Experience Luxury on a Trip to South Africa

With remarkable wildlife, dramatic landscapes and gourmet food and wine, on a trip to South Africa you can experience the luxe side of Africa’s most developed country.

A chorus of screams, oscillating between high-pitched shrieks and low-register bellows, blasts us out of sleepiness on an early-morning game drive. Following the dirt road a little farther in our Land Rover, we spot a dozen irate baboons glaring at us from high branches. “There must be a leopard around,” the guide explains. “Baboons hate them.”

Our vehicle heads into the nearby bush, where it doesn’t take long to spot the archenemy—a sleek male leopard draped across the lower bough of a tree. By the time we circle around to get a closer look, he’s on the ground, jaws clamped on his prize—a freshly killed impala. For the next 15 minutes, he calmly drags his kill, looking for a secluded place to have breakfast. In his wake, a submissive female leopard and two cubs follow, hoping to share in the feast or at least scavenge some leftovers.

Our trip to South Africa, arranged by African Travel, Inc., a AAA Travel partner specializing in custom African vacations, began in Johannesburg. I could happily have spent a week at 54 on Bath, an exquisite jewel box of a boutique hotel in the capital. But even luxe contemporary rooms, an uber-chic mirrored lobby, and a gourmet restaurant couldn’t keep us from our eagerly anticipated safari at MalaMala Game Reserve near Kruger National Park in the country’s northeast corner.

Giraffes in South Africa

Photo: Shutterstock

Creatures and Comfort

During our trip to South Africa, our days at MalaMala—the oldest private game park in South Africa, dating back to 1927—are so full of pinch-me moments that it’s hard to process them all. Exploring the 33,000-acre reserve by Land Rover, our senses on alert, we take extended game drives early each morning and again in the late afternoon and early evening, led by our friendly guide, who shares his knowledge of the animals and birds we encounter throughout the park, filling in details that amplify an already mesmerizing experience. He spends time with us frequently throughout the day. He delivers our personal, early morning wake-up call and greets us with steaming coffee and tea before our drive. He also joins us for meals, answering questions and recounting memorable stories about the animals, the game park and our historic lodge.

On our first outing, a herd of elephants, including a baby ducking out from between its mother’s legs, lumbers by within inches of our vehicle. We hold our breath. The next day, we spot a herd of Cape buffalo just in time to see a fight break out between two young males. They lock horns when they’re not whacking each other with them. Later, we happen upon a pride of lions in a clearing. Sprawled over one another in the grass, looking as cuddly as stuffed animals, they don’t even bother opening their eyes when our noisy Land Rover stops a mere 8 feet away. On our trip to South Africa, we’re in animal lovers’ heaven.

Long open-air drives over bumpy terrain end back at our colonial-style lodge, where we savor lavish breakfasts served on an expansive outdoor terrace. For other meals, we help ourselves to delicious buffet-style lunches and dinners. Our luxury suites—with his and her en-suite bathrooms, a sitting room and sliding glass doors that open onto a lawn and a riverbed where animals occasionally wander by—are the perfect place to recharge during our trip to South Africa.

Next Stop, Eden

It’s rare not to experience cultural whiplash when traveling to another continent. But experiencing it within a single country happens less often. We leave the bushveld and by late afternoon enter La Residence, an elegant, European-style country house hotel in the Franschhoek valley, the epicenter of South Africa’s winelands. But a glass of a top-notch varietal from vineyards a stone’s throw from our villa suites eases the transition nicely. Our day ends with cocktails in front of a marble fireplace, superb cuisine by candlelight under crystal chandeliers, and regret that we’re leaving a place, once again, where I would gladly have lingered for days. Regret, though, is fleeting in South Africa.

The next day, we head south to the coast. Along the way, we visit a 21st-century Garden of Eden for gourmets in this fertile valley cradled by stone peaks. Babylonstoren, a Cape Dutch farm, with vineyards, orchards, a winery, a bakery and a celebrated garden-to-table restaurant. On our tour of the winery, we taste five vintages, both red and white, from a refreshing Viognier to a signature blend, an oaky red. Our meal at Babel can only be described as art on a plate, especially the color-coordinated salads that each contain a medley of one shade of freshly-picked vegetables. Afterward, we tour gardens that even feature a section for tropical fruit—including papayas, mangos, pineapples and guavas.

Black rhino

Photo: Thinkstock

Islands, Vistas and Urban Bliss

By early evening, we’re greeted at our oceanfront hotel, Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, on the outskirts of Cape Town. Situated on a lovely stretch of coast, the hotel offers beautifully appointed rooms with scenic views of Table Mountain and the ocean, bathed in an atmosphere of cosseted luxury that extends to the lobby, restaurant and spa. Our meals at Azure Restaurant confirm that the hotel’s fine dining is as impressive as its ocean views (sunset on the terrace is a daily miracle).

With so much to see and experience around Cape Town, the next few days of our trip to South Africa are a whirlwind. A funicular lifts us to the top of Table Mountain, overlooking the spectacular city sunbathing on the Atlantic. A boat tour of the harbor serves up a panoramic view of the Twelve Apostles, rock faces thought to resemble Jesus’ acolytes. It also takes us to Duiker Island, swarming with noisy (and strong-smelling) golden-brown Cape fur seals. A tour of desolate and hauntingly deserted Robben Island, led by a former prisoner incarcerated along with Nelson Mandela, is a sobering reminder of the harsh conditions political prisoners endured during their long sentences.

Following Chapman’s Peak Drive along the coast, we stop at the southern tip of the peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope, where Portuguese explorers braved the southern Atlantic to plant a cross, laying claim to the territory. We later stroll a boardwalk near a beach inhabited by a colony of 2-foot-tall penguins. They busily waddle back and forth when they’re not lying inert, sunning themselves, or taking a swim. We stop by the Old Biscuit Mill, a renovated factory that’s a favorite weekend brunch destination for city dwellers. And we squeeze in a little retail therapy during our trip to South Africa at Victoria and Alfred Waterfront mall on Cape Town’s Table Bay Harbour.

By the time we depart, I’ve accepted that I’m doomed to regret every leave-taking on our trip to South Africa. The truth is, I can’t imagine coming to this country only once. Then someone on the plane mentions this was his 14th visit. And I think to myself: That’s more like it.

The writer was a guest of African Travel, Inc.

If it’s animal sightings you’re after, our helpful infographic shows when and where you’ll find your favorite safari wildlife.

Your AAA Travel Counselor can help create a safari vacation that’s customized just for you. Call 877-396-7159 or contact a counselor.

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Heidi Kazemi, AAA Travel Counselor, Roseville, Calif.

Customization is always my top priority when planning a client's vacation. I ask about their family and where they've been before. Their preferences guide our planning so the vacation is perfectly tailored for them.

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