x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Saxon Hotel does Johannesburg proud

The former residence of a South African tycoon in an exclusive Johannesburg suburb, The Saxon is now a boutique hotel that attracts some of the world's biggest celebrities.

The Saxon was originally the residence of the South African businessman Douw Steyn and has hosted celebrities such as Nelson Mandela, Mick Jagger and Bill Clinton. Courtesy The Leading Small Hotels of the World
The Saxon was originally the residence of the South African businessman Douw Steyn and has hosted celebrities such as Nelson Mandela, Mick Jagger and Bill Clinton. Courtesy The Leading Small Hotels of the World

The welcome

A week before I am due to stay at the Saxon I find myself at Johannesburg airport with a long wait between flights and too much luggage. I phone the hotel at 5am. "Just wait there," says Richard, the night manager. Twenty minutes later a white BMW with the number plate "Saxon" rolls up to collect me. At the hotel I am given a bedroom so that I can shower and am directed to the dining room for breakfast. When I return a week later, the concierge meets me at the airport and the bag I left behind is already in my suite.

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The neighbourhood

The hotel is situated on a residential road in the affluent Sandhurst suburb of Sandton. Journalists are told never to use the word "mansion" lightly, so when I say most of the nearby houses are mansions I do not exaggerate - not that you can see much of them, hidden as they are behind high walls and electronic gates. Despite, or possibly because of, the visible evidence of security alarms, this is the one of the safest areas of the city. Close to the business district, it is also one of the most desirable locations.

The service

Outstanding. The Saxon is where visiting heads of state and celebrities stay when they come to Johannesburg, and the staff know how to look after you. They also know how to smile with it. I did not see the sign with my name as I came off the aircraft, and so missed out on being taken through the VIP customs area. But it is the first time I have been met by a concierge after clearing customs. The front of house staff are immaculately dressed in black suits and manage to be both warm and efficient. My butler, Ryan, explained how the TV, air con and lighting worked and offered to be at my service 24/7. Breakfast, the meal that so many five star hotels have problems with, provided exemplary service. My waiter even recognised me from my brief visit a week earlier. Best of all, the terrace restaurant remains open all night, enabling guests on different time clocks not to be compelled to have room service.

The room

The hotel has recently built 29 new suites in three villas, which can be booked as a unit and are designed for real privacy. But I was in one of the 24 Egoli suites in the main house and loved it. Cleverly designed to have three distinct sections, the sitting area had a sofa, two armchairs, a desk and a dining table; the bed, of which I occupied less than a quarter, took up most of the middle area, and directly behind that is the bathroom from which you can view the Bang & Olufsen telly from the oval bath. Wooden shutters can close it off, if open plan bathrooms are not your thing. Lots of nice useful touches include a laptop, iPod docking station, power panel for every conceivable type of plug, towels tied up with twine and lavender, plus fruit and a welcome drink. Culturally, the art on the walls and decorative objects are pure Africa.

The scene

Charcoal drawings taken from real photographs line the walls and tell the history of the house and its guests. Several feature the owner, Douw Steyn, with his friend Nelson Mandela. Before it was converted 11 years ago into the city's most famous boutique hotel, this was Steyn's private home. This is where Mandela stayed while writing his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. Other famous guests depicted include Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton. The Football World Cup last year drew a galaxy of stars, Mick Jagger, Shakira, Patrick Viera, Beckham and Princes William and Harry among them. The pop group U2 took all the suites in all three villas when they were here last. But you don't have to be famous. Businessmen and tourists both use it - particularly those going to Steyn's sister property, the Shambala private game reserve.

The food

The fine dining restaurant, The Saxon, offers a mix of African, international and contemporary food. A main course costs in the region of 400 South African rand (Dh216). A new chef, Nancy Kinchela, has just joined, although the breakfast menu still has a welcome from her predecessor, Werner Snoek. The continental breakfast, which involves helping yourself from a large buffet of smoked salmon, fresh oysters, cold meats, fresh fruit, sushi, cereals and home-made breads, costs 195 rand (Dh106). A cooked breakfast, which included all of the above plus eggs, mixed grill or French toast is 250 rand (Dh135).

Loved

The service, the terrace and the large spa. My hour-long Elemis facial cost 790 rand (Dh426), and they also offer a 30-minute manicure or pedicure for 150 rand (Dh81).

Hated

I had no complaints about the hotel and would return in a nanosecond, but Johannesburg itself is not a city that draws you back. Unless it is to stay at this hotel.

The verdict

A fabulous best-in-class boutique hotel offering ethnic African elegance with unequalled service.

The bottom line

The Executive Traveller Package offers prices from 9,800 rand (Dh5,284) for a double suite per night, including return transfers, accommodation in an Egoli Suite, breakfast and use of spa facilities. The Saxon Boutique Hotel, Villas and Spa (www.saxon.co.za; 00 27 11 292 6000).