South Africa appeals to all sorts of travellers, and that is not a coincidence, as the country has got something for everybody. It's got almost 3000km of coastline with plenty of pristine beaches. It's got magnificent mountains with lots of exiting hiking trails. It's got mundane city life where you can savor delicious food and exquisite wines while enjoying spectacular ocean views. And last but not least it's got amazing fauna and flora, making it one of the preferred destinations for ecotourists.
Moreover, due to its well developed economy, travelling in South Africa costs less than in most other African countries. And it's easy to get to! Johannesburg is the main hub for all international flights to the whole of southern Africa.
South Africa has so much to offer that most travellers have to make choices, especially if they have limited time to discover the country. The trick is to not waste time en route from one destination to the next. Some regions can be done by self-driving, but visitors should not forget that South Africa is five times the size of UK, so often it's much easier to fly. Luckily, it's fairly easy to combine multiple regions, even though they may be far apart, as there's excellent airline services to all the main domestic hubs.
The Cape region
Cape Town is the most enticing, captivating and seductive city on the whole of the African continent.
A short week is barely enough to cover all the main activities that the city and surrounds have to offer. Highlights in and around the city include Table Mountain, Robben Island, the Cape Peninsula National Park, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and the penguin colony at Boulders Beach.
But the wine region, with pretty towns such as Franschhoek, Stellenbosh and Boschendal is only one or two hours away. It's an incredibly scenic area with a rich history and lots of very high class accommodation options.
The easiest part of South Africa to do in Self drive mode! From Cape Town, drive east towards Swellendam, a historical village that's the best place to stop for lunch. From there, drive on to Mossel Bay, home of the famous Diaz museum. The Garden Route starts here. Our favourite places on the garden route are;
- The small and peaceful village of Nature's Valley, which is completely encircled by wildlife reserves. The charming beach is very suitable for families, and there's good hikes as well. In fact, Nature's Valley is the perfect base from which to explore the multi-day hiking trails around Storms River
- Knysna, a busy town set around a natural lagoon, with lots of accommodation that offer stunning views. Featherbed Island, a peninsula on the other side of the lagoon, is certainly worth a visit, and has a nice hiking trail. Knysna is also ideal to visit attractions in the little Karoo such as Oudtshoorn and the Cango Caves.
There's so much to see and do along South Africa's coastline, that you could basically make holiday purely made of beach/ocean activities.
In Hermanus you can go diving with Great White sharks, and - in season - go on whale watching trips. Further east you'll find quiet little towns offering access to beautiful beaches, ideal for relaxing family times and working on your sun tan. These are cold water beaches, so best visited in summertime. But the hikes you can do there are equally lovely in wintertime. The hikes are often adventurous and lead to hidden coves.
Even further east, past Durban, you get to some sub-tropical and often very remote beaches and scenic coastal lagoons, all protected from civilisation by enormous coastal reserves. The area is ideal for snorkelling, diving and kayaking. The water here is much warmer than down in the cape, so sea life is more abundant, and you swim in the ocean pretty much the whole year 'round.
South Africa's got some interesting mountain destinations as well. The most famous of all are obviously the Drakensbergen, the mountain range encircling Lesotho. The most known is the hike up to Mont Aux Source, but all three main valleys merit a visit (Cathedral Peak, Champagne Valley and Giant’s Castle).
The escarpment between the Garden Route and the Karoo plateau is certainly also worth mentioning. Perhaps the most beautiful spot there is the Swartberg pass going from Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert.
Last but not least, there's the Panorama Route, with tourist drawcards such as God's Window, Bourke's Luck Potholes, the Three Rondavels and the Blyde River Canyon. This Canyon is the fourth biggest canyon in the world, and the biggest green canyon in the world. The panorama Route is right next to Kruger, so it is ideal to combine your safari with the Panorama Route.
(South Africa's most popular ecotourism destinations)
The Kruger area is one of the most known wildlife havens in the world, and by far the most popular safari destination in South Africa.
It's an enormous conservation area, more than 21.000km2 in size.
The best safari experience is to be had in the private reserves in the western section. These offer high quality low volume ecotourism options, far from the day tourist crows in the National Park itself. On private reserves such as Timbavati, Klaserie, Balule, and Sabi Sand, guides take you very close to the animals, in open safari vehicles. They go off road if needed.
The Waterberg Mountains is a malaria-free region that contains some interesting wildlife reserves, some of which offer rather good value for money.
The most attractive reserve is Welgevonden, offering lots of accommodation choices. Runner-up is certainly Marataba Reserve. And then there's also the Marakale National Park if you're looking for a budget option.
Nearby is also Entabeni Reserve (which has a very good golf course) and the Ant Conservancy (which offers family-friendly experiences, walking safaris and horse-back riding.
Addo is a decent size reserve close to Port Elizabeth, stretching from the beach all the way to the mountains. It is perhaps best known for it's elephant population.
It is a popular destination for self-drivers, but if you are looking to get away from the crowds then there's a nice selection of private reserves nearby, all malaria-free, and all offering very decent safari experiences.
The largest of these are Shamwari, which is close to Addo, and Kwandwe, which is a bit further to the east. If you don't mind a wilderness feel that's a bit less, then Amakhala, Pumba and Lalibela are nice options as well.
Our favourite lodges
Tsala Treetop Lodge
Accommodation; Stone, wood & glass suites tucked into the forest canopy. All have bedroom, bathroom & sitting room with fireplace. Villa has two bedrooms, each with en-suite bathroom.
Room type; Double or twin beds (customers choose). Aircon. Private plunge pool / jacuzzi.
Location; On a ridge overlooking the forest, less than 10km from Plettenberg Bay.
Meals; Buffet style breakfast, plated dinners @ Tsala main dining room. Two other restaurants with à la carte menus.
Lodge facilities; Restaurants, pool, library, bar.
Activities; ideal for day trips to Knysna, Oudtshoorn & Mossel Bay.
Price Range; 350-400$ pppn.
Lion Sands River Lodge
Accommodation; 8 luxury rooms, 6 superior rooms, 4 river suites (of which one is a family room).
Room type; Double or twin beds (customers can choose), two persons maximum, but one villa sleeps four and some rooms have interconnecting pathways. Air conditioning and ceiling fan. Suites have a private plunge pool.
Meals; Two restaurants serving approachable, contemporary comfort food including aromatic curries, and one top floor pool bar serving tempura, fresh oysters, pulled pork sandwiches, and a selection of healthy snacks.
Lodge facilities; Restaurants, pool, library, bar, spa, gym.
Activities; Helicopter rides, boat cruses, cultural tours, golf, horse riding, tennis, massages, whale watching, shark cage diving and much more.
Price Range; 450-750$ pppn (silo rooms, 600-1050$ pppn (superior suites), 650-1150$ pppn (deluxe superior suites), 1950-3000$ per night (family room), 3100-5000$ per night (royal suite).
Accommodation; 15 glass cuboid suites cantilever out from the rock face and offer panoramic vistas across the Sweni River and climbing hills beyond.
Room type; Double or twin bed setup. Air conditioning and overhead fan. Game viewing deck with day bed. Wifi. Family rooms (4pax) have a private plunge pool.