By South Africa specialist Tom
Of all safari destinations, I feel South Africa best fits the bill when it comes to luxury. You can stay in a private reserve bordering the Kruger, in an intimate, stylish lodge where your days are spent spotting wildlife and cooling off in your own plunge pool.
But, your trip doesn’t have to just be about safari — you could begin with time in Cape Town, Africa’s most glamorous city, exploring its food, culture and coastline with a private guide. Then, spend a few days touring the Winelands.
I also find that, thanks to the exchange rate, your money goes further here. And, it’s easy to extend your trip with a visit to Victoria Falls or with beach time in Mozambique thanks to direct flights.
Luxury experiences in Cape Town
Table Mountain, Cape Town
Views of the sparkling ocean, a backdrop of crumpled mountains and a generous assortment of stand-out hotels makes Cape Town a good choice for kicking off your luxury trip. I find there’s so much to do here, from hiking Table Mountain to browsing designer shops. We can arrange for you to join some of the country’s best guides to help you make the most of your time.
A food-tasting tour on foot
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town
In my opinion, the best way to get to know a place is through its food. I didn’t need much persuasion to join a walking tour focused on Cape Town’s multicultural cuisine. During the colonial era, slaves were brought across from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka and ingredients, cooking techniques and tastes from these cultures have merged over the centuries.
My guide, a native Capetonian, led me to family-run eateries, sizzling street stalls and artisan coffee roasters, while filling me in on the history and culture of each area we walked through. You have the chance to interact with the chefs and sample some of their creations as you go.
You might find yourself eating pap by hand — a thick, porridge-like dish made of maize that’s a staple across southern Africa. You can introduce your taste buds to spiced donuts known as koesisters, try eating the Indian-inspired bunny chow — curry served inside a hollow loaf of bread, and bite into the crisp pastry of fresh samosas.
The day’s your oyster — a tour tweaked to your interests
Penguins at Boulders Beach, Cape Town
What we class as ‘luxury’ isn’t always based on how plush or refined an experience is, it could just be having more flexibility and a personal touch. I found this when I spent a day exploring the Cape Peninsula with a guide who planned everything around my interests.
You begin the day with a chat about what you’d like to do, and your guide will map out it from there. Like hiking? You could explore Cape Point Nature Reserve’s coastal walking trails. Prefer being on the water? Spend the morning out on a paddle board or learning to surf. Have children to entertain? Take time to kick a ball around a sandy beach and paddle in the shallows.
I like that the tour takes you outside the city, where you can enjoy fresh air, coastal views and a more relaxed pace. You’ll visit small towns and stop for refreshments at cafes only locals frequent.
My highlight? Getting close views of African penguins as I attempted to balance on a paddleboard near to Boulders Beach — once on the board, it was easy to watch them swimming and scrabbling on the rocks.
Luxury places to stay in Cape Town
Cape Grace interior
The Cape Grace always springs to mind when linking Cape Town and luxury. Set right on the V&A Waterfront with Table Mountain rising behind, it has elegant interiors (think chandeliers, antiques and local paintings) and you have access to complimentary Mercedez-Benz transfers within a 10 km (6 mile) radius of the hotel. You can also take part in wine tastings at the property’s Signal Restaurant.
Wining and dining in the Winelands
Vineyards around Franschhoek
Just an hour’s drive from Cape Town, the Winelands is a region of gently sloping valleys threaded with vines, and green mountains crowned with knuckles of rock. Here, you can visit some of the country’s oldest towns and stay on one of the many wine estates that dot the countryside.
The region has become known not just for its history and wine, but also for its food. Fine-dining restaurants have popped up, taking advantage of the fresh ingredients on their doorstep. My stay here is always dominated by good food and drink, which you can often enjoy at a fair price.
Wine-tasting and luxury lodgings at Leeu Estates
Reception at Leeu Estates
Situated on a hillside just outside the town of Franschhoek, Leeu Estates gives you a chance to stay on a working wine estate, though you can just visit for a day to taste its impressive collection of wines.
Your tasting takes place in the Wine Studio. You’ll see wooden barrels piled behind glass screens and sit in comfortable armchairs during the experience.
You can choose from three different tasting options. I opted for the Mullineux single terroir, which was hands-down the best wine tasting I’ve ever had. Featuring wines made of grapes grown in different soil types, each wine I tried was of a very high quality, and my sommelier was excellent at explaining the differences between them.
Guests staying at Leeu Estates are entitled to a complimentary tasting. You can also make use of the property’s spa and outdoor pool. For me, though, the highlight is its fine-dining restaurant, Le Chêne, led by locally renowned chef Darren Badenhorst. I was in awe of the presentation of each French-inspired dish, which tasted as good as they looked.
Touring wine estates with a local expert
Winery in Stellenbosch
Whether you’re a seasoned connoisseur or know only the basics, visiting the region’s wine estates with a leading expert gives you a lot more insight into the industry. I joined Pietman Retief, who has won awards in the past for his knowledge of viticulture, for a private tour of the Winelands’ best vineyards.
The day is tailored to your interests, but you’ll generally visit several different estates, from larger, well-known properties to intimate, family-run cellars. At each one, you have the chance to chat with the wine makers about their process while sharing a glass of their finest.
Pietman will also talk more generally about the area’s history and the architecture of its towns, sharing stories about what it was like to grow up in South Africa — he told me that he can trace his ancestry back to the original Huguenots — French Protestants who first settled here.
As an added touch, you’re gifted a bottle of wine at the end of the tour to take home.
Luxury safaris in South Africa
Lion in Sabi Sand Wildtuin
In South Africa, one reserve particularly stands out to me for its quality lodges and excellent game viewing. Sabi Sand Wildtuin is a private reserve bordering Kruger National Park. Only guests staying within the reserve are permitted to do game drives here, so you see far fewer vehicles than in the Kruger. And, while you can see all of the Big Five here, the area’s especially renowned for leopard.
You can go on twice-daily game drives to see them — you’re likely to get closer views of the usually elusive cats than in most other safari areas because they’ve become accustomed to encountering vehicles here.
On my last trip, I saw a leopard hunting with her adolescent son. We followed them as they roamed termite mounds — my guide explained that warthogs used the mounds as dens, so they were likely searching for a sleeping ‘pumba’. They also used the mounds as vantage points, climbing them to look out over the surrounding landscape for easy prey.
Where to stay in Sabi Sand Wildtuin
Dulini River Lodge
Views from Dulini River Lodge
A luxury safari isn’t just about the wildlife; where you stay is a huge part of the experience. Sabi Sands has plenty of high-end places to stay, but I particularly like Dulini River Lodge.
The luxury here comes from its prime location on the edge of the Sand River, and from its intimacy. There are just six suites, each with a private deck and plunge pool overlooking the river. Sitting here, you can watch a variety of animals come and go, from elephant to big cats. And, during months when the river’s completely dry, you can sit down to candlelit meals in the riverbed, surrounded by the sounds of the bush.
Best time to go to South Africa
I recommend timing your visit to coincide with the best wildlife-viewing season, which falls between June and September, when cooler temperatures mean animals are more active. The weather can be more variable in other parts of South Africa at this time — visit in September for the best of both worlds.