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The Oyster Box

Volume 6 (Explore), Spring 2022
A Durban beachfront stalwart since the 1950s, this iconic hotel is a desirable address for good reason

A LOOKBOOK Studio production  Words by Lynette Botha  Photography by Hayden Phipps  Art direction & Styling by Charl Francois Edwards 

A gentle splash emanates from the pool.

 The sound of children laughing fills the air for a moment, but not annoyingly so. An immaculately attired waiter bearing a silver tray deftly delivers cocktails to a loved-up couple lolling on the sun loungers – and just as quickly disappears.

The sun beats down. 

A pair of elderly gentlemen, dressed in their finest and sipping something strong, mumble under their breath as they play backgammon on the deck. 

The seaside landmark’s ubiquitous red-and-white stripes – which mimic the colours of the iconic lighthouse at its forefront – are reflected in a pair of sunglasses that have been discarded poolside. 

‘Excluse me sir, can I get you another martini?’

Meet the hotelier…

‘I asked her out for that evening – alone – to the famed Oyster Box Restaurant, which had an elegant ambiance of times gone by, an Anglo-Indian outpost set on the coast of South Africa that served the finest oysters to be found anywhere.  Wanting to impress Bea, I dressed my best, with a red carnation in my lapel, and arranged to have the maître d’ seat us at the finest table in the house – number five – the place to see and be seen.’ – Stanley Tollman, late owner of The Oyster Box Hotel and founder of Red Carnation Hotels, speaks about his first date with wife Bea

Above Left The Palm Court, famous for its high tea, opulent decor and palm fans. The original cottage, The Oyster Lodge, was built in 1863. Over a century later, in 1952, the property was transformed into an elegant hotel, with tea garden and restaurant, before being purchased by the Tollmans in 2006, undergoing an extensive renovation, and becoming the grand beachfront hotel we know today.

1952 was the beginning of many things in this tale. It’s when Beatrice first caught the eye of hotelier Stanley Tollman; it’s when they both fell in love with The Oyster Box (which they’d end up purchasing in 2006) after their first date; and it’s also said to be the catalyst for the imagining of Red Carnation Hotels, the multi-award-winning hotel group that the couple started shortly after their wedding in 1954. 

It may have been a love story that led Bea and her late husband, Stanley, to buy the property, but when they acquired it, it was in no shape for visitors, having fallen into disrepair and in great need of a renovation. ‘Early on in the project we realised that the existing structure was so poor, we had no choice but to demolish about 90% of the building and reconstruct it entirely,’ says the project architect, Anton de Kock. Extensive renovations ensued for more than two years – resulting in the elegant hotel we know today.

Above and below The building’s original statement spiral staircase remains, having been protected during the extensive renovations – now complemented by a black-and-white checkered marble floor that is also in keeping with the initial design. Each of the 86 rooms is unique in design, with artwork and decor inspired by oceanic and botanical scenes. Another element of the original building that remains is the ornate tiled artwork of a flower vase and bird, found at the top of the spiral staircase. The staff of The Oyster Box Hotel wear old-style uniforms that complement the hotel’s interiors.

Above The building’s original statement spiral staircase remains, having been protected during the extensive renovations – now complemented by a black-and-white checkered marble floor that is also in keeping with the initial design. Each of the 86 rooms is unique in design, with artwork and decor inspired by oceanic and botanical scenes. Another element of the original building that remains is the ornate tiled artwork of a flower vase and bird, found at the top of the spiral staircase. The staff of The Oyster Box Hotel wear old-style uniforms that complement the hotel’s interiors.

Meet the architect…

‘The original brief from the Tollmans was “We want the best hotel in the world, without compromising the old hotel’s welcoming character.” We drew inspiration from the existing eclectic architectural forms and interior finishes and extended these throughout the new build. 

My favourite part of the building is The Palm Court, perhaps because it’s the heart of the hotel – where all the spaces and circulation routes come together. After opening, many old patrons who knew the hotel intimately were convinced that The Palm Court had always been there. This made me very happy because that is exactly what we set out to achieve.’ – Anton de Kock, Design and Project Architect

Bea, founder and president of Red Carnation Hotels, and her daughter Toni, executive vice president and director of design and projects for Red Carnation Hotels, really wanted to honour the legacy of the grande dame of a hotel – to restore it to its former 1950s glory – while making it modern and acknowledging the KwaZulu-Natal landscape within which it resides. And they succeeded. While steeped in tradition and celebrating its heritage, nothing about it feels dated. The Tollmans’ love story is still felt in the opulent hotel, with personal touches that make guests feel welcome. One such ‘guest’ is stray tabby cat Skabenga, the hotel’s waspish mascot who presides over the lobby area.

Occupying a golden stretch of Umhlanga coastline, the elegant hotel is made up of 86 rooms, as well as private villas and suites, and an array of restaurants, an award-winning spa, two swimming pools and a private movie theatre. But another thing that sets The Oyster Box apart is its extensive art collection – a wide selection of work by South African artists that emphasises the distinctive creativity of KwaZulu-Natal. As the hotel notes: ‘There are over 100 paintings by twelve artists, all living and working in the KwaZulu-Natal province. Their narrative style is of vital importance in understanding South African history and specifically Zulu culture. A poignant historical counterpoint to this contemporary collection is a series of 43 woodblocks by the late Cecil Skotnes, illustrating the life of Shaka Zulu, who reigned as king of the Zulus from 1816 to 1828. Intricate, creative ceramic and mosaic murals by South African Jane du Rand, a ceramicist now based in Australia, can also be discovered throughout.’

Above The Lighthouse Bar on the rooftop has the best seat in the house with spectacular ocean views and the hotel’s unmistakable red-and-white colour scheme on display – an iconic part of the Umhlanga beachfront. Guests have direct access to the pavilion and promenade from the hotel.

While the interiors are a standout feature of the hotel, its outdoor areas deserve just as much recognition – but here the view does most of the work. Its capacious deck that appears to hover just above the beach is where guests while away their hours around the pool, enjoying the abundant coastal sunshine. 

Dotted throughout The Oyster Box (and each of the group’s properties) are signature scented red candles, the brainchild of Toni. Toni says that her inspiration for these came from acclaimed fashion designer Diana Vreeland who said that in each room there should be a touch of red… And that’s unmistakeably true at this one-of-a-kind hotel.