The Sun City showman is back – with a touch of class
Times have changed in South Africa, as Sol Kerzner and his new resort prove.
Sunday 21 June 2009
Even if you've never heard of Sol Kerzner, you would have your breath taken away on arrival at his One&Only hotel in Cape Town. Instead of crossing a featureless expanse of carpet to a standard reception desk, you are greeted by a three-storey sheet of glass, perfectly framing the city's iconic Table Mountain – so perfectly that it looks like a projection.
And if you have heard of Sol Kerzner, you would be even more amazed. Can this cool, tasteful establishment, all dark wood and restrained, organic colours, really belong to the brash South African leisure and gambling tycoon who created a fantasy version of Africa with his Sun City and Lost City resorts? There it was fake palaces, planted jungles, slot machines and a whiff of sleaze; here, as if to mock your expectations, the doorman's jacket has leopard-print lapels, but that motif is repeated nowhere else. No phoney zebra stripes either, just a few palm trees, which are not native to this region of South Africa. And not a one-armed bandit in sight.
It was the same when I reached my room. There were no thudding drums, no hint that one was on some kind of safari. Instead there was an egg-shaped bath, a Nespresso machine, an iPod dock and a lighting system so complex I never quite mastered it. Fortunately, there was a butler on call to sort it out.
Nobody is more entitled to be bemused by Sol Kerzner's latest creation than his fellow countrymen and women. They might not have heard much of him since the early 1990s, when he launched the Lost City. At that stage the magnate had already relocated abroad to focus on developing his international business, principally the gargantuan Atlantis island resort and casino in the Bahamas, and his interests in South Africa, where he built more than 30 hotels, tailed off. Early this century, he relinquished control of Sun City and Lost City. When he returned, with the One&Only, it was his first new investment in his native land for 17 years.
To some, the timing seems connected to the political changes South Africa has undergone since the days Mr Kerzner was building up his Southern Sun empire. What made his fortune then was building holiday playgrounds and casinos within the borders of apartheid-era "homelands", whose independence was recognised nowhere except in Pretoria. Repressed white South Africans flocked there to experience pleasures banned by the Calvinistic regime at home – gambling, topless showgirls, and, though Sun City insisted it gave no encouragement to prostitution, interracial sex. Performers from Frank Sinatra to Elton John were persuaded that the resort was "not really" in South Africa. Top golfers, lured by the first $1m prize in the sport, were equally keen to turn a blind eye to geography.
But then apartheid began to crumble. Thanks to Steve Van Zandt, who recruited his old mate Bruce Springsteen and other artists to record a protest song and album named after the resort, Sun City came to be seen as a symbol of the regime. Nor was that the only reason Mr Kerzner had a PR problem. In a recent book, After the Party, Andrew Feinstein, a former MP in the first post-apartheid parliament, describes a meeting with the businessman in which he proposed that he be granted a licence for a mega-casino south of Johannesburg, plus a deal to allow no other casinos for hundreds of miles around. The African National Congress representatives were "not just sceptical but insulted", Feinstein writes. "Kerzner assumed that the new government would be much like the homeland leaders he had dealt with in the past."
At about the same time, the ANC government placed Mr Kerzner under investigation for alleged bribery of a "homeland" leader. Though charges were dropped, for a while the accusation jeopardised his attempts to gain gambling licences in the US, where he is now a major operator. Given all this, did he decide to absent himself from the land of his birth? "Not at all," he insisted when I spoke to him by telephone in London. "I met with Nelson Mandela within months of his release – he's become a friend of mine. I think there's recognition [that] ... we as an organisation were creating tens of thousands of jobs, and that we were busy promoting South African tourism."
Mr Mandela and his family attended the opening lunch at the Cape Town hotel in April, apparently signalling that whatever the ANC might have felt about Sol Kerzner in the past, all is now party-poppers and champagne. If anything, his development had worse trouble with the opposition-controlled Cape Town city authorities, who imposed height restrictions that prevented him building as many rooms as he would have liked. It has a relatively modest 131, of which 90 are in the main building, all with the same panoramic view of Table Mountain. Another 40 suites are on two artificial islands in a marina created out of what used to be the main fuel storage area of Cape Town's docks. One island houses a lavish health spa, the other what is claimed to be Cape Town's largest hotel pool.
Even though the One&Only is Mr Kerzner's upmarket brand, incorporating smaller, one-off resorts from Mexico to the Maldives, size clearly matters to a man dubbed the "Sun King" in South Africa, where he is seen as combining the bluntness of Sir Alan Sugar with the invective of Gordon Ramsay (of whom more later). If Sol Kerzner cannot build as high as he desires, he still wants to be able to boast about the spaciousness of his accommodation, and certainly my entry-level room was large enough to make the vast and very comfortable double bed look like a single. So, he asked, what did I think?
I told him truthfully that I was impressed. The One&Only has revived Cape Town's Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, and sets a new standard for hotel accommodation in a city preparing for football's World Cup next year. The Green Point stadium, which will stage eight matches in 2010, is under construction a short walk away. The hotel is the first of the One&Onlys in the middle of a city. Though its proprietor calls it an "urban resort", there is no reason why business people might not want to stay there, if the recession has not made their employers too cost-conscious.
And the One&Only incorporates not just one, but two "name" restaurants. On your right, as you tear your eyes away from the view of Table Mountain, is the first branch in Africa of Nobu, serving such inspired combinations of Japanese, South American and South African tastes as yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno. On the left is the first outpost of the Gordon Ramsay empire in Africa, modelled on Maze restaurant in London that won his protégé, Jason Atherton, a Michelin star in its first year.
Here the emphasis is on steak, from Wagyu to rump, and tapas-style tasting dishes, some from traditional South African recipes. The crowning glory of Maze, however, is its wine loft, a triple-storey, glass-sided affair holding 5,000 bottles, including 450 different South African wines.
During the recent slump in sterling, South Africa was one of the few destinations that did not suddenly look far more expensive to British travellers. Even if you cannot afford to stay at the One&Only, you will find its restaurants better value than their London versions – the seven-course tasting menu at Nobu, for example, is the equivalent of £42. Not that there was any shortage of Capetonians eating there or at Maze. Given the times and the One&Only's location, it makes sense to encourage local custom.
But the entrepreneur has a history of big bets, and in Cape Town he had a stroke of luck. The Indian Premier League Twenty20 cricket tournament, one of the world's richest sporting events, abruptly switched to South Africa because of terrorism fears, just in time to stage its opening ceremony at the One&Only. And if cricket supplied a welcome fillip for the hotel just as the Cape was heading into what can often be a wet and windy winter, football is set to do the same between mid-June and mid-July next year.
Speaking to Sol Kerzner, I had to confess I had found the One&Only Cape Town different from what Sun City might have led me to expect. There, I suggested, he had been accused of creating a fantasy Africa. "Why not?" was his response. "That's exactly what my brief was."
Ever the showman is Mr Kerzner, but in Cape Town he has opted for what by his standards is a chamber piece rather than a big, brassy fanfare, and it was altogether more to my taste.
How to get there
Raymond Whitaker was a guest of Thomas Cook Signature (0844 871 6640; tcsignature.com), which offers a week at One&Only Cape Town (oneandonlyresorts.com) from £2,025 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights with British Airways from London Heathrow to Cape Town, transfers and accommodation in a Marina View Room on a B&B basis. His car hire was arranged by Auto Europe (0800 358 1229; auto-europe.co.uk), which offers a week's rental, starting at £84.
After the Party, Verso, £14.99.
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