Planning a trip to South Africa?
People coming to South Africa often ask me for advice about what to do while they are here. Of course, the answer largely depends on whether you have been here before or if you have a specific interest in something like say fly fishing. But, if this is your first visit and you want an introduction to the country, here is the trip I would plan for you. First off, you need two weeks minimum. You spent well over 16 hours getting here you might as well take the time to explore. Seeing as I love to eat, I have recommended my favorite restaurants – many of which are amongst the best in the country.
Day 1 Depart
Currently, there are three direct flights from the U.S. to South Africa – a South African Airways flight from New York, a Delta flight from Atlanta, and a South African Airways flight from Washington, DC. The last option stops in Dakar, Senegal for 50 minutes, although you won’t get off the plane. If you aren’t on one of these flights you will be transiting through Europe which will entail an 8 – 10 hour layover – perfect if you checked your luggage and want to escape to the city for the day. Not so nice if you are jet lagged and just want to get to your final destination. At over 16 hours, the SAA flight from New York and the Delta flight from Atlanta are among the longest in the world.
Day 2 Arrive in Johannesburg
If you were on that New York flight or transited through Europe, you will be arriving early in the morning. If you were on the Delta or DC flight, you will be deplaning in the late evening. I prefer the evening arrival since all you have to do is stumble through dinner and go to bed which helps when combating jet-lag.
There are some nice hotel options in Johannesburg, but since I live here I have only stayed in a hotel when I first arrived. If you want a little luxury in your life, book at the Saxon Hotel otherwise, opt for to stay in centrally located Rosebank or Sandton.
Day 3 Johannesburg
If you are in town on a Saturday your first stop should be the Neighbourgoods Market or if it’s Sunday, don’t miss Market on Main. Grab a coffee and some food to sustain you for the next few hours. After perusing the food and clothing/jewelry stalls at the markets, it’s time to visit the Apartheid Museum. If you want a deeper understanding of the Apartheid era, read Nelson Mandela’s biography A Long Walk to Freedom during your trip. Don’t underestimate how much time you will need to see the entire museum. You should allocate a minimum of three hours because this isn’t the kind of museum you are going to breeze through in an hour. After the Apartheid Museum, it’s time to go to Soweto. Remember people live here so don’t walk around gawking and snapping photos of people and their homes. You wouldn’t very much like to find a pack of tourists on your front lawn and you can bet the residents of Soweto don’t either.
First stop is the Mandela House on the famed Vilakazi Street. Nelson Mandela lived here with his first wife and then briefly with his second wife, Winnie Mandela, before being incarcerated for 27 years. He only returned for a few days after he was released from prison, but the house is full of momentos and provides a glimpse of how people lived during apartheid. It is small and you will likely only need 30-45 minutes. Since you are likely running out of time by this point, you will have to choose between the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Regina Mundi Church which will give you insight into the June 16, 1976 Soweto student uprising. For ease, I would hire a tour guide or use the hop-on-hop off city sightseeing bus. Joburg is not an easy city to navigate and while I would usually eschew a tourist bus, it is a convenient and expedient way to access the major sites in Johannesburg.
For dinner this evening head to 500 Hundred at the Saxon Hotel – easily the best restaurant in Johannesburg. The dining room is small so book up to three months in advance and if you have more than four people, request the chef’s table. Of all of the fantastic restaurants I have eaten at in South Africa, this is my favorite dining experience.
Day 4 – 7 Safari (Phinda, Sabi Sands, or Kruger)
This morning wake up and fly to Phinda, Sabi Sands, or Kruger. If you are staying in Phinda or Sabi Sands your lodge can recommend numerous ways to access the camp. While driving is an option, you will have to get an early start if you want to make it to your camp in time for the afternoon game drive or before the gates close at Kruger. Phinda and many properties in Sabi Sands have private airstrips or you can fly commercial into nearby cities. For Kruger, fly into Skukuza or Nelspruit.
You can’t go wrong with any of these destinations, but when deciding on a safari lodge, there are a few questions you will want to ask. What type of animals are common to the property? How large is the property’s traversing rights? How many other vehicles have access to the property? Is one of the guests going to have to sit in the middle seat of the safari vehicle? And, is off-roading permitted?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but if your life’s dream is to see as many leopards as possible, you are going to want to head to Sabi Sands. If on the other hand cheetahs and the endangered black rhino are on your list, go to Phinda. Overall experience at less cost, Kruger National Park is a good bet. All three locations are home to the big 5 (lion, leopard, cape buffalo, elephant, and rhino) and you have a high likelihood of seeing all of these animals, and more, during your stay.
As someone who enjoys photography, I always ask if guests have to sit in the middle seat of the safari vehicle. If the answer is yes, this is a deal breaker. The last thing I want is to have a blurry arm in the foreground of my perfectly positioned lion shot. If your camp is on a smaller concession, make sure they have traversing rights at neighboring properties. This means that you will encounter more vehicles on the roads and if there is a major siting, you may have to wait until another vehicle leaves to approach, but having other vehicles out on the road is not necessarily a bad thing as they work together to find the more elusive animals. Phinda and Sabi Sands are both private concessions which means that if the ground isn’t too wet, you will be able to off-road to get closer to the animals.Kruger is a National Park and you won’t be able to off-road here. There are some tarred roads, but the park is roughly the size of New Jersey so you can easily escape the crowds and have an authentic bush experience. You can book self-catering units and self-drive through the park or stay just outside the park in Hazyview.
For your first safari, you are going to want to have a guide. Your ranger/guide will be able to answer questions about animals, birds, plants, insects, reptiles, and even stars. Before I arrived in South Africa, I could not have told you the difference between any of the antelope species and my knowledge of birds was limited to “look a little yellow one.” I also was apt to think a bush was some animal off in the distance. In addition to a ranger there is a possibility that you will also have a tracker, especially at some of the high end properties in Sabi Sands and Phinda lodges. While the ranger drives and spouts off random facts about the gestation period of a hyena and how fever trees got their name, the tracker will be scanning the horizon for animals and the ground for tracks, scat, and any other animal markers. They will also be listening for impala, monkey, and bird alarm calls that might signal a predator in the area. The ranger will be doing this too, but having a second person who is not talking and driving increases the likelihood of not missing anything. Plus at night, your tracker will likely play a tracker trick and spot a chameleon on a tree. I honestly think they must spend an entire day on how-to-wow-your-guests-and-spot-a-chameleon-at-night during tracker training.
A good ranger/guide will augment your experience with interesting facts and stories. If you are a twitcher, request a ranger who is also into birding. If you are an avid photographer, ask for a ranger who likes photography as well he/she will be more cognizant of positioning the vehicle for you to get the best angle and this ultimately has a big impact on the quality of your shots. Feel free to ask your ranger anything about the natural world or try to play stump the ranger. On one of my drives a guest pointed to some ducks and asked the ranger, “Are these ducks rapists too?” Turns out ducks have extremely violent reproductive proclivities. Google it. It is extremely interesting. Even though the ranger didn’t know the answer, he did a little research and by the next drive answered the question.
Day 8 – 11 Cape Town
After morning game drive, depart for a flight to Cape Town. You will likely only arrive in the early evening and if you booked in advance, head to dinner at The Test Kitchen – the only South African restaurant to make it onto the San Pellegrino top 50 best restaurants in the world. After dinner retire to your hotel. I prefer staying in small guest houses in Cape Town. Four Rosemead and Derwent House are two favorites. If you like large hotels and want to be able to walk to a number of restaurants and attractions, the Cape Grace is a lovely option in the V&A Waterfront.
This is also one of the most stunning cities in the world, but Cape Town weather is fickle and many of the top activities depend on decent weather. On day 1, if you have decent weather your first morning, wake-up early, enjoy the complimentary breakfast at your guest house, and head straight for Table Mountain. The more fit and adventurous travelers will want to hike up while others will opt to be whisked up by cable car. Remember to buy your tickets ahead of time to avoid the queues. After taking in the view, head over to Camp’s Bay to people watch. There are plenty of nearby restaurants, although none of them are outstanding, you can’t beat the views of the ocean and beach revelers while you eat kingklip (a type of fish) or calamari (seriously, South Africa has the best calamari).
Now it’s time to start exploring Cape Town by foot. Like all major cities, be conscious of your surroundings. I had a young kid who had clearly done a few too many drugs grab and kiss my arm, but on the whole I feel safe walking around most neighborhoods in Cape Town during the day.
Start at Merchants on Long an eclectic boutique in a beautiful historic building on Long Street. As you walk up Long Street, admire all of the wrought iron balconies. Then turn right on Shortmarket Street and after a few blocks left of Bree Street. There are a number of galleries, shops, bars, and cafes along these two streets. Duck into whatever strikes your fancy. If you need a drink House of Machines is a good place to stop for a coffee or something a bit stronger. If you are looking for a unique gift for someone back home, Avoova has nice gifts made out of ostrich eggshells. Make sure to stop in at Skinny laMinx for interesting textiles. Then double back down Bree Street and turn left on Wale Street to wander through the brightly colored homes in the Bo-Kaap. Since you are already in Bo-Kaap, stop in at Haas Collective on Rose Street to pick-up a bag of coffee beans. Not to be missed (also along Rose Street) is Monkeybiz with its quirky beaded dolls and animals that generate income for hundreds of women. Head back to Bree Street and sit outside at Weinhaus + Biergarten while you sip a beer and share a communal table with fellow Capetonians. For dinner you can’t go wrong at the nearby Chefs Warehouse and Canteen or Bistrot Bizerca, a lovely French bistro. Note most of these shops close around 1:00PM on Saturday and won’t reopen until Monday. Try to hit up this part of town during the week.
On day 2 head to Cape Point. You can either rent a car or go with a tour guide. The roads are narrow and snake along the mountains. Since I dislike driving, I would opt for a tour. The coastline here is beautiful and there are many opportunities to pull over and snap some incredible photos of the dramatic scenery, but your ultimate destination is the Cape of Good Hope Park. When you reach the Cape of Good Hope Park, head up to the lighthouse. You can either walk or take the funicular. After visiting the park, wind your way back to Simon’s Town. For foodies, make a reservation at The Flagship. I ate there a few months ago when Chef Bruce Robertson was still at the helm. The intimate lunches continue after Chef Bruce’s sudden passing and although it is likely a different experience, I imagine it is still phenomenal. After lunch, it is time to visit the penguins on Boulders Beach. After you have had your fill of penguin antics, head back to Cape Town and the V&A Waterfront. While I haven’t been to The Watershed since it opened, it is on my list for my next visit. If you find yourself hungry after that huge lunch, a light sushi dinner at Willoughby and Co. is in order. While it might sound strange to eat sushi in the middle of the mall, the food is excellent and you won’t be disappointed.
If you are in Cape Town on a Saturday, skip breakfast and head straight to the Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock. There are a number of options to choose from so do a loop before you settle on a few choice delectables. After filling your belly, it is time to head to wine lands. There are many beautiful estates in Sommerset West, Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Franshhoek, but given a choice I would head to Franshhoek. Buy a ticket for the wine tram – a little trolley that takes you to a number of estates on a set schedule. You will either buy a ticket for the red or blue line and you can hop on and off at will. Just remember to book lunch at one of the estates. This is a particularly good option for solo travelers or for those who don’t have a designated driver in tow. While Moreson’s is no longer a stop on the wine tram, Bread & Wine is a must of lunch. The charcuterie platter is one of the best and I happily polished off an entire platter on a cold, rainy winter afternoon with a large fire warming the room. Make sure to leave time to explore pretty Franshhoek and book at the fantastic Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francias for an epic dinner. Consider spending the night in Franshhoek to avoid having to drive back at night.
Day 12-13 Home
Unbelievably, your amazing trip to South Africa has come to an end, but before you have to board a plane back to Johannesburg and then on to the U.S. Take the early ferry to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were jailed. I have been to Cape Town more than six times and still have not made it to Robben Island. Not for lack of trying, but because I always seem to book a ticket on a stormy day and the ferry ends up being cancelled. Then again, it’s always best to leave something left undone on your list so you have an excuse to return. And, if you are anything like me, you will fall in love with South Africa and will be back for another visit. So, make sure to leave something for next time.