100 years ago this month, Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel was painted an uplifting shade of pastel pink, a shade of hope and positivity chosen by the Italian then-manager Aldo Renato to mark the end of World War I. To this day, the Mount Nelson – now the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel and affectionately known as ‘the Nellie’ – is still that same rosy hue. The iconic hotel, one of South Africa’s most famous, is celebrating the anniversary with a year of surprises for guests from special pink-themed cocktails and spa treatments to a Touch of Pink art exhibition in April 2019, which supports the Breast Cancer Association. On its 100th year ‘in the pink’, what else do we know about the historic Mount Nelson?
It opened in 1899
Though the estate was first established in 1743, the hotel was opened in 1899 by Sir Donald Currie, who also owned the Union-Castle Shipping Line. He wanted to create a hotel on a par with those of London for the elegant guests of his ships and on 6th March 1899, the Mount Nelson opened its doors; it was the first hotel in South Africa to offer both hot and cold running water.
It was the British headquarters during the Second Boer War
Shortly after opening, the Mount Nelson became the British headquarters during the Second Boer War. A young Winston Churchill – who had just escaped a prisoner-of-war camp in Pretoria – was based here as war correspondent for The Morning Post. Churchill described the Nellie as being “…a most excellent and well-appointed establishment, which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage.”
The Prince of Wales Gate was named in honour of HRH’s visit
The Prince of Wales (who became King Edward VIII in 1936, abdicating less than a year later to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson) visited the Mount Nelson in 1925. In honour of his arrival, the hotel named the newly-built grand gateway after HRH. The new driveway was lined with 57 knee-high canary palm trees, which have grown considerably nearly 100 years later. In 1998, President Bill Clinton was supposed to stay at the hotel – but only if the palm trees were cut down for security purposes at his team’s request. Clearly, this was not something the hotel was willing to do!
The hotel has hosted Queen Elizabeth II and the Dalai Lama
Still a favourite with the rich and famous, the Mount Nelson has welcomed some of the most influential and powerful people in the world. Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 21st birthday at the hotel and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made himself very unpopular with fellow guests by allegedly holding seances in his room. John Lennon was known for making his own bed every day and meditating in the gardens. In 1999, the Dalai Lama spoke about The Four Noble Truths in front of over 500 Capetonians sitting cross-legged in the ballroom.
They launched afternoon tea in 1989
In 1989, the Mount Nelson created their first proper afternoon tea menu; prior to this, it had been presented on a trolley. Joey Michael, now guest relations manager and one of the longest serving staff members, was in charge of putting it together in his then-role as lounge manager. He recalls a selection of tea, cakes and sandwiches was sold for R6.50 (roughly 50 cents). Today, afternoon tea at the Nellie is considered the best in Cape Town with around 100 different items available from tomato tarts and finger sandwiches to scones, carrot cake and eclairs.