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This is the eleventh 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; 10 Things I Love About South Africa; Hotel Review: 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa Luxury Room; Trekking Up Table Mountain In Cape Town; Hotel Review: Hyatt Regency Johannesburg; Safari Highlights at Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa; Safari Highlights at Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa.
Finally, after all our city fun in Cape Town and Johannesburg, it was time to head to the Sabi Sands Game Reserve for what I considered to be the highlight of our trip to South Africa: safari.
Although I consider myself a seasoned traveler, we had no idea where to begin researching safari lodges, especially since there are so many in South Africa in particular, and that range from super-budget DIY experiences to some of the most high-end, expensive accommodations in the world. Also because time was so short and we were planning just a couple of weeks in advance, we needed someone with the inside knowledge who could point us in the right direction and be able to make a booking for us as soon as possible, so once again we turned to our friend Michelle at Azurine Travel to help us make a reservation.
As I said, you can go anywhere from super budget campsites to ultra-luxe glamping lodges, but as travelers on the younger side we decided that somewhere middle-of-the-road would probably suit us just fine – some touches of luxury and expert game drives, but no need for butlers, thank you very much!
Michelle suggested a little place called Savanna Lodge in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve along the western edge of Kruger that’s known for its leopards (the rarest Big 5 sighting) and is particularly game-rich.
To get there, we had a choice of either taking a sort of charter flight for $600 per person to a nearby airstrip or catching a South African Airways flight to the Nelspruit Airport (MQP) for $200 per person and then getting a roundtrip transfer for $200 from there, so we opted for that to keep costs low.
While not ultra-high-end, Savanna Lodge is a gorgeous little property with eight luxury tent-cabins that accommodate only up to 18 guests total for an intimate experience. The lodge also includes a main building where guests take all meals and can just hang out and have drinks or read a book, a curio shop for souvenirs, and a small main pool that anyone can use.
Because it was high season, rates were fairly expensive at 5,390 ZAR ($630) per person per night. Eric and I were going to share a Luxury Suite, which is their base-level accommodation. That’s fairly standard, and the reason it’s so expensive is that everything is included – three meals a day, all drinks, minibar, twice-daily maid service, laundry service, two four-hour game drives a day, visits to a local school and more. So for our three-day stay, we were looking at nearly $3,800 for two people. Definitely a splurge, but our only one of the trip of that magnitude, and we didn’t want to skimp on what was going to be the banner experience of the whole journey since we had heard it was a great place to spot game and it would have been extremely frustrating to have traveled so far without getting to see anything.
The thing is, we had done so well at using points and saving money on the rest of the itinerary that a few days before we were scheduled to arrive, we asked Michelle to contact the lodge and see how much it would be to room separately if there were space available. Sure enough, the lodge wasn’t sold out and they decided to extend us a special deal where they would give us another suite and waive the single-person supplement on both. Not only that, but the second suite would actually be a larger Executive Suite with its own plunge pool for the last 2 nights that would normally go for $1,240 per night for a single occupant. And they gave us the additional room for a total extra cost of of $378 for all three nights! Now you know why my mantra is “it never hurts to ask.”
When we arrived at the lodge around noon after a bumpy two-hour drive from the airport, we were welcomed at the gate, handed glasses of champagne and given a quick tour of the property as well as the daily schedule of events, which goes roughly follows depending on how long the game drives last:
5:00am Wake up
5:30am Coffee and game drive
9:30am Back for breakfast
10:00am Rest time
4:00pm Game drive
8:00pm Return from game drive
Although we’d gotten in a bit early, our two Luxury Suites were ready and we had plenty of time to unpack and relax before lunch and the first game drive.
The Luxury Suites were beautiful, basically like a glamping version of your traditional safari tent. They’re permanent structures but with canvas roofs and solid walls with screened windows that open. Each has a little front patio with lounge chairs and an expanse of lawn looking out onto the savanna.
Inside, there is a king bed (which can be made into two twins, as we had planned to do) with two nightstands, an overstuffed armchair, a small writing desk, and a minibar stocked with snacks, cookies, beer, wine, liquor, soda and water.
Behind the bedroom area is the bathroom with two sinks, a freestanding deep-soaking tub that the staff drew a bath in every night to warm up in after safari, a walk-in shower and a water closet with the toilet. The lodge stocked high-end South African bath products.
The doors at the back of the bathroom opened onto a private walled patio with an outdoor shower which was perfect to use in sunny weather.
The suites were air conditioned and had fans as well as WiFi access (though this was rather spotty and slow at times), as well as handy extras like power adapters, mosquito spray, flashlights and hair dryers – not exactly roughing it!
When I moved into my Executive Suite for the final two nights, it was at the very end of the property, so it felt secluded and private and had all the same amenities, only it was about one-and-a-half times the size with a wooden roof (vs canvas), huge bathroom, mosquito net around the bed and a larger front patio with its own small pool.
As I mentioned, everything was included in the stay, from the minibar and laundry service to all our meals, which were like a summer camp experience where you ate with the people in your game drive vehicle and your guide.
Breakfast was usually a simple affair with a spread of cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit and pastries plus eggs any way you wanted from the kitchen (though I recommend their morning breakfast wrap with scrambled eggs, tomato, onion, mushroom and cheese).
Lunch was also a buffet-style spread usually with some hot dish like filet of sole or a chicken curry stew as well as green salads, pasta salad and some light pastries and cookies for dessert.
Dinner was a bit more formal (though dress was always smart casual) with folks gathering in the parlor/bar area about an hour after returning from the evening drive and having a drink or cocktail before sitting at the communal table and being served a three-course menu with a starter like asparagus with prosciutto and poached egg, mains like grilled rack of lamb with polenta or poached salmon with pasta, and desserts like crème brulee or cheese cake.
It was hard to believe that after three full meals plus snacks in the morning and evening out on the game drives that you’d have any room left for these full meals, but you do – all that fresh air works up an appetite.
I really enjoyed all the food- it was fresh, freshly prepared and made to order, and was sort of like luxury home-style cooking that I really appreciated.
As I mentioned, we had booked a stay for three nights, and though initially I thought that might not be enough, by the end I thought it was the perfect amount of time and seems to be the safari standard – at least for staying at one lodge.
We had six four-hour game drives (more on those tomorrow), plenty of time exploring the lodge and a visit to the surrounding community, and got to talk to all our fellow guests, and by the end of our three days it was time to move on. I might consider doing a safari at the beginning of a trip and then another at the end of the trip to explore a different area of the country and try a different lodge, but for our single experience, it was perfect.
Stay tuned tomorrow for what a typical day looked like and some great videos and photos we took of the animals we came across, including a few of these to whet your appetite, and then a post later this week on the orphanage project Savanna Lodge sponsors in the nearby town.