The Victoria Falls Hotel 120 years of documented historical moments and hospitality service excellence

Min Read

Now counting the months until its 120th anniversary, The Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe can look back on 12 decades of continuous operation as one Africa’s best-known hospitality venues. This renowned hotel stands just a few hundred metres from one of the world’s most stunning tourist attractions and is known today as not just a place to stay but as a stylish and graceful venue that offers contemporary facilities and amenities without giving up its charming historic feel.

The spray from the falls rises hundreds of metres into the air above the hotel and the thunderous sound of the water crashing into the gorge below is a permanent accompaniment for visitors. The hotel stands atop the first gorge reaching out from the falls, with a superb view of the equally historic road and rail bridge spanning the gorge, linking Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Taking you back to bygone eras

The hotel was opened in June 1904, just before the planned Cape-to-Cairo railway reached the Zambezi river. It was built by the railways authorities and became the first real tourist hotel in the territories being opened up north of the Limpopo river at the start of the 20th century. Within a year or so, the famed bridge across the Zambezi was completed, linking what is now Zimbabwe and Zambia with rail and, later, road access.

In its first 60 years, it was the only hotel on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi, offering something different to the hotels on the northern side, in the town of Livingstone. It started off as a small establishment, with a handful of bedrooms and public areas, all in buildings made of corrugated iron. For much of its early life visitors came only by rail, but road developments in the 1930s and, especially, the 1960s, made road travel easy and quick.

Air travel came in the period just before the Second World War, with the Flying Boat service from London to Cape Town stopping off on the Zambezi River, a spot nicknamed Jungle Junction by the pilots. Today, most arrivals are by air, by way of the modern Victoria Falls International Airport. Occasional visits by the famed Rovos Rail service linking South Africa and Tanzania bring guests by rail, echoing the earliest arrival process.

Luxury hospitality meet boundless nature

From the outset the hotel boasted a spectacular view into the gorges below the falls up to the bridge, across to the columns of spray rising continuously up from the falling waters. From early on it was recognized that this hotel should offer comfort to the point of luxury and a set of services of a superior nature. Its relationship to the railways has always been a feature, not the least because it has a private stairway to the railway station platform.

Activities for guests ranged from river cruises to game drives in the surrounding national parks, supplemented in recent decades by a huge set of offerings, from air and helicopter rides over the falls to bungee jumping off the bridge, and many more besides.

Since its modest beginnings, the hotel has grown, with fine accommodation and service wings being built over the decades to bring modernization and expansion to cope with increased numbers of guests. Two major wings reach out from the central base as what are known as ‘hammerheads’ – a design based on the old crossed rail-tracks logo of the forerunner of the National Railways of Zimbabwe. Other wings reach out from the entrance area and between the front and back blocks, and in the 1990s came the Stables Wing, a delightful addition that boosted bedroom and suite numbers to well over 150.

Unpacking the facilities

The hotel’s flagship restaurant, The Livingstone Room, was built in 1917 and is today Zimbabwe’s longest-running dining venue, where a dining experience is more than just a meal. Another restaurant, Jungle Junction, was built in the 1990s, standing where the old Africa spectacular dance show ran nightly from the 50s to the 80s and named for the old pilots’ name for the stop on the London-Cape Town service. A third dining area is Stanley’s terrace, the hotel verandah looking out across manicured lawns to the bridge.

Other facilities and amenities created over the 12 decades of operation include small executive conference rooms, a comfortable lounge, the attractive courtyard between the entrance and the lounge area, retail outlets, an art gallery run by a leading local artist, and service areas like a hair salon, day spa, and ground operators’ desks. A delightful swimming pool area sits across the garden. A recent development was the re-creation of a cocktail bar just off the lounge, on the site where the country’s first cocktail bar was opened in the early 1960s, adjacent to the lounge.

 A unique and charming facility is Chapel of St Mary Magdalene, a tiny Anglican church facility that was opened in 1932 and to this day hosts regular services and special occasions such as weddings and baptisms. The Victoria Falls Hotel is thought to be only hotel in Zimbabwe with its own chapel and this feature is much cherished to this day. In April 1947 this chapel was used by Britain’s King George VI and his family for Sunday service while staying at the hotel.

In recent decades many more hotels and accommodation facilities have opened in and around Victoria Falls town, but none can boast the history and scope of The Victoria Falls Hotel, which has for many years been known affectionately as ‘the grand old lady of Victoria Falls.’

Today’s General Manager, Farai Chimba, has been at the hotel for a decade and a half and has been GM since 2021, He’s at the helm of the hotel at an exciting and demanding time: first, as it emerges from the massive challenge of the Covid-related closure or partial operation, and, second, as it undertakes a major refurbishment programme designed to gear it to the needs of guests well into its second century.

The road toward a newly refreshed product

The refurbishment is being undertaken in phases, fitting in with budgetary, administrative, and logistical requirements. The first phase is now completed and has seen re-opening of bedrooms and suites in what is known as the east ‘hammerhead,’ the south upstairs floor reaching east from the reception and the upstairs floor overlooking the hotel’s lawns reaching to the gorge below the falls. Further activity in other bedroom blocks and public areas will be underway in 2024. This is all aimed at meeting guest expectations of an historic hotel offering Edwardian-Georgian features from the first half of the 20th century, as well as expectations of the same guests of services, facilities, and amenities equal to any in the world, – including those of the most modern, technologically-supported kind.

“The imprint of this refurbishment will lie over the hotel for several decades to come, so it is being undertaken with care and flair, so that we respect its past and still meet present-day expectations,” he said.

The physical exterior of The Victoria Falls Hotel retains its Edwardian style. Inside, the new look resulting from the refurbishment brings together traditional and modern. Work has been taken to the most basic of levels, lifting floors and removing ceilings, replacing cabling, wiring, and plumbing pipes, stripping surfaces to brick walls, and ensuring the very foundations and structures above them are fit for purpose for another century of service.

Some bedrooms have been expanded in size, others have had new features such as privacy walls installed to separate beds from sitting areas, while others have seen the removal of baths and replacement by large shower stalls that are in demand by most travellers today. The result so far is a set of almost 50 refurbished bedrooms and suites, including classic bedrooms, premium bedrooms, classic suites, and super-suites.

The hotel’s flagship suite has been significantly redeveloped and now hosts two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, lounge, and massive bathroom and shower room, as well as a private hallway. Its view is across the lawn to the spray rising above the falls, furthest in the hotel from the public areas. The Batoka Suite on the upstairs level above the lounge also features two bedrooms, a lounge, and service areas, with a spectacular view into the Batoka Gorge below the falls. It is reached by way of the grand double spiral staircase leading from the lounge. The royal suite overlooking the courtyard has also been expanded and modernized and will be especially popular with travellers bringing families.

Design work features new fabrics, stylish new floor tiling, new carpeting, and wallpaper pictures that feature Victoria Falls scenes and greenery. Lighting is discreet where needed and bright when wanted. Much thought has been given to modern features that serve good purpose, such as shallow basins for washing, large shower heads for maximum spray of water, and luggage storage in discreet spaces that do not take up areas that guests wish to make use of.

A home in Victoria Falls for the world’s elite

Over its many years, The Victoria Falls Hotel has played host to some of the best-known names in the worlds of politics, business, show business, sport, arts and culture, and many other fields.

One of the earliest celebrity visitors was George Darwin, astronomer and barrister, who was the son of renowned naturalist Charles Darwin, originator of the theory of evolution. George came to officially open the Victoria Falls Bridge in 1905. He was followed by a great many other well-known people, most of them having a break from their busy working lives.

One of the earliest royals was Princess Marie Louise, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, after whom missionary-explorer David Livingstone name the falls he first saw in 1855. Princess Marie Louise came in the years before World War 1 and noted in her biography her delight with the hotel, and her surprise that such luxury could be found in the wilderness of southern Africa.

Perhaps the most famous royal visit was that of the British royal family in 1947 when King George VI was undertaking a tour of southern Africa to thank the people of the region for helping defeat the Axis Powers’ threat in World War 2. Accompanied by Queen Elizabeth – later known for many years as the Queen Mother – and their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret, their two-month tour led them to Victoria Falls over Easter for a short break, staying at the hotel and enjoying Easter service in the chapel. Britain’s Princess Royal, then known as Princess Anne, stayed in 1982, while her cousin, Viscount Linley – son of Princess Margaret – has his honeymoon at the hotel in 1993.

Scores of celebs have stayed before and after that visit, including movie stars like Peter Sellers in the 1970s and David Hasselhoff in the 2010s and business moguls like Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, who brainstormed the future of the Disney empire while on a late-90s break. Along with them have been sports stars, heads of state and government, and a whole range of other prominent people, all of whom have contributed to the hotel’s rich history by being part of it.

At The Victoria Falls Hotel, style and grace meet high-tech and convenience as it ends the second decade of its second century and its team looks ahead to greater things to come.



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