When it comes to holidays, I’ve never been one to follow a classic itinerary, instead always preferring to set my own agenda – one that leaves me free to roam on my own terms, leaving room for surprise and spontaneity. But South Africa is a different beast. It is almost five times the size of the UK, made up of wetlands, deserts, bush, grasslands, mountains, escarpments, and subtropical forests, so a little knowledge and direction is a must. I only had eight days in which to take explore it all. Overwhelming? Yes. Doable? Absolutely. So, here’s tried-and-tested guide to the best of bush, beach and bottle…
Safari (2 nights / 3 days including travel)
There are dozens of camps to choose from, in a vast array of locations, although many are remote, making travel to and from them an adventure in itself. If you’re on a tight schedule choose a camp that has its own airstrip allowing a private jet transfer. Or, lean on the support of a specialist tour operator such as the Luxury Safari Company who will customise the trip around your time, destination, style and more increasingly common experiences such as outdoor sleeping, photography masterclasses and stargazing.
Where to stay: Singita Ebony Lodge
Situated on the south east edge of Kruger National Park, the lodge is sympathetically built into its lush surroundings and is a charming mix of contemporary luxury and local tradition, with an impressive collection of antiques, artefacts and furniture. All 12 rooms overlook the Sand River and boast wall-to-wall glass fronts framing private plunge pools with a view of the 45-acre sanctuary. Drives are offered twice daily giving ample time to hunt the all-important big five, but the lodge is most renowned for its high concentration of big game and frequent leopard sightings. Hospitality wise, you’ll find an exceptional standard of home cooked meals, paired with wine selected from an award-winning cellar – the largest independent collection in South Africa – complete with exclusive release, limited single vineyard and rare auction editions. Conveniently, if your stay is long enough to warrant a change of scenery, you will also find their sister lodge Singita Boulders Lodge nearby which is equally as exquisite.
Waterfront (2 nights / 1 day)
From here a two-hour charter flight connection between Kruger National Park airport will take you onwards to Cape Town, a city that has remarkably won the ‘Best City in the World’ accolade for a consecutive seven years in the Telegraph Travel Awards. Its coastline spans the South Atlantic Ocean and it is right here that you’ll find the Tintswalo Atlantic hotel.
Where to stay: Tintswalo Atlantic hotel
Set at the base of Chapman’s Peak, a row of 11 individually themed wooden cabins sit perched almost in the water, with a bar and restaurant to one side and pool area to the other. As the tide moves in and out, the crashing of waves provides the perfect hypnotic soundtrack to colourful sunsets lighting the skies over Hout bay.
The hotel is also perfectly placed to explore many of the main sights, including Cape Point – which, while not the most southern point of South Africa (that honour goes to Cape Agulhas) has a memorising way of making you feel it is. The area has much to entertain; a tour of the old and new lighthouses, walks along the beaches, exploring the tidal pools or trekking to its highest point by foot for breath-taking views – or easier so by the funicular. Be sure to time your visit right as the Two Oceans restaurant is well worth visiting to enjoy the fruits of the sea you are surrounded by.
From here, taking the coastal road back towards the centre will allow you to make a stop at Boulders Beach, home to a colony of African penguins you can view at close range from within the sanctuary. Driving onwards, across land towards the South Atlantic coast, prepare to witness one of the world’s most scenic routes witnessing the beauty of Noordhoek beach back towards Chapman’s Peak viewing point (and the hotel) and onwards past Dunes beach and onwards to Llandudno beach before reaching Camps Bay.
Continuing from one vantage point to another, once back in town you cannot leave without visiting Table Mountain. One of the oldest mountains on the planet and considered to be one of its 12 main energy centres – emitting spiritual, magnetic, and electric energies. Choose a sunny day to scale its peak. (Travel tip: book online to avoid some of the queues for the cable cars – tickets are valid for 30 days once purchased – and if you’re an early riser, take advantage of your body clock to get there early as wait times can be up to an hour.)
Harbour (2 nights / 2 days)
Where to stay: The Silo
For a change of scenery, move across town and book into The Silo hotel. Set overlooking the Victoria and Albert waterfront, it’s an unmistakable architectural feat and a prominent feature of the city’s skyline. The external design by the Thomas Heatherwick Studio saw the addition of striking geometric windows, which not only make the profile unique but also beautifully complement owner Liz Biden’s bold interior design.
The hotel is built in the elevator portion of the historic grain factory and occupies six floors above the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) which is also a must-visit. Before its existence, no other venue with a focus to showcase 21st century South African art existed in the world. The nine-storey building boasts an impressive 9,000 square metres of exhibition space across 80 galleries, a roof-level sculpture garden with glass floor, a restaurant and a bar, alongside impressive educational facilities. The interior atrium is a sight worth visiting alone, carved from a series of 42 sentinel-like concrete silos spanning the building’s height, cleverly drawing daylight deep into the museum’s central core. Tickets are issued daily and can be purchased online (valid for seven days) or at the site itself.
Each of the hotel’s 28 rooms are feature strikingly high ceilings complete with dramatic chandeliers; bold, clashing colours giving character to the otherwise industrial features; and quirky intimate details which nod to South Africa’s famed culture.
No space has been spared with the bathroom design either, each complete with Jack and Jill style sinks, an enormous walk-in shower and, standing pride of place in front of the aforementioned windows, a glorious roll-top bath with the city expanse providing a stunning backdrop to bathing. Here, the female design touch is obvious; mirrors with lighting perfect for make-up, sockets and hooks exactly where you need them and a cleverly designed walk-in wardrobe with a space solution for everything you packed and more.
For residents only, there’s the rooftop infinity pool (which if you don’t brave makes a great Instagram update, regardless) and bar, which offers 360-degree views across the city. For visitors, access is still permitted to the hotel via the Willaston bar and Granary café on a walk-up basis only.
From here it is easy to access tours of the world heritage site Robben Island, beginning at the Nelson Mandela Gateway with an exhibition and followed by a scenic ferry ride to the island. Once there, the tour is conducted by a former political prisoner giving you a rich, first-hand experience of the island and prison’s history. Despite what you thought you know, or have seen documented, this is not one to be overlooked.
It’s also an ideal location to reach some of the city’s best restaurants. If you like your dining on the experiential side, the Test Kitchen is a must, which was opened in 2010 by British-born chef Luke Dale Roberts. Its place at 44 in the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards is a testament to its long-standing success; truly, the experience is more than just hype. If you have time, the 14-course pairing menu is worth every bite. The food is imaginative yet in parts classic, built on the concept of a culinary visit across continents, presented in precision art form in beautiful tableware. The restaurant itself is imitate with no more than 30 covers, including eight counter seats which overlook the kitchen (a chefs table of sorts) – which, if you can secure, allows you to witness the military precision of the chefs.
Continuing the fine-dining theme, sat overlooking the city’s parliament buildings sits Fyn Restaurant. The venue itself is a blend of Japanese and South African influence set in an exposed concrete room with a ceiling height spanning two floors, allowing space for a spectacular wooden sculpture that floats hypnotically above the kitchen. Here, Chef Tempelhoff compresses an elaborate menu with a kaiseki approach into a small sequence of plates, offering three or four courses simultaneously – many of which incorporate differing tastes and variations of the same ingredient, including the unmissable daikon four ways. Its ambience is energetic, making it a great option for groups, the urban design allowing the conversations to bounce from wall to wall – but it still manages to maintain the intimacy you’d desire as a couple.
For a less formal affair with no taste compromise, Grub and Vine is the work of another British chef, Matt Manning. Trained under Marcus Wareing, Manning has taken his fine-dining skills, added the best quality local produce and created a cosy yet chic environment to offer an uncompromisingly good experience. If you wish to make an evening of it, the restaurant is housed in the same building as Frogitt & Vonkel, an elegant wine bar that stocks some of the best small-batch and boutique wines from South Africa, plus specially selected imported varieties, all by the glass.
Winelands (2 nights / 2 days)
After a busy few days in the city, there is no better time to retreat to the winelands.
The Greenhouse, part of the Cellars-Hohenort Hotel, sits just on the edge of Cape Town and has been ranked within the country’s top 10 restaurants by the prestigious Eat Out Mercedes Benz Restaurant Awards on seven occasions within the last nine years. Unsurprisingly the restaurant, true to its name, is predominately glass in structure and surrounded by the very greenery that gives such a different dimension to its traditional African dishes, featuring little-known ingredients, such as buchu, an herb similar to eucalyptus and mint, and waterblommetjie, a water lily flower found in Cape Town’s ponds.
About an hour later by road you’ll reach Franschhoek, although you will feel like you’ve travelled for longer. There’s a fairy-tale ambience about this tiny place, with its white washed Cable Dutch homesteads, which sit hidden by the imposing Drakenstein and Wemmershoek mountain ranges that circle it. But don’t be fooled by its size; along with its outstanding wine production it has become one of the world’s most unlikely gastronomic havens.
First up is Babylonstoren, whose UK sister hotel The Newt in Somerset opened this summer. Both share the same philosophy; creating the ultimate visitor haven where the luxury is in the integrity and authenticity of the setting, sympathetic to the land that surrounds it. Food-wise, everything is seasonal and substantial and comes from either Babylonstoren or neighbouring farms. You’re invited to join the harvesting, pruning, planting or picking of the many fruits, herbs, nuts, spices and vegetables that make it to the tables of the Babel or Greenhouse restaurants. And, for those unable to choose there is also an option to extend your visit and stay in one of the farm buildings, which been styled with the same stunning simplicity.
Ensure that you are organised enough to reserve a table well in advance at Foliage, which currently features on the Diners Club 50 Best Discovery Series List highlighting the next generation of dining destinations. Though don’t expect to plan your cuisine in advance, the menu ambitiously changes daily – but always with the consistency of high-quality ingredients foraged from the surrounding hills and local area.
Where to stay: Mont Rochelle
Accommodation-wise, Mont Rochelle sits at the highest point of the town with magnificent views across the whole valley. The hotel is part of the Virgin Collection and is set within a 39-hectare estate upon which you’ll also find one of Branson’s own holiday homes. Guests have a choice of 26 rooms spread generously across the estate, each of which steals its own unique piece of the vast views. The estate produces its own wine, its vines set up to 400m above sea level – meaning its grapes are exposed to a range of micro-climates, providing Mediterranean-like conditions that help produce some award-winning wines. Tasting is available within the cellar itself, its casual dining restaurant, Country Kitchen, or for a more formal affair the main eaterie, Restaurant Miko. For something a little more personalised, the hotel also offers picnic hampers which can be enjoyed in the grounds.
There are many vineyards to choose from but if you’re aiming to see the most possible in a short period, the Franschhoek Wine Tram is one of the best ways to explore multiple vineyards and the main sights. Five coloured lines around the valley allow you to hop on and off enjoying a variety of wine tastings, cellar tours or lunch, or explore the town centre which is lined with boutiques, art galleries, restaurants. If you’re a coffee lover, sample a roast that is famed as being the best in the region at the Terbodore coffee shop.
These are all reasons to come, but one that unifies them all is the South Africans themselves who are welcoming and hospitable, perhaps owed to their ubuntu philosophy which, often translated as ‘I am because we are’, tells that we become human through other humans. It is hard not to adopt this belief, as this is a country that once visited will own a piece of your head with its memories and heart with the desire that will remain there to return.
The route: Biritish Airways; inbound London to Johannesburg, outbound Cape Town to London; private jet to Sabi Sands; 2 nights Singita Ebony Lodge; private jet to Kruger Int Airport; South African Airways to Cape Town; 2 nights Tintswalo Atlantic; 2 nights The Silo; car transfer to Franschhoek; 2 nights Mont Rochelle.