South Africa: The Artful Delights of Durban

High Tea at the Oyster Box in Durban, South Africa. Mari Gold photos.
High Tea at the Oyster Box in Durban, South Africa. Mari Gold photos.

>Durban, South Africa: High and Low Cuisine and Art Galleries In-Between

The Oyster Box hotel in Durban, South Africa.
The Oyster Box hotel in Durban, South Africa.

By Mari Gold

The Oyster Box, a super-posh hotel complex in Durban, South Africa, (in addition to the hotel’s rooms and suites the area includes
several tall apartment buildings, some available as timeshares), sits majestically overlooking red-and-white lighthouse and the Indian Ocean.

High Tea is an occasion accompanied by live piano music in the sparkling Palm Court.

Scones Cream Jam and Cheese at The Oyster Box
Scones Cream Jam and Cheese at The Oyster Box high tea.
Elizabeth Gordon Gallery
Elizabeth Gordon Gallery

A long table holds scones, quiches, cucumber and other classic finger sandwiches, smoked salmon, cupcakes, tiny tarts with cashews bedded in caramel and savories like sausage rolls and chili bites.

Treated by a Durban friend, we settled into sofas in the Oyster Bar next to the Palm Court and munched scones — chocolate, fruit-laden and plain– accompanied by dishes of clotted cream, strawberry jam, and shredded cheddar cheese.

With this, we drank tea poured from a silver pot, our laps shielded by enormous napkins ruffed out and placed over us by our server whose black-and-silver striped top was set off by a double strand of large “pearls.”

Like a Merchant/Ivory Film

The hotel is like a Merchant/Ivory film: red-and-white striped cushions on sofas and chairs at the pool terrace where monkeys cavort in the awnings; a string of fans gently moving the air over the white-topped Oyster Bar set with large glass containers filled with seashells; solar-topee clad staff greeting guests on arrival and a highly polished black- and- white checkerboard floor.

The overall effect out-Britishes the British at the height of the Raj!

High Tea costs about $15 per person at the current rate rand exchange rate and is served daily from 2:30 t0 5 p.m. Reservations are essential.

Just as iconic as tea at the Oyster Bar but at a far lower price point comes bunny chow which has nothing to do with Peter Rabbit or pet food. Durban is home to the largest Indian population outside of India, thus the popularity of this fast food fave.

Basically, a bunny is a half or quarter loaf of spongy white bread with the middle scooped out, filled with curry and capped with the cut- out bread.
Ours came from a take-out spot run by Muslims so the curry was a vegetarian soy and lentil mix, but meat versions with mutton, prawns (aka shrimp) or chicken are available elsewhere. Our quarter bunny cost 14 rand (about $. 90) and was delicious, not blindingly spicy, and incredibly messy. A quarter makes a hearty snack for two.

Victorian Market

The Victorian Market in the center of town is touristy with something for everyone especially those who love cooking. A sizeable area is devoted to spice sellers who set our their colorful wares and make special masalas (blends) as you enter to entice buying. Some spices are given clever names like Mother in Law’s Hell Fire. Besides spices and cooking utensils, beaded, tin and wooden ware, as well as very Western rubber flip-flops, are for sale.

Durban has a good number of interesting art galleries but be warned: all are not open on days or hours as advertised online. We hired a taxi for three hours, making a deal up front, a good way to go as most galleries aren’t near one another and taxis are relatively inexpensive.

The Durban Art Gallery is in the City Hall. The permanent collection features contemporary work as well as Victorian painting and it’s the one I’d skip if time was short. www.durban.gov.za
Artisan Gallery in the Morningside District, 344 Florida Road, has been around for twenty-plus years and has a big collection of artworks and crafts. Morningside is right on-trend; so too is the eclectic artwork, fabrics and carved wooden objects. Great browsing. www.showme.co.za

Spices at the VictorianMkt Durban
Spices at the Victorian Market in Durban, South Africa.

Also on Florida Road at 120, check out the Elizabeth Gordon Gallery in an old Edwardian house. It’s spare and elegant providing framing services as well as a large collection of popular and emerging South African artists and also offers help with art conservation. www.elizabethgordon.co.za

The African Art Center

One more on Florida Road at number 4, The African Art Center, that supports the work of poor and disadvantaged artists who make works on paper, ceramics, sculpture, embroidery and more. The Center has been nurturing talent for 50 years and helps preserve traditional skills as well as encourage new works. www.afriart.org.za

The Dodds Gallery, 281 Vause Road, is set in a plant nursery and wasn’t open when we tried to visit. www.thedoddsgallery.co.za
Kzhsa Gallery, 166 Bulwer Road in Glenwood, combines the functions of a highly professional gallery, coffee bar- cum restaurant, lovely outside space, kids’ playground and a large gift shop with great stuff on offer. When we visited, 39 of the top entries to the Sanlam Portrait Award were on view, almost all great work. Don’t miss this place, open Tuesdays–Fridays from 9-5; Sundays and holidays from 10-3. www.kznsagallery.co.za

Art Space Durban, 3 Millar Road, in an industrial area close to the city’s center claims to show a range of contemporary art but wasn’t open as advertised.
Fat Tuesday, 5 Bellevue Road in Kloof is relatively far from the areas we visited. It showcases painting, ceramics, and photography and has a 5-room shop with fun stuff like retro clocks and wind-up toys. www.fattuesday.co.za

Durban is more humid than other parts of South Africa as it’s right on the beach and visitors tend to overlook it. Don’t — it’s fun, different and well worth a few days, more if you’re a beach-lover.
Mari Gold

Mari S. Gold is a New York City-based freelance writer who contributes to many magazines and websites. Among the topics she covers are food, travel, health, the arts and consumer goods. An avid traveler, her blog, But I Digress , deals with travel, food and life experiences at www.marigoldonline.net.

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