Thursday, June 9, 2011

Johannesburg's Saxon: Elegance Personified

If you define elegance as the finest of everything and all in good taste or whatever you want whenever you want it and often before you realize it,  Johannesburg's Saxon more than qualifies. If elegance to you is being cossetted in your own world, surrounded by friends or family in total privacy despite 24-hour butlers, the Saxon is it.

Once the private enclave of South African insurance magnate Douw Steyn, the hotel still retains the feel of a family retreat and the decor of an avid collector of all things African. Priceless collectibles are seamlessly grouped with excellent reproductions and unlike many hotels, you know immediately what country you're in - a real boon to international travelers who often wake up in a fog of muddled time zones wondering that basic question, "Where am I?".

The 24-suite hotel has added three stand-alone villas for another 29 suites, doubling its capacity.

Tip: One suite is specifically designed for the physically challenged although Levelers will find all suites step-less. 

Our group of four travel and food writers and one PR firm owner were given the one-level Villa One which comes with seven suites, central living room, eating and lounge area, pool, boardroom/library, kitchen with 24-hour butler and its own elevator connecting directly to the underground garage and allowing the rich and famous to enter and exit in privacy.

Tip: It also comes in handy for stair-avoiding Levelers and anyone in inclimate weather.

The "normal" access from hotel reception to the villa is by ascending one story via elevator then walking through the treetops within what seems like the rib cage of a Brobdignagian boa constrictor then going up about eight steps to villa level. The villa elevator eliminates all stairs. 

Service is as exemplary as you might expect. Granted, as journalists we were treated royally, but I suspect everyone else is too. Every time we turned around someone was offering a fresh bottle of sparkling wine or another tray of tidbits to try. The buffet breakfast in the hotel is a mind-boggling array of international selections from proteins and carbs to fruits fresh, dried, pickled or preserved.

The only chink in this armory of civility and luxury was encountered at the spa where we had to actually ask for water, the first time in two separate stays we had to "ask" for anything.

Warning: The spa is on two-levels; not good for Levelers.

Otherwise, we were totally spoiled, especially by the 1,000-thread count bed linens and the one-wand integrated system that turned on and adjusted lights, temperature and TV. Then there was the laptop in each suite, the free Wi-Fi, butler and the in-room telephone that could be converted into a mobile phone during our stay.

Driving through the suburbs of Johannesburg to reach the secluded and secure Saxon gave us a glimpse into how the whites barricaded themselves into compounds where they could temporarily escape the reality of being the privileged minority in a country of other races legislated into lower castes. And where the fear of retribution keeps security tight.

A stay at Saxon - where Steyn hosted Nelson Mandela as he edited "Long Walk to Freedom" after release from prison and where he continues to visit when in Johannesburg - gave us a taste of that privileged lifestyle anyone can now experience.


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