Afternoon Tea at the Belmond Mount Nelson, in the shadow of Table Mountain
By Cindy-Lou Dale
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Picture the scene – 24 giant white columns propping up a gable announcing itself to be the ‘Mount Nelson Hotel’ – it’s about as grand an entrance as you’ll ever make.
This marks the way to the infamous 5 star Cape Town hotel.
Driving through the Prince of Wales Gate, and up the palm-lined driveway, you feel the 270+ years of star-studded history right there.
Old World Charm
As you walk towards the entrance portico, the city traffic noise fades and is replaced by an Old-World charm, like an unfolding African colonial fable, the days of the great ocean liners, and afternoon teas served by white gloved waiters.
It’s glamorous, traditional, and romantic, simultaneously. The walls are stretched canvases, embellished with Venetian mirrors and whose furniture is covered with sumptuous fabrics.
It’s a tranquil haven of historic elegance. One of the most esteemed landmarks in Cape Town, known for its pale-pink exterior, manicured gardens and, not least, its Afternoon Tea.
Setting the scene of a storied past
For its first 147 years the hotel was a private estate, then in 1890 the grounds and buildings were purchased by shipping magnate Sir Donald Currie, owner of the Union Castle Shipping Line.
His dream was to build a hotel as stylish and elegant as those in London, catering exclusively for the Castle Line’s well-heeled First-Class passengers.
Mount Nelson Opened in 1899
A year later, in May 1899, the Mount Nelson opened its doors. It was the first hotel in South Africa to offer hot and cold running water and swiftly became the grand dame of the country’s hospitality industry.
At about the same time gold and diamonds had been discovered in South Africa making Cape Town an exciting destination, marked with distinct business opportunities for those willing to take them.
That same year saw the beginning of the Boer War. The British used the hotel as headquarters from which to plan their military campaign.
Lords Roberts, Kitchener, and Buller were familiar figures in the corridors.
A young war correspondent based at the hotel – Winston Churchill – described it as: “…a most excellent and well-appointed establishment which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage”.
After hearing of the hotel’s history, it is a sobering thought to learn that South Africa’s future was shaped in the very room where I was taking my afternoon tea.
Such raw, in-your-face dramtics demands one’s attention.
And the name? Mount was inspired by Cape Town’s Table Mountains, which sits directly behind it, and Lord Horatio Nelson, who had twice visited to Cape.
Where you get your cake and eat it
Tea is taken in the outdoor conservatory, the gardens, or the Tea Lounge, an inviting space reflecting the hotel’s signature colonial style, with Aubusson rugs and upholstery (in subtle rose hues), which leads to the hotel’s grand garden verandah.
Sitting in the splendor of the Belmond Mount Nelson’s lounge, a three-course afternoon tea-pairing menu is delivered in waves of gastronomic excellence.
Tea ordered, I lean back in my high-backed chair, taking in the tranquility of it all.
The pianist at the baby-grand was playing some of the classics which, for some bazaar reason, brought back memories of my dad who, referencing his time in India, taught me why it was important to drink tea from a saucer.
The ever-changing menu begins with a savory course – finger sandwiches filled with delicate creamy fillings, rice-paper wrapped around roast chicken, cheese croquettes.
There are quiches, bobotie, mushroom empanadas, frikkadels, and cauliflower and onion pakoras.
This is where my love affair with scones began.
This is followed by the main course of koeksisters sprinkled with coconut, pumpkin fritters, moist lemon and poppy seed loaf, a basket of freshly baked warm scones, served with cheese, clotted cream, Chantilly cream, and a bowl of strawberry jam.
In conclusion, dessert – milktart with cinnamon and cardamon, chocolate eclairs, baked cheesecake with white chocolate, berry tartlets, delices, chocolate brownies, and carrot cake.
Craig Cupido – South Africa’s first Tea Sommelier, guides me through his 6-page tea pairing menu, explaining why particular teas work with certain food tastes.
I opt for the earthy, yet delicate orange and spice rooibos from the Cederberg – a palatable accompaniment.
After the tea-pairing chit-chat, Craig turned up the volume on our repartee: “Here’s a funny story for you”, says Craig.
“The grandfather clock in the lounge, which dates to the early 1800s, is said to have struck midnight and chimed so loudly that it could be heard in Cape Town’s harbor – several miles away.
One night an irate guest hammered two six-inch nails into the chimes and for 20 years it remained silent, before a guest offered to repair it. It still chimes at midnight, but not nearly as loudly.”
Warming to his subject, Craig tells me more. “Back in the day, the Hotel’s Italian manager, Aldo Renato, celebrated the end of the First World War by painting the hotel pink, which was all the rave across Europe for the next few decades.
To this day the Belmond Mount Nelson remains pink. In fact, paint experts have developed the very definitive ‘Mount Nelson Pink.”
I asked after famous names that had stayed at the hotel. “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one,” Craig continues, “as was John Lennon who meditated in the garden under that tree.
Then there was the Dalai Lama who enlightened locals and sat cross-legged on the Ballroom Floor.
Sir Elton John visits us regularly, as do members of the British Royal Family – Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 21st birthday with us.
President Nelson Mandela held the world’s first World Economic Forum on African soil here. Movie stars, rock stars, supermodels,” he waived a hand in the direction of Table Mountain, “too numerous to mention.”
Afternoon tea may have once been a simple affair, with a practical purpose, but at the pink lady, as the Mount Nelson is affectionately known, it’s simply, and beyond a doubt, a sensory feast not to be missed.
Explore more at South African Tourism.