AWAY-NIGHT Meikles Hotel in Harare, Zimbabwe – one of the best in Africa

The swish airport looks brand new, but then it is hardly used – no longhaul carriers fly in, and only 3 regional airlines, and Air Zimbabwe is, well, somewhat tentative. I buy a visa on arrival, swan through customs and, fortunately, a smart suited man approaches me and says Mary? He, Meikles Ltd commercial director Tham Mpofu, drives me the 15 minutes to the hotel. I go up 5 stone steps, flanked by a pair of full-size stone lions. Another pair of lions, painted gold, sits beneath a cupola on the hotel’s Jason Moyo Avenue façade: they were reputed only to roar if a virgin passed beneath (they now flank a Leading Hotels of the World sign). I can remember a blur of smiling faces, immaculate olive green or black uniforms, and lots of careful flower displays (the opposite of Jeff Leatham’s, these are lots of little flowers). We go into the elevators for the 12-floor North Wing, get out at the 10th floor and walk 30m to the end of the cream-painted, soft apple and rose carpeted, corridor to 1010, one of 2 Imperial Suites.


Hilary Clinton, Michael Jackson, many have stayed here since it was last painted-up, in 1993. It has survived staggeringly well. About 90 sq m total, you enter a gold-carpeted complex, one ensuite bedroom to your right, the salon ahead – turn left and left into the area of the 2nd ensuite bedroom. All walls are cream, full length curtains match the carpets, and all woodwork is dark. The gold-embossed, leather-topped salon desk has inbuilt Australian, European, South African and UK sockets, and a sign attributes it to J Wilson, Manufacturer, Zimbabwe. It bears a pair of candlelike lights (there are matching wall-set lights, above), and a Siemens 5005 phone. I look at a gold-framed ancient map of Aethiopia Inferior vel Exterior. The salon has circular 4-seat dining, with a 5-‘candle’ chandelier overhead, and an elaborate wood and stone fireplace with a scarlet-lit artificial coal-filled grate. A gold-embossed leather Reader’s Digest book, which includes Max Marlow’s novel Growth, about possible collapse of the world’s tallest buildings. There are also what look like 4 enormous green leather tomes on Wild Sports of Southern Africa: open the top one, and you realise this is a container atop the table beneath.


Throughout my suite, I have 3 of the hotel’s 4 Samsung flatscreens (the others are still held up at customs, but are promised for ‘next week’ – import duty is 65%). Both bedrooms have really comfortable beds with traditional wood head and foot panels, both bathrooms are marbled; they have separate showers, one oval basin, a wall-set swing-forward magnifying light, hotel toiletries made in South Africa, small packs of tissues and sachets of wash powder. There are Minscribed cotton robes as well as traditional towel robes. The immaculate bath linens have a single M logo. The safes, big enough to hold a nation’s entire bullion reserve, are set sideways in closets that have the world’s most impractical, ringed, hangers (metal, with vertical slots that somehow trap every item of clothing). All storage drawers are lined with M-logo paper. There are complimentary bottles of Tsinga Mira water, produced by Tanganda Tea, a Meikles company.


Time for a workout. A bike and a climber are in a former bedroom next to the 11th floor Club Lounge but I head for the main Gymnasium, atop the 12th floor South Tower. Exit elevator, climb 36 tiled steps to the pool area. Groups of multi-coloured men sit around linen-covered round tables, drinking beer. In front of them, in the open, is the apostrophe shaped pool, about 10m wide by 8m across: you go around this to the gym, which has an assortment of 2 spinners, 2 bikes, a runner. I check out the ladies’ relax/locker area, where one good employee sleeps on the massage bed and 2 others warm themselves, fully clothed, in the sauna (well it is winter, for heaven’s sake). I decide that indoor exercise is best via the 257 carpeted stairs up or down from 1010 to the lobby.


Dinner is in the 100-seat La Fontaine, the only one of 5 former destination restaurants that still operates as such – the others, which relied heavily on business from white farmers, who ‘disappeared’ after land grabs started in 1998, are now for functions. La Fontaine is a pleasant, 2nd floor room with big windows looking down into the football field-sized Africa Unity Square gardens, with Parliament the other side. A live band plays in here Thursdays and Saturdays but tonight the dance floor looks rather forlorn, but the room, partly thanks to tall, scarlet chairs, and tall white candles on each table, looks jolly. Every table is taken, some with up to a dozen happy, well-dressed locals. Our party of 5 sits is at a circular table in the far corner, behind a pillar. One lit candle, one small posy of scarlet roses, white daisies, one silver dish of hand-patted butter balls, one offering of a selection of brown and white twisted rolls. The menu, in a simple card cover, offers a table d’hote and à la carte international dishes. Tonight’s special is fresh Scottish salmon but I go for local, a spinach roulade with salad (which turns out to be a couple of roulade slices with a tower of cucumber sliver holding a couple of lettuce leaves) and entrecote, sauce on the side, please. Ha ha, under the supervision of executive chef Chris Gonzo, all steaks are pan-fried at table, and mine is then delicately placed on the plate in front of me, which already has a tower of fries. A silver tray of bite-sized vegetables is offered, one each, a baby squash, a stuffed tomato…. my requested broccoli, no butter, is then brought as a good-sized bowl, and I love the sauceboat of mushroom sauce, with big mushroom slices. We drink Arabella Chardonnay 2010, beautifully presented and poured.


We talk about the Kimberley Process, the international validation of conflict-free diamond production (Israel’s Process members are apparently inhouse at the moment). No-one quite knows if 2 of Zimbabwe’s mines are ‘ok’ now, or not, but the Chinese are coming in in big numbers, on the off-chance. One Chinese is reputed to have bought up at least 4 small Harare guest-houses and several game lodges, and the Chinese ambassador speaks fluent Shona, the local language • The 318r hotel should be running at near-80% occupancy but it did climb back up over 50%, for the first time in 15 years, September 2010. (During the peak of hyper-inflation, mid 2008 until Zimbabwe turned to the US dollar February 2009, it ran at 10%.) Last year’s average of 45% is set to rise to 55% this year.


What a history. The first hotel on the site, all of 2 floors, was opened by retailer Thomas Meikle, son of a Scottish immigrant, in 1915: it was enlarged and extended, and a 2nd tower opened in 1993. Meikles Ltd, publicly listed since 1998, remains 43% held by the Meikle Trust, led by Thomas’s grandson John Moxon. There is tremendous loyalty among the staff – Jacqui Fleming, a Jill-Friday who does anything but technically heads quality, has been here since 1972. Gm Tinashe Munjoma was a 3rd generation waiter who has patiently worked his way up the ladder. Today he heads a team of 410, with annual turnover of 2% (it jumped terrifically during those worst-months, when staff, having to cope with double burdens of a ballroom sometimes filled with sleeping non-residents who simply moved in, thinking that a hotel would have produce, and their own inability to buy basic staples, emigrated in droves to South Africa).


At night turndown, I am brought a plate of crisps and macadamia nuts, and a hotel-wrapped chocolate is by my bed. In the morning, I wake with the dawn, go down my 257 stairs – past several hand-coloured engravings of Salisbury Cathedral, UK version, and one of Stewart Meikle. I run 4 times round Africa Unity Square, past the Anglican Cathedral, its clock permanently stopped, and the sparkling Parliament building, and a row of 5 open-sided flower stalls. A woman with a rear like a shelf, in bright scarlet uniform, cleans the streets with a dustpan and brush. It is all immaculate. Back at the hotel, the doorman-cum-security says hello, as does more-obvious security on an upper floor, 2 by an entrance to the neighbouring mall. I shower, nearly scalding myself as the hot tap is, well, boiling. Breakfast is neatly set out upstairs in the 11th floor Club Lounge, with big linen napkins standing as pyramids, and butter balls, and South African preserves. The waiter, a grandfatherly figure in crisp black, says ‘this is good Zimbabwean coffee’ as he pours it. The juice, in champagne flutes, is fresh-fresh, I cover my home-made yoghurt with papaya and guava, and love the wholewheat toast, in a silver rack. First I chatted to Meikle Ltd’s forward-thinking ceo Brendan Beaumont, and moved on to the exotic Klaudia Weizelbaumer, the Cape Town designer who is about to transform the entire hotel into a homage to Africa, with bright colours, and hand-painted leopards and monkeys on some fabrics, overall in a style similar to what she and her mother have done with Meikles’ sibling, Cape Town Cape Grace.


The morning rushed by, with one of the hotel’s 2 Toyota minivans taking us to the unique workshop of silver artist Patrick Mavros, and to see the Sam Levy shopping village, which had an enormous TM supermarket, 75% owned by Meikles and 99% of packaged goods from the 25% owner, South Africa’s Pick’n Pay; the only obviously-local packaged item was a kosher Greek Mozzarella). Back home, I found the simple room service – which like every possible bit of collateral stresses membership of The Leading Hotels of the World – offers the basics. The phone was immediately answered by a charming man who called me by name. He instantly understood my special orders, offered dessert, something to drink, and would I like the meal served course by course? It would take 20-30 minutes. My meal arrives 25 minutes after ordering. Brighton, in a bright damask waistcoat over white shirt, black trousers, wheels in the table, asks if I want it transferred to the fixed table (I do not). My rolling-table’s cloth is white, with M-printed logos. I have Royal china and a scarlet rose in a stem vase. One white and one brown bread roll are cling-wrapped, with 3 butter balls. My Greek salad is the basic ingredients (I asked for dressing on the side). My Scottish salmon seems to be the cut with all the bones in but it is cooked al dente, and comes with fresh al dente broccoli-carrots-cauliflower, and a mound of what I think is mash, which I leave for posterity. I watch BBC World on one of my high-definition screens. I call down, put the table out and 10 minutes later it is gone. And, in another 5 minutes, I am gone too. Meikles Hotel

from The Gostelow Report – article exclusive online to CPP-LUXURY.COM  

Mary Gostelow