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The Victoria Fall Hotel: 120 Years as Africa’s Best Known Hospitality Venue

Standing just a few hundred meters from one of the world’s most stunning tourist attractions, the Victoria Falls Hotel is not just a place to stay but a stylish and graceful venue which offers a range of contemporary facilities and amenities whilst staying true to its charming historic feel. The hotel sits atop a gorge, which throughout your stay allows you to enjoy the relaxing sound of the waterfall crashing into the gorge below. The hotel’s location therefore lends itself to providing spectacular views of the surrounding historic road and rail bridge which links Zimbabwe and Zambia across the gorge.  

The Victoria Falls Hotel was opened in June 1904, just before the planned Cape-to-Cairo railway reached the Zambezi River. Built by the railway authorities, Victoria Falls was the first real tourist hotel across the territory just 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, giving direct access to the hotel from surrounding regions as the railway linked what is now Zimbabwe and Zambia. The hotel has always been strongly linked to the railways, and now even has a private stairway to the railway station platform within the hotel.  

Over the first 60 years of the hotel, it was the only one on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi and offered 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, with all the in-buildings being made of corrugated iron. For much of its early life, visitors came by rail, but with new road developments in the 1930s, and especially in the 1960s, access to the hotel via road was much quicker and easier. Today, most arrivals to Victoria Falls arrive by air through the modern Victoria Falls International Airport. However, the famed Rovos Rail service linking South Africa and Tanzania remains popular for bringing guests by rail to the hotel – a great nod back to how the hotel began.  

Since its modest beginnings, the hotel has continually expanded with the introduction of fine accommodation and service wings which brought further modernization and expansion to cope with its rising number of guests. The hotel has two major wings which reach out from its central base – known as ‘hammerheads’- a design which was based on the old crossed rail-tracks logo of the National Railways of Zimbabwe. Additional wings reach out from the entrance area and between the front and back blocks. In the 1990s, the Stables Wing was constructed as a delightful addition which boosted bedroom and suite numbers to well over 150.  

The hotel’s flagship restaurant, The Livingstone, was built in 1917 and today is one of Zimbabwe’s longest-running dining venues. A further restaurant called Jungle Junction was built in the 1990s where the African spectacular dance show ran nightly from the 50s and 80s. The third dining area is Stanley’s Terrace which looks out across the manicured lawns to the bridge. Other facilities and amenities have developed over the last 120 years of operation which now include conference rooms, a comfortable lounge, a courtyard, a lounge area, a retail outlet, an art gallery, and service areas such as a hair salon, day spa and ground operator’s desk. The hotel also has a delightful swimming pool area which sits across the garden. Furthermore, recent developments saw the hotel’s re-creation of a cocktail bar just off the lounge, located exactly where the country’s first cocktail bar was opened in the early 1960s.   

Activities for guests range from river cruises to game drives throughout the surrounding national parks, as well as a range of air and helicopter rides over the falls and even bungee jumps off the bridge. The hotel has its own unique and charming Anglican church, St. Mary Magdalene, which was first opened in 1932 and regularly hosts a range of services as well as special occasions including weddings and baptisms. The Victoria Falls Hotel is thought to be the only hotel in Zimbabwe with its own chapel, which has long been a cherished feature of the property to this day. In recent decades, an increasing number of hotels and accommodation facilities have been opened in and around the town of Victoria Falls, but none boasts the same history and scope that The Victoria Falls Hotel does. The legacy of the hotel is represented in its affectionately given nickname ‘the grand old lady of Victoria Falls’.  

We got the chance to speak with Farai Chima, General Manager at The Victoria Falls Hotel. Having worked for the hotel for a decade and a half, he took over as GM in 2021. At the helm of the hotel, he steered the hotel through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic which saw the closure and reduced operation of the hotel. Now, he oversees the current refurbishment programme which has been designed to develop the hotel ready to meet the needs of its guests ready for the hotel’s next century of operation.  

The hotel’s refurbishment is being undertaken in phases following budgetary, administrative, and logistical requirements. The first phase has already been completed and has seen bedrooms and suites reopened in the east ‘hammerhead’, as well as 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. Development activity is expected to continue across both bedroom blocks and public areas well into 2024. The refurbishment aims to bring its guests the same facilities and services as other modern technologically supported hotels while maintaining the hotel’s historic Edwardian-style exterior. Speaking with Farai Chimba, he said “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”.  

Refurbishment work has seen floors lifted and ceilings removed. It has also seen the crucial replacement of cabling, wiring and plumbing pipes, along with stripping brick walls and ensuring that the hotel’s very foundations are fit to serve another century of service. As part of this, some bedrooms have been expanded in size, whilst others have had new privacy walls installed to separate beds from sitting areas. The further refurbishment has seen the removal of baths in place of large shower stalls which are increasingly in demand by most travellers today. So far almost 50 rooms and suites have been refurbished including classic bedrooms, premium bedrooms, classic suites, and super suites.  

Even the hotel’s flagship suite has been significantly redeveloped and now hosts two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, lounge and a massive bathroom and shower room – as well as a private hallway to the suite away far away from the hotel’s public areas. The Batoka Suite sits on the upstairs levels with two bedrooms, a lounge and service areas with an equally as spectacular view as the flagship suite, which has also been expanded through the refurbishment to modernize its amenities which is hoped to be especially popular for families travelling together. The design of the refurbishment features new fabrics, stylish new floor tiling, new carpeting and wallpaper pictures showing the Victoria Falls scenery and greenery. Every aspect of the refurbishment is aimed to optimise space and ensure that its guests receive top-quality service and can rest easy with The Victoria Falls Hotel knowing every effort has been made to make their stay as perfect as possible.  

The Victoria Falls Hotel has played host to some of the best-known names in the world of politics, business, show business, sport, arts, culture, and many other areas. Notable visits include George Darwin, who opened the Victoria Falls Bridge in 1905 and is Charles Darwin’s son. Many royals have visited The Victoria Falls Hotel and perhaps the most famous royal visit was that of the British Royal Family in 1947 when King George VI undertook his tour of southern Africa to thank the people of the region for helping defeat the Axis Powers’ threat in World War 2. Queen Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother, and their daughters Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret accompanied the king on their two-month tour and stayed at the hotel for a short break over Easter, enjoying a service at the Chapel.  

Over the years, celebrities and tourists alike have descended on The Victoria Falls Hotel from across the globe to take in its Edwardian features and luxury experiences at the site of a beautiful natural wonder. Now, as the hotel enters its next century of operation with major refurbishment and developments well underway, it is set to be ready to serve its guests for the future under the careful guidance of GM Farai Chimba. Ultimately, at The Victoria Falls Hotel, style and grace meet high-tech and convenience, and it is through these qualities that the hotel will continue to thrive for another century.