AFRICANGLOBE – The architect of the Victoria Falls Hotel – a grand Edwardian edifice – must have been skilled, sensitive and have had an innate feeling for use of space. As you walk down from the reception, through a manicured courtyard to the main lounge door, a magnificent view to the splendid Victoria Falls bridge opens out in front of you.
You cannot help but gasp or blurt out a breathless “wow” on seeing the classic bridge linking Zimbabwe and Zambia across the deeply eroded gorge, surrounded by lush rain forest with a gigantic cloud of spray from the thunderous falls.
Tradition dies hard here, so each morning the Zimbabwean flag is raised and each evening it is lowered. Since its inception – the building of the awesome bridge began in 1904 – the hotel has been a gathering place for relaxing, eating and drinking. Its history is reflected in the fascinating (even if not politically correct) colonial art, artifacts and threadbare hunting trophies.
Records show which suites visiting royals occupied, so you may book a room where nobility once heard the croaking of frogs in the garden ponds, or partook of high tea with scones and cream, cucumber sandwiches and other traditional fare. The custom endures to this day. Three-tiered silver stands laden with delicacies accompany pots of tea served on Stanley’s Terrace in front of the hotel each afternoon.
Immensely popular, the hotel draws travellers from all over the world, many for repeat visits. The charm lies not only in the dramatic position – poised close enough to the falls to stroll on a private path through bush to the entrance – or its illustrious history, but also the sustained standards of personalised service, fine food and hospitality.
The accommodation varies. You may choose between old-fashioned, rather lavish rooms with lush brocade and a sumptuous feel; or newly refurbished rooms and suites, which are more muted in colour but still boasting varied textures, rich trimmings and antique elements.
For a honeymoon or special celebration, suite 55 is idyllic, as it is on the first floor with windows opening on to views of the bridge on one side and the newly landscaped gardens on the other. The spacious bathroom with double shower, double basin and capacious bath, all in shades of stone, also has a memorable view. With its king-sized, canopied bed, mahogany side tables and desk, as well as elegant wicker chairs, the bedroom and lounge combination area are impressive.
At the Livingstone Room restaurant you glide into another era, with discreet yet attentive service from staff, some of whom have served here for decades. They know the innovative, gourmet menu and carefully selected wine list well, so can guide you while Takesure Maveza – a pianist who is blind – renders well-known music in the background, on a concert grand piano. With silver painted ceilings, thick carpeting and luxuriant curtains, the effect is one of being enveloped in opulence.
Most evenings, guests take to the dance floor in a charming continuation of the retro dinner-dancing theme.
For a less formal, but delightful dining experience, The Jungle Junction offers alfresco or covered tables, with a view of dense bush above the gorge and the towering column of mist. In the early evening, warthog nibble on the grass, monkeys settle in the nearby trees and elephants break branches, as they eat outside the hotel’s fenced area, reminding you that you are in the bush, despite the level of civilisation and comfort.
Local men and women give a show, depicting aspects of African cultural life, with drumming, vigorous dancing and fascinating costumes, including masks and representations of animals, narrated to explain the nuances.
A walk along the edge of Victoria Falls is a must. The tremendous force of the raging mass of water has to be seen to be believed. Take sturdy shoes and a raincoat, as you are sure to be as drenched by the vapour as overwhelmed by the power of the scene. The mighty Zambezi hurtles inexorably towards the precipice of the falls, plunging with raw force 100m down into the cauldron below. When you head back to the hotel, look out for elephants calmly browsing on the bushes as they watch you, a marvellous if disconcerting experience.
A stroll around the well-kept town of Victoria Falls invites approaches from vendors of carved animals and other African curios. Well-crafted and lovingly polished wood or stone art-works are available at embarrassingly low prices.
If chatting to locals and bartering is not your cup of earl grey, nip into the neat shops that sell similar items at higher prices. It must be one of the few towns in the world where you may see a family of warthog crossing the road, or have to step over elephant dung. Baboons walk nonchalantly alongside you, like fellow pedestrians.
In Victoria Falls Hotel, reception staff will organise land and water-based activities of your choice, including game drives, adrenalising bungee jumping off the bridge or zip-lining across the canyon.
Sunset cruises on the Zambezi are the best way to maximise your chances of spotting hippos, crocs and an abundance of river birds. If you want a booze cruise, with music, lots of people and fun, choose a bigger boat; for a more sedate, quiet and romantic experience – to watch birds and hear the roar of the water – a small boat is better.
For an exhilarating view of the falls with its fountain of spray and the circuitous canyon below, a helicopter flight is a must. The vantage point far above the area helps you realise just how wide, high and remarkable this Unesco world heritage site really is.
After a day of activity, or after resting in one of the lounge areas with their comfortable couches, sipping a Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic on The Stanley Terrace – served by waiters in immaculate uniforms – is de rigueur. With its open view of mowed grass with trim edges, sprawling Flamboyant trees, down to the falls, one may only sigh and be glad that the architect made such good use of this perfect spot in Africa. Here’s to grand tradition and excellence. Chin, chin.