Where to Stay, What to Eat, and What to Do in South Africa

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. 

How to Make Soccer More Interesting to Americans, Everyone Else

When I was a little kid, I played in the local pee-wee basketball league. We were all so short, slow, and uncoordinated that scoring even an uncontested layup was a rarity. We won one game by a score of 2 – 0 in overtime. Bless my sainted mother, who cheered from the bleachers while bored out of her mind. Well, the soccer World Cup final was decided yesterday by half that score with an overtime victory by Spain over the Netherlands, and it was hardly more interesting than watching ten inept third graders in tube socks. Sure, I’m a crude American with no appreciation for soccer’s nuances, but I was joined in my living room by my long-suffering English soccer fanatic friend Steve, and we were both bored to tears by the relentlessly defensive game played by both sides. Apparently, it’s better to never score at all than to be scored on, a strategy that only intensifies as the game goes into overtime. We both agreed: Thank god we didn’t go to Nevada Smiths to watch this crud. But what can be done to make soccer more watchable? Well, we Yanks pioneered the use of the 24-second shot clock for basketball back in 1954, and it revolutionized the game. Maybe it’s time for a soccer shot clock as well.

I imagine that more than a few Europeans, South Americans, and Africans don’t think there’s anything wrong with the World’s Game, and if I have a problem with it, I can go jump in a fjord. I’d ask them, respectfully, if they’re being honest with themselves. Who can sincerely tell me that they find watching nearly two solid hours of a sporting event with bugger-all happening on the pitch interesting, regardless of the complexities of the defenses being deployed? Seriously dudes, it sucks, and the only thing that would have made yesterday’s final worse would have been if it ended in a shootout, as it did four years ago. No head-butt could mitigate the complete absence of satisfaction left in the wake of that train wreck. At least this year’s final was decided by a goal scored in competitive play. One sad, lonely little goal.

Soccer’s great, when it’s played by actual players, rather than professional risk managers who take every opportunity to hedge, dance, and dive, attacking only when the time is absolutely right. It’s not their fault. The game has simply evolved to the point where defense is favored over offense. There’s an imbalance. When that happens in a sport, you fix the sport, you don’t rationalize it by telling yourself this is what you deserve as a fan. That you’d appreciate it if only you were more sophisticated, so it’s best not to complain, lest you be branded an oaf.

Sorry, but having no real soccer tradition ourselves (other than every school kid in the nation playing it) we Americans are in a unique position to say the emperor has no clothes. The rest of the world will call us philistines regardless, so we’ve got nothing to lose by saying, World, you need to amp up the action in your sport.

So, a shot clock. The team with possession of the ball has to at least be setting up an attack after 30 seconds or so, otherwise the other team gets it. Of course, it might not work because teams rarely have possession of the ball for 30 consecutive seconds, but it gives them something to work toward. Always advance the ball, never back up, and lower the defenses on your own goal to do it. You get scored on, fine. Go get it back. Seriously, what else could be done to increase scoring, short of making the goal bigger?

That said, South Africa did a great job hosting the games, and the fireworks at the end were a nice touch. They filled the void left on the field.

Mundialista: South African Soap Operas Catch Bafana Bafana Fever

Bafana Bafana fever is spreading to all aspects of South African society, including its soap operas. And it’s almost happening in real time. I was flipping through channels here in South Africa during the halftime of the Paraguay v. Italy game yesterday and came across the popular show Generations. The scene was typically soapy—two dashing young couples at a breakfast table having a melodramatic exchange—but instead of forbidden love the actors were dissecting the results of Friday’s opening World Cup match between Mexico and South Africa. Check the video after the jump.

A South African I showed this clip to laughed and told me it’s one of the country’s biggest shows. Wikipedia says Generations has been on the air since 1994, and is “set in the cutthroat world of media communications in the city of Johannesburg. Generations looks at the story of the Moroka family, all of whom have passed on and left their legacy to the only surviving member, Karabo Moroka.” Apparently Karabo is not feeling Bafana Bafana coach Carlos Alberto Parreira’s substitutions during the team’s tie with Mexico. Even in South America, where football is pretty much the only topic of discussion during the World Cup, I haven’t seen such media penetration. Then again, I’m pretty sure all the soaps in Brazil and Argentina are canceled during the World Cup to make room for more football-specific programming.

World Cup Alternatives: What to See, Eat, and Drink in Cape Town

The biggest attractions in South Africa right now are a guy named Ronaldo, some dude named Mesi, and a chap named Rooney. But it wasn’t always like that (and it won’t be in about a month). As the entire planet descends upon this developing nation at the end of the world, the most die hard soccer fans will tell you that they eat, drink and live the Beautiful Game. We highly doubt that, since eating and drinking soccer would surely result in starvation, disease, and eventually death. So where should the international hordes actually be spending their time and money in between matches? Luckily, I spent some time in Cape Town before it was overrun by hooligans and WAGs, and discovered that South Africa’s second-most populous city is rich with wonderfully local cuisine, hella good wine, and a plethora of things to see and do when you’re not watching grown men chase after a white ball. Check ‘em out.

Drink Most nights, I find myself pleasantly tipsy. It’s hard not to over-indulge when the local wine is so good and so cheap. Even at moderately nice restaurants, it’s easy to find several bottles under $20, and we’re not talking carafes of cheap house wine of the Italian sort. We’re talking bottles of good local wine that will leave you hangover free.

“Even the French are starting to appreciate SA wines,” says Dominic Bowers, the Wine Steward at Cape Town’s Table Bay Hotel, who notes that while “for most of the 20th century, South African wines received very little attention within a global view,” the country’s wineries have really evolved since the end of the apartheid era.

Many of the country’s top wine regions are an easy day trip from Cape Town, and, with the vineyards nestled amongst rugged mountains, it’s some of the most beautiful wine country you’re likely to encounter anywhere. The Western Cape’s Mediterranean climate supports a number of different grapes, from crisp Sauvignon Blanc to the country’s signature Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut.

Stellenbosch, the country’s preeminent wine region, is a pleasant 30-mile drive from Cape Town. A university town, it has a relaxed vibe, and most wineries allow you to taste the goods for free (take that, Napa). It’s worth a trip to both Tokara Vineyards, and the nearby Delaire Graff Estates, not just for their wines and olive oils, but also for their beautiful facilities, with gorgeous landscaping, artwork and design.

Eat “South African cuisine has really come into its own,” says Margot Janse, the chef at the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, one of two South African restaurants on S. Pellegrino’s annual “The World’s 50 Best Restaurant” list. With great produce, exotic game meats, fresh fish from coastal waters, and beautiful scenery—be it coastal views, wine country, or craggy mountains—it’s easy to understand why.

The country’s haute cuisine features the locally organic grown produce, fresh dairy, and the French techniques you’d expect of any foodie enclave, but there are ingredients quite unique to the country. Janse’s 5-course menu includes a roasted wildebeest sirloin (with aubergine soufflé, butternut, tomato) and a coffee roasted warthog loin (with potato fondant, garlic puree, bone marrow and currant vinaigrette). Needless to say, Janse’s warthog loin is not to be confused with the warthog anus Anthony Bourdain ate in the bush on a very special episode of No Reservations. “Creativity is booming and there is a real pride in the culinary world with us chefs exploring all the possibilities of this country,” Janse says.

With in Cape Town itself, both casual and fine dining options abound. Try the butter chicken at Bukhara, a casual North Indian restaurant with four locations throughout the city. Grab cocktails and watch the sunset at the charmingly trendy Grand Café (35 Victoria Road) in Camps Bay (South Africa’s answer to South Beach) or head to 95 Keerom for Northern Italian fare, and the city’s best gnocchi.

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Shop Observe Cape Town’s hipster contingent’s eating and drinking rituals every Saturday when they, along with young creative professionals and older locals, head to the Old Biscuit Mill in the trendy Woodstock area for the weekly Neighbourgoods Market (373 – 375 Albert Road, Woodstock). There, over 50 vendors hawking a gorgeous array of food, from “Afro sushi” to paella. Skip the cupcakes and try the cheeses from Constantia Cheesery, which offers cheesy goodness sourced from all over South Africa, and grab some caffeine at Origins Coffee, a local micro roastery.

It’s not only food and drink on offer at the Biscuit Mill. A Design goods Market tent houses an array of young local designers selling clothing, jewelry, shoes, and vintage couture, while the permanent shops around the area sell eclectic-if-pricey housewares and art.

The Neighbourgoods Market wraps up around 2 p.m. From there, head to De Waterkant, the city’s gay area, for upscale galleries and boutiques, or to colorful Long Street to grab some souvenirs at the Pan-African Market. Pop into Darkie Clothing (159 Long Street) to grab a t-shirt emblazoned with designer Themba Mngomezulu’s iconic afro comb.

See No time or money for a safari? Check out the little African penguins at Boulders Beach, about a 30-minute drive from Cape Town. The little guys are so used to human admirers, they practically open the car door for you when you hop out.

Driving around the countryside, keep an eye for baboons. They are known to steal anything from a piece of fruit to a passport from a tourist, and, according to locals, if a baboon wants something from you, just let him have it, especially if he appears to be intoxicated — they’re known to sneak into houses and raid the liquor cabinet.

A short drive past the penguins are the stunning Cape of Good Hope— the southern most tip in Western Africa— and the Cape of Good Point, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.

And, you gotta do it. Yes, it’s obvious, yes, they’ll be a ton of other tourists there, and yes, it involves buying a ticket and possibly waiting in line. All that aside, hop on the gondola and whiz up to the top of Table Mountain (3,563 feet above sea level). Watch anyone scared of heights lose their shit when the floor of the gondola starts to rotate.

Once atop the mountain, take in the amazing view of the city, the coast, and the mountains, and keep an eye out for dassie—rabbit-sized creatures that look like large guinea pigs and are reportedly the closest living relative to the African elephant.

Getting There South African Airways flies to Cape Town daily, with connections in Johannesburg, from both New York’s JFK and Washington Dulles Airport. Fear not, there’s plenty of South African on-board entertainment to help pass the long journey.

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World Cup Teams and the Hotels that Lodge Them

The French football team’s fancy digs in South Africa have been causing a stir this week. They’ve booked out the entire Pezula Resort in Knysna, a picturesque harbor town on the Western Cape. It’s a five-star hotel with a top-ranked spa, renowned golf course, notable restaurant, beautiful rooms, and its own field, which the French have tailored to their specifications. I checked it out myself on a recent jaunt south last month and was indeed lavished with attention. But a group of haters, notably French football officials and the British press, are concerned it might be too much pampering for the boys. “Personally I would not have chosen that hotel,” France’s sports junior minister, Rama Yade, told the UK’s Guardian. “I had asked football authorities to show decency.” The article goes on to note how the modest Spaniards have chosen to stay in simple university accommodations. How decent of them. So where are the other teams staying? Turns out the French aren’t the only ones enjoying themselves.

The Brazilian team is staying at the Fairway Hotel & Spa on the Randpark Golf Course in Johannesburg. Like Pezula, it’s worthy of five stars. It’s also brand-spanking new. Booking for the general public opens in August, with a premiere room going for a reasonable 1,424 ZAR ($184) per night.

Some have said that England’s accommodations are the most lavish. Rooney and Co. are staying at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus in Rustenburg, where it’s hoped they’ll be isolated enough to stay out of trouble and keep their focus on the game. The new, 68-room hotel features six playing fields, a gym, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and its own medical center. (Funny how this wasn’t mentioned in the take-down of the French team’s fancy digs.) It’s also ultra convenient to the stadium—it’s just a ten-minuted drive to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, where they’ll play their first match against the U.S. on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Americans and Italians look to be slumming it in mere 4-star accommodations—the Irene Country Lodge and the Leriba Lodge in Pretoria, respectively. Neither look quite as chic as the French team’s lodgings at Pezula, or those of the English and Brazilian teams, but hopefully the tournament won’t be decided by thread counts and mini toiletries.

Bird Brains Betting & the World Cup

Traditionally, when one conjures images of gambling the following comes to mind: broke sods at Vegas slot machines, bookies and broken kneecaps, and that random plot line where Brandon had a gambling problem on the original 90210. But in South Africa, where the World Cup kicks off this Friday, there’s another sad, totally weird side effect of excess gambling: dead birds.

Wildlife organizations say the country’s vultures are nearing extinction because of gamblers who believe smoking their dried brains will give them special powers. With the World Cup and heavy betting potential coming to the country this week, conservationists are increasingly worried about the birdies.

Bird brain smokers believe it will help them pick winners, a practice that’s known as “muti magic” —superstitious rituals that some might liken to witchcraft and can involve anything from taking special herbs to animal sacrifice. Steve McKean, a conservationist studying the effects of muti magic on vultures, says the Cape vulture could soon become extinct in some parts of the country. “In the worst case, the Cape vulture could be suffering population collapse within 12 years,” he says.