I recently returned from my first trip to the African continent! Having solely traveled in South Africa, I know I will return – there is so much to see and do to limit your visits’ to only one.
Our journey began with an overnight stop in NYC. We spent the night at The Surrey Hotel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. This is Relais & Chateau’s only offering in the Big Apple. It’s a lovely hotel with a very sexy, European style bar (no TV) opposite the lobby/check-in. Our room was very comfortable with well-appointed features.
The next morning we hailed a cab and arrived JFK with time to spare before departure. We flew South African Airways (SAA) from JFK to Johannesburg, non-stop. The SAA flight departs around 11 am and Jet Blue is the only airline from Chicago/O’Hare with a non-stop to JFK that will connect with SAA. But, if you miss it or there is a delay you will not have any other option. Unfortunately, our SAA sales rep would not entertain the idea of an upgrade to Business class or entry into the lounge. We thought we were ahead of the game by snagging “exit row” seats in Economy Class but, that turned out to be not so great. Yes, we had more leg room but, the seats have very little cushioning and this is not a good thing on a 14 ½ hour flight! Might I suggest a “donut” for more comfort if you insist on an exit row seat? The service on the plane was good with a hot meal (just like back in the day). The flight attendants were pleasant but, they were very stingy with the empty seats. As it turns out, the last section of the Economy class cabin was empty and they closed the drapes to keep passengers from going there to stretch out. In fact, I did not realize there was another section in Economy class until we were preparing to land and they opened the curtain to reveal the empty seats!
We were met after exiting the plane by a representative of African Travel/Thompson’s Travel who assisted us with customs and then handed us over to another representative who introduced us to our driver for the transfer to the Four Seasons Westcliff in Johannesburg – http://www.fourseasons.com/johannesburg/. The hotel is in an upscale residential area that is made up of gated homes and the hotel is located behind a gate manned with an armed guard. The hotel has just completed a renovation and the Spa was the only component that was not fully operational. The hotel is built into the rocks/hillside which makes a very interesting setting. The rooms are lovely, very spacious and comfortable. The bathroom is huge with double sinks, separate shower, tub and W.C. A nice feature has two closets with your robe, slippers and a luggage shelf in the bathroom which was very convenient. There is a balcony or terrace with a table and two chairs. The Spa was temporarily housed in several guest rooms next to one of the pools and were set up with all the accoutrements that allowed us to have spa services! The Spa staff were very good, friendly and professional. This was the perfect way to unwind and stretch out after a long flight! We had lunch in the main dining room which is reached by an elevator in a building that is separate from the main lobby but, connected to some of the guest rooms. The outdoor dining area has wonderful views of the surrounding area, including the Johannesburg Zoo. For dinner we met friends who live in Jo’burg and they took us to Sandton, a mall that has the statue of Madiba (Nelson Mandela). This is his clan/family name – a sign of respect and affection, used by his countrymen. From there we had dinner in their home and they too, live in a gated neighborhood.
Onto my favorite part of the trip, our Safari! We were transferred to Johannesburg airport for our short flight to Skukuza. This has to be the cutest little airport, ever! Only a year old and unexpected when I think of going to the “bush”. We were met by a representative, Jenny, from Lion Sands – http://www.lionsands.com/ – for our transfer to the River Lodge at Lion Sands in the Sabi Sands area. The distance to the lodge is about 5 miles and takes almost 30 minutes because of the dirt roads and roaming animals.
Once we arrived we were greeted with cool wet towels and happy faces! Everyone was warm and welcoming. Check in was a breeze and we were shown to our room. The River Lodge has two sections of accommodations that are on either side of the public areas and span out to offer privacy and peacefulness. The guest rooms are very spacious with a large bathroom and a private deck with two chairs and a table. The nicest feature, during the cooler weather, is the sliding door to the deck has a screen which allows you to sleep with the door open at night and hear the noises of the jungle. A little intimidating because the animals do come into the camp and you wake to elephant dung along the raised walkways. I found the animals to be very “quite” which was surprising due to the size of say, the elephant – humongous!
I found the experience at Lion Sands to be perfect. River Lodge is not over the top luxury, which I hope to experience one day but, we wanted for nothing. Ivory Lodge is connected to River Lodge via a raised walkway. Guest from Ivory Lodge have privileges at River Lodge but, not so for guest staying at River Lodge. Ivory Lodge is more secluded and the guest never have to leave their private villa. However, the public areas are lovely and very intimate. Each lodge has a gift shop, lounge, dining room and space to relax before or after a game drive.
We had two game drives per day, 6 am and 4 pm. Each was at least 3 hours and longer if we were engrossed in tracking an animal. During each game drive we would stop and stretch our legs while Eddy, our tracker, prepared either coffee or tea in the morning. One morning we had coffee with a herd of zebra and giraffe! The late afternoon drive offers a stop to enjoy champagne or gin & tonics in the evening as the sun sets.
I believe our experience was unforgettable because of our guide, Landon and our tracker, Eddy. They were truly a “team” and treated all of their guest to an amazing safari. They were personable with a good sense of humor, they were knowledgeable without being condescending and no question or observation on our part was ever trivial. They really enjoyed sharing their life in the bush and the animals with us. This is their livelihood and they have the utmost respect for the animals and the environment. I don’t think I will ever go to a zoo again…I know they serve a purpose but, once you see a non-domesticated animal in their own environment, free to live and die according to nature, a zoo is a prison.
The food was very good, plentiful and fresh. All meals and beverages are included but, we found out on our last night that “premium” liquors were extra. Luckily, the Rand is in our favor and so, the bar bill was minimal. My only criticism was the BBQ in the boma. The meal was served buffet style and it was dark outside. Because the serving staff working the buffet were not use to talking to the guest and it was hard to decipher what was offered. But the experience was fun and communal with all of the guest in the camp dining together. We did make use of the fitness center during our down time in the afternoon and the weather was pleasant enough to go to one of the two pools. They have a shaded pool and a sunny pool, same size and style, just a different location in the camp. I did not have a chance to experience the spa.
In the evening, we were told to never walk to or from our room without an escort. The funny thing is, the escort(s) were only armed with a flashlight! If there was a chance of an encounter with a dangerous animal, I don’t know that a flashlight would be much of a deterrent!
Our next stop was Bushman’s Kloof (http://www.bushmanskloof.co.za/) in Clanwilliam, about a 3 hour drive north east of Cape Town. We flew into Cape Town and rented a car. The drive was easy for me, I wasn’t driving! But, Michael did a great job dealing with traffic and being on the “other” side of the road. We did get stopped just outside of Cape Town by the police. A little worrisome but, they just looked at his drivers’ license and let us continue on our way. The drive to Bushman’s Kloof was interesting as the terrain varied. The roads are in great shape and there are rest stops or fuel stops along the way. Once you turn off the main road the last two miles are on a paved road (most of the way) to an oasis of beauty surrounded by boulders and solitude. It was dusk when we arrived and greeted by several staff members. They checked us in, parked our car and escorted us to our room. We were invited to go down to the fire pit area for cocktails before dinner. They have cushioned seating in a circular area open to the night sky. It was lovely. They served drinks of your choice and some snicky snacks before dinner. The food here was wonderful! The variety and presentation was the best we had throughout our entire stay. Typical of a Relais & Chateau property, highlighting the great food, wonderful wine and attentive service. All meals (breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner) are included but, not the beverages (alcoholic and nonalcoholic). We were treated to a very romantic dinner our last night in the Shepherds’ Lodge which is about a 20 minute drive from the main lodge. The chef prepares a special dinner for you based on your preference. The lodge is very old and has no electricity so, they light it with candles and it was cool enough to have a roaring fire in the fire place. Frankly, we would have preferred to dine in the dining room and order from the menu but, this was lovely. The resort has several dining venues scattered on the property that allow variety for the guest and they do have small groups and events.
We had the entry level room which felt small because of the furnishings which were dark woods. There is a patio that was spacious but, with a regular door with no window. Sliding doors would have allowed in more sunlight and given the room a more spacious feel. I would suggest a junior suite or larger. They are brighter in color scheme and offer more comfort to lounge.
Also included are two game drives each day but, it is not as exciting as being in the bush. We did a lot of climbing and hiking on the rocks surrounding the resort which you do on your own. One morning we rode mountain bikes and explored the expansive acreage. Michael did some fishing while I went on the cave art hike and that was very interesting. I had a massage in the spa which is beautiful, very relaxing. Michael did archery, too. The average stay is 2 nights but, if you drive from Cape Town, I think a 3rd night is the right amount of time.
We left Bushman’s Kloof and headed to Cape Town for 3 nights at the One & Only – http://www.oneandonlyresorts.com/. The contrast from one hotel/resort to the next kept our visit interesting. The One & Only is a bustling luxury property with beautiful views of Table Mountain. The driveway was scattered with very fancy cars to let you know that this is an upscale hotel. Our room was on the “island” near the Spa, which is a 3 minute walk from the main lobby. The room was huge with an entry way that has a wet bar area, a king size bed with a sofa in the sitting area, a desk, large terrace (or balcony if you are on the 2nd floor). There was a large dressing area with two closets that you could close off from the bedroom and the bathroom for added privacy. The bathroom is also large with two separate sinks on opposite sides of the room, a tub, shower and W.C. We had breakfast each morning in the main dining room, Ruben’s. The Virtuoso amenity was lunch at Rubens and a wine and cheese tasting with the Sommelier.
Micato Safari’s has a concierge on the mezzanine level for their clients. We used the hotel’s concierge for taxis and they were very helpful and personable. We did have to advise them to re-direct clients to a new, hip area – Kloof St. and Bree St. – and not Long Street for shopping and dining. This is where the new restaurants and bars and coffee shops are opening. Long Street is very touristy and crowded. There is a great lunch spot on Long Street called The Royal Eatery that the locals frequent – excellent burgers and shakes and pizza, too.
We did not have a chance to go up to Table Mountain due to the high winds that closed the cable car. One evening we had sundowners and dinner at The 12 Apostles – http://www.12apostleshotel.com/- which is definitely worth it! The hotel sits across the street on the hillside facing the ocean with a fabulous view of the sunset and Azure is the fine dining restaurant. We were unable to see a room because they were booked solid. The food at Azure was top notch and many of the patrons were locals from the Cape Town area.
We did a one day bike ride with Active Africa – http://www.activeafrica.co.za/ – which is a great way to burn off some calories and see the coast. Active Africa is the local ground operator for Butterfield & Robinson’s bespoke trips in Africa. I would definitely use them for our clients anywhere in Africa and in other parts of the world. We rode from Kommetjie on the coast, south of Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope, about 20 miles. The roads were in good shape and the traffic was minimal. Part of the ride was in a national park. We were able to see the Penguins at the Boulders and stopped for lunch at a local fish & chips venue before returning to Cape Town.
Our last stop was Grootbos, just past Hermanus on the coast, east of Cape Town. We opted to drive through Stellenbosch and Franschhoek to see the wine lands area in route to Grootbos. The wine lands is very reminiscent of Sonoma and Napa Valley but, the architecture is special to South Africa. Once you pass thru the wine lands, the landscape is very dramatic through a mountain pass. The rest of the way was dotted with farms.
Grootbos – http://www.grootbos.com/en/home – is a nature reserve that sits back from the main road on a hill side. There are two types of lodging – the Forest Lodge – the original accommodations and the Garden Lodge – newer and more contemporary in style. Both are comfortable and nicely appointed. The Forest Lodge will accommodate families with young children. However, older children – teenagers -will be allowed to stay at the Garden Lodge if needed. All meals are included but, beverages are not. The food is very good with a nice variety to choose from. Only the breakfast has a buffet option otherwise, you order from the menu. The Garden Lodge and the Forest Lodge are spread out and each has its own kitchen. The menu will vary by day but, the offerings are the same overall. Each lodge has a pool but, there is only one spa for the entire resort.
As for activities, we hiked the property, which is vast, on our own. But, they do have guided hikes to explain the beautiful landscape. We did the cave tour and because we were with other adults, we had champagne to celebrate the beautiful sunset! The game viewing is on a boat and we got to see the Marine Big 5 – whale, dolphins, penguins, seals and the great white shark! They offer horseback riding and have mountain bikes, too.
When we left to return to Cape Town we decided to drive along the coast part of the way. The coastline is spectacular and not to be missed. The seaside resort of Hermanus is very picturesque and a pretty big town. It was very easy to return the car to the airport and the only glitch was that SAA in Cape Town did not give us our boarding pass for the Jo’burg to Washington flight. When we arrived Jo’bur, the SAA ticket agent wanted us to check one of our carry on bags’ and this would have caused us to miss our international flight. Luckily, the supervisor agreed that we would not arrive at the gate on time and let us continue on to our gate that was quite a distance from the check in point. The flight to Washington Dulles is 17 hours with the stop in Senegal. This is a hassle if you are in coach because they wake you and security boards the plane to look for whatever they are looking for. Luckily, we were able to secure an entire row (4 seats in the middle section) and slept a good portion of this long flight. The connection in Washington was uneventful, a pleasant way to end our trip!