All That Glimmers

 South Africa’s Saxon offers a new ‘gold’ standard

By: David Swanson

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Hotel Restaurant

I believe I have found a payable reef of gold,” reported Australian prospector George Harrison in 1886.

It was a vast understatement, as the Kimberly Reef the prospector had located turned out to be the world’s richest, and the gold rush that ensued promptly built Johannesburg, South Africa, making the city prosperous in just a few short years.

The century that followed was not always so hopeful — especially during the depths of the apartheid era. But South Africa’s rebirth since apartheid ended in the early 1990s has been felt no more strongly than in Johannesburg, the city built on a reef of gold. A new business center grew in the suburb of Sandton and a roster of excellent hotels sprang up, allowing the city to become firmly entrenched as the financial hub for sub-Saharan Africa.

Of all the posh properties on offer, none is more unique or luxurious than the Saxon.

Located in the vaunted residential neighborhood of Sandhurst in Sandton, the Saxon started as the private residence of South African Douw Steyn, an insurance magnate and friend of Nelson Mandela. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he stayed for seven months at Steyn’s home to complete his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.”

In 2000, Steyn transformed the residence into a hotel. With just 24 suites, it is a decidedly boutique operation, though one with 150 employees, 24-hour room service and an ardent following.

A member of Leading Small Hotels of the World, some of the original residence is obvious today, but the Saxon feels like it was designed to be an exclusive hotel, with generous common areas fanning out from the lobby. A trademark of the hotel is the use of African art and crafts: One 25-foot-high wall is lined with dozens of woven baskets; another features shell-laden textiles from Congo. A chandelier is made from ostrich eggs, while one corridor is lined with sketches of some of Steyn’s more famous guests, many of Mandela. Asian influences are subtly interspersed through artwork and the building’s sleek, spare architecture.

Evenings start at the piano bar, stocked with champagne and South Africa’s best wines, and lead in to the Saxon’s dining room, a hushed two-story venue with a wine cellar ringing the room’s second floor. The food is excellent, with a menu that changes weekly, and the weekend brunch is a regal repast with smoked fish and oysters. Day or night, special attention is devoted to desserts, under the watch of pastry chef Nicholas van der Walt.

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Standard suites are appropriately lavish, measuring 982 square feet, with large windows covered in wooden shades (necessary on the ground floor for privacy). The accommodations also include work stations with fax machine and full wireless, and surround-sound systems throughout for the CD and DVD players. Three Presidential Suites feature separate lounge and dining
areas opening onto a balcony and a fully equipped butler’s kitchen. The Nelson Mandela Platinum Suite — where the former president often stays — is a sumptuous, two-bedroom unit with a reception area, lounge, dining room and a bathroom equipped with Jacuzzi and steam room.

For being located in the middle of the largest city in southern Africa, the Saxon is surprisingly peaceful and quiet. Often used by visiting heads of state, Saxon regulars include Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, lured by both the hotel’s renowned level of service and its privacy.

“There are very few hotels located within gated communities,” said Karen Van Schalkwyk, the Saxon’s sales and marketing manager, implicitly acknowledging some of the security issues that trouble Johannesburg. “That’s very important for the American market.”

Other amenities include a 60-seat screening room, meeting and conference facilities for small groups, and two swimming pools — one a broad infinity pool, the other a heated pool embraced by the bows of a jacaranda tree, both with underwater sound systems.

The top asset for leisure travelers is the hotel’s 13,000-square-foot spa — huge for a property of this size — added in 2006. A flotation pool, color therapy and Tibetan sound therapy are among the unique treatments on offer. (Tip for agents: Pre-book a spa treatment for arriving clients to help cope with jetlag or post-safari fatigue.) In June, the Saxon’s spa was awarded “Top Day Spa in South Africa” by Les Nouvelles Esthetiques, a spa magazine published in 30 countries.

But this is just another of the accolades that the hotel can point to. For the last five years, the Saxon has picked up a citation from the World Travel Awards for “World’s Leading Boutique Hotel.”

Gold, apparently, is still being mined in Johannesburg.


Standard suites at the Saxon are priced $714-$743, including VAT, full English breakfast and use of the spa’s hydro facilities. Presidential Suites are $1,386, and the Platinum Suite is $2,671. A rate increase is set for Feb. 1. Agents receive a 10 percent commission.