As a new addition to my list of favourite countries to visit, I highly recommend planning a trip to South Africa at some point in your lifetime! This country not only offers such a wide range of different activities, but everything is very reasonably priced and for the most part much cheaper than North America. Make sure to plan enough time to fit in a safari tours, wine tasting and a few outdoor adventures!
When To Visit
The best time to visit is during the countries summer months, from late November until mid-March. South African temperatures average at highs of 28°C to average lows of 8°C in the summer months, while winter temperatures range from 1°C at night to around 18°C during the day. Average annual rainfall is on the low side at under 500mm a year, making the country somewhat dry. Much of the rain falls in the Western Cape in the winter, differing from the rest of the country, which experiences summer rainfall. On the plus side, the South African climate boasts more than its fair share of sunshine, recording an average of 8.5 hours a day.
It is a long trip coming from North America, so if you can, plan to stay a minimum of 10 days. It is doable to visit for a week but if you want to experience a few different regions of South Africa, two or three weeks is ideal. If you are planning to travel around the country, I recommend going on a safari first, then to the wine region, and lastly Cape Town – this way you don’t have to lug around the wine and souvenirs you buy. If you like to scuba dive, it is worth planning a trip to Punta d’Ouro (near the Mozambique border) as the diving there is rated one of the best places in the world. You will have to fly to Durban to get there.
From North America there aren’t very many direct flights. You can only fly direct from New York on United and from Atlanta on Delta to Johannesburg. From Canada, there are no direct flights. Most of the connections will go through Europe. Some of the layovers can be long – on average it will take about 24 hours to get there.
Before You Go
- Electrical sockets in the Republic of South Africa are Type M (SABS-1661) so make sure to bring a plug adapter. Some places will have a universal or European plugs, but some will only have the Type M socket. Electrical sockets in South Africa usually supply electricity at 230 volts AC / 50 Hz frequency. A voltage converter will be necessary if your appliance isn’t compatible with 230 volts.
- Have cash handy for tipping and market shopping. ATM’s can be found around the main cities or order some ahead of your trip. The South African Rand is the currency they use. At the time of writing this $1USD ~ R17.
- Be aware of the scheduled power outages that happen daily in the country. Sometimes they can happen multiple times a day, but the schedule doesn’t come out until shortly before. To keep up to date with the power outages so you can plan around them, download the EskomSePush app. If you are staying at an Airbnb, make sure you know where the battery run back up lights are located.
- Take Uber Black at night if you are alone. It is way safer and it’s not worth the risk to save a few dollars.
- South Africa is one of 3 countries where you can see penguins! Unfortunately, the African Penguin is now an endangered species due to the uncontrolled harvesting of penguin eggs, but the beaches known to have colonies are now all protected.
- If you plan to visit a few national parks and reserves, it might be worth getting the International All Parks Cluster Wild Card. It provides access to 80+ Parks and Reserves around Southern Africa, which are included in the SANParks, Msinsi, EKZNWildlife, Cape Nature and Swazi Clusters Parks. Individual cost is R3,575, for two people it is R5,585 and for a family pass (up to 7 people) it costs R6,685.
- Biltong is a dried cured meat that is a popular snack in the country and something you should try. It is normally made of beef but can also be anything from ostrich or antelope.
- Make sure you pack appropriately for where you are traveling to. Even in the summers Cape Town can get windy and so you will need a jacket. If you are going on a safari, make sure to bring a hat, light coloured long sleeve shirts and sunscreen.
- Avoid wearing anything expensive as there is still a lot of crime in South Africa and it’s best to be safe.
You must visit Cape Town if you are headed to South Africa. This beautiful city located on a peninsula on the southwest coast of the country is known for its stunning biodiversity, beautiful beaches, and award-winning food and wine.
Uber is cheap and is the best and safest way to get around, including to and from the airport. You can also hire a car or driver if you’re not used to driving on the opposite side of the road and want to visit a lot of sites around the city. A great tour guide who also will drive you around is Carlos. His phone number is +27 813499510. If you are looking only for a driver, you can message Collins on WhatsApp +27 712720165.
The hop-on hop-off bus is also a good option to get around city and see some of the main sites as they have over 30 stops. A 1-day ticket costs R275, 2-day ticket costs R375 and a 3-day ticket is R445. You can start buy purchasing the 1-day and just pay the difference when you add another day.
Where to Stay
The V&A Waterfront or Greenpoint are the best areas to stay in. They are walking distance from a variety of restaurants, bars and shops with ocean views. Camps Bay and Clifton Beach are also good options but there isn’t as much around that area that’s walkable.
- Cape Grace – if budget isn’t an issue; located on the waterfront; rooms start at around $500 USD per night.
- Silo Hotel – if budget isn’t an issue; known for its unique architectural design; located in the V&A Waterfront
- Radisson Red Hotel – a reasonable hotel located in the V&A Waterfront; a room costs ~$150 USD per night
- Harpers House – an 8-bedroom B&B in Greenpoint; costs ~$150 USD per night
- Airbnb – there are many great Airbnb options but be aware of the power outages when you stay in a house or apartment as there normally isn’t a generator unlike the hotels
What to Do
There is so much to do in Cape Town you could easily spend a week there and still miss things on your list that you want to do.
- Visit Boulders Beach to see one of the three on-land penguin colonies in Cape Town. You once were able to swim and hang out with them on the beach, but the city has now made it a protected area with a viewing platform to see them. The hours that they are open depend on the month you visit but if you go between 8am and 5pm you will be safe at any time of year. It costs R170 per adult and R85 per child to enter.
- Take a drive down to Cape of Good Hope (the southern western most point of Africa and deemed to be the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian oceans) and Cape Point. Stop in Hout Bay and drive through Chapmans Peak on the way to down. If you happen to be visiting between the months of June and November, you may see southern right whales. It costs R360 to enter and the Cape Point National Park is open from 7am to 5pm. If you are up for camping, you can take the 34km hiking trial and overnight in a hut with beautiful views of the park. You should also take the funicular to the lookout point. This costs R85 for a return ticket, or you can walk up to the top which will take 8-10 minutes.
- See the views at the top of Table Mountain. Take the cable car for R395 or hike to the top. Make sure that the clouds aren’t blocking the view before you head up. It’s best to buy your cable car ticket ahead of time and to go early so you can avoid line ups. There are many hiking routes up to Table Mountain and some once you get to the top as well. If you want to take the cable car down, make sure that you take a route that takes you to where the cable car is. It is best not hike alone.
- Skeleton Gorge Trail (2-3 hours): start of the route is in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden that doesn’t open until 8am and costs R210 rand to enter. If you do this hike, you will need to hike back down as the tram is on the other side of the mountain. This trail isn’t the easiest to hike down as it’s steep with boulders and ladders so it’s best if you cross the plateau (where you will pass a sandy beach, dam, and museum) and descend the Kasteelsport trail that will take you to Camps Bay.
- Pipe Track from Camps Bay to Kasteelsport (3-4 hours): start at the jeep track above Camps Bay just off of Theresa Avenue. It is a bit of a steep hike up to the top of the mountain but there are beautiful views of Lions Head and Camps Bay.
- Pipe Track from Kloof Nef to Camps Bay (2.5-3.5 hours): park at the very first parking lot on Tafelberg Road and head to the right up the concrete stairs to star. Hike along the side of the mountain. It is rocky in places but not steep and you will see beautiful views over Camps Bay and of the 12 Apostles. This hike does not bring you to the top of Table Mountain though.
- Platteklip Gorge Trail (2 hours one way) – this hike starts at the cable car parking lot on the Contour path and ends at the top of the mountain next to the cable car. It is a steep hike but most direct to the top.
- Dive or Snorkel in the Kelp Forests with Seals around Simons Town. If you have watched My Octopus Teacher, this is where it was filmed! The water in South Africa isn’t very warm but a thick wet suit will keep you warm. Snorkel tours are offered if you don’t have a scuba diving license but if you do, I highly recommend scuba diving with Kobus – you can contact him on WhatsApp +27 74 156 8784. He can add you to a group already going out or you can choose to shore dive with him as a private dive. It will cost R990 for one dive or R1300 for two including all gear.
- Run or walk along the seawall from the Greenpoint lighthouse to Bantry Bay, or from the Greenpoint lighthouse to the Silo Hotel along the Waterfront. It’s about 8km round trip if you go to Bantry Bay and you get to see some beautiful views of the coast while getting a workout in! If you go in the direction of the Waterfront, it is about a 5km round trip.
- If you want to find African art and souvenirs, go to Green Market in the CBD. Another great store for gifts is the African Trading Post at the V&A Waterfront.
- Surf or kitesurf on Muizenburg beach. A beautiful beach that is perfect for beginners as the waves are not that big.
- Visit Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years of his imprisonment. The tour takes 3.5 hours (including the ferry journeys) and runs 4 times daily: 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm. It is open Monday to Sunday, 8am to 5pm and costs R600 per person. The ferries depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront. There are also options for a walking tour or a private guided tour.
- Listen to Jazz in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Pack a picnic and visit this garden on Sunday afternoon to listen to live jazz music and look at some local flowers. It costs R210 to enter.
Where to Eat
Restaurants are very reasonable in Cape Town compared to North America. You can go to a nice high-end restaurant and spend $25 USD. The best restaurant in Africa, Fyn, is in Cape Town and the tasting menu will cost $100 USD.
- Harbour House Kalk Bay – great seafood restaurant with ocean views. There is one located on the V&A Waterfront as well.
- Fyn – at the time of writing this post it was ranked 37th restaurant in the world and the #1 restaurant in Africa. It great to try but don’t expect anything exceptionally special as you would find on a tasting menu in Europe.
- Oranjezicht City Farm Market – located by the V&A Waterfront this market is a great place to eat and drink as there are many food, drink, and handcraft vendors. It is open every weekend and Wednesday nights.
- Ouzeri – a casual restaurant with recipes from Greece and Cyprus located in the CBD with a seasonal menu sourced from local producers
- The Pot Luck Club – an Asian fusion restaurant with delicious food in the Woodstock area.
- La Parada – located in the Waterfront with a great view of Table Mountain from the patio
- Grand Africa Café and Beach – if you are looking for the day club party scene, this is your spot. There is everything from bar seats, to lounge sofas to regular dining tables all with the experience of your feet in the sand. Best to go on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
- Giovanni’s – a little Italian grocer and deli in Greenpoint, great for snacks, coffee or lunch.
- Constantia Glen – a great spot for lunch and some wine tasting.
- The Blue Café – great place for breakfast and to pick up some deli items, located in Tamboerskloof.
Where to Drink & Go Out
- Publik Wine Bar – a cute natural wine bar, on a cool neighborhood street in Tamboerskloof.
- Leo’s Wine Bar – another cute wine bar located in the CBD. It is a bagel shop during the day and a wine bar at night.
- Camps Bay – Café Caprice is the place to go on Sunday nights if you are into the packed college type bar scene, but don’t bother heading there past 6pm unless you have a table. Also beware of pick pockets here.
STELLENBOSCH & FRANSCHHOEK
Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl is South Africa’s go-to wine tasting destination known for it’s robust reds and fruity whites. This famous wine region is located a short 45 minutes away from Cape Town. It is the Napa of South Africa.
When To Visit
The Cape Winelands is a year-round destination but September to April is when it’s warm and dry and when many vintages of wine are released. Harvest season starts in March and this is an idea time to visit.
If you are coming from Cape Town, the best way to get here is to hire a driver and make stops to vineyards along the way before getting dropped off at your accommodation. This way you also don’t have to worry about drinking too much wine! Collins is based in Cape Town and can drive you and wait for you at wineries. You can contact him on WhatsApp +27 712720165. He charges about $100 USD per day. If you don’t have a lot of time in South Africa, you could do a day trip from Cape Town.
Another great way to experience multiple wineries is to take the Wine Tram. It allows you to hop on and off and you have a choice of 8 different lines, each of which visits a different selection of wineries. You must start at either the Franschhoek Terminal or the Groot Drakenstein Terminal (depending on what line you take) and it costs R280 per person. It is best to start early as the lines only depart between 9:30am and 1:30pm.
Where to Stay
Stay for at least two full days in the wine region. There are many cute B&B options. Franschhoek is a great small town but if you are looking for something a bit bigger, than Stellenbosch is a good option as there is more of a retail presence here.
- La Cotte Farm – a beautiful farm with rooms and cottages on a vineyard in Franschhoek Valley. All cottages have a kitchen. It is best to book this property in advance as it sells out quickly. Rooms start at $200 USD per night.
- Franschhoek Country House & Villas – great service and includes free shuttle service around the city (including to and from wineries). Rooms start at $300 USD per night.
- La Cle des Montagnes – located in the heart of Franschhoek village offering 5 rooms in the lodge and 4 villas. Rooms start at $350 USD per night.
- Babylonstoren Hotel – this is my favourite winery in the region and it has such a beautiful property it would be worth staying here even though it isn’t near anything. Rooms sell out quickly though and start at $500 USD per night.
- Le Quartier Francais – a romantic 25-room boutique hotel located in the heart of Franschhoek. Rooms start at $500 USD per night.
- Leeu Estates – a exclusive five-star premium boutique hotel with 23 rooms located in the middle of 68 hectares of vineyards and landscaped gardens in the Franschhoek valley. Rooms start at $800 USD per night.
Wineries to Visit
There are so many great wineries in the region located within these three regions: Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl. You don’t need reservations for most wineries and usually can taste without a wait. Chenin Blanc and Pinotage are two grapes that are endemic to the region. None of the wineries ship to Canada due to the import laws but most of them will ship to the US. The bottles can get up to triple the cost of purchasing it there at the vineyard though with shipping. The oldest family-owned wine farms are worth visiting for their architecture and beautiful vineyards.
- Stellenbosch: 150 Estates
- Cavalli Estate – one of my favourite estates. They have a beautiful tasting patio with many tasting options. The 5 wine premium tasting costs R140, the 3 wine lifestyle tasting costs R70 & the 4 wine and sorbet lolly pairing costs R120. This is also a great place to have lunch.Delaire Graff Estate – a luxurious estate owned by the Graff jeweller family. Their Brut and Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve were good. This is also a great spot for lunch as they have beautiful views from their patio.Ruste en Vrede Wine Estate – focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. The 3 wine Estate tasting costs R70 and the single vineyard 3 wine tasting costs R200.Hidden Valley – all of the grapes used for their wines are harvested on the property which is why they don’t have a huge selection. They have a beautiful floating deck that is a great place to eat lunch and taste wines. They also have new owners so currently don’t ship anywhere.Ernie Els – beautiful views from the patio as well as a chipping mat where you can practice your golf off of wine tasting deck.
- Waterford Estate – although a beautiful property, this estate is where I tasted my least favourite wines.
- Franschhoek: 45 Estates
- Babylonstoren – This was my favourite winery. You need at least 2.5 hours there (but should allocate more time). They offer olive oil & balsamic tastings as well as cellar tours which you must book in advance. They have a beautiful large garden that you must explore that features many fruit and vegetable plants and trees that you can pick fruits and veggies from to eat. They also have a great restaurant here and a spa and hotel. It costs R80 per person to enter.
- Leeu Estate – one of my favourite wine tastings. You can get the single terroir tasting where you taste 3 of the same Chenin Blanc and Syrah vintages grown in 3 different soils (granite, schist and iron). This single terroir tasting costs R375. They also offer regular tastings, the signature tasting for R130 and the Leeu Passant tasting for R250. They are open from 10am to 5pm and you must make a reservation before going to this estate.
- Boschendale Wines – offers a variety of tasting to choose from including the 1685 range tasting for R90, a white wine tasting for R85 and a red wine tasting for R105. This is a great place for lunch. Open from 10am to 5pm.
- Rickety Bridge – great wines and great service. The Estate tasting costs R75 and you can choose 5 wines from a list. The Paulina’s Reserve tasting is also a good option for R110. They also offer a panna cotta & wine pairing tasting for R180 which you must book in advance.
- Haute Cabriere – this estate is known for its bubbles and offers a macaroon pairing with their Pierre Jourdan discovery tasting for R120. The patio has a beautiful view of the valley. They also have a wine tasting room in a cave but it’s nicer to be outside on a sunny day.
- Franschhoek Cellar – not a very popular place to go as they only have an indoor tasting room with no view but it only costs R110 to taste 6 wines along with cheese pairings and their “tasting” pours are almost a full glass of wine. Wines were decent and very cheap to purchase by the case – but they unfortunately didn’t ship to the US.
Where to Eat
There is a big lunch culture here as most wineries close at 5pm and you need to eat while tasting wines!
- Cavalli Estate Restaurant– a great place for lunch offering an evolving menu with seasonal ingredients. There is an option for a 5-course set menu for R595 per person or you can order a la carte. A reservation is required.
- Delaire Graff – a great place for lunch with a beautiful view of the mountains and valley. This restaurant is more expensive compared to other places in the area. You need a reservation to dine here.
- Boschendale’s Werf Restaurant – a great place for lunch or dinner. Contemporary soil-to-fork dining using the best available local, seasonal and ethically sourced ingredients. A reservation is required.
- Rueben’s Restaurant & Bar – located in the heart of Franschhoek, offering a variety of options on the menu and a great wine list. It’s best to make a reservation.
- Ruste en Vrede – great for lunch but has limited options – only steak and salmon – and comes with a glass of wine for R300.
- Jan Franschhoek – located in La Motte Estate, this Michelin chef – pop up only until May 2023. A reservation is a must.
- Le Petite Colombe – an award-winning fine dining restaurant with a set menu starting at R1395 per person located in Leeu Estates. A reservation is a must.
SABI SAND GAME RESERVE
This is the best place to visit to go on a safari, and to see the Big Five. This 65,000 hectare reserve borders the Kruger National Park and is known for remarkable close encounters with animals and abundant sightings, particularly of the elusive leopard. Because it’s a private game reserve, it isn’t accessible to day visitors so you must stay at one of the lodges in order to explore this area which guarantees the park’s exclusivity. One of the other major advantages of visiting this reserve is that when on safari with one of the rangers, they may drive off-road (something that is strictly prohibited in Kruger National Park).
When To Visit
The best time to visit is during the winter months, May to September, which is also the dry season as normally the animals are easier to spot as there is less foliage and many of the animals gather around rivers and waterholes. It is must cooler during these months than if visiting in the summer. I honestly believe that any time is a good time to visit the Sabi Sands reserve as it is private and protected and the guides are very well trained and know where to find all the animals. Within the first two hours of our first game drive, we saw all the Big Five and more!
The best way to get to the Sabi Sand Game Reserve is to take a Fly Airlink flight from Cape Town or Johannesburg to Skukuza. A round trip flight will cost you between $400-$500 USD.
Where to Stay
If you have the funds, splurge a little on the safari portion of your trip as it will make a big difference to the whole experience. I highly recommend the Lion Sands Resort – rooted in both the Sabi Sand Game Reserve and Kruger National Park. It is expensive to stay here, but worth it. It will cost a minimum of $1000 USD per person per night to stay here, but everything is included. There are 4 lodges to choose from.
- River Lodge – on the Sabi Sands side of the reserve. This is a the most energetic, social, lodge as there are many shared spaces and it can hold the most people.
- Ivory Lodge – on the Sabi Sands side of the reserve along the river. Offers 8 one-bedroom villas and one two-bedroom Fish Eagle resident that comes with its own spa, gym and chef. Each villa here has a lot more space than the River Lodge as every room is like a home with a living room and kitchen. This is also the most expensive lodge to stay at.
- Tinga Lodge – on the Kruger Park side of the reserve. This lodge allows children and is better suited for families.
- Narina Lodge – on the Kruger Park side of the reserve. This lodge has 9 suites and is perched on stilts amongst a canopy of 100-year-old trees. This a more romantic lodge as each suite is built with complete privacy.
There are many other lodges to choose from within the Sabi Sands Reserve, the others close to the Skukuza Airport are:
- Sabi Sabi Game Reserve
- Nottens Bush Camp
- &Beyond Kikman’s Kamp
- Mala Mala Game Reserve
- Londolozi Game Reserve
Animals to Spot
There are so many incredible animals and birds to watch and see in the Sabi Sand Reserve that you will never get enough of searching for them. The Big Five are what most people are searching for. The term “Big Five” is reminiscent of the old safari hunting days. The name is not derived from the size of the animals as many people believe. Rather, these five animals proved to be the five animals that were the most difficult to hunt.
- Lion – usually found in prides of a few females, their cubs and a couple young males. They are most active in the morning and at sunset.
- Leopard – the hardest of the Big Five to spot. They are one of the only African cats that can climb trees (Jaguars can as well but not as well).
- African Elephant – the largest living land mammal. They live in groups and can be seen across many different habitats.
- Rhinoceros – there are two species that can be found in South Africa, the white rhino and black rhino (this doesn’t refer to it’s colour as they are both grey but the white rhino’s name comes from the Dutch word “wijd”, meaning wide, and refers to the wide muzzle of this rhino. A group of rhino’s is called a “crash”.
- Cape Buffalo – often referred to as a bush cow. This is the most dangerous animal to humans out of the Big Five as they can have a bad temper and can run faster than 55km per hour.
Other popular animals you can see are:
- Dwarf Mongoose
Some beautiful birds you can see are:
- Lilac-Breasted Roller
- Woodland Kingfisher
- Little & Swallow-Tailed Bee-eaters
- African Fish Eagle
- African Hoopoe
- Lesser Masked Weaver
- Southern Red-Billed Hornbill (Zazu from Lion King!)
- Game Drives – these are included during your stay (2 per day at Lion Sands – one early in the morning and one in the late afternoon). Each vehicle seats 6 guests alongside a tracker (who sits at the front of the car) and a guide who drives the car.
- Bush Walks – these are included during your stay at Lion Sands and is a great way to see the smaller details of nature. It is best to do this in the mornings (if you are visiting in the summer) to avoid the heat.
- Spend a Night in a Treehouse – Lion Sands resort offers a treehouse experience where you can upgrade for one night to sleep under the stars in the middle of the reserve. It is worth the extra cost, especially if you are celebrating something special as it’s a once in a lifetime experience. You can hear animals all night and you get a beautiful view of the constellations, sunset and sunrise. Book the Chalkley Treehouse.
- Picnic in the Bush – you can organize a picnic in the bush for an extra cost which can be a nice activity for sunset or lunch. During each game drive, you do get to stop for snacks and drinks at scenic locations so you can decide whether this is something you want to add.
- Practice your Photography – if you don’t have an SLR camera, you can rent one for R750 for one drive or R1200 for two drives from the Lion Sands River Lodge.
- Spa Treatments – during the downtime between game drives, check out the spa as it has beautiful views of the river. Below are a few of the treatments you can pick from:
- 60 min massage for R1200
- 45 min manicure for R400
- 90 min detoxifying mud wrap R1400
- 90 min facial R1200