Africa meets India in Cape Town
It's almost midnight and, although I'm tired, I take one final peek through the curtains at the cathedral below. In the distance, I can see the soaring outline of Table Mountain rising from the fringes of the city.
The air in my room is scented with lavender and yellow lamps cast deep shadows across the ornate carpet as I sink into a velvet chair and remove my heels. Floors below, the celebration continues as I indulge in a bubble bath.
Earlier in the evening, more than 300 guests, including investors, bankers, politicians, business leaders and celebrities had gathered for the opening of the Taj Cape Town. Housed in buildings of historical significance - the former South African Reserve Bank, its architecture inspired by the iconic Palazzo Pitti in Florence and the Temple Chambers, dating to 1890 - the Taj belongs here and, from the moment I arrive, I feel as though I do, too.
The giant bronze gates of the original bank direct guests into a soaring lobby. The space is dominated by a barrel-vaulted skylight supported by four fluted marble columns, all of which have been meticulously restored. I strain my neck looking at the curved skylight and the balconies where minstrels once entertained the queues of customers.
Raymond Bickson, the chief executive of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, which belongs to one of India's largest business conglomerates, Tata Group, takes the stand and talks about India's affinity with South Africa, of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi and what can be achieved with vision and effort. Ratan Tata, the chairman of Tata Group, unveils a plaque inscribed with a quote by Mandela: "It always seems impossible until it is done."
And that's the thing: the opening of the Taj symbolises not just the rebirth of two remarkable buildings but a further step in the successful rejuvenation of Cape Town's inner city. After two years and $US69 million ($70 million) spent restoring buildings and constructing a tower, the Taj offers 177 luxurious rooms, one- and two-bedroom suites and a presidential suite. Facilities include a Jiva spa and fitness centre, Taj club, restaurants and a seafood and champagne bar.
Next morning, I join a walking tour with Andrew Boraine, an advocate for Cape Town's urban renewal. "I can show you 70,000 years of human history in just eight city blocks," Boraine says. "And it's all outside the door of your hotel."
Built on the site of the colony's first hospital, the Taj sits in the middle of a precinct, which includes St George's Cathedral, where Desmond Tutu once rallied the faithful against apartheid; the Company's Garden, which supplied the Dutch East India Company with produce during the 17th century; and the Slave Lodge, where up to 9000 slaves, convicts and mentally ill people once lived. Greenmarket Square, the bohemian hangout of Long Street and the Malay quarter of Bo-Kaap are all within walking distance. The next day, I visit Franschhoek wine valley, about an hour's drive from Cape Town.
At Moreson winery, I join head winemaker Clayton Reabow and executive chef Neil Jewell, who has a hobby of curing meats, for charcuterie and wine tasting. We start with a 2010 sauvignon blanc. "It goes nicely with the ham," he says. "Make sure you taste some of the fat with the flesh."
Next we try a 2008 cabernet franc accompanied by a juniper-flavoured salami. "The salami has European tones but it is purely South African," Jewell says. We also match a 2009 premium chardonnay with an Italian-style sausage, a 2008 syrah with aniseed-flavoured ham and a zesty petit verdot with a black pepper and fennel seed salami.
On my final evening, I dine at Taj's signature restaurant, the Bombay Brasserie, modelled on its namesake in London. Executive chef Harpreet Kaurgives the menu a delicate African twist, including serving roasted yellow-corn soup with turmeric popcorn and tellicherry pepper-flavoured lamb.
As a final hoorah, I decide to visit the city's Victoria and Albert waterfront for a nightcap. One word to the concierge and a Taj Range Rover whisks me away.
The Taj does what every top-shelf hotel should: it makes you feel special.
The writer was a guest of Taj Hotels.
Sydney Morning Herald