No conversation about the Saxon can occur without first mentioning that the property housed Nelson Mandela following his release from prison and it is here that the late South African president—a global figure of hope and perseverance—began to edit his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Of the 53 thoughtfully decorated and well-appointed suites and villas on site—which vary in size, configuration and design (from contemporary African to more traditional)—one stands far apart: the Nelson Mandela Platinum Suite. It incorporates Mandela’s very living quarters at that time of his residence and acts as a stunning, respectful ode to the political leader.
Though the 10-acre property is infused with history, a thoughtful renovation and refresh commenced in 2020 (following the addition of new villas in 2019). The refurbishment brought new vibrance to the Saxon’s art-filled reception area. Further, the classic-meets-contemporary Qunu restaurant and the Olive Bar both received attention. To accompany the aesthetic upgrades, the Saxon also introduced myriad technology: from a dedicated app to an energy-efficient Lutron lighting system.
To understand the sense of sanctuary the Saxon provides requires looking toward its spa, as well as its food and beverage program. With the former, interior design (including one-of-a-kind sculptures in treatment rooms), amenities (like a salt floating pool) and programming (such as the new digital detox journey) coalesce into one grand experience. Innumerable details define the indoor-outdoor space and intuition is an observable quality of the staff. The ethos of the spa carries over into each suite and villa through the custom-developed SOUL by Saxon products.
With regard to dining, Matthew Foxon, the executive chef at Qunu for a year now, conducts the hotel’s entire culinary orchestra. He’s already begun to emphasize sustainability and hopes to guide the esteemed restaurant even further. “I want Qunu to be more seasonal, for us to work with the produce that is in season. I would also like to bring it up in the rankings, so to speak, and make it a flagship for the industry, pushing boundaries, trying different things with regard to sustainability and be a leader in the South African culinary scene,” he tells COOL HUNTING.
Foxon’s international background imbues the menu with world-class flair. One of his greatest assets, however, is the Saxon’s very own garden. “Most of the produce from the vegetable garden [called] Sarapana is used in dishes where the veg is the star of the plate,” he says. “So mainly in the vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as the salads. What we try to achieve with the garden is to have access to produce that is not commonly used or commonly available in the local industry. A bonus with this is that if we are seen using this produce, the requests would start to build and then hopefully it will be more readily available, used and appreciated.”
During our stay, Foxon and his team were developing their winter garden. He explains, “Some of the produce we planted in the winter garden is kohlrabi, different kinds of kales, turnips, fennel, peas, broad beans, mange tout, chervil as well as tenderstem broccoli and cauliflowers such as the Romanesco varietal. Then we also have produce that grows in the summer but is only harvested in the winter, such as the Jerusalem artichokes.” A table beside the garden allows Saxon guests to observe the flora.
Foxon’s role grants him a comprehensive perspective of the Saxon’s allure to both international guests and those traveling from elsewhere in South Africa. “It is definitely due to our intuitive service as well as the ability we have, by virtue of not being part of a group, to not be restricted by a norm or a corporate mindset,” he says. “This also allows us to build special relationships, not only with our guests but also with our suppliers. Due to this we have been able to build up a reputation and be seen as a leader in the industry.”
Though the Saxon is nestled in a sprawling garden, it’s not severed from the surrounding city. Staff have ample recommendations for Johannesburg highlights, from historic sites to cultural hotspots like the Goodman Gallery and Marble Restaurant, which are a quick drive away. Even guest rooms aim to remind visitors that they’re in South Africa, whether it’s through textured design or delectable inclusions like New Harbour Distillery liquors in the minibar. Altogether, these attributes set a very high standard for a landmark destination that continues to develop to please its guests.
Hero image courtesy of the Saxon