1. Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel

The Belmond Hotel in Cape Town in the foothills of the Table Mountain
The Belmond Hotel in Cape Town in the foothills of the Table Mountain

The second most famous table mountain in Cape Town sits before us. The legendary cream tea on the terrace of the sprawling, colonial five-star Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel is a formidable high-rise challenge. Set out like Star Trek’s tri-dimensional chess, conquest require similar logistical muscle.

Peak too early on the sumptuous finger sandwiches, roulades and mini-baguettes and the cakes, “melktart” and fancies are out of reach. Opt to pile high the scones with cream and jam, and the rest of the afternoon will see you sprawled by the pool in the sunshine, dozing, like a lizard.

But the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel cream tea is a must-do.

This is what I imagined of when I thought of colonial rule – for good or ill. Pathways lined by acacia flowers, secret gardens with oddjob sculptures and shaded by palm trees. People drifting their pace unburdened by work-a-day travails.

The famous cream tea at Belmond Mount Nelson

Our room, in one of a series of pastel buildings (the hotel has bought up and absorbed its neighbours) has the longest balcony of any I have ever seen. An impromptu cricket pitch (albeit with short boundaries) was feasible. Instead, we ordered room service, found some friends, and watched the dusk creep over the table mountain while exotic birds criss-crossed the patch of gardens with a fountain bubbling at its heart.

This, I imagined, was where the elite of Cape Town chose to relax. In the heart of the city yet in such spacious gardens that the traffic noise barely disturbed our rest.

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The Belmond, definitely old money, is looking to embrace families, like the spinster dowager duchess acknowledging the existence of grand nieces as inheritors of her fortunes. So there are playrooms and swimming pools and lounges and Xboxes and treasure hunts that run alongside the spas and boutiques.

Pillars and marble ceilings and ornate fretwork adorning the suites seem to suggest being indoors is the most pleasant place. Yet this is a garden hotel which expels you from the spacious interiors towards the simple, unadorned luxury of fresh air and green grass.

2. African Pride 15 On Orange

African Pride 15 On Orange Hotel, Cape Town
African Pride 15 On Orange Hotel, Cape Town

There is a golden throne in the lift that takes you from the foyer to main desk at this plush, business-like hotel. A golden throne. Each of my party took turns riding the golden throne, only it is big enough to take three so there were no lasting schisms.

A golden throne would seem ostentatious but here, in Africa, in this five-star, haute couture hotel, it seemed inevitable, its absence a faux pas. African Pride 15 On Orange is the hotel – I imagine – African leaders would stay on a business visit to Cape Town. The place is made of marble, the furnishings in black and gold and reds enlivened with evocative prints. The cocktail bars and breakfast buffet bars are similarly blessed with abundance.

African Pride 15 On Orange
African Pride 15 On Orange

Space is everywhere. Rooms are large, foyers grand, ceilings high, people plentiful and the air is confident, relaxed and gently stirred against the outside heat. This is primarily a business hotel, where connoisseurs of fine living would assume these luxuries rather than gawp at them wide-eyed like me. Conference facilities and breakaway rooms confirm this is a done-deal kind of location.

Our room was vast. Two joined rooms in fact meaning a choice of everything. Beds are wider than long, pillows sufficient for a coach party, a bathroom, through sandblasted doors, offer innumerable ways to wash, horizontally or vertically with lighting so painfully discrete that the glow is like that of embarrassed cheeks.

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The hotel sits away from the seafront tourist hotspots but just outside are the Company Gardens, a formal park, where you can buy a bag of nuts to feed the squirrels or watch the birds swoop through the sprinklers to keep cool. Adjacent is the Planetarium and the National Museum for some culture, or shade.

But business travellers opt to stay inside if they’re killing time. Taking a glass of Champagne on the terrace bar, swirling indolently in the pod chairs, or heading to the top floor to the pool deck – a necessity as the sun is brilliant and unforgiving atop this stylish concrete block.

3. Rodwell House, St James

Rodwell House, St James near Cape Town
Rodwell House, St James near Cape Town

If there is to be the great Cape Town novel still to be written, chances are it will be written in this room where I now sit. The wind has picked up so items about me creak. It is not old but feels that way.

I look out from my desk, over the gardens, with the small pool, over the barbecue station, across the road, through the swaying trees to the blue seas. There are rocks so the noise of crashing waves is lulling and when the clouds are kind, or absent, islands and promontories come into view.

We are in St James, in Rodwell House, south of the city in a stretch of beach that contains a blend of penguins, naval vessels and hipster seafood shacks.

Rodwell House, five-star, is cleaning up after a gargantuan wine tasting event. I was shown the vast cellar. Here’s the heart, I thought, and it is true the owner wanted to make Rodwell House a place of fine foods and fine wines.

Our room at Rodwell House

His dream for a restaurant was thwarted because of planning regulations and parking. Rodwell House sits on a hillside of residential homes. The owner was selling up as we stayed there, looking to pursue his dream elsewhere.

Of the hotels we stayed in while in South Africa, this was the most personal and idiosyncratic. Not only because we were the only ones there, late on in the season – taking breakfast on the terrace looking at the sea – but because it feels hand-made. Furniture and artworks hand selected. Not a head office brand imposition here, but touches of individuality in the courtyards.

• Also online: 7 places you must visit on your Cape Town holiday

A river runs through it. Of sorts. A stream trickles from the high mountains behind to the sea in front and when the rolling brown-outs struck – a common occurrence in South Africa with energy management inefficient – we repaired to our small quarter of balcony, plucked a bottle from the ice bucket, plonked cheese on cracker and told the tales that would fill the story book this place naturally inspires.