Hall of Fame - Certificate of Excellence (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 3 Best Hotel in South Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 6 Best Hotel in Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 13 Luxury Hotel in South Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 14 Best Service in South Africa (2015)
World Luxury Spa Awards: Voted Best Luxury Hotel Spa in South Africa (2015)
To find out more about The Oyster Box, and experience the ultimate in hospitality