I arrived at The Victoria Falls Hotel, the oldest hotel in Zimbabwe, late in the afternoon, too late to do much more than register and have dinner. I knew right away that this hotel would be different as soon as I was escorted to the reception area by a porter who immediately claimed my luggage upon stepping out of a taxi. Check-in was swift and attentive, and I received a warm welcome as well as a map of the hotel layout and all the information I would need while I stayed here before the porter led me to my room.
My standard room (my budget did not allow for the Presidential Suite, at more than $2,300 per night) was comfortable and quiet, with fine-wood furnishings, divan, large bathroom, and views of the grounds through the vegetation outside my window. Meticulously serviced every day, including the turndown service that included the unfurling of the mosquito net around my soporific bed, the room ensured a solid night’s sleep. That is, until tour helicopters circling over the nearby falls started waking me up every morning at seven. They’re loud and obnoxious and incessant, but at least they will get you out of bed to start seeing what this place is all about.
My mornings always began with a generous buffet served al fresco at the Jungle Junction, where your breakfast includes bacon and sausage, French toast, potatoes, waffles with cream and honey, fantastic eggs Benedict on a croissant, and a variety of juices, yogurts, breads, cheeses, and fruits, including juicy pineapples and some wonderful paw paws, a type of mango. You can return here for a dinner buffet as well, which may very well comprise chilled cucumber soup, hot pea soup, braised oxtail, crocodile, Zambezi bream, rice, charred butternut squash, vegetable samosas, sadza (a fairly flavorless polenta), cauliflower with cream, penne with mushrooms and zucchini in a mushroom sauce, foccacia bread, chocolate and vanilla cake, and chocolate and lemon tarts. Time it right and you’ll be treated to an hour-long traditional dance show, performed by local ethnic groups, complete with masks and costumes.
In between meals, you’ll want to explore this elegant Edwardian-style hotel. Originally intended as accommodations for workers on the Cape-to-Cairo Railway when the low-rise hotel was built by the British in 1904, The Victoria Falls Hotel today sets the standard for sophisticated elegance and refinement, and impeccable service, without being too stuffy. Indeed, none of the staff are so prim to be standoffish; rather, while always maintaining their professionalism, they’re friendly and personable, and eager to swap stories and information with you.
Strolling around this landmark property, you’ll be hard pressed not to feel the shadow of British colonialism and the style the Brits brought to the heart of Africa, including the proper high tea served on Stanley’s Terrace every afternoon. At the hotel entrance by the porter station, a fresco of a map of Europe and Africa, an old airplane, Victoria Falls, and a winged Mercury carrying a mailbag and holding an envelope recognizes the hotel’s importance as a staging post for the British Overseas Airways Corporation’s (the precursor of today’s British Airways) Royal Mail and passenger service between Southampton, England, and Johannesburg, South Africa — a trek that required four stops in addition to Victoria Falls. The hotel also played an important role in African history when a conference here addressed the creation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland…and another conference 14 years later led to the federation’s dissolution.
The map I had received upon check-in proved to be helpful as I made my way around. Inevitably, you’ll pass through the Palm Court, a large lounge that serves as both a convenient meeting point and a comfortable spot to relax on the sofas and club chairs and admire the framed pressed foliage hanging on the walls. The adjacent Bulawayo Room supplies newspapers to peruse in a quiet atmosphere and plenty of artifacts to keep you engaged.
Wandering along the loggias and the hallways, you’ll come upon the spa and the art gallery. Plenty of mounted animal heads and antlers hanging from the walls give a nod to the era of fashionable game hunting, and vintage travel posters and colonial propaganda extolling the might of the British Empire remind you of just how expansive that empire was. Contrasting the jactation of the latter, a terrifically entertaining collection of sketches along one corridor pokes fun at the British character, ranging from their “Refusal to Admit Defeat” (in which a lone British explorer tries to take on more than a dozen polar bears) to the “Importance of Tea” (depicting a group of Brits trying to enjoy a spot of tea outdoors during a fierce wind and rain storm).
Outside, a pair of lily ponds in an inner courtyard offers a tranquil space. Lush gardens lead you to the large swimming pool, framed by pergolas and a beautiful cabana and anchored by a fountain, where you can do a few laps and then succumb to an afternoon nap or enjoy one of the hotel’s signature cocktails. Manicured lawns, often frequented by wandering warthogs, entice you to sit on a comfortable chair under a shade tree to enjoy one of the hotel’s defining characteristics: the view. Although you can’t see Victoria Falls — one of the world’s top five waterfalls — from the grounds, you know they’re there. The not-so-distant roar of “the smoke that thunders” as about 300,000 gallons of water drop over the edge per second reaches your ears, and the view of the Second Gorge and the 114-year-old Victoria Falls Bridge that connects Zimbabwe and Zambia beguiles you. The mist of the falls, so thick in the beginning of winter at the very end of the rainy season, appears to be a continually shifting cloud that changes minute by minute in shape and color as the day progresses. This mesmerizing vista is exactly one of the reasons why you should stay here.
No matter how you spend your day — getting soaked by the heavy mists of Victoria Falls, easily accessed via the hotel’s private footpath to the entrance of Victoria Falls National Park; micro-lighting over the falls and the Zambezi River; on a safari in nearby Botswana; or bungee jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge — you’ll want your evening back at the hotel to begin with a pre-dinner drink and some interesting socializing with other guests at the cozy Stanley’s Bar. Order up a Pimms No. 1, mixed with lemonade, apple, cucumber, orange, and mint; or a thyme-infused vodka poured tall with strawberry liqueur, fresh lemon juice, ginger beer, and a splash of bitters; or the truly photo-worthy “I Presume,” a fantastically colored drink of peach, orange juice, and citrus with vodka, peach schnapps, homemade lemonade, blue citrus liqueur, grenadine, and blue curacao sour mix that’s almost too pretty to drink.
Then head to one of the other restaurants. The outdoor Stanley’s Terrace offers a relaxed atmosphere under an arched loggia where you can hear the roar of the falls while you’re enjoying some cream of cauliflower soup with pesto, and grilled tilapia with potatoes, or perhaps a pear and blue cheese salad with pine nuts, watercress, and balsamic dressing, and grilled chicken bruschetta with avocado and streaky bacon, with a chocolate brownie for dessert.
Be sure to make reservations and get dressed up (you won’t need a tuxedo, but leave the hiking boots and jeans in your room) for dinner at The Livingstone Room, the hotel’s premier restaurant. The gorgeous restaurant features a coffered ceiling, heavily draped windows, and French doors. A piano player adds charm to the luxurious setting with his melodious tunes. White-glove service means the staff will push your chair in for you, refill your glass of water and refold your napkin promptly, and make a bread and butter presentation, during which you can choose from a quartet of each, such as thyme bread with basil butter, or tomato bread with olive butter. The sommelier will make suggestions from the award-winning wine list, and the tantalizing menu will immediately increase your hunger. You could have quail eggs or guinea fowl or ostrich carpaccio or kariba tilapia, but I finally settled on goat cheese lasagna with slow-roasted cherry tomatoes and basil oil; seared gemsbok loin Wellington, with white onion puree, asparagus, and mushroom duxelle; and a tart with white chocolate mousse and salted caramel sauce. Complementary petit fours at the end of the meal caps off a truly epicurean experience.
When you finally check out at the end of your stay at The Victoria Falls Hotel, you may be a little wallet-poor, but you’ll undoubtedly be experience-rich.