Belmond Legends: Mount Nelson

Words by Belmond Editors

Belmond Legends: Mount Nelson

A woman in a brown hat, white shirt and green trousers stands on her suite balcony looking at the view through binoculars.

The one trailblazer of Cape Town and the icon behind the ‘Mount Nelson Pink’ carnation, our mythical hotel has set the standard for luxury for more than a century – discover the Belmond legend.

Mountain Magic

It’s impossible to talk about Cape Town without mentioning its oldest and most distinguished resident, Table Mountain. Once a sacred site for Khoi- and San-speaking tribes, and a beacon of promise for seafaring explorers in search of a safe harbour, this level-headed icon is one of the oldest mountains in the world, with a solid 200-million-year head start on the Alps. 

Shaded by this venerable neighbour, the area at the mountain’s base was always in high demand. Purchasing a prime plot in 1843, Sir Hamilton Ross built a family homestead and established the most beautiful garden in Cape Town, complete with deer and a regal fountain. The property was sold in 1890 to the magnate of the Union Castle Shipping Line, who made it his mission to create a luxury hotel to rival those of Europe for his well-heeled passengers. In every way he succeeded; the Mount Nelson officially opened in March 1899 to rave reviews, declaring it ‘even better than its London counterparts’.

The hotel would prove a pivotal player throughout the Cape’s tumultuous history. It served as headquarters for the British during the South African War (winning the affections of Winston Churchill, then just a young war correspondent). In 1918 the hotel was painted pink by Italian manager Aldo Renato: a colour that celebrated peace at the close of the First World War. This sparked a trend for luxury hotels throughout Europe, each trying to emulate the ‘Mount Nelson Pink’.

PLAYGROUND OF CAPE TOWN

Mount Nelson spent the next century welcoming world luminaries, setting the stage for some exceptional stories. The Prince of Wales visited in 1925; the palm-lined driveway built to welcome him still stands proud today. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would stay in 1928, outraging other guests by hosting séances in his room alongside his likeminded spiritualists. In 1980, John Lennon could be found meditating on our lawns; he checked in under the pseudonym ‘Mr. Greenwood’ and was noted as an exceptionally tidy guest.

Over the years, the hotel has continued to emanate an otherworldly allure that proves irresistible. One well-to-do Capetonian couple, Isodore and Therese Cohen, even chose to sell their 24-bedroom mansion in Bishopscourt to take up permanent residence in one of Mount Nelson’s suites. Nelson Mandela would visit frequently; as the President of South Africa, he would wander from Government Avenue to the hotel without bodyguards just to have some tea in the Lounge. In 1999, the Dalai Lama sat cross-legged in our ballroom, sharing ice cream with his assembled devotees as he spoke on the Four Noble Truths. Whether as a place of pilgrimage or a place to party, the rose-tinted walls of what has become affectionately known as ‘The Nellie’ always offers a joyful welcome.

SENSES AWAKENED

With such a font of history to draw on, Mount Nelson’s glittering present more than matches its past. Certain rituals have become ageless institutions; afternoon tea in the Lounge is just as decadently glamorous as it was in 1989. The gardens are still a point of pride: a slice of paradise where you can sip classic cocktails beneath a pristine parasol, watching the clouds tumble over Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. The peaceful corner where Librisa Spa has been setting South Africa’s standard of pampering for more than 20 years.

It's a place to feel the trailblazing gastronomic heartbeat of Cape Town; where the city’s culinary verve and flair is playfully distilled and proudly amplified. The Red Room by Chefs Warehouse has a speakeasy spirit. Hidden behind an exclusive side entrance, step down the stairs and into Chef Liam Tomlin’s bold vision of pan-Asian fusion. Taste seasonality at its most sublime on The Verandah, where Chef George Jardine’s menu morphs every two weeks. Or slip into Planet Bar after an evening sampling the delights of Kloof Street and find enchantment somewhere between the starlight and a martini glass. 

The mountains, the memories and the moonlight. At the Mount Nelson, the joy is effervescent enough to stop the clock; where there’s more than enough time to live out your next legendary scene.

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