House & Garden UK
The Silo Hotel, which opened last March at the top of the tallest building in Cape Town’s Waterfront, is the talk of the town and beyond. For a start, it has staggering 360-degree views. From the bedrooms, the rooftop pool or a velvet banquette in the bar, the vistas are unbeat-able – mountains on one side, the docks on another, dramatically intersecting roads on another. Ant-like people, boats, and cars going about their daily business provide an ever-changing scene below.
Perched above the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), the hotel forms part of the designer Thomas Heatherwick’s exciting redevelopment of a former grain store.
There are 28 rooms, set in an old lift shaft that has been transformed into an opulent, deeply comfortable nest in the sky. This is South African hotelier Liz Biden’s latest venture and a departure from the other hotels in her group, The Royal Portfolio, which she founded nearly 20 years ago. All of the others began life as the Bidens’ family homes – there is Royal Malewane in the Thornybush Game Reserve, Birkenhead House perched on the cliff at Hermanus and La Residence on a small farm above Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands. When the family took on a plot and built a house in the bush, now Royal Malewane, they realised that if they were going to staff it in the way they wanted, they would need to rent it out. It went well, Liz enjoyed it and soon they were doing the same with their beach house, now Birkenhead. ‘I didn’t even know what a tour operator was,’ Liz jokes. But such a beginning set the tone for what makes her hotels so successful: they are very much their own private, luxurious worlds with a distinctly personal feel.
By contrast, The Silo, a truly urban hotel, was conceived from scratch. Liz, together with her husband Phil (a financier by day), and son Matt (now managing director of the hotels), had been looking for a site in Cape Town to extend the collection and provide a more complete South African experience for their loyal guests. It took four-and-a-half years from pitching to the owners of the Waterfront development to opening. This included two years of business plans, negotiating leases and trips to London to discuss various aspects with Thomas before design work even began. Though elevated above the city, this hotel is not a secluded retreat like the others. Non-guests can pop in for breakfast, lunch, dinner, a drink in the bar or even just a coffee, and 150 staff ensure it runs smoothly.
Liz decorates the hotels herself and has just one assistant – a considerable feat when no two bedrooms in any hotel are the same. She is the one making trips to the upholsterer to check on progress, tweak and dream up new pieces. Though each hotel is linked to its location, Liz’s style is distinctive – her look is one of colour, overscaling and deep comfort, with an eclectic mix of specially made furniture and antiques. She buys pieces that catch her eye, rather than to suit a spot on a plan. ‘There has to be a sense of fun,’ she says.
For The Silo, for instance, she had 70 chandeliers handmade in Egypt, which hang dramatically over baths and beds. The design has been criticised by those who would have preferred a more contemporary aesthetic here, responding to the concrete and location. But Liz knows what makes a comfortable hotel. Thomas’s vast ‘pillowed’ windows are a hard act to live up to, but Liz’s decoration certainly does that. She and Matt also made a determined effort to buy contemporary South African art for the hotel; many of the pieces are by artists who will have work in the museum below.
Liz is formidable in what she continues to achieve. She is still the person boarding the plane to the US or UK to meet travel companies. At the end of a busy and tiring day being photographed for House & Garden, she decides that she is not happy with the table for a private dinner at The Silo that evening, so she arranges flowers and Ardmore ceramics to dramatic effect. ‘I don’t think of my work as work,’ she admits. She has a team of 450 people, yet there is no sense of the grande dame about her. She is a doer and chats easily and collaboratively with all her employees. Her staff are loyal: Juan Pinto, the head ranger at Royal Malewane and now the hotel’s director, was their first employee 18 years ago, helping to plot with sticks and ropes the plan of the first house they built there.
Photography: Elsa Young