Although it’s quite literally on the other side of the world—from New York, anyway—the trip to South Africa may not be as daunting as it seems. Thanks to South African Airways, which now offers direct flights from Manhattan to Johannesburg. The 15-hour air-time is long enough for two three-course meals (glutton), bottomless South African wine (alcoholic), and unbeatable comfort (human). For those of us who can’t afford to spend a whole day recuperating post-flight, South African Airways is the your only way to go. And go is exactly what I did, hitting the road immediately after we touched down in Johannesburg.
Following the success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the nation has elevated itself to an international destination. Still, while Johannesburg and Cape Town can rival most cities in amenities, veering off the beaten path is a must for any seasoned traveler. After 14 days spent immersing myself in the best that South Africa has to offer, I’ve returned with a curated list of five essential destinations that simply cannot be missed.
1. ULUSABA, SIR RICHARD BRANSON’S PRIVATE GAME RESERVE
An unlikely combination of adventure and luxury awaits visitors at the Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, which is located about 10 miles inside the steel gates of the sprawling Sabi Sand Reserve. The Ulusaba experience offers a luxurious alternative to the more popular—and crowded—destinations within Kruger National Park. Owned by Virgin Group tycoon Sir Richard Branson, Ulusaba naturally boasts its own private runway. For the full experience, charter one of Federal Air’s two daily trips from Johannesburg to Ulusaba, where you’ll be met with an iced bottle of champagne aboard a jeep that’ll whisk you to the resort.
The resort itself is split into two sections: the Rock Lodge (a cliff-side castle that offers unparalleled, 360-degree views of some of South Africa’s most stunning terrain) and the Safari Lodge(a network of raised walkways and bungalows, where guests coexist with the wildlife). If money’s not an issue, indulge in the Cliff Lodge, a dual-level mountainside villa within the Rock Lodge that boasts a private pool, gym, fully stocked bar, and panoramic views of Sabi Sand. Each night at sunset, guides are sent to fetch the resort’s guests (leopards and other predators are known to stalk the grounds at night), who are then brought to a gorgeous, rustic dining hall where a five-course dinner is served over candlelight.
Two daily safaris are included in the package, one just before sunrise and the other in the late afternoon. You will experience disarmingly close encounters with some of South Africa’s most beautiful and noble beasts, all of which are of course led by a guide and a tracker who are intimately familiar with every inch of the 250-square-mile reserve. Buckle up though, because if and when lions are discovered, the peaceful excursion quickly turns into a Ferrari-Safari as you dodge thorns and fly through narrow trails to reach the action. Expect to see at least the Big Five—lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, rhinoceros—in addition to other South African mainstays: giraffes, zebras, hippopotami, and wildebeest.
2. SUDWALA CAVES, MPUMALANGA
Located at the center of the Mankelekele Mountains, the Sudwala Caves are some of the most magical and oldest caves in the world. Once places of shelter for their pre-historic inhabitants, the caves still bear mysterious marks and etchings that allude to their majestic past. Guests are led into the beautifully-lit caves, and eventually up into the Devil’s Cavern, a stretch that is so humid it’ll fog up your camera lens. Thrill seekers should devote an afternoon to the Crystal Chambers Tour, a 5 hour-expedition that takes you roughly 6,500 feet within the caves to a chamber blanketed with a stunning display of aragonite crystals. It’s claustrophobic, sure, but also well worth it.
3. DULLSTROOM, MPUMULANGA
While venturing through the South African countryside of Mpumulanga, spend a night in the old fly-fishing town of Dullstroom, which is oddly reminiscent of the Scottish countryside. Browse through the town’s main strip of shops and stop in for lunch at Harrie’s Pancakes for their namesake dish, which is wrapped around savory ingredients such as chili con carne and pork. It’s far tastier than it sounds, and the locals swear by it. For a night of total rejuvenation, stop in at Walkersons Hotel & Spa, where you’ll be handed the keys to a private lakeside cabin and treated to a five-course meal inside the walls of what felt like a 16th-century castle. Curl up by the fire with a glass of whisky or hike through the estate’s many labyrinthine trails.
4. CAPE TOWN
When visiting South Africa’s second most populous city, be sure to stay at the Cape Grace, a charming five-star hotel located in Cape Town’s Victoria & Albert Waterfront. The hotel regularly hosts all manner of presidents, diplomats, and celebrities, proof of the inn’s masterful hospitality. Surrounded by a beautiful harbor, high-end boutiques, and some of Cape Town’s finest dining establishments, you could easily spend a few days basking in all that the city has to offer. A few highlights: Although it’s nestled within a shopping center, Willoughby & Co. is a peerless seafood restaurant, serving some of the country’s most savory assortments of sole and kingklip. Be sure to have your server recommend a bottle of South Africa’s signature Pinotage or Shiraz to ensure proper palette satisfaction. For those in search of traditional South African art, be sure to check out the Iziko South African National Gallery, which serves as a fine introduction to many acclaimed South African artists. The most exciting cultural movement happening right now in Cape Town, however, is in its hip Woodstock district, a Los Angeles strip mall–like area that was once riddled with crime. The three top galleries in the area—Goodman Gallery, Whatiftheworld, and Stevenson Gallery—exhibit fresh, contemporary shows that could compete with those in New York and London. Don’t be daunted by the intense fortress-like security of these compounds (Goodman Gallery can only be reached after passing through a series of parking garages and guarded elevators; Whatiftheworld is barred by steel and is under constant watch by an armed guard); despite intimation of the neighborhood’s recent, dangerous past, the future of the area looks increasingly bright.
While driving through the city, be sure to stop for a walk through Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay Quarter, a beautiful township with cobblestone streets, which is defined by its unique architecture and bold-colored homes. Contrasted against the dramatic backdrop of Cape Town’s surrounding mountain terrain, the views can be quite surreal.
5. FRANSCHHOEK, CAPE WINELANDS
About an hour north of Cape Town exists a small town called Franschhoek, which is noted for its nearly perfect year-round climate. Have lunch at Le Quartier Français,an endearing boutique hotel located in the heart of the Cape Winelands where tapas are paired with delicious local wines. After lunch, walk off the buzz with a stroll down Huguenot Road to take in the town’s scenic views and boutique shops, and to experience another example of South Africa’s unrivaled landscapes. When you are done shopping and ready for another round of wine tasting, head over to Môreson Family Winery [http://www.moreson.co.za/], one of South Africa’s premiere vineyards. Eerily familiar in topography to California’s Napa Valley, the Môreson Family Winery is a prime example of the Capetonian oenopoetic tradition.