When touring the vast, open expanses of South Africa, the mind logically conjures up images of great, open game reserves and majestic, prowling wild life, or the fabulous beaches and stunning, mountainous beauty of Cape Town, Fransschoek and Stellenbosch.
So it came as something of a delightful change to tour the rugged, beautiful coastline of Umhlanga, just a short, fifteen minute drive from the port of Durban, where the Boudicca lay docked. It’s a special, quite splendid places, where the massive rollers of the Indian Ocean drum the shore line that winds along and below Durban’s most exclusive suburbs. Our coach rolled past a mesmerising series of gorgeous vistas, where winding mountain roads sit in the shade of vast, jagged escarpments that loomed sharp and black against a powder blue sky. It was muggy that sultry summer afternoon, and it gradually grew slightly overcast, but we had an appointment with some serious, platinum chip hedonism that made the journey well and truly worthwhile.
The Oyster Box Hotel sits atop a gently sloping promontory like something straight out of a Walt Disney fable. It’s a glorious, exquisitely detailed little wedding cake of a hotel, all white exteriors, black and white chequered floors, glittering mirrors and vast, impassive chandeliers that hold sway above a scene straight out of the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. You expected Hercule Poirot and a full, Palm Court orchestra to appear at any given moment.
The gardens leading down to the hotel’s private beach are perfectly primped, immaculately manicured, and wonderfully alluring. At water’s edge a small, red and white lighthouse stands against the flaring, burnt umber smear of the setting afternoon sun. There’s a vast, azure blue swimming pool, and an avalanche of perfectly poised comfortable furniture to just sag into. There’s space to breathe and grace to achieve a state of pampered, indolent bliss.
And, if I had succumbed to all of this, I would have missed out on Afternoon Tea. And that really would have been a shame.
A vast, colourful spread of everything imaginable, from prime cuts of meat to seriously decadent macaroons, was rolled out like some startling, multi hued carpet under those vast chandeliers. Cakes the size of small coastal cities loomed like Table Mountain over a sea of exotic fruits, cheeses and pastries that easily constituted a full meal in its own right. It all looked too delightful to devour, but too decadent to resist. Truth be told, I folded like so much wet cardboard, and went at it like a cavalry charge.
And it’s all done with such subtle, understated taste. Naturally, there’s a glass of vibrant, frothy bubbly served first, just to set the tone. The tea ceremony- and ceremony it is- is hushed, casual decadence served up with a smile, and there’s no shortage of choices, either.
Once seated and ministered to in one of the gorgeous little salons that adjoin the main lobby way, people simply went and helped themselves to the open glut of goodies that lay just across the hall. Some of them did so repeatedly; at least one man I saw made more round trips than the QE2 did Atlantic crossings. It was almost as if he’d actually done it before.
Naturally, there was perfectly chiming piano music drifting around in the background, and a battery of smiling waiters and waitresses serving both us and the guests lounging outside on the terrace, as they watched the steel grey rollers of the Indian Ocean drumming the beach from over the rims of their tea cups. It’s at once both serene and surreal; the whole experience fosters an air of languid, lazy contentment that’s plainly visible across everybody’s faces.
One lady was heard to remark that it was ‘just like the Ritz’ but, in truth, the Oyster Box has a stance and a feel more akin to Reid’s Hotel on Madeira; a little oasis of primped, platinum chip prestige where the views out over the ocean are as much a feast for the sense as all the gooey, garrulous gluttony draped out under those chandeliers just indoors.
Leaving the Oyster Box was almost physically painful, but my mood brightened as we returned to the harbour, and Boudicca hove back into view. Twilight had begun to descend like a slow crash dive across Durban’s busy harbour, and Boudicca was now lit up like some shimmering, brilliant Christmas tree, with her serried tiers of lights dancing across the ink black waters of the port.
Her single, beautifully sculpted funnel stood sharp and proud against the dying light of the day, looming like some kid of welcoming beacon for the returning bus load of sated Oyster Box refugees. Already, dinner was in the offing, and the first passengers were sauntering into the run of bars along Deck Six for their pre-dimmer cocktails.
Soon enough, there was the gentle rumble of the engines coming to life, and the subtle splash of our morning ropes being dropped into the water from the quayside as we stood slowly out into the starry evening. From somewhere, a piano rolled into some scarce remembered refrain, as car headlights along the coast glowed like a swarm of agitated glow worms. From on board, the ship’s siren boomed out across the bay with a warm bellowing roar that elicited a string of responses from the freighters, tugs and fishing boats that sat shackled to the nearby quays.
Another adventure was dropping slowly, gracefully astern, but I knew that others- perhaps even more quirky, exotic and beguiling- lay just over the same horizon that we were now surging towards.