Durban Delights

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By James Siddall

Aah, Durban. My home for almost half a century. A home I sometimes get just a little bit annoyingly smug about—as do so many of my fellow citizens. You can’t really blame us because, you see, in the common mind the city is often relegated to being just a holiday destination.

And it’s true, Durban does offer much to the tourist, and top of that list is brilliant beaches and weather—that only get better during the champagne days of winter, when sunshine is almost perpetual and the nights and days are free of humidity. There is of course more. Within a couple of hours’ driving distance from the city centre there’s the happy triumvirate of bush, battlefields and berg. Indeed, the last holds a special magic for me, with my two canine companions and I decamping to the pet-friendly Ardmore Guest Farm in the Champagne Valley of the central Berg several times a year.

Durban just so happens to be one of the finest places to live in the country. And just to add some icing, it’s officially a better place to live in than Joburg and even Cape Town. International company Mercer recently released the results of its 2015 Quality of Living Survey. It placed Durban in 85th place, trumping Cape Town at 91 and Joburg at 94—cue proud Durbanites.

But, what really makes us just a little smug is we know the city and its surrounds are world-class in terms of everything from eating out to culture and even innovation. Indeed, it rivals—and in some cases outstrips—its bigger, bolder siblings.

Another driver of the smugness is there’s huge support for the city for the 2020 Commonwealth Games bid. Prestige aside, spin-offs would include job creation and upgraded facilities—while the eyes of the world would be on our city.

As it is, Durban’s hotels, for one, are right up there with the world’s finest. And what makes these hotels especially remarkable is they’re not just the preserve of tourists, businesspeople and out-of-towners, but are used with relish by locals.

The finest of these? Well, it’s a draw between the regal Beverly Hills Hotel and The Oyster Box Hotel, both in Umhlanga. In terms of excellence, appeal and history both are neck and neck. But it’s the colonial Oyster Box I spend more time at—only partly because it’s pet-friendly. There’s something delightfully film star-like about taking tea in the lounge of an elegant grand dame of a hotel with your woofers next to you. Or eating at the Ocean Terrace Restaurant —where its fabled daily curry buffet shines, even in a city renowned for its curries—while you order for your dogs off the special pet menu.

Right next door, the Beverly Hills Hotel rears up like an elegant, pre-war ocean liner. Even today the hotel is a sanctuary, replete with hushed elegance. When hotel magnate Sol Kerzner first opened it back in 1961, it’s easy to see why it quite simply stunned the country—making it the default stopover for celebrities, royalty and captains of industry. Sip on cocktails at The Vista Terrace, or dine on some of the finest cuisine in the country at The Sugar Club.The Lighthouse Bar  But if you want to know where the city’s beautiful people flock for sundowners, look towards  where live music from top bands is a regular fixture.

For some cutting-edge entertainment there’s the new Sky—a multipurpose venue high on the 31st floor of the Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani Hotel’s Maharani Tower, bang on Durban’s Golden Mile. Views of the coastline are endless, and Sky, by the way, represents a complete renovation of the fabled old Raffles bar that three decades ago electrified the old Maharani. Sky is now pitched at everything from conferences and launches to themed evenings and private functions. Let’s hope it becomes the draw-card the original Raffles was.

Some news—the venerable, 167-year-old Royal Hotel  was recently sold by its Swazi owner to a Durban businessman and hotelier. Thumbs are being held it’ll soon be returned to its former glory, from its uniformed doorman to epoch-setting restaurants.

And speaking of cuisine, there’s an awful lot more to Durban than just bunny chow—the one culinary staple the city is, of course, synonymous with. The city’s eateries are many—and impressive. The revered Restaurant Ile Maurice in Umhlanga, for instance, offers French cuisine with big emphasis on seafood. Then there’s the acclaimed 9th Avenue Bistro in Morningside, Durban. Now don’t be fooled. It may look onto the parking lot of a small suburban mall, but once you get stuck into the fresh seasonal fare—and do try the six-course tasting menu—you’ll realise why it has had award after award heaped on it since opening in 2001. It’s impossible to write about Durban without mentioning at least one other Indian eatery. There are dozens to choose from, but me? I’ve always had a soft spot for Palki—or Amaravathi Palki,  to give it its full name—in Berea.

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Then there’s something about the city’s steaminess—well, steamy in Durban summer, that is—that makes it a hotbed for creation. Enter then Umcebo Design, who are flying high. These makers of bespoke handmade décor items are reaching for the sky, and have just secured a European agent for their work (specifically, Sontuli Art) based in Austria. They’re also busy working with beads and wire and are filling orders for their chandelier design, showcased at the World Design Capital 2014. Plus they’re preparing for an exhibition—opening on the 21st of July this year—at the KZNSA gallery. All helmed by creative director Robin Opperman.

Yet another thing we are richly and justly proud of is Moses Mabhida Stadium, with its arch soaring 109 metres above the city. This place, too, has become a destination on its own. With not just tourists but locals revelling in the likes of the two-minute SkyCar ride up the stadium arch—or plunging off that same arch in the Big Swing.

It so happens Durbanites are a sartorial bunch, giving life to the cliché of a culture of shorts-’n-slops—although that hasn’t been totally eradicated. Enter then fashion designer Haroun Hansrot. He has been making a name for himself on local and international fashion ramps, having showcased in places from Italy to Berlin. With his bespoke designs and an impeccable sense of romantic style—with intricately beaded and detailed fabric that embodies the ethereal and classic—Haroun is currently the designer to watch. Haroun’s exclusive designs are available at his boutique ‘75’ at 75 Matthews Meyiwa Rd, in Greyville.

Then there’s The Cargo Hold Restaurant nestled in the stern of the Phantom Ship at Ushaka Marine World. What a spectacular culinary setting —alongside a shark tank. You'll be dining with silvertip sharks, black tip reef sharks, guitarfish, skipjacks, barracudas and many other under-the- sea creatures. Now where else can you do that? 

Then there’s The BAT Centre—an arts and culture community centre at the Small Craft Harbour, off Durban’s Victoria Embankment. Its mission is simple and noble: to celebrate the arts and culture of not just the city, but also the province and the country. And, of course, to help create jobs for those same artists. It also acts as a community culture centre, and very good news indeed is its Sunday Jazz Sundowners are once more in evidence.

How could we forget Abruzzo Merchant Company in Umhlanga Ridge? This new outfit is famed for Italian delicacies from pasta to salami to truffles. By the time you read this, the adjacent  La Peritivo Cafe should have opened, while the  L’Aperitivo Venue will feature live jazz, corporate functions and more.

I could go on telling you—no, make that boasting about—how this city far eclipses its hackneyed old ‘fun in the sun’ label. But frankly, I think you need to discover that for yourself...