Why You Need to Book a Trip to South Africa Right Now
When it comes to picking an itinerary, you’ll find South Africa is one of those countries where the hardest thing is deciding what not to do. Of course there’s quirky, attractive Cape Town, with its dynamic food and design scenes; there’s the classic Garden Route, with its striking lakes and lagoons alongside the Indian Ocean; eclectic Durban, with its waterfront promenade—the Golden Mile—and Africa-meets-Indian cuisine; and the renowned safari camps of Kruger National Park, where most visitors easily check off sightings of the Big Five.
But South Africa is about much more than these touristy blockbusters. Get off the beaten tourist track, preferably with your own rental car (the country’s roads are incredibly safe and easy to drive on) and you’ll discover a more relaxed, old-fashioned side to the country. From whitewashed villages along the Atlantic to the red sands of the Kalahari and secret valleys beyond the touristy Winelands (you'll still have plenty of wine, with the added treat of historic homesteads, nature reserves, fragrant lavender farms), here is our selection of the country’s definitive, don’t-miss experiences.
Whether it's your first trip to South Africa, or you're returning to see the country like a local—not driven by typical guidebook recommendations—the value of the rand is one excellent reason to book your trip now. And we're giving you ten more, just because.
Experience the Historic Tulbagh Winelands
Forget chic Franschoek and touristy Stellenbosch. Bartholomeus Klip, in the picturesque wine region of Tulbagh, is a historic homestead built on 10,000 acres of private nature reserve, just an hour’s drive outside Cape Town. This compact, working farm offers a taste of authentic Cape hospitality as it was before the crowds moved in. It’s an ideal place to adjust to the slow pace of rural life; we recommend settling in on the porch with a book as the sound of birdsong trills in the background. The home-cooked meals and warm, Afrikaanse service make Bartholomeus Klip one of the country’s best small hotels, and the perfect place to start a South African road trip.
Eat Fresh Atlantic Lobster at Paternoster
Driving past whitewashed houses with blue-framed windows, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a village on some remote Greek island. In fact, this is Paternoster, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Cape Town on the tranquil western coast. Here, the Atlantic brings regular blasts of crisp, saline air—along with masses of fantastically fresh lobster (or kreef, as its known here). Work up an appetite with a long, quiet walk along the shore, then grab lunch at Oep Ve Koep restaurant, where Kobus Van der Merwe serves only local, Wes Kus ingredients in his delightful little restaurant garden. Strandloper, right on the beach, is the best place to stay.
Join a Creative Community at Nieu Bethesda, Big Karoo
Nieu Bethesda, with its views over the Compassberg—the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape—is an artists’ enclave where creative people from around the world come to soak up the solitude. There are no gas stations or ATMs here, just lots of one-off experiences like the bizarre Owl House, once owned by the eccentric artist Helen Martin and now a small museum filled with hundreds of statues and sculptures of owls and camels. Or de Ramstal, a pub in a converted stable where you may well find the owner cooking a hearty Karoo lamb stew over an open fire. The best place to bed down is the Ibis Lounge, but be warned, the silence at night is almost unworldly.
Take a Road Trip On Scenic Route 62
One of the most beautiful stretches of road in South Africa is in the direction of Oudshoorn, along Route 62 and passing through the Little Karoo. Factor in plenty of time for long lunches at wineries (our favorite is Jouberg Tradauw); stop along the way for fantastic dried and fresh fruit from padstals, or roadside shops; and have a beer in quirky local bars like Ronny’s Sex Shop (no offensive stuff inside, just a funny owner with a huge collection of bras). End your drive in Oudshoorn, where you can spend time with the local meerkat community. Stay at the delightful De Zeekoe Lodge, where in-house naturalist Devey can take you on an early morning meerkat-spotting expedition.
Spot Cheetah at Samara Private Game Reserve
The beautiful, privately owned game reserves of the Eastern Cape’s Big Karoo region are one of South Africa’s best-kept secrets. There’s no risk of malaria here, no flight in a small aircraft required, and the area is an easy 7 hours drive from Cape Town. And the wildlife is fantastic: After an ambitious rehabilitation program, cheetahs once again roam the area, as well as rhino and giraffe, and prodigious herds of springbok, black wildebeest, zebra, oryx, eland and blesbok. Our pick of the local lodges is Samara, an intimate, upscale property with a large terrace on which to enjoy a home-cooked breakfast with views over the Big Karoo.
Help Save the Rhino at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve
Another jewel of the Eastern Cape is Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, a privately owned Big Five safari destination hidden deep within 55,000 acres of protected, virgin wilderness. There are four different lodges on the property, from a private, colonial-era manor house to a contemporary camp with 360-degree views of the bush. Perhaps most interesting are the efforts of the lodge’s US-based owner-investors, the Chouest family, to protect almost instinct local species like the black and white rhino. If you’re in luck, you might be able to join one of their rhino darting programs, where animals are GPS-tagged, and DNA samples are collected to be sent to the national DNA bank.
Stay at an Old-Fashioned Inn
If you’re driving between Cape Town and Johannesburg, or vice versa, then you’re probably going to take the N1 highway. Along this route, the nicest halfway stop by far is the small town of Hanover—a quiet village of dusty roads, traditional Karoo-style cottages and Cape-style, colonial buildings dating from the late 19th century. The best place to stay is the Boutique Guesthouse Hanover, a small,10-room inn in a traditional, white painted Karoo house with a tin roof. Evenings are spent on the veranda next to a huge open fire, where the Dutch lady of the house, Renate Advocaat, personally serves her guests aperitifs and homemade dinners such as a hearty casserole of “skaapstertjies”, or mutton tails.
Learn Karoo Cooking in Prince Albert
The compact settlement of Prince Albert, a 4-hour drive from Cape Town, is a favorite amongst city dwellers in search of an escape. It’s easy to see why: the town is an oasis set in a vast, desert-like landscape, in the shadow of the spectacular Swartberg Mountains. Its main street is dotted with attractive antique shops, cafes and restaurants, but the big draw is the cooking workshops at African Relish—a culinary school that also offers cute rental houses scattered throughout Prince Albert. Well-known South African chefs often host workshops themed around specialisms such as Cape Malay curries, or local herbs. The most popular course is in Boerekos—the simple but wonderful cuisine of the Karoo region, best known for its roosterkoek (griddle-baked bread) and delicious lamb pies.
Hike Through Wildflowers in Namaqualand
As you head from Cape Town towards the Northern Cape province, the road winds through a landscape that switches between striking mountains and panoramic coastal views. Just before you reach the Namibian border, you hit the Namaqualand region—often referred to as the land of the big sky, because of its seemingly endless stretches of uninterrupted African outback. That’s where you’ll find the wildflowers: almost 4,000 different varieties of them, bursting out between July and October, transforming the red earth into seas of color. But don’t worry, even outside of the flower season, this is a spectacular region to enjoy the real, African outback. Although there’s good hiking and cycling in the area, there’s no real luxury accommodation yet. Namaqualand is for the seasoned traveller who is looking for real Africa, and is comfortable staying in a quaint B&B like Annie’s Cottage in Springbok.
Go Wine-Tasting in the Robertson Valley
Though just a 90-minute drive from Cape Town, the small valley of Robertson in the Western Cape is spectacular. Just exit the main R60 road and you’ll find yourself right in the heart of this quiet corner of the winelands, with its scenic vineyards, olive groves and nature reserves. Here, there’s little to do but spend your days tasting wine, visiting lavender farms and olive oil growers (we love Marbrin farm), and generally just enjoying the slow pace of rural South African life. There’s only one decent hotel, the charming Fraai Uitzicht 1798, which is owned by a German wine grower. Don’t feel bad if your home cooked breakfast with views over the green valley takes a while to materialize; slow travel is encouraged in this corner of the Cape.