One of the traits I look for in a holiday is diversity. Having a new experience every day is something I relish, and nothing says variety more than South Africa. Whether you’re looking to experience some spectacular bio-diversity and wildlife, discover some of the best archaeological sites in the world, explore the sea, the winelands or enjoy one of most the multi-cultural landscapes you’ll ever find, South Africa can’t be beaten!
During my time there I have travelled extensively and have had some fantastic experiences; it is the country I proposed to Caryl in, so it has some magical memories too. If you are looking to build your South African Bucket List, this guide will help you to identify where to go and what to do.
Where to Stay
When staying in Cape Town, nothing beats a guest house. The service and welcome are second to none, and it really makes for an extra special experience. They are also excellent value for money and help you to see first-hand a warm Cape Town welcome. Two that I’ve stayed in, and can highly recommend, are:
Highlands –An amazing guesthouse in near Kirstenbosch, the botanical gardens: http://www.highlands.co.za/
Clarendon Fresnaye – Near Clifton and Camps Bay and a 5-minute walk from the sea front. http://www.clarendon.co.za/fresnaye-about.php
Both are fabulous places with incredibly helpful and friendly staff and owners, who provide an exceptional level of service. The food we had on both of these guest houses was delicious, for both breakfast and dinner.
What to Do in and around Cape Town
The natural sights of South Africa are simply spectacular and a must see is ‘Table Mountain’. The best way to access this prominent landmark is by cable car. I’d strongly recommend that you book tickets in advance via Computicket (the ticketing system) to avoid long queues. For me, the best time of day to visit this famous flat-topped mountain is in the afternoon or at sunset, where you can take in the breathtaking views whilst enjoying a bite to eat at the restaurant, without queuing with the masses.
Whilst in Cape Town, you also must go and see the breathtaking Kirstenbosch Gardens. Heralded as the most beautiful garden in Africa, it is also one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world. It’s a fantastic day out and the views of the eastern slope of Table Mountain are stunning.
A trip to the Waterfront in Cape Town is also an essential experience. Packed full of shops, restaurants, live music and an amazing atmosphere, all of this topped off by the incredible view of the city in front of Table Mountain. The Waterfront feels like the hub of Cape Town.
Also during your visit to Cape Town, a driving trip around the Table Mountain National Park is a must. Drive down to Muizenberg, where you will find a spectacular beach walk. After that, head to Kalk Bay for a coffee and a meander along the jetty. Next stop is Simons Town, where the colony of African penguins is a sight to behold! These little chaps are amazing, and the view unbelievable. If you have time, head along the boardwalk to Boulders Beach for a swim. This is a truly stunning beach, and, if you get lucky, you may be swimming next to a penguin! Keep your eyes peeled for whales too.
Next stop is Cape Point. This rugged landscape forms the extreme southwestern tip of the African continent and is rich in flora and fauna and is the smallest but richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms. Simply put, it’s beautiful!
After you’ve basked in Cape Point’s splendor, head back up to the west side of the peninsular to see some more eye-popping views, starting with Noordhoek. This delightful village-like atmosphere provides awesome mountain and sea views. Here you will find horses, pigs, cows, hens, ducks, geese and rabbits roaming around in gardens and open public spaces. You may also catch sight of wild peacocks, guinea fowl, Egyptian geese and suricats (or meerkats, as you may know them). There is also an incredible beach here, which is a haven for the SA surfers.
Llandudno Beach (not the Gaelic version!) is one of the Cape's most beautiful beaches, surrounded by large granite boulders and overlooked by mountains. South Africa has 2,798 km of coastline, and Llandudno Beach is of one of the most stunning spots. It is a popular surfing beach, but the swimming can be treacherous, with rough seas and extremely cold water. Instead I’d recommend that you take a bottle of Simonsig with you (its SA’s version of champagne, but about £3 a bottle and seriously delicious) and drink in the view.
The road from Noordhoek to Cape Town, which takes in views over Hout Bay and the 12 Apostles, is the most stunning drive I have even done, and one you will defiantly enjoy, so have your camera poised and be ready to pull into viewing points along the route.
If you want to explore the coast to the north of Cape Town, my absolute favourite beach is Bloubergstrand. The views of Cape Town and Table Mountain and stunning and it’s also where my wife Caryl and I got engaged (with a bottle of Simonsig in hand, may I add!)
Whilst in Cape Town, there are many other sights to see, including ‘Rhodes Memorial’, which stands on Devil’s Peak. Based on the Greek temple at Segesta, this monument was built in honour of the English born politician Cecil John Rhodes. The monument is impressive, but for me the best part was the awesome views of the city below.
Robben Island is another significant sight to take in. This is where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years imprisoned, and is a heart wrenching and memorable experience from what people tell me, although I have never done it myself.
There is just so much to do in this wonderful city, you will never be bored!
Where to Eat
One thing is for sure, where in SA, and Cape Town in particular, you will eat well. The food is simply incredible. Here are just a couple of recommendations of things you might want to try:
- African Café – The best I’ve found in Cape Town. 15 dishes from around Africa that will blow your mind. A must!
- The Codfather – Wonderful seafood and sushi restaurant in Camps Bay. If you love seafood, you must try this.
- The Tasting Room – ‘The’ fine dining experience to do in Cape Town.
- Mama Africa – You’ve got to have the mixed grill here (Kudu, impala, warthog, crocodile etc.) This isn’t a fine-dine restaurant, but with live music and great atmosphere, it is a fun African night out.
- The 12 Apostles Hotel – A beautiful hotel with amazing views. Make sure you are there before sunset for a drink and to soak up the scenery. The food is lovely too!
- Bukhara – awesome Indian food with a Cape Malay twist.
- Delish – just a coffee shop in Houts Bay, but well worth a stop for breakfast or lunch, before/after to do the Chapmans Peak drive.
If shopping is your thing, you might want to consider a visit to Greenmarket Square, the home to an inner-city flea market, where you can find some great value curios. You may also like to try the following outlets in Cape Town:
- Africa Nova in Hout Bay – great contemporary African artifacts
- Mellissa’s deli shop – delicious fig nougat
- Block & Chisel- brilliant kitchen utensils and equipment
- Ossiers –soft furnishings
- Kalk Bay Main Road- antique stores, coffee shops, galleries, second-hand bookstores and restaurants. It’s also the place to buy fresh fish straight from the boat.
- The numerous diamond warehouses, including the diamond workshop on Lower Long St in Cape Town. And don’t forget you can claim the tax back at the airport!
South Africa is famous for many things, but in recent years it has become renowned as an exceptional producer of wine. If, like me, you take great pleasure in good wine, a visit to the Stellenbosch and Franschoek areas are a must. About an hour from Cape Town, you can do this in a day, but the magic is staying there a little longer. Whilst Stellenbosch has more vineyards and is a larger town, it is Franschoek that holds more attraction for me.
When in Franschoek, an absolute must is lunch at La Petit Ferme. La Petit Ferme has a brilliant menu, complimented by the idyllic setting of the vineyards. The food and wine are incredible, rivalled only by the breath-taking view. Book a table months in advance, so you can reserve a spot on the verandah to soak it up. You won’t be disappointed.
The vineyards around Stellenbosch and Franschoek are simply lovely, and most charge you around £2 per person to do some wine tasting. That equates to 6 glasses of wine to try for £2, and almost always in beautiful surroundings and with a warm welcome. Great value, but remember to drink responsibly!
Some of my favorite vineyards that I think are worth a visit are:
- Haute Cabiere – Producers of a lovely Pinot Noir, and a similar view to La Petite Ferme. Word has it that the food here is also excellent.
- Rickety Bridge – Some lovely white wines, particularly their Chenin Blanc and Semillon.
- Rustenberg – A beautiful vineyard that produces a great Shiraz and old vine red.
- Boschendal - Spend the day with one of their famous picnic baskets under the trees.
- La Couronne – stunning views of the whole valley and fantastic rooms as well!
- Simonsig - With a cosy fire crackling in the tasting room during winter or flutes of chilled Kaapse Vonkel served on the cool, shady veranda during summer, you can visit this vineyard all year round.
- Thelema - rated as one of the world’s top 100 wine estates.
- Clos Malverne – Great Shiraz and Pinotage
Food to try
I’m a firm believer in the phrase ‘when in Rome’, so naturally when I visited South Africa I wanted to try the local cuisine. Of the things I sampled, I’d highly recommend:
- Kudu/venison biltong
- Waterblommetjie bredie – like artichoke
- Boerewors – spicy farmer’s sausage
- Malva Pudding – Sponge cake with custard
- Bobotie – Cape Malay curry dish, simply divine
- Knysna Oysters
- Rooibos Tea – a naturally caffeine free tea, best drunk weak and black
- A Springbok – peppermint liqueur and Amarula shot
- Amarula – a take on Irish Cream, but better
- Stumpnose – fish
- Kingklip – fish
Hermanus & Gansbaai
Hermanus boasts probably the best land based whale watching in the world. From the shores of a wonderful coastal town, you can see Southern Right Whales from September through to November, named because they were the ‘right’ whales for hunting. You may also get lucky and see a Humpback Whale too. A boat trip is also worth doing to see them a little closer, although sadly ours got cancelled due to the weather.
As well as whales, this area is known for another significant creature of the sea: the Great White Shark. Whilst I’d recommend you stay in Hermanus, take a trip down to Gansbaai to see these amazing creatures for yourself. You actually see them better from the boat than the cage, although, for the adrenaline junkies, the cage option is an essential part of the trip. Great Whites are incredible creatures, and I can’t recommend highly enough this trip, whether you want to get in the cage or not. You won’t be disappointed.
Where to Eat
One of the best meals we had in SA was at La Pentola in Hermanus. The food was delicious and offered a fusion-style of South African classics and boasted some serious fresh fish and exotic game. The panoramic views were amazing and the overall cost was really not that expensive for the quality we received.
Another special night was at Bientangs Cave. This is more stripped back than La Pentola, and specialises in seafood. However, the real appeal of this restaurant is the setting: a cave in the rocks under Hermanus and right by the sea! Make sure you are there for sunset, and hopefully there will be some whale action too!
If you are travelling to Stanford (about 25 minutes away) lunch in The Tasting Room at Stanford Hills vineyard is also a treat for the eyes and the taste buds.
What Else to Do
As well as the whales and sharks, Hermanus is a vibrant little town in its own right. Nearby there is also Stanford, a quaint village that is home to some lovely bistro’s, shops, vineyards and galleries. In addition, there is the wonderful Panthera Cat Sanctuary where you can see and hear about the cats of Africa, in an environment that genuinely has the animal’s best interests at heart.
Whilst the weather ‘rained off play’ for us, Fernkloof Nature Reserve Walk is also supposed to be beautiful.
The Garden Route
The Garden Route is simply a stunning stretch of coastline, with the most amazing scenery, wildlife and plant life you could hope for. The distance from Mossel Bay in the west to just beyond Plettenberg Bay in the east is under 300km, yet the range of topography, vegetation, wildlife and outdoor activities is remarkable. There is such a diverse range of things to do and see, but I am going to focus on the few bits I know best.
A sleepy town set on a lagoon that enters the sea through 2 large rocks known as The Knysna Heads. So dangerous an entrance into the sea, Lloyds of London will not insure boats passing through. A trip around the lagoon on a boat is a great way to see and hear about the environment and history of the place, and to see the wildlife and sea life too. Alternatively, you can risk passing through the heads and go whale watching instead.
Knysna is famous for its fresh water oysters, so you’ll have to try these if you’re passing through.
This beach town offers breath-taking bays, a huge a diverse range of activities, festivals and events, plus great places to eat and stay. It’s almost a ‘one-stop shop’ holiday resort that will keep the whole family entertained for a few days.
Staying and Eating in Plet
We stayed at Hunter’s Country Lodge Hotel, which was a beautiful country house set within the grounds of some idyllic gardens. The food here is wonderful, but you are also next door to Zinzi, a must try restaurant wherever you stay in ‘Plet’.
Hogs Hollows also looks like an amazing place to stay and eat, however it was fully booked up 6 months in advance when we were visiting. So, if your heart is set on eating here, book well in advance!
The Fat Fish in Plet itself is also great place to eat in the evening, with lovely local fish and sushi dishes. Moby’s by the Beach for a relaxed lunch is also great.
Emily Moon is a wonderful place to eat; an incredible lodge with wonderful views that nearly surpass the quality of the food. A must if you are in Plet.
Things to Do
Depending on the season, whale or dolphin watching is fantastic along the Garden Route, although a little less reliable than in Hermanus. We were lucky enough to see Humpbacks breaching on this trip, as well as an Elephant Seal, which is a rare sighting.
Plet is home to ‘The Elephant Sanctuary’, ‘Monkeyland’, ‘Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary’ (who specialise in big cats), ‘Lawnwood Snake Sanctuary’ and ‘The Birds of Eden’. We did the first 2, the former being a brilliant experience where the elephants are rescued from culling and cared for. We are able to ride on them, take them for a walk and feed them, to really get to know these creatures better and to help reestablish their confidence. For me, Monkeyland was good, but not quite as rewarding as my ‘trunk to nose’ encounter with the elephants. If primates fascinate you, then you’ll love ‘Monkey Land’, but make sure you keep your glasses and valuables out of reach, as there are no cages here, and these are cheeky monkeys.
What we should have done, speaking to others we met on the trip, was the Bird of Eden. From what we hear, this was apparently a brilliant experience, and a good way to famariliarise yourself with some of the species you may only be lucky enough to see on safari.
Aside from the plethora of wildlife activities, you can also do a tour of a township (shanty town) from Plet. I have done these in the past and they are an insightful, and quite moving, way to really see ‘behind the curtain’ of South Africa. What struck a chord with me on my visit was how much positivity there can be in adversity, so I’d encourage you to do this too.
Tsitsikamma Mountains and Storm River
This is a special part of The Garden Route, and if you can get to experience it, you should. The best way to take in the magnificence of the mountains and the river is by kayaking, which will give you spectacular views of the scenery. We took my parents and my god sons on this, and everyone loved it, so it works for anyone from age 7 to 70!
Durban has been heralded as the up and coming city in South Africa, and this vibrant city is gradually making its way back onto the scene. We visited a town just outside of Durban (on the other side of South Africa to the Garden Route) where we visited a game reserve. We stayed at the Boathouse at Ballito, which is a great place to stay with a good beach. It’s also great for a couple of relaxing nights after flying into Durban.
A visit to SA wouldn’t be complete without a safari. If you have not been before, I cannot put into words just how magical this experience is, if you are interested in nature in any way. Seeing animals in sanctuaries is one thing, but it is nothing compared to seeing them in their natural environment. Where you go on your safari will depend on your willingness to travel, time constraints and also whether you are taking children, and therefore want to avoid malaria affected regions. Here are a few to consider.
- Kwandwe- Without doubt the best game reserve we have found in South Africa, and the nest we have found in Africa for families. The ranger (Ruan) and guide (Vusi) were the best we’ve experienced anywhere, so if you are booking, be sure to request them. Ruan’s enthusiasm for nature and for life combined with Vusi’s talent for spotting makes an already special game reserve become spectacular. Ecca Lodge there was brilliant too for the kids, giving the adults a little respite too! Near Port Elizabeth, which makes it easily accessible and malaria free too. Our favourite so far!
- Pumba Private Game Reserve- Near Port Elizabeth, so within reach of the Garden Route, this is a malaria free zone, and saves flying anywhere (if you are near the Garden Route). The Water Lodge here is wonderful, and the game viewing brilliant. ‘Shamwari’ also benefits from the same conditions, but I’ve never been there so cannot fully comment.
- Mkuze Falls Private Game Reserve- one of the only two private reserves in the area. The landscape here is breathtaking.
- Umfolozi – Game reserve where you can drive yourself and stay in some low cost wooden huts.
- Mala Mala Game Reserve – the best game reserve for seeing the illusive leopard.
- Ulusaba– Richard Branson’s place.
- Krueger - The largest game reserve in SA
Whilst near Durban, I’d also recommend going to see the Valley of a Thousand Hills- I’m sure the title speaks for itself! Whilst you probably won’t see any of the Big Five here, the views are sensational.
If underwater wildlife is more your cup of tea, there are some amazing sights to see! If you don’t mind staying in ‘back-packer’ type accommodation, Sodwana Bay (a 4-hour drive from Durban) is perfect for diving.
However, if diving and safari style lodges are your thing, it’s worth travelling a bit further to Rocktail Bay. Here you can experience a turtle safari at night, and amazing bird life during the day. You can also go under the water and enjoy some sensational Scuba, however it’s worth mentioning here that you need to be an Advanced Diver to venture deep into these waters.
South Africa is a melting pot of cultures, wildlife and incredible natural views. Rich in great food and wine, activities and sights to see, for me it is the perfect holiday. I hope this guide has given you a taster of what you can expect from this remarkable country and that it’s given you some ‘Bucket List’ inspiration!