In Travel

History & Hospitality Meet At Johannesburg’s Saxon Villas, Hotel & Spa

The Saxon Villas, Hotel and Spa is the kind of hotel you don’t leave. At least, not if you can help it.

You’re likely in Johannesburg, South Africa’s financial capital, on business or holiday. Or you’re possibly passing through on your way to Cape Town or one of the country’s famed game reserves. Of course, you’ll pop out to visit the vibrant, one-of-a-kind community of Soweto or reflect at the Apartheid Museum — both worthy and absolutely necessary Johannesburg experiences — but you’ll be dogged in your attempts to allocate time to just be here, enjoying its warm and cold pools, its award-winning restaurant, and, of course, the spa.

I think — and I say this with absolute confidence — that Oprah, Bill Clinton, and Will Smith would agree with me.

Part of the Leading Hotels of the World collection, the Saxon Villas, Hotel and Spa has been attracting Hollywood heavyweights, business elites, and political leaders since it opened as a hotel 20 years ago, but its place in Johannesburg’s — and South Africa’s — history extends far beyond that: it was here, following his release from almost three decades of imprisonment, that Nelson Mandela edited the manuscript for Long Walk to Freedom.

Home to hotel

Located on 10 acres in Johannesburg’s upper-class Sandhurst neighbourhood, around a 10-minute drive from the business hub of Sandton, the Saxon Villas, Hotel & Spa was once the stately private residence of international insurance magnate Douw Steyn.

For that reason, it maintains an atmosphere of home-style comfort in spite of the luxe, sprawling complex that’s sprung up around it. Guests are welcomed into the former home’s cavernous lobby, which is flanked by sweeping staircases and replete with a dazzling array of modern and traditional art from Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The collection is comprised of pieces that once adorned the walls of the original Steyn home – “exceptional pieces that tell a story of a life lived with friends” – and over 200 original artworks sourced as part of South Africa’s largest single corporate acquisition.

 

By the same token, meals at the award-winning on-site restaurant Qunu (one of two on the property) elicit the feeling that you’re a very well-cared-for guest in someone’s home. In fact, it’s connected to Nelson Mandela in its own unique way, having been named for the small rural town where he grew up. Here, modern African fare is crafted from produce grown on-site and served with wine matched by the hotel’s in-house sommeliers, while breakfast features bubbly (or coffee, which is likely preferable if you’ve done something silly like make plans for the day) alongside a buffet of pastries, continental spreads, and even oysters.

As for the accommodations themselves, the luxury suites situated in the main hotel feature open-plan spaces living and bathroom quarters in understated but luxurious African designs. Earthy tones run through sleek marble and timber, while the lush furnishings wed African artefacts with Dutch colonial design. Depending on where they’re situated, the suites boast floor-to-ceiling views over the hotel’s gardens, pool, or city skyline.

The private Villas – which sit separately to the main hotel, surrounded by the compound’s lush, indigenous gardens – were opened in 2010, in the lead up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was held across a number of major South African cities, including Johannesburg. The three ultra-luxurious Villas span 21 suites and are connected to the main hotel via a 76-metre skywalk.

Having been refurbished a number of times in the decade since they were launched, the Villas feature lounge and dining areas, a bar, private terrace and plunge pool or spa, and all bookings come with dedicated 24-hour butler and chef services. Oh, and all the whiskey and cognac guests could care to indulge in.

The former President’s one-time lodgings are now known as the Nelson Mandela Platinum Suite, a stunning 400-square-metre apartment finished with specially commissioned artworks and archival photographs.

Until we meet again

But for all its state-of-the-art facilities and luxurious appointments, it’s the people that make a stay at the Saxon Villas one to remember. As is the case across South Africa, the service is exceptional, but not forced. The people are part of the experience, not the ones simply facilitating it.

At dinner, the host and I chatted easily about musicals and our favourite Meryl Streep films, his manner so warm and engaging that I didn’t notice him slipping away to tend to other guests. On the way to my room, the butler gave a well-rehearsed but no less enthusiastic rundown of bespoke illustrations of celebrity guests that line the hotel’s walls, patiently answering my questions (most of which related to Oprah’s hotel habits).

And that’s the thing about the Saxon: when it comes time to leave (and I’m sorry to tell you it will), the Australian inclination to drop “goodbye” in favour of “see you later” feels fitting, like a promise spoken to the staff who’ve made your stay memorable, but made to yourself.

Kristen Amiet was a guest of Leading Hotels of the World and Saxon Villas, Hotel and Spa.

(Images courtesy of Saxon Villas, Hotel and Spa)

Published 15 January, 2020