This cluster of apartment blocks and high-rise hotels on a fine stretch of beach (with a promenade to match) is one of South Africa’s most sought-after destinations. In winter it’s sunny and the water’s warm… time for a seaside break?
How it works:
TripAdvisor lists accommodation rated by guests, but as much as we love peer reviews, they don’t offer a comparative voice. So how do we know if Number 1 really is the best? Pippa de Bruyn, who has reviewed accommodation for 18 years for the likes of Frommer’s and the UK’s The Telegraph, scours TripAdvisor and other online sites when researching a destination. For Umhlanga, she created a long list of 42 to inspect. The following made the cut.
What we found about accommodation in this town:
• Locals proudly call it ‘Sandton by the Sea’, and it is. If you’re yearning for a cute cottage in a subtropical garden by the sea, forget about finding one here.
• One of the best things about Umhlanga is that – assuming you book in the right area – you don’t need a car. I focused on options within walking distance of retailers, the restaurant/bar artery of Chartwell Drive and lifeguard stations (currents here can be treacherous, so it’s best to swim in sight of them).
• There are many B&Bs but apartments tend to be better looking and offer better value. Of these I saw a great deal. I looked for the best blocks that (a) were on the beach, (b) were well maintained and (c) had sensible minimum-stay periods.
• Most apartment owners have three season rates: low, high (festive season) and mid (other school holidays and long weekends). If you want to book for December, do it now.
• Hotels all work on the best available rate; for those unfamiliar with BAR, it’s a fluctuating price based on supply and demand. The exact same hotel experience (room, deal, service) can vary by thousands of rands, so book months ahead. If you can, choose times that are not popular (Sunday to Thursday). Call the hotel to find out when rates are at their lowest.
• Penny Mande (mandeproperties.co.za) represents a number of timeshare-unit owners in the Cabana Beach and Umhlanga Sands resorts. Prices vary, but a four-sleeper at Cabana Beach can cost around R8000 a week out of season.
Best all-round B&B
Tripadvisor No. 4 of 43 B&BS/Inns
Teremok may be the most luxurious guest house in town (and more beautiful than its website suggests) but Sandals offers the best combination of value, service and location, being right on Chartwell Drive but just beyond the buzz. It’s very personally and professionally managed by gregarious hosts Gavin and Malinda Attree, who are adept at making their small coterie (there are only five rooms) feel more like well-tended friends than guests. The gourmet breakfasts – a new menu is presented every day – are a daily highlight, as is the pool and bar area. The beach is a five- to 10-minute walk from the front door, but the large pool surrounded by loungers and well-stocked bar are so inviting that many guests end up spending most of their days just chilling right there. Come evening, Gavin and Malinda will make dinner reservations at the restaurant of your choice (they are well versed in the village offerings) – how wonderful to set off on foot and stroll back under the stars. Exactly what a holiday is meant to be.
Room tip: They are all equally well equipped, but sea-facing Pansy opens out onto the lovely pool area.
Cost: From R1000 per person sharing.
Contact: 0714472169, sandalsumhlanga.co.za
Smartest beachfront apartment block
2. The Bermudas
Every agent I interviewed raved about how well-maintained The Bermudas is, and they are right. Big, tall and imposing, it’s not particularly attractive architecturally but the gardens are lush and immaculately groomed, the exterior and interior clearly taken care of, and security is strict and thorough. It also has a relatively large pool, but bear in mind that there are no braai facilities here. Like nearby Glitter Bay, it is located right on Bronze Beach so you are literally a stone’s throw from the lifeguard station. The apartments are all pretty similar in layout: all accommodate six guests, with a narrow open-plan lounge and dining area, off which there is a kitchen, and opening onto a small balcony with sea view. The main en-suite bedroom has the same view, while to the rear of the apartment (or sometimes to the side) are two bedrooms sharing a bathroom.
Room tip: I particularly liked 504 (agent: Chas Everitt), 1001 (Umhlanga Beach Holidays), 604 and 901 (agent: Umhlanga Accommodation), and 802 and 1104 (managed by Jack Hogan).
Cost: The cheapest were apartment 504, from R1850, and apartment 1001, from R1950. But it’s worth contacting all the agents to find out availability, or price in medium and high season.
Contact: Chas Everitt lighthouse.co.za, ubh.co.za, umhlangaaccommodation.co.za, 802bermudas.co.za, 1104bermudas.co.za
Tripadvisor No. 15 of 18 hotels
Umhlanga’s beachfront is lined with great resorts, but the reason I loved this slightly later addition (built in 1982) is its location: bordering directly onto the nature reserve, it forms the edge of the concrete jungle that Umhlanga has become and provides access to and expansive views over what’s left of the original jungle. There are loungers set up to look out over this dense subtropical tangle, as well as a host of the usual classic resort facilities. The three swimming pools (including a lap pool) are set in attractive gardens; the loud music played is less so. There are a variety of accommodation options – you can book a hotel room but it’s cheaper, and the decor far superior, to book an owner apartment through one of the agents. Of these there are a number of bedroom configurations, some more attractively furnished than others. The only possible drawback is that it’s a bit far from the retail centre and nightlife; little kids love the facilities and daily entertainment but for teens it’s a bit far from the action. Some may say that is no bad thing, but if you know there’s nothing worse than being saddled with a grumpy teenager, Cabana Beach or Umhlanga Sands (the two Tsogo Sun resorts) are a better bet.
Room tip: I thought Chas Everitt had the best selection of Breakers apartments (515, 228 and 212). Umhlanga Accommodation had cheaper options, not as well dressed but functional (here my preference was for 418). Most of these sleep four people but there are two-sleeper options.
Cost: From R1100 (for 418, sleeps four).
Contact: umhlangaaccommodation.co.za, Chas Everitt lighthouse.co.za
Best luxury apartment
4. Oyster Rock 605
No one seems entirely clear on exactly when the Oyster apartment blocks were built, but rising from the lush grounds directly behind the Oyster Box hotel, they were an instant and enduring success. It’s not hard to see why. It’s very exclusive with strictly controlled access – you have to pass through the security checkpoint and boom that protects the hotel. The gardens are lush and gorgeously maintained, and as you are effectively part of the fabulous hotel, there is a sense of enjoying the best of both worlds: a self-catering apartment with access to the attractions at a world-class hotel (only hotel guests may use the hotel pool, but the apartments have their own pool). This place attracts serious money – as evidenced by the Porsche and Ferrari I passed in the underground parking garage – and so the apartments are on the pricier side of the spectrum. They are decorated with no expense spared but I found most rather old-fashioned. Not so Oyster Rock 605 – beautifully furnished, with wonderful views, and probably my top self-catering pick in Umhlanga.
Room tip: If Oyster Rock 605 is occupied, Nicolas at Chas Everitt has a few other apartments here, as does Jack Hogan.
Cost: From R3900 (sleeps six).
Contact: 0315615838, lighthouse.co.za
Best garden apartment
5. Glitter Bay
Bonny Williamson started her business by renting out a flatlet in her back garden; soon after, a friend asked her to manage her rental apartment, and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Bonny (appropriately named) is a very hands-on operator with a keen interest in developing a long-term relationship with her clients, and she has a long list of loyal repeat visitors. Flat owners love her too: she has pretty much sewn up the entire Glitter Bay, the low-rise apartment block located right on Umhlanga’s Bronze Beach, with 11 of the 18 flats now on her books. Each one has an unobstructed sea view and direct access to the beach. There is a small communal swimming pool and braai area at the back of the building. Most unique is that a couple of the Glitter Bay apartments also offer large lawned areas – the decadence of having a big patch of grass as well as being right on the beach is a boon for parents with children who want to run around but still need to be watched.
Room tip: Number 3 has a wonderful contemporary open-plan living space, with sliding doors opening onto the lawn. However, none of the three bedrooms has any view, and the main en-suite has an entirely open-plan bathroom. If a sea view from your bedroom is important, book number 8 (which also has a lawn).
Cost: From R1950 (sleeps six).
Best value hotel
6. Protea by Marriott Umhlanga
Tripadvisor No. 10 of 18 hotels
Well done, Marriott, for injecting some serious sex appeal into the rather stodgy Protea brand. This hotel – totally overhauled in 2016 – is a grand example of what a solid hospitality marriage can produce. The refurbished public spaces are real eye candy, providing a luxuriant, classy boutique-style look that feels decidedly five-star, while prices (working on the BAR) remain three-star. The rooms in the brand-new 15-floor tower are still a work in progress, and the semiself-catering wing is due for its upgrade this year. There are similarly priced hotels in Umhlanga Ridge, but you want to be here: on the corner of Chartwell Drive, in the heart of the bustling nightlife, restaurants and shops, and a three-minute stroll to the promenade and beach. The hotel has a small rooftop pool surrounded by astroturf – aside from the view, not that inviting.
Room tip: Currently I’d opt for a room near the top of the tower block for the sea views, but once the semi-selfcatering rooms are refurbed, these will be the ones to book.
Cost: From R1050 for a double room (less if you’re a Marriott member).
Contact: 0315614413, marriott.com
Best privately managed collection
7. Jack Hogan’s portfolio
According to TripAdvisor, Manaar House is Umhlanga’s number one B&B but I think its owner, Jack Hogan, has a collection of self-catering apartments that are the real number one. Self-taught Jack has a natural flair for creating cool, elegant spaces. He has a controlled portfolio of just 14 apartments; aside from the consistency of standards – all are well dressed in a similar style – he operates a very hands-on business (every guest is personally welcomed and checked in; housekeeping standards are incredibly rigorous). Of the 14, five are owned by Jack and his partner Mark, but in many instances , wners have asked him to furnish and finesse. The only tricky part is browsing for them – Jack does not have a central website. Instead each apartment has its own. You can find links to the five apartments he owns on the Manaar House website, or just call reservations manager Hermann with your dates and requirements – whatever’s available will be good.
Room tip: The five flats Jack owns are matchless. If you’re looking for a two-bedroom, I particularly liked 14 or 13 The Shades (pictured above) and 506 Lighthouse Mall. Ben Siesta 105 and D3 Sea Lodge are great three-bedroom options.
Cost: Varies depending on the unit. The Shades start from R1 750 (both sleep four), Lighthouse Mall from R1 800 (also sleeps four), Ben Siesta from R2050 (sleeps six).
Contact: 0315617902, manaarhouse.co.za
Best for romance
8. The Oyster Box
Tripadvisor No. 2 of 18 hotels
This is not just the best hotel in Umhlanga but the best beachfront hotel in South Africa – an iconic, lavish establishment that delights the eye regardless of where it rests. There is so much that is special here, from the high tea served under whirring fans and chandeliers to the candy-striped umbrellas and loungers facing the red-and-white lighthouse – a striking contrast to the dual-blue horizon and sculptural green aloes. The place is filled with antiques, some salvaged from the original hotel (in fact, subtle mementos of its long and fabulous history abound). The Grill Room in particular touches the nostalgia bone, with dishes flambéed at your table and a hors d’oeuvre trolley that wouldn’t look out of place on a 70s film set. Service is exceptional, with staff everywhere on hand to assist. Basically, it’s one of those hotels that’s just worth experiencing, even if only once, regardless of the cost.
Cost: From around R5140 double B&B (note: BAR applies).
Contact: 0315145000, oysterboxhotel.com
Special reader offer:
The Royal Affair includes three nights B&B in a classic sea-facing room for two, a seafood dinner at The Grill Room, bubbly and macaroons, a R500 gift voucher and transfers to The Gateway mall. R6075 per person sharing, valid until 30 November 2017. 086184677 (ref TH 422728).
Don’t miss this:
• The Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve. Also ask at Breakers about a guided walk through the nearby Hawaan Forest. 0315612271
• An early-morning ride on a Natal Sharks Board boat, to see the crews servicing nets and spot dolphins and whales. 0315660400
• The latest craze: try Thai-style rolled ice cream at Yumibowl at The Siam restaurant. 031561-237
• A special splash-out dinner at French-Mauritian landmark Ile Maurice, which has been here for 40 years. 0315617606