Johannesburg's renovated Saxon Hotel retains deep ties to Mandela: Travel Weekly

The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa holds an incredible appeal for many South Africans. After all, the Johannesburg hotel was once the residence of the country’s most beloved president, Nelson Mandela.

The Saxon Hotel underwent a renovation during the pandemic.

When Mandela was released from prison, he completed his bestselling autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” at the Saxon. At that time, the establishment was the residential retreat of the Steyn family, who had invited Mandela to stay with them. Today, Mandela’s presence continues to be felt throughout the Saxon. It is felt in the history of the residence as well as in the artwork, photographs and decor.

During the pandemic, the Saxon completely refurbished the interior of the hotel. At the reception, with its distinctive chandelier and twin staircases, the well-known Dean Simon artwork “Foresight and Hindsight: The Five Faces of Mandela” takes center stage. The artworks trace the progression of Mandela’s life from his early youth through to the compassionate older statesman. The updated new look for the Saxon’s restaurant, Qunu, features a mural depicting a warm sunset view over the Shambala Private Game Reserve from under a wild seringa tree (Burkea Africana). Shambala, the Saxon Hotel’s sister property, was a place where Mandela loved to stay.

But the idea of wellness and mindfulness goes further than simply the decor. The hotel has adopted a new wellness philosophy that mirrors Mandela’s peaceful and mindful approach to life, politics and forgiveness. After 27 years of unjust imprisonment, Bill Clinton once recounted Mandela telling him: “I realized they could take every single thing away from me except my mind and my heart. Those things I would have to give them. And I decided not to give them away.”

The hydrotherepy area at the Saxon Spa.

The strength and power of the mind is now a common thread throughout the Saxon. In the Saxon Spa, each treatment is started with a mindfulness journey reminding guests that it’s OK to let go of the stresses of everyday life and enjoy the moment. According to Saxon spa manager Tanya Lopes, mindfulness is the future of luxury wellness in travel. Travelers today are looking for more than just pampering; they want a holistic experience that enables them to reconnect with themselves and their surroundings.  

• Related: Nelson Mandela’s home now a luxury hotel

Lopes told me she created a new Saxon Signature treatment, the Digital Detox Journey, to help guests step away from technology and learn to live in the moment. At the start of the treatment, guests are asked to hand over their digital devices and lock them into a “technology bag.” I was surprised to feel apprehensive to hand over my phone, which just goes to show how dependent we have become on our devices.

The anxiety is soon forgotten thanks to this wellness journey with a massage that specifically focuses on releasing the tensions from digital strains. If guests decide to follow a Digital Detox therapy with a Sleep Therapy, it’s hard to emerge feeling anything but rested and mindful. The Sleep Therapy takes place on a dry flotation bed; amazingly, a 30-minute sleep therapy treatment is the equivalent of four hours of undisturbed sleep — the perfect way for a time-strapped modern individual to catch up on lost sleep.

The idea of mindfulness is extended toward the culinary offerings of the hotel. Chef Matthew Foxon, who recently joined the Saxon team, is passionate about healthy and sustainable food, placing significant importance on fresh produce and respecting the ingredients. He has put together an incredible and innovative vegetarian menu, something that can be challenging to find in Africa.

A vegan cashew "cheese" terrine, one of the vegan options on the menu at the Saxon Hotel.

Chef Matthew has an impressive vegetable garden, which he is happy to show to guests who are interested in the origin of the food. He grows the most surprising local and international herbs and vegetables, with which he experiments in his African inspired dishes.

Besides the farm-to-table philosophy, Foxon makes sure he sources as many products as possible from the local communities to ensure that the idea of mindfulness extends beyond the hotel and its guests. Ingredients are from local farmers, herders, fishers, butchers, bakers and artisans, who preserve traditional knowledge and techniques and who work with respect for the environment and animal welfare.

Mindful tourism is not just a post-pandemic fad; it is a fundamentally different way of looking at tourism. It is a way of getting to know the destination and cultures in a way that is environmentally friendly and respectful to the people who live in the community.

For travelers visiting South Africa, Johannesburg is often seen as a slightly “inconvenient” stopover on the way to safaris or other African cities. It’s a pity, because Johannesburg is a cultural hub with so many experiences on offer. The Saxon is the ideal place to slow down, get grounded and prepare for an African adventure.

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