What to see and where to be seen

"Vervet monkeys visit in the late-afternoon, so we shut the doors and windows." This is the advice I'm given as I dive-bomb into the air-conditioned cool of my suite-size room at Teremok Marine (00 27 31 561 5848; teremok.co.za). My digs are in a refurbished Sixties mansion built by a Russian émigré who early in life escaped the Revolution and ended up making his fortune in South Africa.

The ladies who now own and manage it have injected considerable style into each chic, cosseting space. Mine is a masculine mix of colonial antiques and African artefacts; a cowhide on the floor, mirrors around the tub, and a CD available for my listening pleasure, packed with local tunes.

Durban is the most sub-tropical and multicultural of South Africa's three major cities. But nothing prepares you for the humidity; February is when the mercury peaks. The best advice is to slow down and dress down. Boardshorts and flip-flops are de rigueur, and not just among the salt-encrusted surfer tribes. You quickly grow used to sleeping with the windows open – monkeys or not.

Teremok is the classiest hideaway in Umhlanga Rocks, an upmarket residential enclave just north of Durban. It's also not far from the recently resuscitated grande dame of Umhlanga's beachfront hotel scene, The Oyster Box (00 27 31 514 5000; oysterboxhotel.com), and its famed Lighthouse Bar. The Lighthouse is a mix between fussy retro and S&M fantasy (those lipstick-red canvas-covered bar stools). And you can't fault the location: it's bang up against the sand and rock pools.

I'm soon hurtling up the north coast, chauffeured by friends who've spent their lives in Europe but settled here. We leave the highway and tumble along a dirt road off the beaten track yet just a short distance from the overdeveloped holiday town of Ballito.

Here the Tin Roof (00 27 32 947 2548) is a relaxed eatery attached to a large garden nursery. Open to the elements on three sides, it's the type of place you linger over experiments like calamari and prawns steeped in a pickled ginger beurre noisette, and make sure to save space for desserts which show up looking like freakishly unconventional artworks. Come evening, it's time to hit the city for a proper dinner party. Market (00 27 31 309 8581) is an idyllic bistro where we sit beneath the stars in an enclosed Mediterranean-style courtyard.

One (relatively) early night later, I'm ready for a day in the company of my mate Richard. He and business partner Sthembiso operate Durban's hippest little tour company Street Scene (00 27 71 887 3079; streetscenetours.co.za), with tailored trips through the city and into its seldom-visited townships.

The thing about Durban is that you hardly need to do anything specific to feel its pulse. Just join the merry mob on the beach, or tackle the reckless daredevils on the road and you get a feel for the way its motley-cosmopolitan population dances to its own drum. Nowhere is the cross-pollination more evident than at Warwick Junction where we venture through the heady markets.

Everything from snake skin to tree bark is sold as medicine and sangomas (traditional healers) advise on ailments from erectile dysfunction to visitations by bad spirits. Thrown into the mix are mosques, temples, and churches; Art Deco-meets-Islamic architecture, and Victorian mansions ensconced behind heavy-duty security fences. And, of course, the Golden Mile, a newly rebuilt beachfront promenade.

Our urban safari brings on dramatic hunger. Durban is renowned for its distinctive curry, a fiery variant that's evolved over 150 years. We make a dash for Britannia (00 27 31 303 2266; hotelbrits.co.za). Not the glitziest place in town, it's the city's oldest surviving hotel, now a mix of colonial Victoriana and bland marble innards. Richard orders a "bunny". No, nothing to do with rabbit. Bunny chow is a Durban classic – curry stuffed into a disembodied half-loaf of bread and eaten with the hands.

Later, we head up to Florida Road, a perennially popular drinking strip. A quick survey reveals a clutter of overflowing bars, confused punters shifting between venues. It's too tacky for my taste. Far better to detour towards legendary Bean Bag Bohemia (00 27 31 309 6019; beanbagbohemia.co.za) where owner Guy Wood throws wild, arty soirées attended by Durban's coolest misfits. It's a beloved local institution, ready for action night or day; the list of cocktails inspiring and dangerous.

We beat a retreat from the lemon-grass martinis and grapefruit Collinses, planning a sushi-frenzy in the courtyard garden at Czar (00 27 31 312 8001), a semi-sexy venue in one of Durban's smartest historic houses. Appearance-wise it's light-years up from Britannia, and the crowd is 90 per cent wannabe model.

Proving that looks don't always equate with talent, we experience the longest wait in the history of sushidom. We'd have done better at Café 1999 (00 27 31 202 3406; cafe1999.co.za), the city's best bistro, where the modern Mediterranean fare is as reliable as the attentive waiters.

Finally fed, but with our guest list credentials about to expire, we race over to The Origin (330.co.za), Durban's hottest nightclub. There's every chance of getting lost in here; I give in to the maze of stairways and passages, discovering a different vibe on each dancefloor. The mix of shiny, happy people – and perfectly concocted sound – makes this a great night.

Our aching limbs finally remind us that we're no longer teenagers, so we spill on to the pre-dawn streets. Clubs close early here; the surfers have waves to catch at sunrise...

A Hedonist's Guide to... (Hg2) is a luxury city guide series for the more decadent traveller. For more information, see hg2.com