Mark and I spoke about going on an African Safari for years and we figured our 10-year anniversary was the perfect time. South Africa is just an amazing country and experiencing it was better than we expected. Everyone speaks English plus they speak the native language, Afrikaans, which is an offshoot of Dutch. Our time in South Africa totaled 9 nights (plus 2 nights traveling).
When booking our flight, we chose one that had a 10-hour layover in London. I’ve never been there and what a perfect way to spend our actual anniversary. We landed at Heathrow around 9am and took the tube (subway) into the city (about 50 minutes). It was surprisingly a very nice day so we walked around taking pictures in front of Big Ben, Parliament, inside the red phone booths, and saw the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. Taking a stroll through St. James Park is highly recommended. It has beautiful gardens and ponds with lots of beautiful ducks and swans; we got great pictures here. Next we did a little shopping in the Soho neighborhood. My cousin was actually studying abroad in London at this time so we met her and some friends for some fish and chips and a couple pints at Lamb and Flag in Coventry Garden. This is a classic historic British pub where Charles Dickens was a regular. After finishing our last beer we had just enough time left for a walk through the famous Harrods (have some macaroons by the Parisian bakery, Laduree – I recommend the coffee flavor). Mark had our few short hours in London planned perfectly down to the minute. We had just enough time to take the tube back to the airport for our 11-hour flight to Johannesburg.
SAFARI – SABI SAND GAME RESERVE
If an African safari is on your bucket list, then look no further than Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Sabi Sands is a private game reserve that borders Kruger National Park. It is renowned for “big five” (buffalo, leopard, rhino, lion, and elephant) sightings. The Sabie and Sand Rivers attract a diversity of wildlife, especially during the dry season, which is the time we went. Because South Africa is south of the equator, the month of May is their autumn, which made for beautiful weather. The sunrise and sunset game drives were a little chilly (about 55 F) but the afternoons got pretty hot (about 80 F).
After the 11-hour flight to Johannesburg, we took a 1-hour Air Link flight to Skukuza Airport in Kruger National Park. This was one of the nicest, airports we’ve ever been to. The open-aired airport was very quaint, with a bathroom that resembled a luxury spa. You must purchase the Africology skin care products in the gift shop. They are significantly cheaper there versus online from the USA. The game lodge we were staying at arranged a car service to pick us up for an extra fee. On the 90-minute (mostly off-road) drive to the lodge we saw giraffes, a crocodile, warthogs, cows, and impalas!
We chose to stay at Exeter River Lodge, one of &Beyond’s properties in Sabi Sands. We could not be more pleased with our choice. The experience exceeded our expectations by a mile. You can read all the trip advisor reviews (5 stars) you want but even they don’t do it justice. Exeter River Lodge is a luxury safari destination with only 8 villas geared toward couples. You are assigned a “butler” to assist you with anything you need during your stay.
Each day began with a 5:30am wake up call for the morning game drive. Guests would meet in the main lodge for coffee and snacks at 6am before heading out with your assigned Guide (Ranger) and Tracker. Between the two of them, they are a wealth of knowledge and they know the animals and area inside and out. The mornings were pretty chilly but the open-air vehicle (that fit about 8-10 people) was equipped with blankets on each seat, and a heating pad filled with hot water for your lap. When the vehicle gets going it can get cold. Layers are very important because as the sun rises it starts to get a little warmer and you will want to delayer. Morning and evening game drives last about 3 hours. Halfway you stop for a break, which includes some amazing coffee with an African liqueur called Amarula (think Baileys) in the morning, and your choice of cocktails in the evening. After returning from the morning game drive breakfast is awaiting you on the back deck overlooking the Sand river. Breakfast consists of a variety of meats, cheeses, breads, yogurt, fruit, granola, and made-to-order omelets. After breakfast you have a couple hours of free time until lunch at 1:30pm.
Lunch was a 5-star gourmet experience. It is served on the lower back deck under a ginormous Kigelia (Sausage Tree) overlooking the tranquil Sand River. Each day we were accompanied by a herd of Elephants that delighted in drinking and bathing in the river. After lunch you have more free time with an optional high tea at 3pm (we were always too full to partake but the spreads looked amazing). The evening game drive starts at 6pm, again with snacks and an alcoholic beverage (gin and tonics for us!) midway through. Each night presented a unique dining experience that continually amazed. One night the whole lodge came together for a boma (or enclosed bonfire), another we dined al fresco on the back deck, and still another we experienced romantic dinner in our villa. The food was top notch. We ate everything from exotic game (gemsbok (antelope) and warthog) to upscaled versions of everyday delicacies such as beer-can chicken. Basically all we did was eat and then eat some more on this trip.
If you want to see the “big five” (buffalo, leopard, rhino, lion, and elephant) then you go to Sabi Sands. I think we saw the big 5 every day (AND almost ALL characters from the Lion King)! Our Ranger Justin and our Tracker Chris (native to the game reserve), were incredible. While driving, Chris would spot leopard tracks and know if it was male or female and how long ago the tracks were made! His expertise brought us to see three different leopards on our four-day stay. One time Chris actually got out of the vehicle and tracked the leopard to its kill, which was insane to see. All the Rangers, including from other lodges, all radio in between each other telling what animals they found. You can tell they all have great relationships with each other; the joking banter was entertaining. Justin was very passionate and knowledgeable about the wildlife. We got some incredible photos during the game drives (be sure to tag @andbeyondrangers and @andbeyondsafari on Instagram!).
Let me finish by explaining our gorgeous villa. The King bed looks out to a private deck with infinity plunge pool, lounge chairs, and outdoor shower. Every day after breakfast we would relax on the deck and watch herds of elephants drink and bathe in the river. The bathroom consists of two private sinks, a soaking tub, and a double rain-head shower that has a large view of the river. Separate living room with fully stocked bar that was replenished daily (even included fresh lemons). Honestly, everything was just impeccable about this place, we really didn’t want to leave.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. After a 4-night stay, we were off to Cape Town. After a 3-hour flight from Skukuza Airport to Cape Town International, we checked into our B&B, An African Villa (5 stars on trip Advisor), that consisted of three older townhouses that were joined together and modernly renovated. The owners were very accommodating and the rooms very clean. Made to order hot and cold breakfast is included. The only downside is the doors/walls are a little thin and you can hear anything going on in the living room downstairs. It is in a bit of a residential neighborhood but close to town (5-10 minute walk). Cabs are all over but cannot be hailed and there are no meters (you must call ahead and each company has different rates), so the best way to get around Cape Town is Uber, which is super cheap, and with wifi being available almost anywhere you go it’s a no-brainer.
If you like craft beer (which we obviously do being that Mark is a home brewer), Devil’s Peak Brewery is a must. Tuesday’s they have a special consisting of a burger, fries, and a half pint of beer for $4 USD! It was THE BEST burger I think I’ve ever had. Mark got the pulled pork sandwich on French brioche bread that was the best he’s ever had. We split a flight of 5 beers and each got a pint and I think our total bill was $15 USD. Great atmosphere there as well.
A great place for breakfast and coffee is Truth Coffee Roasters. The steam punk-Victorian vibe contributes to the uniqueness of this cafe. They import coffee beans and roast them on-site in their vintage 1940’s cast iron roaster they call “Collosus.” Ask for a tour – they showed us their one-of-a-kind ornate coffee machine as well as the back room where they hold barista classes. Mark and I both had the 18-hour cold-pressed coffee. I ordered an omelet that was layered high with eggs, melted gooey cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and topped with fresh arugula. The side of bread was some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted – similar to a rustic sourdough. Mark had the Croque Monsieur which was equally delicious. I ended the meal with their most popular flat-white. Everyone that worked there was extremely nice – this place is a must-do.
The Cape Town Waterfront is a little touristy but you have to do it. There are two malls, an abundance of outdoor shops, and plenty of restaurants. But the real reason to go there is the view of Table Mountain. Unfortunately, everyday we were in Cape Town the mountaintop was cloudy and the cable car (ariel cableway) was closed so couldn’t go to the top. We bought tickets ahead of time online but since we couldn’t use them, they refunded us. Outside of shopping, the only other thing left to do there is eat and drink. We went to Den Anker Belgian Restaurant, which had a great beer list (make sure you get a picture in the large yellow frame which perfectly frames the spectacular view and haghtag #lovecapetown in your social media posts!). We heard the sushi restaurant called Willoughby & Co. was good but never made it.
Back in downtown Cape Town, a place called Beerhouse was recommended by our Safari Ranger and didn’t disappoint. They literally have “99 bottles of beer on the wall” and with May being their fall, I was thrilled to have a local pumpkin beer – Van Hunks Pumpkin Ale by Boston Breweries. Another great restaurant recommendation is The Pot Luck Club. It is in the silo top floor of an old biscuit mill and you take a cool elevator ride to get there. Very unique and innovative cuisine in a trendy and offbeat environment.
One notable clothing store called Cloth & Steel is worth going to. It had several local designers in women’s clothing. I bought a great unique long cardigan for R990 ($83 USD) which came in handy the rest of the trip because it got cold and rainy.
Mark and I are probably the last people who would voluntarily go for “high tea,” but a Johannesburg couple from Exeter recommended the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, one of the top 5 places in the world to have afternoon tea. From 3:30-5:30pm for about $22 USD per person, you get a ridiculous amount of tea, finger foods, and desserts. Now, as you can see all we’ve been doing is eating on this trip, and being still full from lunch we couldn’t even fully enjoy all the food (note to self: next time go hungry).
WINE COUNTY – STELLENBOSCH & FRANSCHHOEK
Next we rented a car and drove about an hour east to wine country (Stellenbosch and Franschhoek). In our opinion, it’s better than Napa/Sonoma. Every winery we went to was beautiful and the wine was fantastic. Most displayed unique artwork and had their own restaurant and lodging. Very good Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs. We stayed at Holden Manz Estate, which was a scenic and luxurious-yet-cozy wine estate with breathtaking views of the mountains and vineyards. It was a little bit rainy and chilly during our stay here so the wood-burning fireplace in our room was clutch. They also have a restaurant where we ate lunch one day. It had amazing and creative food and of course, good wine. I had a beet and goat cheese salad and a squash pasta dish paired with their Syrah. The on-site spa is a must. On one of the chillier and rainy days, I spent over 2 hours at the spa getting one of the best treatments I’ve ever experienced: the African Slimming Detox Mud Wrap. With the exchange rate, it was less than $80 USD and was 120 minutes of pure bliss.
Wineries and restaurants we hit up during our stay in wine country:
Lourensford Rd, Somerset West, Cape Town 7129, South Africa
This is the first winery we stopped at because it was on the way from Cape Town to Franschhoek. It is a beautiful large estate where you can walk the grounds. Be sure to spend some time here. We started with the tasting, which was R30 ($2.50 USD) for 4 wines (en extra $.80 USD if you want to try a reserve wine). We particularly liked the Cab Franc and the Cabernet Sauvignon. After the tasting we walked the grounds, which was cut short because of the weather (windy and rainy). But, we did get to see some beautiful gardens and a very large 215-year-old Oak Tree.
Annandale Road, Stellenbosch, South Africa
For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ernie Els is one of the top golfers in the world and a South African native. This winery is a must for the view alone. We did a formal tasting by a very knowledgeable and pleasant employee while sitting in oversized leather chairs looking out at the view. All wines we tasted were great, especially the Syrah. Also, this is a great place for buying gifts for the golfer in your life.
Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch, 7600 South Africa
This estate was very posh. They have lodges, a spa, and high-end shops including the flagship Graff Diamonds store. We sat in the wine lounge, complete with a crackling wood-burning fire as every other winery we’ve been to, and did their tasting. Again, good wines.
Pniel Road, Groot Drakenstein, Franschhoek, 7680, South Africa
This winery also includes the oldest farm in South Africa, founded in 1865. It is beautiful to walk through and there are roosters and ducks roaming the grounds near the tasting area and gift shop. Standard tasting is R35 ($3 USD) for 5 wines (an extra R10 or $.80 per reserve wines). We ended up just doing a tasting of 4 of their reserves. The wines were pretty good, nothing great stood out. Check out the cute gift shop, we bought a few items here.
Helshoogte Rd, Stellenboasch, South Africa
We went to this winery twice; once to eat lunch at the restaurant and a second time for a tasting. This place has everything, wine tasting, olive oil tasting, brady tasting, delicatessen, restaurant, an art gallery, and even a playground for the kids. The delicatessen has floor to ceiling windows, which shows an incredible view of the vineyard. I obviously had to start with a local pumpkin beer, Cederbrew Jan Pampoen Spicy Pumpkin Ale and a charcuterie platter. Then I had a Caesar salad complete with prosciutto and a poached egg and Mark had a lamb meatball pizza topped sweet cherry peppers, pickled onions and fresh herbs – amazing!
Second time we came here was for a tasting. When you walk through the tasting area you can view the fine art hanging on the wall that is for sale. The tasting room again has a crackling wood-burning fire with oversized chairs you can sit in and enjoy the fire with a glass of wine (if you haven’t noticed this is one of my favorite pastimes). I had a double tasting of the reserve Syrah and Mark did the Director’s Reserve Potstill Brandy tasting.
Strand Rd, R44, Stellenbosch, 7600, South Africa
If you are in this area over a weekend, then save this winery for a Sunday because this is one of the few wineries open. Also, a bonus they have a family outdoor market every Sunday from 10am-3pm complete with produce, handmade gifts, and food. Inside the tasting room we did their chocolate and wine pairing. For R80 ($6.75 USD) per person, you get five pairings such as Malbec paired with a spiced white chocolate, or 10 year Brandy paired with orange chocolate. All were marvelous but my favorite was a hot chili chocolate paired with their “Before and After” aperitif which is a brandy infused with Christmas spices. Oh yea.
Wilhelmina Street & Berg Street, Franschhoek, 7690, South Africa
Being rated one of the top 50 restaurants in the world, this place did not disappoint. Like I said before, all we did was eat and drink on this trip, but we ate and drank very well! It is very difficult to get a reservation here (you can only book 30 days in advance). My incredible husband made sure to make a reservation exactly 30 days prior to our arrival. I wish we were a little hungrier when we came here. There is no menu to choose food from. It is an 8+ course African-inspired dinner complete with alcohol pairings all from South Africa that takes 3 ½ hours. When I say 8 plus, it’s because the beginning “pallet cleanser”, bread and “sweets” that come after the dessert aren’t included in the “8” courses and the pallet cleanser could have been a meal on its own. Every dish was so creative and beautifully presented; I can’t even begin to explain what we had. We had dishes such as mushroom and cocoa nib black wildebeest, brinjal, parsnips, and sorghum paired with a 2011 Muratie Ansela van de Caab. Also, be prepared, each alcohol pairing is a full glass, not a tasting. Each dish was presented with a full explanation and they give you a printed menu of what you had at the end. Truly a unique dining experience and was only about $110 per person.
Off Annandale Rd, Stellenbosch, 7599, South Africa
This winery is also open on Sundays and was breathtaking. It is over 2000 feet above sea-level and has a beautiful view. I wanted the tasting room to be my living room with its rustic charm and roaring fire. We sat on the leather couch in front of the fire for a good hour tasting the wines.
Polkadraai Rd, Stellenbosch, 7600, South Africa
This was the last stop before going to the airport. We just sat in the restaurant for lunch. This place was also beautiful, a little more modern, with decent food. We had wood-fired pizza and a beer. Wasn’t great, but they did have a large fireplace with a wrap around leather couch which looked like a great place to chill.
If we went back….
If we went back, which will absolutely be sooner than later, we would probably go more towards the end of April or beginning of May. We loved that it was their fall, but sometimes it was a little too chilly and rainy. We would definitely do another safari at one of the andBeyond locations since we had such a positive and incredible experience there. Also, we wouldn’t spend as much time as we did in Cape Town (maybe 1-2 nights max and we would time them around when we had to fly home from the Cape Town airport) and spend more time in wine country. We did not get to go up Table Mountain because of the weather so we would hope to be able to do that next time. If anything, you could always just drive to Cape Town for the day as it’s a short drive (1 hour) from wine country. All in all, this was the best trip we have been on to date and can’t wait to go back to this amazing country.
Check out our photo gallery here.
Also, some info on vaccinations: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/south-africa
Personally, I did not get any vaccines (my husband did but moreso because he is going to China later this year). They are mostly to prevent diseases you can get from contaminated food. But, do your own research. We did take Malaria medication. Although it was recommended, I didn’t think it was needed because we didn’t see one mosquito due to the time of year (dry season).