Time for tea at Nellie

South Africa's most famous hotel, The Mount Nelson, or Nellie as it's affectionately called, has a colourful history - in more ways than one.

When opened in March 1899, months before the outbreak of the South African (or Boer) War, the icon, situated on the lower slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town, was cream with green shutters.

It stayed this way until the end of the conflict in 1902 and right up until the end of more fighting, World War One, in November 1918.

But the end of the Great War brought so much jubilation that a new colour scheme was in order. The Mount Nelson was steeped in a "cheerful" rose pink to mark the celebrations, and became known as The Pink Lady.

"The trend towards pink hotels was popular throughout Europe for the next few decades, and so it was that Mount Nelson Hotel retained her pink blush," explains the hotel's Benita Kursan, as I sit down for afternoon tea at the famous landmark.

Today, as I gaze out into the garden while consuming possibly the best egg sandwiches I've ever had, everything is still pink - from the towels being taken to the guests having a dip in the hotel pool, to the blooming hibiscus in the garden.

The tea list, designed only after consulting South African tea experts Mingwei Tsai and Joel Singer, even boasts among more than 30 aromatic tea blends, the Mount Nelson Hotel Special Blend. It's described as a "combination of six locally and internationally sourced and blended black teas, flavoured with buds and petals from the hotel's signature pink roses".

This will, of course, be taken without even the slightest etiquette faux pas, as last July Nellie became South Africa's first luxury hotel to banish teabags, opting for a range of top quality leaves instead.

Each loose-leaf tea is now presented in a delicate glass infuser.

Guests are "encouraged to admire the aesthetics of the tea leaves and breathe in the refreshing aroma".

The infuser is then put inside its matching glass teapot and left to steep, with individual egg timers put beside each one to ensure that the "correct infusion time" is maintained.

While I wait, there/s a mind-boggling buffet on the Windsor Table. (traditional tiered tea stands can also be made upon request).

This includes everything from mini-quiches to elaborate towers of scones, homemade coconut ice (again the pink theme) and even a number of tea-inspired treats such as Forest Berry Tea, infused Turkish Delight and Green Tea Cake. Well, one is here for tea isn't one?

I've done high tea in a number of great locations around the world - The Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe, The Ritz Hotel, The Dorchester Hotel, Harrods and Kensington Palace in London; The Empress Hotel in Hong Kong and The Victoria Rooms and The Observatory Hotel in Sydney. So I feel I'm qualified to say it - the Mount Nelson takes the cake, so to speak.

But then the hotel has always strived to be the best.

It was the dream of shipping magnate Sir Donald Currie, who opened The Mount Nelson, that it would rival London's sophisticated landmarks and attract the creme da le creme of society. That it has certainly done.

The hotel was named in honour of the revered British admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who is said to have visited Cape Town twice.

Today, a black and white image of Lord Nelson is emblazoned on the back of the chairs in the Planet champagne and cocktail bar, which you can move onto for a glass of Bellini after afternoon tea.

Many other world famous dignitaries feature in the hotel's history.

As the South African War began, British Field Marshal Lord Kitchener was dispatched to Nellie.

Winston Churchill also called The Mount Nelson home while he was a young war correspondent.

In fact the future leader of Britain became a big fan of The Pink Lady's "elegance and charm".

In Winston's Footsteps: Retracing Churchill's South African Escape, a journal by David Druckman, Churchill describes it as a "most excellent and well-appointed establishment, which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage".

He makes particular mention of the "serviettes placed on your lap" and "waiters who are there when you need them but invisible otherwise".

Plenty of royalty have also played at The Mount Nelson. The Prince of Wales visited in 1925. The driveway leading up to the hotel, today fringed with palm trees, was built a year before to honour his visit.

The most famous African, former president Nelson Mandela, is a big fan, as are his fellow countrymen and women - Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oscar-winning actor Charlize Theron.

Others who have been spotted there recently include Paris Hilton, Hilary Swank, Oprah Winfrey, Robbie Williams, The Black Eyed Peas, Tiger Woods and Kate Moss, among others.

At the moment, Benita tells me, "a lot of high profile guests are staying here" although her lips are strictly sealed as to who.

And more may be on their way for next year's World Cup.

"We have been approached by a number of companies who are interested in buying out the hotel for the World Cup - nothing has been finalised as yet though," Benita says.

IF YOU GO
Afternoon tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel is served daily in the Hotel Lounge from 2.30pm to 5.30pm and includes Standard Loose Leaf Tea, coffee or hot chocolate ZAR150 ($A24) per person/ ZAR85 ($A14) per child under 12

Visit: www.mountnelson.co.za

Qantas operates six flights per week between Australia and South Africa. This will move to daily from June. Flights start at $1,934 including fees and charges.

AAP

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