My friend Mike recently shared his experience with an SPG Moments event, whereby he got two tickets in the SPG Suite at a Paul McCartney concert, followed by his experience using the American Express Platinum concierge to secure reservations at Jules Verne, the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower.
Mike seems to get more value out of his American Express Platinum card than just about anyone I know, and is back with a report on a truly memorable hotel stay in South Africa. It isn’t often that I’m jealous of hotel rooms, but damn!
I’ve always wanted to do a safari and finally persuaded my wife to let me plan a trip to South Africa. Because we have young kids and can’t be gone for too long, it was a relatively quick trip.
Alaska miles were our currency of choice for the flights. We flew Cathay Pacific from LAX – HKG in First and then HKG – JNB in Business. Our return flights were on Emirates JNB – DXB in Business and then DXB – SFO in First.
The flights were great and the premium cabins were the only way I could convince my wife to come along on a trip where we spent almost as much time in the air as we did on the ground at our destination. Three things stand out from our flights:
- My wife apparently went to the Lucky School of Drinking onboard – lots of Krug
- I learned my in-laws are less thrilled about our travel pictures when they include the caption “greetings from above the axis of evil”
- It’s impossible to take a shower on a plane without giggling like Ben at a One Direction concert
For the safari, we stayed three nights at Savanna Private Game Reserve and it’s one of the few places I’ve been where I immediately started planning a return trip the moment I got home.
The game viewing, hospitality and overall experience are all out of this world.
Here is a small selection of the photos we were able to capture while on game drives.
Johannesburg Hotel Planning
While planning the trip, I couldn’t decide if we should just stick with an airport hotel or if we should go into Joburg on the final night of our trip. After seeing our options and the huge premium being charged at the airport, I decided to splurge a bit and stay in the city at the Saxon, which is an American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts property.
As Ben has detailed previously, the benefits of the Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts include early check in, late check out, breakfast for two, in-room wifi, a hotel specific amenity ($100 restaurant or spa credit) and room upgrades when available.
The room we booked also included round trip airport transfers and a VIP airport meet and greet as a standard amenity.
American Express FHR Upgrade
Upon arrival at JNB, we were promptly met at the jetway by a contract worker who walked us through the airport, collected our luggage and called our driver to be sure he was waiting for us the moment we reached the curb. The arrival was handled flawlessly.
Despite rush hour traffic, the driver quickly delivered us to the hotel. The driver also phoned ahead to let the front desk know we’d be arriving soon, which streamlined our check-in process.
The guest relations manager Denzil welcomed us and handled the check-in process. He filled us in on the fascinating history of the hotel – it was originally a private residence before the billionaire owner decided to convert it into a hotel.
While taking care of the typical formalities (passport, credit card, etc), Denzil thanked us for booking through Amex and explained the FHR benefits. Then he started to smile like Ed McMahon handing out a giant cardboard check as he told us they had something special for us.
I don’t actually remember hearing him say the words “upgraded to Nelson Mandela Presidential Suite” but I must have because my wife insists she had to pick my jaw up off the zebra hide beneath my feet.
On our way, Denzil explained the history of the suite. When Mandela was released from prison, his house was not ready. The Saxon was still Douw Steyn’s home and he invited Mandela to stay for a few months while he completed his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
There are many images of Mandela enjoying his time at the home hanging in the hotel and you can tell it’s a source of pride for the staff.
From my original research when booking the room, I remembered reading about the huge suite.
But, you just can’t appreciate how enormous a 4,300 square foot compound is until you get lost in it a few times.
You enter the room to a long hallway. To the left is the guest room, which was bigger than 95% of the hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in. Other than a quick stop on our tour, it went undisturbed during our stay.
The guest bathroom is open to the sleeping area and has a large shower, and a separate room for the toilet and bidet. The bathtub is behind the bed and louvered shutters open to the rest of the room.
We continued back to the hallway, which ends at a study/workstation. A laptop, printer and fax machine are all provided, which was helpful for checking in for our flights the next day. There was also a welcome note from Denzil on the desk in a card with Mandela on it.
To the left of the workstation, you enter the living and dining area. I’m guessing it was at least 1,500 square feet. There was ample seating, an impressive dining table and a huge flat screen TV with a great selection of on demand movies.
There was also a minibar and a powder room near the entrance to the living room.
The décor was elegant and modern with African touches throughout – spears, tribal art on the walls, zebra hides on the floor (I had to be careful not to trip over the mane, which was sticking straight up).
A set of double doors led to the butler’s kitchen. Our amazing room service dinner was delivered from here later in the evening. Despite all of my hard work on the grill at home, my wife still raves about it being the best steak she’s ever had.
Heading back to the hallway and beyond the workstation you enter the master bedroom for the suite. A large couch and huge four-poster bed are the first things you see. Similar to the guest room, louvered shutters open to the bathroom and an enormous swimming pool of a tub (with jets). The shower was big enough to park a car in and the butlers would turn the steam room on if asked.
There was also a walk-in closet that was bigger than some rooms I’ve been assigned in Europe.
I’m not sure if the images capture the scale of everything, but more than once in our evening at the Saxon, I went to find my wife who had wandered off in the room and it took a few minutes to track her down. The suite was that big.
In fact, at checkout, we were asked how we enjoyed our stay. I replied it would be impossible to not enjoy yourself in that room. But, the staff at the desk told me a story about a woman who asked to never be assigned the room again because it was so big she got lost.
Beyond the upgrade
There is no doubt the upgrade made this a truly memorable stay. And while they said it was given as an FHR benefit, I realize it’s anything but typical to land this type of a room – being on a one-night stay certainly helped.
The thing is, I’d stay here again even if we were assigned one of the (incredibly nice) standard rooms that we’d originally booked.
First, the service is exceptional. Drivers, butlers, front desk, servers, and management…every last employee at the Saxon provided polished, sincere service. They all really cared how our stay was going and if we were enjoying our trip.
The food was fantastic (I didn’t grab any pictures before devouring it). We used our $100 dining credit for dinner in the room. It was not only the best room service I’ve ever had, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I will admit it felt silly eating it at a table for 8 in our room. But, that sure beats eating on the floor, which is what we were stuck doing in our more recent suite failure in Ireland.
Complimentary breakfast (another FHR benefit) the next morning at the Qunu Grill was also delicious and full of choices. My only regret was we were not there for their Sunday brunch, which I’ve read is lavish.
Our stay at the Saxon was not cheap but I have no doubt we made the right decision skipping the airport hotels. The upgrade was unforgettable and the service was impeccable.
I remember back many years ago when I first told my wife what the annual fee is on the AMEX Platinum Card and she looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I eventually convinced her that by optimizing the benefits of the card, we could justify the high annual fee.
Having access to the Fine Hotels and Resorts portfolio with all of the added benefits that come along with booking through this portal is one of the main reasons I continue to keep the Platinum card. After this stay, even my originally skeptical wife, was quick to explain to her friends how great the card really can be.