Exactly forty-five years ago, it was the first modern tourist resort to open in Seychelles. It accommodated the first generation of our airline tourists. Tony Mathiot recalls the glory and the fall of the Reef Hotel.
There it is, on your left, a short distance after the Anse Aux Pins Police Station, opposite the Victoria Car Hire, 9 miles from Victoria as you go to the South. This long and somewhat nondescript stone structure. You’d be excused for thinking it is a seaside youth hostel in a state of neglect, or a home for medically supervised recuperation! Well, actually the place serves as accommodation for the staff of the Ste Anne Resort (2002).
This was once upon a time The Reef Hotel, the first tourist establishment of international standards to open in our islands, forty-five years ago – long before ‘Resort & Spa’ became almost obligatory adjuncts in the assigning of names for holiday residences! This was once the most popular venue for seminars and conferences. It was once voted ‘The East African Hotel of the year’! This is where the first Tourism Ball was held and the U-First campaign was launched on Saturday December 11, 1993. This is where some forty-five South African mercenaries had planned to stay in November 1981 when they arrived in the guise of a beer-drinking club, ‘The Ancient Order of Froth Blowers’! This is where the 1986 sportsman of the year awards ceremony was held (when Albert Marie, local marathon star) won the title. This is where our local band, ‘Waves’, launched their Fan Club and their first CD ‘Only A Dream’ on August 4, 1992. Jimmy Savy, the present chief executive of the National Arts Council, was their leader. This is where … well, if that glum-looking, sort of aloof and uninhabited and discoloured stone structure could speak, it would certainly have tales to tell.
The Reef Hotel was officially opened at noon on Friday March 17, 1972 by Governor Sir Bruce Greatbatch (1917-1989) in the presence of a group of distinguished guests which included the Chief Minister, James Mancham (1939-2017), and zealous representatives of companies who had invested in the project. In his speech, the Governor said “this hotel will always have a particular place in the affections of the Seychelles as it is the first of its kind”. Indeed it was. Prior to the opening of the Seychelles International Airport in 1971, holiday makers who arrived on our shores aboard ships of the British India, Navigation Company, found hospitality and rustic splendour at Fairhaven guest house, the Pirates Arms, the Beau Vallon Beach Bungalows or the Hotel des Seychelles (which was a less deluxe establishment than its name implies!) The fact that it was the first HALLWAY hotel to be built in Seychelles augured well for our incipient tourism industry. At a total development cost of R14 million, it attested to the confidence and farsightedness of the investors. It was a monumental risk, one could say, because when the idea came up to build the hotel in 1970, negotiations must have focussed less on the financial aspect than on showing the investors where Seychelles were on an atlas! Eventually, W&C French, the Commonwealth Development Corporation, the Commonwealth Development Finance Company and Barclays Overseas Development Corporation placed their bets ‘a thousand miles from anywhere’. They formed the Indian Ocean Hotels Company (the Owning Company of The Reef Hotel) and Hallways accepted to manage it on their behalf. In mid 1970, W&C French started on the construction. Since the site chosen was a coastal plateau, many coconut palms had to be removed. The architect of the building was Joe Van Melick (a Dutch obviously). His design was of a two-storey structure, no higher than surrounding palms. Two residential wings either side of a central structure containing main reception area, offices, lounge, bars and restaurants. All the 150 double-bed rooms faced the sea and had adjoining bathroom suites. The rooms on the upper floor had a balcony and those at ground level, a verandah. Work progressed rapidly on the construction. W&CFrench which employed a total of 825 Seychellois had just completed the Rochon Dam in 1969 and had also been involved in the construction of the airport before undertaking the task of building a hotel ‘of such magnitude’. Tony Canham, the director of the Company must nevertheless have lived many hectic months during the construction period. At that time, a bag of cement cost R8.90!
By August of 1971, the main road was diverted to allow a wider area between the road and the hotel building for the construction of the tennis and badminton courts. On the other side of the road, a coconut plantation was sacrificially cleared and converted into a 9-hole golf course. By September, recruitment of staff was underway, with vacancies for 200 workers. This was done under the meticulous supervision of the general manager of Hallway Hotels, Adrian Matterson, who came expressly for that purpose. Instructors were brought in from U.K to train our Seychellois workers in the various sections which included kitchen, restaurant, housekeeping, front office and reception, accounts and a 24-hour service laundry. ‘On the job training’ must have never been on such a scale in Seychelles! Don’t forget, it was not until 1974, that a Hotel and Catering school opened at Mont Fleuri to train our locals for the hotel industry. Imagine daring to open a Hallway Hotel on an island with no specialised skills in that field available! Well, notwithstanding that, on that Friday March 17, 1972, you could have been served the grooviest Harvey Wallbanger and the most delectable Chateaubriand steak!
The Reef Hotel consisted of: 150 double bedrooms, a restaurant, a lounge bar, a dining terrace, a reading room, a spacious lounge, tennis courts, badminton courts, a 9-hole golf course and a swimming pool.
The first manager of Reef Hotel was Les Oliver. He was among the new arrivals who arrived on the BOAC VC10 which had landed at the airport on July 4, 1971. Having spent 30 years in East Africa where he had managed a number of hotels including the New Arusha Hotel in Tanzania and the New Avenue Hotel in Kenya, Les Oliver whose name was virtually that of a popular Hotel Company in France, ‘Les’ Oliver, was looking forward to managing an international hotel in his wife’s motherland (He was married to a Seychelloise). After all, he had to ensure that the Anse Aux Pins resort reflected the international standards of a Hallway establishment.
In 1972, a tourist would have paid R10 for a taxi from the airport to the Reef Hotel. The tariff was then R2.50 for the first mile and R1.50 for every subsequent mile. Full board at the Reef Hotel in the early 1970s was R133 single, R220 double, daily. A waitress or waiter’s monthly salary was R140 and that of a chambermaid R125. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Well, its first year of operation was quite an eventful one. Let’see: In the early hours of the morning of February 14, 1972, a month before its official opening, the Reef Hotel sustained a very nasty bomb blast which caused heavy damages to two adjoining bedrooms. Luckily, no one was hurt. One wonders how those honeymooners must have felt. After all, it was Valentine’s Day in Seychelles. Three days after its opening, on March 20, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II stopped during her tour in the South to visit the place and to talk to the staff. The Queen had come to Seychelles expressly to inaugurate the airport at Pointe Larue. On September 10, Chief Minister James Mancham (1939-2017) opened Michael Adam’s first exhibition in the Reef Gallery. On October 6 British chart-topping group The Sweet (‘Poppa Joe’, ‘Teenage Rampage’ ‘Fox on the run’) performed at the Reef Hotel where they were staying, for the Miss Seychelles Beauty contest when 17-year-old Jane Stravens was crowned the fifth Miss Seychelles. Britain’s number one group was in Seychelles to participate in the ’72 festival to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of the first settlement on Mahé (1772-1972). Incidentally, the previous year, in 1971, a first carnival was held in Seychelles on Saturday September 4 – and guess what? W&C French won 2nd prize with their float whose theme was … yes! ‘Reef Hotel construction’!
In 1972, the year that the Reef Hotel opened, 15,197 visitors came to Seychelles, four times the number that came in 1971 (3,175) – and Reef Hotel had the privileged advantage of being the only tourist resort in Seychelles that could offer modern amenities to ‘the discerning traveller’ …aqua sports, tennis courts, a golf course. And with the opening of the airport, the first generation of airline tourists who had chosen to experience our tropical resplendence must have been expecting, at least, a modicum of recreational comforts (certainly not a spa!) It had a couple of years to benefit from this advantage, because in 1974, a 100-room Block hotel, the Coral Strand, would open at Beau Vallon.
In the 1970s, the Reef Hotel offered opportunities for artists and artisans to exhibit their works and thus attract customers among the hotel’s clientele. In February of 1973, the South African couple, Ron and Gill Gerlach displayed and sold their batiks at the Reef Hotel. In February also, South African and ‘Praslinoise’ painter Joan Markham (1922-2003) exhibited and sold her works at the Reef gallery. It used to be the ideal place for organisation and clubs to hold their soirée. Quite a few British ladies, now in their late 70s may remember that night of June 8, 1973 at the Reef Hotel. It was when the Seychelles branch of the Women’s Corona Society had their barbecued dinner and dance. The Society was set up in 1953 by the Colonial office to support wives of officers being sent to work in the Commonwealth countries. In February of 1974, a French magician from Paris, Guidhery, stayed at the Reef Hotel where he performed for the guests.
In 1975, The Reef Hotel was the winner of the ‘Smile campaign’ which had been launched to encourage and to promote good hospitality and excellent service in the tourism industry. The Hotel won for the Best Buffet display and one of its waitresses, Miss Rosie Rita, won in the Tourist Sector.
For almost three decades, the Hotel’s 9-hole golf course was the only one in Seychelles (until Lemuria’s 18-hole golf course opened in 2001). The first Seychelles Pro-Am Golf Tournament was held during the weekend of December 14 – 15, 1974, when the British Caledonian Airways Golfing Lions came to play and our local champion, Gilbert Morin was born.
Historians will have committed an unscrupulous act of omission if the Reef Hotel is not featured in the annals of sports in Seychelles. One must gratefully acknowledge the fact that the hotel introduced golf in Seychelles at a time when it was an elite sport in Europe. Over the ensuing years more than a few Seychellois youths discovered that they had a knack for playing golf and eventually became amateur champions. Charles Morin, who was the golfer of the year 1984/1985, is a superb example; in October of 1986 he led an eight-man team to participate in the Mauritius Golf Tournament at Vacoas.
James Penman took over the management of Reef Hotel in 1974. Les Oliver had preferred to venture out on his own. In the late 70s, his Friday night fish fry at the Eden Roc Restaurant was a favourite enjoyment for locals and visitors. In 1984, Walter Confait was the general manager of the Reef Hotel. He was the first Seychellois to be appointed to the highest stratum in the administration of an international hotel in Seychelles. In fact, Walter Confait had been working at the Reef Hotel since November 1971, before its official inauguration and was eminently conversant with all the management aspects of a modern tourist establishment. When he took over, a multi-million rupee investment programme was underway to revitalise the Reef Hotel. This involved SKYCHEF Ltd, Seychelles’ leading providers of catering services to international airlines, which injected millions of rupees in The Reef Hotel to become a major shareholder. A new promotional and marketing strategy was devised to secure a greater portion of the tourism industry which included establishing links with various tour operators throughout the world. Moreover, extensive improvements and renovations were carried out on the entire structure. This came in the wake of Air Seychelles having gone international in October, the year before. The Reef Hotel was braced to face the challenge of the second half of the 80s when exciting news hit home. Benelux magazine had chosen our Hotel as East African Hotel of the year (1985)! Mind you, it was in competition with very well-known accommodation establishments like the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya and the Kilimanjaro Hotel in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. The magazine which had about 14,000 subscribers was a buyer’s guide to business travel and was distributed throughout Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. During that year, 72,542 visitors came to Seychelles.
In the 1980s, Still Waters, Saturn, The Nightshades and Jocelyn Perreau’s sega cabaret show made The Reef Hotel the place to be … any day of the week.
Such was The Reef Hotel’s social engagement to the Seychellois community that its years of operation were punctuated by altruistic deeds. It always looked forward to offer a helping hand.
Most of us wouldn’t know that in July of 1978, for example, The Reef Hotel generously assisted three of our star athletes in preparation for their performances abroad. Albert Marie, Brian Esparon and Esteb Larue were to represent Seychelles in the 1978 Pan African games in Algiers – they were the first Seychellois athletes to represent Seychelles in an international competition. Acknowledging that it was a special occasion for which our lucky trio had to be in their best physical and mental state, the hotel invited them to spend a few days for them to relax, do their routine exercise and enjoy the hotel’s culinary delights ad libitum. For those few days in July of 1978, Albert, Brian and Esteb were the Reef Hotel’s VIPS! By the way, in Algiers, Albert Marie who was then 21 years old (whose national marathon records of 1988 still stands) completed a 5,000 metre race in 16 mins 23 secs. A sterling performance that surely must have made everyone in Seychelles, including Jim Penman very proud.
In September of 1988, the Reef Hotel closed for three months for a R22 million renovations. This included the refurbishing of rooms, new decor and furniture for the restaurant area, and the re-designing of the lobby. The swimming pool was reshaped into a ‘S’ curve. But, despite its revamped image, an enthusiastic Seychellois staff and new glossy brochures, the 1990s would be an extremely troublesome decade for the Reef Hotel.
As of April 1, 1992, an Italian-owned company, Hotel Management Company (HMC) took over the management of The Reef Hotel and re-named the resort Le Reef Golf Club Hotel. Consequently, the former holding body, Seychelles Hotels, was compelled to make length of service payments of approximately R1.7 million to the 231 employees of the Reef Hotel – even in the absence of legislation in the Employment Act 1990 that made it compulsory to do so – among whom many had been working at the Hotel since 1971. Not wanting to lose such competent staff, HMC which was headed by France Esposito (1944-2016) re-employed most of the workers. This must have certainly mitigated Giancarlo Bettini’s worries about taking responsibility for the island’s oldest tourist establishment. He was to be the general manager. By then The Reef Hotel, well Le Reef Golf Club Hotel, was owned by Indian Ocean Hotels Ltd comprising Cosproh (Compagnie Seychelloise pour la Promotion Hotelière) (55%) and the Commonwealth Development Corporation (45%).
With Seychellois Chef Ulric Denis eager to thrill European palates with his knowledge of international gastronomy as well as our spicy creole recipes, Giancarlo Bettini was all set to ingratiate his guests and local patrons when … at 2am on Thursday August 27, 1992, seven masked men armed with machine guns entered the hotel, terrorised the night staff into handing over R70,000, grabbed all items from the creol d’or display and then vamoosed! Imagine the front page headlines if such an ugly incident had taken place in Mauritius. Luckily, for the Hotel’s management, the hotel guests were sleeping … unaware.
The hotel soon recovered from this unpleasant episode and regained its momentum. In 1993, it was one among the 9 hotels in Seychelles that participated in a staff training programme between Seychelles and Mauritius. Hotel employees from the 9 hotels in Seychelles went on training programme in hotels in Mauritius and vice versa. The Training Exchange Programme lasted for two years. Each Training Programme was for a period of three months. In April of 1993, a 40-seat pizzeria and a diving centre called ‘Deep Thoughts’ were opened to provide guests and locals with more leisure and social facilities. In August of 1995, the Hotel Management Company Ltd (HMC) bought the Hotel for R34 million. However, by the late 1990s, Le Reef Golf Club was in dire straits which was exacerbated by a new controversial ‘bed-tax’ law that came into force as of January 1, 1997. This required that all hotel establishments pay R30 per room per day regardless if the room was occupied or not. By the end of 1997, when the hotel should have been looking forward to its 25th and merriest Christmas, it confronted a nightmare of financial problems.
Niwa Tours, an Italian tour operator with whom the Hotel had been working went bankrupt and could not pay the local tour operators, who in turn, owed the Hotel a substantial amount of money.
By December of 1997, the Hotel’s licence fee was R350,000, a sum it could not afford, and even after protracted negotiations with the Seychelles Licensing Authority (SLA), the hotel was unable to settle its accounts.
Consequently, the SLA ordered the closure of The Reef Golf Club Hotel.
Surely, thousands of visitors cherish fond memories of their vacation at the Reef Hotel. It offered the best for the holiday trends of the day. It fulfilled expectations.
Surely, visitors who once stayed there in the mid or late 1970s and returned to Seychelles during these last few years to spend yet another vacation in our islands must have, on their way to the south, noticed and recognised their once holiday home.