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‘Make that an elephant, please’: Table Bay Hotel's extravagant, extraordinary 25 years

Cape Town’s Table Bay Hotel lifts the veil on of its star-studded guests — and some outlandish requests — in celebration of its silver anniversary

29 May 2022 - 00:04
Marc Weber, food and beverage manager at the Table Bay Hotel, looks through the guest book in one of the two presidential penthouse suites at the V&A Waterfront property, which is celebrating its 25th birthday.
Marc Weber, food and beverage manager at the Table Bay Hotel, looks through the guest book in one of the two presidential penthouse suites at the V&A Waterfront property, which is celebrating its 25th birthday.
Image: Esa Alexander

There comes a day when even the most accommodating hotel concierge has to say “WTF?”

“He wanted to buy an elephant — a live one,” says Marc Weber of the all-time weirdest request at the Table Bay Hotel. “People just think it is Africa and anything goes.”

Other requests were almost as strange, confides the amicable Weber, now the hotel’s food and beverage operations manager. Ivory, imported caviar, and a live cheetah spring to mind as some of the biggest challenges.

“Everything needs to be seen to be possible — except if it’s illegal,” explains Weber, who managed to provide a cheetah for a couple to pet.

It's all in a day’s work at the blue-roofed luxury hotel overlooking Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

Russian president Vladimir Putin at Cape Point in September 2006.
Russian president Vladimir Putin at Cape Point in September 2006.
Image: kremlin.ru

Other requests have been milder, but no less trickier: high tea for 20 people on Robben Island, or breakfast for Celine Dion aboard an ocean-going yacht.

Then there was the guy who decided he needed to be in Johannesburg in three hours, just as the civil aviation authority grounded all Comair and Kulula flights. “It cost R180,000 on a private jet — he just wanted to go home,” Weber explains.

His 15-year career at the Table Bay is a diary of the extravagant and the extraordinary.

Russian President Vladimir Putin received a warm round of applause when he entered the lobby in 2006, while former US President Barack Obama preferred to keep a low profile. The presence of former manager of Manchester United Football Club Sir Alex Ferguson would command silence in any room. Singer Josh Groban liked to mix with the staff.

Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel at the opening of the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town in 1997.
Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel at the opening of the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town in 1997.
Image: Supplied
Nelson Mandela's message in the Table Bay Hotel visitors' book.
Nelson Mandela's message in the Table Bay Hotel visitors' book.
Image: Supplied

The hotel lifted the customary veil of client confidentiality this week to mark its 25th birthday. Nothing incriminating of course, but enough to stake its claim as democratic SA’s Hall of Fame, with a guest list to rival the Oprah Winfrey show.

To prove the point, Weber allowed the Sunday Times to leaf through its guest book, which was almost lost in the jumble of hotel life. “Somebody found it in a cupboard somewhere,” says long-time Sun International public relations manager Sarah Prins. “It’s one of those things that you just can’t lose.”

Indeed, the book looms large as Weber pages through it in the hotel’s Presidential Suite, where some of the world’s most recognisable faces have stared past the superyachts to marvel at Table Mountain. 

“It’s not often we get to see the book,” said Weber, carefully flipping to the opening inscription by then-president Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça Machel.

“You look at the first page you open and it’s the former president and his wife — they were the first people to sign. To see that is just amazing.”

Michael Jackson makes his appearance at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town in October 1997.
Michael Jackson makes his appearance at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town in October 1997.
Image: Supplied
Michael Jackson's guest-book inscription.
Michael Jackson's guest-book inscription.
Image: Supplied

Few books can boast such famous, and infamous, signatures. Former French president Jacques Chirac, former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, pop star Michael Jackson and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger have all left their mark.

Some added personal touches; a pair of inked fingerprints from Stevie Wonder and a  gratuitous “I Love You” from Michael Jackson.

Actor Wesley Snipes was moved to illustrate his entry with impromptu calligraphy. Singer Robbie Williams wrote one word — “Brilliant”.

Sol Kerzner asked President Nelson Mandela to open the Table Bay Hotel in 1997.
Sol Kerzner asked President Nelson Mandela to open the Table Bay Hotel in 1997.
Image: Getty
Stevie Wonder left his fingerprints in the guest book.
Stevie Wonder left his fingerprints in the guest book.
Image: Supplied

Added to the mix is the hotel magician himself:  Sol Kerzner, the founder of the Southern Sun Hotel Group and Sun International who imagined the Table Bay Hotel into being on a patch of disused dockland on the windy edge of Cape Town harbour.

It was the Sun King who pushed for an emblematic flagship hotel in the Mother City, something on a par with his other world-class locations such as Sun City — and in 1997 he got his wish.

In tracking the history of the Table Bay it is worth reiterating part of the Kerzner story. His Russian immigrant parents worked hard selling fruit and vegetables in Johannesburg, eventually saving enough to open a small guest house in Durban.

Kerzner combined his nascent interest in the hospitality trade with accountancy skills to open his first hotel, the Astra, in 1962, soon followed by the Beverly Hills. Fast forward 30  years and Kerzner hosted Mandela’s presidential inauguration reception at Sun City. 

Miss South Africa 2008, Tatum Keshwar, at the Table Bay with actors Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood. They were in Cape Town to film "Invictus", which tells the story of SA's 1995 Rugby World Cup win.
Miss South Africa 2008, Tatum Keshwar, at the Table Bay with actors Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood. They were in Cape Town to film "Invictus", which tells the story of SA's 1995 Rugby World Cup win.
Image: Supplied
Wesley Snipes went to town in the Table Bay Hotel guest book.
Wesley Snipes went to town in the Table Bay Hotel guest book.
Image: Supplied

Inasmuch as the Table Bay embodies the promise of the new SA — it opened just three years after the first democratic elections at a time when the visitors' book filled up with the names of the rich and famous — the hotel has also tracked the post-apartheid story.

It flourished in the halcyon years when international investors poured into the lobby, and when the transformed V&A Waterfront mirrored the country’s entrance into the global marketplace. 

But it also weathered the lean years of international recession, and more recently the Covid deprivations that spelt disaster for numerous competitor, including top brands.

Its resilience is in part thanks to a design concept no doubt inspired by the Sun King’s experience, but carefully developed and updated by top professionals who inhabit the design equivalent of the South African paradox — “contemporary Victorian”.

On one hand, the hotel harks back to the days of the spice trade and African exploration, with dark-wood interiors and exotic décor; on the other, it offers a taste of what Africa has become, with contemporary cuisine and flair.

Robbie Williams writ large in the guest book.
Robbie Williams writ large in the guest book.
Image: Supplied

“Attention to detail is critical,” says local designer Carolyn Davies, who was part of the  team when the hotel opened. “It really is about taking the guest back in time, but at the same time you want the design to be able to live for years — it needs to be freshened. We’ve moved away from heavy classic Victorian.

“I think the concept has been incredible — I think it has worked perfectly. We want guests to disappear into this magical world that is Victorian, but which we have tried to bring to life in this era.”

It’s a paradox every bit as layered as SA’s dizzying mix of affluence and poverty, and one knitted into the DNA of the hotel via its staff.

Weber, who now runs a bustling team at the apex of the hotel industry, was born in relative poverty in Mitchells Plain. After school he decamped to London to gain skills he brought back to Cape Town, first at the Radisson then as a concierge at the Table Bay.

The entrance to the Table Bay Hotel, with a statue honouring its "first protector", a Cape fur seal nicknamed Oscar.
The entrance to the Table Bay Hotel, with a statue honouring its "first protector", a Cape fur seal nicknamed Oscar.
Image: Esa Alexander

Weber credits his parents — who once had a small catering business — for inspiring his interest in the hospitality business. They are now proud and regular visitors to the Table Bay.

“My mom just loves it — it’s nice for them to see that the seed they planted all those years back has led to me being where I am.”

The guest book entry by Guns n Roses bass guitarist Duff McKagan.
The guest book entry by Guns n Roses bass guitarist Duff McKagan.
Image: Supplied

Prins believes staff development is an integral part of the home-grown ethos of the hotel, which now looks to the future to further cement its reputation.

“The development of people has been key to who we are and what we do. That has been a big part of our development the years,” she adds.

For Weber, the hotel is a parade to be savoured, an island of leisure that exists only in opposition to the less manicured world beyond. The visitors, too, are actors; each playing their part on a broader stage, their star grading a temporary curiosity set against the eternal mountain backdrop.

“We get to meet these people and just see a small sliver of their lives — I think that is the best,” Weber says, finally closing the visitors' book.  

To Weber and his team the challenge is to offer their visitors a sliver of our lives, as beautiful and chaotic as they may be. But if they want a live African elephant, they should go to the Kruger Park.   

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