The Victoria Falls Hotel
Modernizing a famous hotel is a difficult job. I’m not suggesting it’s in the same league as lion taming, or being a Kardashian, but think about it; take a legendary landmark and update it to meet the needs of the 21st century traveler, but without changing its fundamental essence.
A case in point is the Victoria Falls Hotel. At the beginning of the 20th century, the place started its life as one of Africa’s great railway hotels. It has hosted kings, emperors, presidents, and now at long last…me. The photos, drawings and memorabilia that adorn the walls speak to its legendary past.
Sadly, as things began to go pear shaped in Zimbabwe at the turn of this century, the hotel started to deteriorate—travelers stopped coming and so did money for upkeep. Then, a few years ago, Meikles Africa Hotels acquired it, and it became a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. Through a Herculean effort, the hotel has been brought far enough into the 21st century to make it appealing to today’s traveler, while keeping enough of it the same to retain its marvelous origins.
It wouldn’t have been right if they’d gutted the structure and put in mammoth rooms with flat screen TVs and palatial bathrooms. That would have spoiled the hotel’s appeal. The point for me is the sheer quirkiness of the place. There is a great sense of history but it’s presented with a typically British self-deprecating smile. It’s almost as if it knows it’s a kind of colonial anachronism, recalling a sanitized version of the history of Africa; the one with safari suits and gin and tonics by the pool, rather than cruelty, exploitation and plunder. That’s rather the point. You can imagine its white washed buildings and sprawling lawns in rural England until you see the vervet monkeys gamboling on the roofs or the family of warthogs diligently trimming the lawns. It’s a genteel outpost of old world civility juxtaposed against the geographical ferocity of the Zambezi River as it thunders over the falls on its way to the coast.
It speaks to the optimism people have about the future of Zimbabwe that the hotel has been rescued from decrepitude and decay. The rooms are charming and comfortable with no needless details, the view of the bridge and the gorge is as it has always been—fantastic—and despite my initial trepidation about a buffet at ‘Jungle Junction,’ the food is outstanding.
To cap it off they still offer a bona fide, old school English high tea, and as someone who grew up in England (and has therefore had his fair share of tea), I can tell you that it’s one of the finest cups of tea one can have anywhere in the world—anachronisms be damned.
Dan Achber has moved from Toronto to Bulawayo (Bula-where?), to run a collection of safari camps in Zimbabwe. Still a member of our Trufflepig family, you can look forward to his posts from the bush in the coming months.