2010 World Cup: On ‘Africa’s richest mile’ soccer is king
Sandton City mall provides five-star accommodations, exceptional dining and a resort feel inside Johannesburg
Published On Fri May 14 2010

Adrian Brijbassi Toronto Star

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—So you want to make sure your World Cup experience is a safe one?

No better way to do that than to follow Sepp Blatter.

The 74-year-old head of FIFA, international soccer’s governing agency, will set up at Michelangelo Towers in Sandton, an opulent Johannesburg neighbourhood that’s been referred to as “Africa’s richest mile.” Blatter and 23 other executive members of FIFA will stay in the apartment-style rooms at the Legacy Hotels property whose smallest suite is 800 square feet.

Steps from them, 200 more FIFA members will lodge at the Michelangelo Hotel, another five-star gem attached to the Sandton City shopping centre, a massive complex with about 300 retailers. Sandton City is so big (1.5 million square feet and expanding) you could fit eight malls the size of Yorkdale in it.

You’ll find high-end retailers as well as global staples such as Toys R Us and Virgin Mobile; plus doctors, dentists, a trendy nightclub and a movie theatre. A rapid rail system, the Gautrain, is scheduled to have a new Sandton stop completed before the World Cup starts on June 11. When finished, the Gautrain will shuttle visitors from O.R. Tambo International Airport to Sandton City in about 20 minutes.

Once there, private security abounds. The mall’s guards are approachable and eager to help, as are the staff at the hotels and restaurants. Any visitors determined to take no risks while in Johannesburg never have to venture from the complex. Even if they’re in town for the World Cup, they can arrange for transportation to and from the hotels to either Soccer City Stadium or Coca-Cola Park (formerly Ellis Park Stadium), the two venues in Johannesburg that will host games. Both arenas are about a half-hour drive from Sandton City.

The mall is an example of a Johannesburg phenomenon. With the high crime rate and a downtown area that has gone the way of Detroit, people have few areas where they can walk without feeling guarded. Sprawling shopping complexes, with their contingent of private security guards, provide an alternative. Along with Sandton City, popular malls include Melrose Arch and the gambling-centered Montecasino.

“You find out where you can and can’t go at night, and the malls are one of those places that allow you to walk around where you don’t have to worry,” says Brian Green, an information technology manager for McCain Foods, which is headquartered in his hometown of Florenceville, New Brunswick, and has a branch in Johannesburg. Green relocated to South Africa in 2006 and says places like Sandton City give people a needed sense of security. “In general, though, if you just listen to the locals you’ll probably be safe.”

Sandton City adjoins Nelson Mandela Square, which has 10 restaurants that overlook the outdoor public space that’s dominated by a six-metre bronze statue of the patriarch of new South Africa. Not only are the restaurants well-regarded, they’re also bargains for North Americans thanks to the favourable exchange rate ($1 Canadian equals 7.34 rand).

The pad thai at Wangthai costs 79 rand ($10.75). Large and delicious, it had succulent prawns and peanuts mixed in with the noodles rather than loaded on top. The grilled baby Kingklip at Montego Bay was an eye-opener. Having never heard of the whitefish, I expected something flaky like cod or bland like haddock. Instead, it was buttery and sweet, easily sliding off the bone. Although not quite as tasty as halibut, Kingklip was still a culinary highlight.

I didn’t make it to the famed Butcher Shop & Grill, but no one I spoke to questioned its reputation as one of the finest steak houses in South Africa. During the filming of Invictus, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon were among the notable diners.

At Michelangelo Towers, the breakfasts at 8, the restaurant on the lobby level, were outstanding. Pancakes with poached eggs and smoked salmon came to 47 rand ($6.39).

While FIFA will hole up at the Towers and adjoining hotel, other World Cup guests will stay at Sandton City properties such as Rafael Penthouse Suites, another luxury hotel in the mall. InterContinental, Radisson and Holiday Inn locations are also part of the complex or within a few steps of it.

What Sandton City and Johannesburg’s other ritzy malls have accomplished is the creation of a resort feeling within a city of eight million. A visitor can stay ensconced in the posh facility and never have to encounter the blight and poverty of one of the world’s most notorious big cities.

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