Durban Reborn

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By James Siddall

Durban—once she was the default holiday destination for most of white South Africa. Legions of us have childhood memories of sticky summers spent on her beaches, in her amusement parks, of rickshaw rides and visits to Mini Town.

In later years her star perhaps dimmed a bit. Some of us began to see the holiday capital of our youth as a scrofulous port city, with summers so humid you could drink the air. 

And like a fading dowager, she was overshadowed by the Cape and KZN’s own north coast—from the mushrooming Umhlanga on—as a holiday venue.

But the Durban of today—the Durban of the New Millennium, the Durban that was so reworked and re-energised for the 2010 FIFA World Cup—now explodes with energy and purpose. Her skyline is dominated by the MOSES MABHIDA STADIUM with its signature arch rising 105 metres, and stretching 350 metres. Of course, when building the stadium was first mooted, many were the doomsayers and naysayers who decried its cost, and the phrase “White Elephant” was gaily bandied about. But when it was completed, its majesty—which includes more than 100 columns varying up to 46 metres high—took many a breath away. And those detractors suddenly went very quiet. 

Today the Moses Mabhida stadium is a destination in itself—even when it’s not hosting an international artist, a football match or an event like the Top Gear Festival. Particularly popular is the SkyCar—a funicular that runs the length of the stadium’s arch, giving a spectacular view of the city sprawling below. For an even more adrenaline-filled experience, try the Big Swing. It’s billed as the world’s only stadium swing and is in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest swing of any kind anywhere, allowing the steel-nerved to jump into the void 106 metres above the pitch and swing out in a massive 220 metre arc under the iconic arch. Marginally less traumatic is the Adventure Walk up some 500 steps to the top of the arch—the longest-spanning arch of any stadium in the world, which of course makes Durbanites very proud. The whole arch, by the way, weighs around 2 600 tons.

Or you can go for a Segway Gliding Tour, led by a tour guide, which is an even more stress-free way to experience the stadium, while Moses Mabhida is also billed as a perfect place for product launches and functions.

Almost within a stone’s throw of the stadium is SUNCOAST CASINO AND ENTERTAINMENT WORLD. It looks like a slice of art deco Miami that’s been dropped onto the beachfront—which is precisely what it’s meant to be. And it works. After all, Durban has a surprising amount in common with Miami, with both being essentially tri-cultural, sub-tropical cities.

Suncoast sprawls over what is billed as “26 acres of entertainment heaven”. But even if you shun gambling as a tawdry affair, as I do, and don’t bother with the casino—with its 1 450 slot machines and 56 gaming tables—or even the Salon Privé, there’s still plenty to do, from visiting one of the 12 restaurants and fast food outlets to the eight cinemas.

You can stay here, too, in the upmarket Suncoast Towers or the more affordable SunSquare Suncoast. Both have access to the Suncoast Sundeck, a grassed tanning area that’s very popular with locals and visitors alike. Around R1,4 billion was sunk into Suncoast, making it the biggest investment along the beachfront. It shows, too, and along with the INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION CENTRE and USHAKA MARINE WORLD, it forms part of the city’s ‘golden triangle’.

Getting from Suncoast to uShaka is easy—and delightful. You simply traverse the revamped beachfront promenade, which is another World Cup-inspired legacy. This paved walkway runs six kilometres along the Golden Mile, from Blue Lagoon north of Suncoast, to uShaka in the south. Along the way it takes in the likes of BATTERY BEACH, SNAKE PARK, NORTH BEACH, and BAY OF PLENTY, much loved by surfers.

Meanwhile, uShaka itself is punted as Africa’s largest marine theme park, and stretches over 15 hectares of prime beachfront property. Detractors might dub it as a bit too Disney for its own good, but it’s impressive not just by Durban standards but also by world standards, and its promoters boast of “the 51 820 things to do at uShaka”. That might be pushing it a bit, but uShaka’s attractions are manifold, and include the Sea World complex, featuring the largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere, with underground viewing galleries extending 500 metres through a series of four shipwreck re-creations. Then there’s uShaka’s Wet ’n Wild, a playground of fresh-water slides and pools, including the Drop Zone, Africa’s highest slide.

Shops and restaurants abound too, and easily the most spectacular—and upmarket—is the Cargo Hold Restaurant. It’s set in the Phantom Ship, which dominates uShaka, and has views of both the ocean and the shark tank, with one whole wall looking into the tank.

Meanwhile, BELL’S BEACH, adjacent to uShaka Marine World, is set aside for windsurfing, kite surfing, paddle-boat rides and more, and is now one of Durban’s most loved beaches.

The ICC—the other part of Durban’s ‘golden triangle’—is yet another edifice that makes Durbanites rather proud, and with no hyperbole is punted as “one of the most advanced conference facilities in the world”.

And, of course, the Golden Mile is still lined with hotels. One of my favourites remains THE EDWARD, with its cool, calm, colonial elegance, and which has hosted princes, presidents, field marshals, movie stars and tycoons since 1911. But the finest KZN hotel is no longer in Durban itself—for that you’ll have to travel north to Umhlanga to the revamped OYSTER BOX. Indeed, this is not just the premier hotel in the province, but one of the best in all of South Africa and, remarkably for a five-star hotel, it’s pet-friendly too. I’ve stayed there twice this year with my hounds, Daisy and Milo, the Indian Ocean crashing mere metres away. It’s now the default choice for visiting celebrities, and the Presidential Suite—at R50 000 a night—redefines the word ‘opulent’—although of course there’s more affordable accommodation to be had.

Service at the Oyster Box transcends superb, and staff give the credible impression that since time began they’ve been waiting for your arrival. The daily curry buffet at The Ocean Terrace is possibly and probably the finest in a province renowned for its curries, while the daily high tea is a colonial repast to be conjured with.

Another culinary nugget is 9TH AVENUE RESTAURANT, winner of the Best Bistro of the Year award at the 2012 Eat Out Awards, and one of only two KZN restaurants to make the honours list. The restaurant might overlook a car park in a small shopping centre in the suburb of Morningside, a few minutes from the beachfront, but the dining experience quickly transcends the prosaic setting.

Also worth seeking out in the suburbs is AMARAVATHI PALKI on the Berea, where you can expect opulent décor and chefs from India, making it a classic curry house. 

And still in the Durban suburbs, where grand old colonial houses abound, try out UPTON HALL. This upscale boutique hotel is located in a refurbished, pre-war mansion in Upper Morningside, and once more is old Durban at its finest. So too is AUDACIA MANOR, set in a restored 1928 colonial mansion on the slopes of Durban’s Berea.

On the fashion front, Durban holds its own, and the home-grown brand HOLMES BROTHERS—this summer their line-up is “all about local”—shouldn’t be missed. Their T-shirts are especially iconic, and it’s not particularly surprising the brand has gone national. And it would be silly to visit Durban and to miss the perennially buzzing VICTORIA STREET MARKET. Here India meets Africa at over 170 stalls, selling everything from spices to arts and crafts.

Then, of course, to get back to the 21st century, there’s GATEWAY THEATRE OF SHOPPING in Umhlanga. When it was opened it was billed as the biggest mall in the southern hemisphere, and here you’ll find everything from international brands to a wave park. In the cloying humidity of peak summer, the air-conditioning of places such as Gateway makes for a welcome respite—before a stroll at dusk down Durban’s promenade, along with what seems like half the population of this multi-cultural, multi-faceted and beguiling city. And once more I am reminded why Durban has been my home for 42 years.