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This is the seventh post of my South Africa Series. Follow along to read my reviews on several different aspects of my trip. Other posts in this series include: Come Along With Me To South Africa!; Flight Review: South African Airways Business Class JFK-JNB; Hotel Review: Westin Cape Town; Trip Report: Watching African Penguins at Boulders Beach and the Cape of Good Hope; Cape Town Dining; Hotel Review: Hilton Cape Town; Hotel Review: 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa Luxury Room; Trekking Up Table Mountain In Cape Town; Hotel Review: Hyatt Regency Johannesburg; Trip Report: South Africa Safari at Savanna Lodge in Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve; Safari Highlights at Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa.
As I sit in the South African Airways Boabab Lounge in Johannesburg waiting for my flight back to the United States, I’m already feeling the pangs of leaving South Africa after what turned out to be an amazing trip. From the gorgeous coastline of the Cape to the vast reaches of Kruger, and the thrill of swimming with great white sharks and spotting lions on safari to wine-tasting in Stellenbosch and exploring the streets of Cape Town, this country has so much to offer and I wanted to list a few of my favorite things about South Africa.
1. Wildlife: I spent just under two weeks here altogether, but in that time, I got up close to great white sharks, penguins, cheetahs, elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, rhinos, leopards and a manner of other creatures. While I’ve seen a lot of these animals in zoos, nothing compares to seeing them in their natural habitat – and let me tell you, when a lion is sitting just 10 feet away and looks you right in the eye…what a rush!
2. Food: While I wouldn’t peg Cape Town or Johannesburg as the culinary center of the world, the food I tried was really fresh and delicious across the board. My new favorite thing to eat is springbok an antelope that tastes like a cross between beef and venison, and I had some of the best seafood of my life, specifically oysters from the West Coast and mussels. Plus, some of my meals, like the lunch I enjoyed at Test Kitchen in Cape Town were truly memorable.
3. People: I’d heard that the World Cup was a big turning point for the country in terms of national pride, but I have to say that it was still truly wonderful how proud everyone we met was to be South African and how happy they were to share that with us – from the orphans we visited at the village near our safari lodge to the waiter at Delaire Graff in Stellenbosch who filled us in on wine country and nature experiences all around the country to our safari guides who seemed tirelessly enthusiastic and upbeat about sharing the incredible wildlife with us even on long, rainy game drives.
4. Stunning Landscapes: Even out and about in a city like Cape Town, I can’t count how many times my breath was taken away – whether it was the sun shining on Table Bay, spectacular views of Table Mountain or down onto the city from its summit, hiking up to the Lighthouse on Cape Point or veering along the winding road to Chapman’s Peak on the coast. The vineyards of the Cape were also gorgeous, with grapevines hemmed in by dramatic rock outcroppings and mountains, and of course the beautiful, sprawling savannas of the Sabi Sands game reserve in the north were just breathtaking as well. I did my best to Instagram the most eye-catching moments, but that can’t really do it justice – you just have to see it for yourself!
5. Wine: While South African wines have never been on the top of my list, I fell in love with Pinotage – the country’s distinctive blend of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, and I had a great time tasting it all over Stellenbosch and Franschoek in the Cape Winelands just outside Cape Town.
6. Service: Unlike many other well-trodden destinations like Europe and much of the US, the service I experienced in South Africa – at hotels, restaurants and just out and about – was friendly, attentive and efficient. Everyone was very kind and charming and made my experience that much more enjoyable and relaxed.
7. Affordability: Although some hotels and restaurants charge exorbitant prices – especially when you get to the luxury end of the spectrum with hotels near Cape Town, the wine country and various “glamping” safari lodges, for the most part I found everything we experienced to be very affordable considering the quality we got. Hotel rooms and our car rental were moderately priced (the Hilton $114 a night and our “large” automatic car came to $45 a day all in), even multi-course gourmet meals were inexpensive, and things like taxis and tours were downright cheap.
8. Accessibility: With relatively cheap flights, good airports, well-maintained roads on the major routes and so much to see around the major cities like Cape Town, South Africa encourages you to get out and explore. You can’t help but feel adventurous and you don’t need a tour guide to do it.
9. History: Although much of South Africa’s recent history has been troubled and tragic, as I mentioned before, there is such a national pride and infectious joy here in the country that makes that history all the more fascinating to explore. It’s all so recent – the country’s new constitution is barely 16 years old – and all you have to do is visit places like Constitution Hill in Joburg, or Soweto where Nelson Mandela was born and which has become one of Johannesburg’s most vibrant districts. Taking the (admittedly touristy) tour of Robben Island where Mandela and countless others were imprisoned and get a tour from a former political prisoner – that’s an experience I can’t imagine anywhere else, and what better lens to view a country’s history through than the experience of someone who fought for its freedom?
10. Points Opportunities: I can’t discuss a trip and not talk about the ways you can earn and use points – this is a points blog after all! One of the amazing things about my trip to South Africa was the fact that I was able to book business class tickets on direct flights aboard South African Airways for just 110,000 and about $200 in fees. While the availability on SAA isn’t as great as Lufthansa, it’s still very doable, especially if you’re flexible. The airline’s premium service isn’t Emirates First by any means, but it’s perfectly comfortable, and you can also fly here non-stop on Delta. Once we were here, there were more great opportunities to earn and use points – whether it was a cash & points award at the Westin Cape Town or using just 8,000 Hyatt points instead of paying $330 at the Hyatt Regency Johannesburg, and almost everywhere we went accepted credit cards, meaning I was earning double points at restaurants and hotels by using my Sapphire Preferred card.
What I Didn’t Like
The WiFi situation at most of our hotels was pretty abysmal (I’m talkin’ to you Westin and Hilton), making it difficult to fully relax and get my work done.
The remote bussing situation at the airports – is there anything worse than stepping off a 15-hour flight…and onto a bus?
That it takes so long to get here from the US – because I want to come back…a lot!