Our story starts in 1863 when a young cottage used as a navigational beacon was converted into a lodge and went by the name of ‘The Oyster Lodge’, a regular accommodation option for travellers in the city. Flash forward to 1952 when the property was sold to siblings Kay and Ken O’Conner who enveloped it with a tea garden, and furnished it with the more sophisticated name of ‘The Oyster Box’. Newly christened, the hotel invited unto its lap, good reputation because of its service, and some very inﬂuential guests and memorable encounters. Only in the middle of the last decade, the property changed hands again, but The Oyster Box, had become quite the grandmother, wrinkled in multiple places, and in need of some quick ﬁx to be able to gleam as much as its neighbouring millennial hotels, while keeping the old woman’s character intact.
Two years of treatment later, in 2009, the hotel presented itself like an aristocratic queen, and although much has changed inside, it’s easy to see what it didn’t let go of—the grand, revolving door at the entrance, the reception and foyer with its black and white terrazzo tiles; familiar wrought iron balustrade and original, inlaid hand-painted tiles and friezes. Outside the hotel is the historical red and white lighthouse of Umhlanga that has stood the test of time, holding hands with the hotel as an equally popular landmark in the city. In fact, when the hotel took bookings last time it was plastered for renovation, guests complained of not being told the lighthouse was unavailable! Today, those who walk in through the revolving door, dress to impress The Oyster Box. And when they walk out, they leave the hotel with fond memories to feed on from its various cosy spots.
The Ocean Terrace patio, the Ocean Terrace Restaurant, the wine cellar, the Grill Room, the Oyster Bar, and the Light House Bar, resound the compliments in the walls long after the guests have marvelled the legendary High Tea or the Umhlanga Schling cocktail, the wine collection, or the movie they caught at their 24-seater movie theatre. Among patrons are Princes’ Harry and William, King Goodwill Zwelithini, the king of the Zulus, and more recently, Prince Albert of Monaco, who held a second reception at the hotel, soon after their wedding in Monaco.
But the Oyster Box holds a particular memory of 1952 very close to its heart, of two Jo’Burg residents, Stanley and Bea who found themselves at the hotel the same week during which, one evening, Stanley oﬀered Bea what she had never eaten before: oysters. Keen on trying, but subsequently spitting her mouthful on the ﬂoor was too ‘unladylike’, Bea admitted, but that very night sparked the 60-year romance between these two strangers, who now own the hotel. One of the insiders at the hotel is Head Chef Luke Nair, who has seen the hotel achieve many of its milestones, and has served the likes of the Queen, Prince Charles and Lady Diana, Mark Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Al Gore. Recently, he has given the kitchen the popular curry buﬀ et, full of Indian favourites; rotis, lamb curry, ﬁsh delicacies et al.
There’s a celebrity too, who walked in one day, fell in love with The Oyster Box, and never left. Skabenga, meaning ‘hooligan’ in Zulu, is the resident cat who’s been around for more than 10 years, has a favourite couch, takes his daily inspection strolls, and is known to have an impeccable sense of time, emerging out of nowhere every time the red carpet is put out on for VIP guests like David Cameron or Princess Charlene of Monaco. Without doubt, I add to the memories of the grand old dame in Durban, and when the door revolves behind me, something unfathomable has been exchanged. —Anwesha Sanyal