Last updated: 02:47 PM ET, Tue June 02 2015

Dispatch: The Oyster Box in Umhlanga Rocks

Hotel & Resort | David Cogswell | June 02, 2015

Dispatch: The Oyster Box in Umhlanga Rocks

PHOTO: The Oyster Terrace at the Oyster Box hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean in South Africa. (Photos by David Cogswell)

I had heard many superlatives about the Oyster Box hotel but not many specifics before I stayed there on my last night in South Africa. Everyone who knows the hotel said things like, “You will love it,” but I hadn’t heard much beyond that. The name doesn’t evoke images of a grand hotel. It sounds more like, well, an oyster box, whatever that is. A box of oysters?

Still, I knew that it had to be great, not just because of the unanimous praise I had heard from those who have been there, but also because I had stayed in some of the other hotels owned by Red Carnation, the company that owns the Oyster Box.

Red Carnation owns 17 hotels, but the word “chain” does not fit the company at all. Each of the hotels is an individual hotel. They are all very different from each other. What they have in common is tremendous attention to detail, superb design and a very high service standard.

Beyond their common ownership and shared hotel management ethos, each hotel is highly individualized.

Red Carnation is owned by the Tollman family, which also owns the Travel Corporation, the parent company of tour operators including Trafalgar, Insight Vacations and Contiki Holidays. It’s a veteran company of the travel industry for many decades. But Red Carnation is a separate entity.

Red Carnation is very much the brainchild, or perhaps more aptly stated, the soul child of Bea Tolman. Beatrice Tollman is the wife of Stanley Tollman, the patriarch of the Tollman family and the head of the Tollman family travel enterprises.

Stanley Tollman is the business head of the company. But Red Carnation is really Bea Tollman’s baby, and she treats it with loving care. Every day she is on the phone with the managers of every property and every week she reads the customer evaluation forms from every one. She visits frequently and the staffs of the hotels work hard to maintain her standards.

She has a highly refined aesthetic sense and talent for design that is bolstered by a sense of history evident in the décor of each hotel. Each property is stacked with evidence of a tremendous dedication to making it a unique, unforgettable place.

I stayed in the Chesterfield Mayfair in London and it had a kind of richness that radiates from an inner quality rather than grand scale and flagrant opulence. Alex Bray, the manager of the Chesterfield told me, “Beatrice Tollman treats the business as if it were a private home.”

I visited all of Red Carnation’s London properties, including the Milestone, the Edgerton House, the Rubens, 41 and The Montague, and saw a great variety of rooms. Each was markedly different in style from the others. They had different approaches, different styles and functions and each was an organic part of its own neighborhood.

I also stayed in the Twelve Apostles hotel on the shore near where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean a few miles east of Cape Town standing under the Twelve Apostles mountain range, which extends to Table Mountain. What all of these properties around the world have in common is the basic hotel management ethos and a high standard in design and function. 

All of the hotels are remarkable, each in its own way. The Oyster Box is a late addition to the group. It was purchased by the Tollmans in 2006 and has its own remarkable, idiosyncratic history.

The Oyster Box is in Umhlanga Rocks, Durban, South Africa, on the northern side of the city center on the way toward the airport.

The original Oyster Lodge was a cottage made of Burmese teak, corrugated iron and concrete built in 1863 as a navigational beacon. A beautiful old red and white lighthouse still stands in front of the property over the ocean.

The modern history of the Oyster Box begins in 1952 when the cottage and grounds were purchased by Ken O’Connor and his sister Kay O’Connor Hill. They built it up, created a tea garden, then a restaurant, and in March 1954 opened as the Oyster Box hotel.

The property went through changes of ownership and by 2006 the then-owner Wayne Reed wanted to sell the property but was adamant that it not become part of a chain. The Tollmans, originally from South Africa, had a long personal history with the hotel, as it had been the scene where their romance had first bloomed long ago.

Although they own a number of properties, they do not have a chain approach to the business, so Reed was pleased to sell the Oyster Box to the Tollmans.

Red Carnation Hotels purchased the property in 2006 in very run-down condition. After a two-year renovation they opened the new Oyster Box in 2009.

Their goal in the renovation was to restore the hotel to new condition and bring it into the 21st Century while retaining the authenticity of its historical style and character. The Tollmans made major structural changes to the hotel, but kept the changes within the design of the original and preserved many of its most notable features, including the vintage revolving door at the entrance, the reception area with its bold black and white terrazzo floor tiles, a wrought iron balustrade and inlaid, hand-painted tiles on the walls.

The hotel overlooks the Indian Ocean, with its warm currents running down the East African coast. The Oyster Terrace is a lovely outdoor restaurant overlooking the swimming pool, the lighthouse and the Indian Ocean. It’s furnished with red and white chairs and a red awning that match the lighthouse and the red umbrellas at poolside. The bright red and white colors give the scene a feeling of gayety, like on old-fashioned chocolate shop.

The food at the hotel is worth an article in itself. The curry buffet is legendary and draws many people just for the experience of partaking in the authentic Indian cuisine.

Each room is different, but deliciously appointed. Much of the sense of opulence that the hotel projects is from the aesthetic refinement that broadcasts from every detail, not from a monumental scale or use of flashy materials. It always maintains a delicate balance between opulence and friendly home-like comfort.

Antiques and original artwork adorn all the Red Carnation properties and make the Oyster Box into a museum in itself. It even has its own little private theater for viewing classic movies.

I stayed in room number 1. I think it was the only time I’ve ever stayed in room number 1 in any hotel. It had its own little terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean. The room was cozy and homey, with a wrought iron bed frame and black and white striped bedspread and rugs. It was like a little heaven.

My stay at Oyster Box was not without its sorrow. I had to leave after only one night. I had barely gotten started.

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