I’m standing at a crossroads in my own city. To my right, a graffitied remnant of the Berlin wall marks the entrance to a pedestrian only thoroughfare where antique goods and African art stand alongside sidewalk cafes. To my left sits the hallowed hall of the oldest cathedral in Southern Africa where the legendary Desmond Tutu once led his iconic campaigns. Alongside that, the Company’s Gardens stretch forth, welcoming young and old alike to explore their flourishing interior. Behind me, further up the busy road, the brightly coloured houses of the Bo Kaap bring a rich vibrancy to the city. And finally, in front of me lies a unique property that I just can’t bring myself to leave quite just yet.
I have just spent the last 24 hours being wine and dined in true style at the gorgeous Taj Cape Town. The building occupies a unique location and one I think is often much underrated. When tourists flock to the city of Cape Town, there are often a select number of places where they want to be – close to the waterfront, or with an ocean view. However, the Taj offers an appeal that you cannot get at either of these locations and a soul that is so often lacking in inner city hotels. Its set on the walking street that is St George’s Mall with local curio stores, antique shops, cafes and restaurants right on its doorstep, while many of the city’s historical attractions are just a stone throw away, including the Company Gardens and its Natural History Museum, Planetarium and National Art Gallery. The Slave Lodge, St George’s Cathedral and the Bo Kaap area are all also super easy to reach. The hotel also has a free shuttle to the V&A Waterfront and Table Mountain so you don’t have to worry about not staying right there.
And what’s even better that with an onsite gallery and wine tasting offering, you even get the appeal of a Winelands hotel without ever having to leave the hustle and bustle of the city. Just the night before, the wonderful Veronique had regaled us with her story, starting out as a waitress before being trained up by the sommelier to take over in the role of wine steward at the hotel. Her grandiose dreams of international travel and becoming an award-winning sommelier were just as inspiring as the local artworks that covered every inch of the gallery walls. And as she introduced us to some somewhat eccentric varietals, including a delightfully fruity Savignon Blank – Semillion - Pinot Gris blend, it was a joy to discover that we didn’t even have to leave the hotel to taste wines from every single region in the Cape.
After our wine tasting we also were privileged to enjoy some of the finest Indian cuisine I have ever eaten in Cape Town at the hotel’s very own Bombay Brasserie. I highly recommend their five course menu, paired with wines. With a glorious combination of paneer, prawns, chicken and lamb curries and some tantalising deserts, we certainly weren’t disappointed! My weekend at the Taj had been one of delicious food and amazing wine and the last few hours I had just spent concocting cocktails at the swanky Twankey Bar had just been the cherry on top. “Tall and refined yet still oozing a local appeal, with a dash of heritage thrown in for good measure.” If you were to put the Taj Cape Town on the infinite cocktail list of its in-house bar, this is what the description would read.
And so it is with mixed feelings that I come to say goodbye to the Taj Hotel. However my journey isn’t quite over just yet, because one thing that really sets this hotel apart from the rest is that they offer a free walking tour of the city to all in house guests.
One of the first things I love to do when travelling to any foreign city is to embark on a free walking tour. You can find free walking tours in most big cities in the world and while they are often not completely free (a tip is normally expected) they are led by local guides with a passion for their area. These tours provide a perfect welcome to a foreign city as you are often given a brief overview of the city, with invaluable local advice on where to eat and drink thrown in for good measure. As a first port of call in any city, they are a must do and the nifty tips and tricks are not to be taken for granted. That is not discounting the things you may never have thought to go and visit. For example, on a recent whirlwind tour of Venice I was delighted to discover a unique church. Crumbling, cracked and dull as a doorknob on the outside, the inside boasted one of the most beautiful ceilings in all of Italy and the biggest canvas painting in the world. It is something I would never have seen had it not been for the inside knowledge of our friendly art-student guide. And so it was that when the opportunity came to join a free walking tour in my own city, I jumped at the chance, excited to see what I would discover.
The tour started in the grand ‘ol Taj herself. The interior foyer of the hotel harks back to those days of yesteryear, still boasting the ornate marble floors and oversized granite columns that made up what was the original building of the South African Reserve Bank. However this building, with its ornate bronze gates, and intricate ceiling structure, only makes up one third of the hotel. The other parts being the 1896 building that was once the Temble Chambers and then a new modern tower that boasts beautiful rooms with sweeping panoramic views of Table Mountain and the city below, where I had just spent the night. Harking back to the heritage of its buildings, the hotel’s relaxed Mint Restaurant is named after the money mint that once stood on this spot.
However, today it’s the food that people flock here for as the restaurant serves up local specialties, such as Bunny Chow and Gastbys, with a typically Taj Indian flair. Venture out of the hotel and next to the Mint Restaurant lies an assuming pair of cast iron doors. Also part of the property, but one that few get to see, and many Capetonians probably don’t even know exist, I know I didn’t, this old part of the reserve bank is today only used for conferences and special events. Brightly coloured wallpaper, depicting a tropical array of red and blue parrots and rainforest flowers coats the walls while a rich red carpet beckons you in. Keep going deeper into the bowels of this old building and a rickety elevator and narrow staircase take you down to a secret bank vault, complete with unopened safes, under the floor! A creepy discovery that is currently being used as a wine cellar and would be the ideal venue to host an elegant Halloween party or murder-mystery affair.
It was this discovery of secret places and hidden Cape Town gems that continues throughout our tour as we marvel at rooftop bars with pallet swings, a hidden time capsule buried within a building’s floor, the oldest vine in the city tucked into a restaurant courtyard, a hole in the wall New York style bagel shop and a barber-come café-come tattoo parlour. It’s an eclectic melting pot of establishments and people and one that seems to become more and more varied with every addition to the city’s spirited interior. However, it’s a far cry from the Cape Town that once was.
As we round the corner, past that magnificent church and into Queen Victoria Street, the two benches outside the High Court building bring us back to the sobering reality that people all over the country had to face. With their wounding labels of “whites only” and “non-whites only”, written on them is the story of those that fought to be reclassified according to the monstrous terms of our country’s horrific laws. We had now turned the corner into the Company Gardens where the rich history of South Africa can be explored in many a museum and with hushed tones, those around me raise questions regarding the unjust of the past and the possible future for the country.
And as the sunshine beats down on the magnificent garden grounds, children play in the oversized bird nest structures that hang from the trees, elderly couples delight as they feed the garden’s iconic white squirrels and tourists and locals all alike can be seen enjoying a spring picnic under the garden’s trees. And as the church bells ring out, beckoning us back towards the hotel, it is with a sense of hope, and wonder that the tour takes me back to that magnificent cross road in Cape Town where it had all begun. Amazed to be introduced once more to a city so diverse and resilient, and grateful to be able to call it my home, I pick up my bag; wave a fond farewell (for now) and relish in the excitement of what the future of this city holds.
Janine Avery is the brains behind 5 Star Stories, a digital marketing company offering bespoke content and social media services to the luxury and travel trade. Janine is first to confess that she has been bitten by the travel bug… badly. Raised by a menagerie of Artists, Creatives, Scientists, Researchers, Biologists and Botanists she is a lover of all things travel from basic tenting with creepy crawlies to lazing in luxury lodges. Among her other passions, dabbling in digital marketing, spreading messages on social media, and taking audiences on a journey through her travel stories rank high on her list of priorities.