My mind was racing as I flew to South Africa, a mental whirlwind temporarily calmed only by the wine selection, pampering skin care and comfy “seat-beds” found in South African Airways’ business class. Coming down off a busy-yet-rewarding week, I was ready to soak up South Africa and was quite curious to find out how much of the buzz—good and bad—was actually true.
Within hours of landing in Johannesburg, two well-spoken Afrikaaners at the airport had begged me for money; a dapper curly-haired man told me he liked my style; I tasted the best chicken livers ever; and I stumbled upon a statue of Nelson Mandela bathed in the moonlight during an evening walk back to my hotel. It was clear: South Africa was going to be an experience.
My 10-day blind date with the country did not disappoint. Although South Africa is still healing from years of racial division, the appreciation for diversity is growing, which made for a welcoming environment. (Translation: Both Black and “Coloured” guys thought I was attractive, and the White people kept buying me drinks.) Every day held juicy encounters, from Jo'burg through the Mpumalunga province to Cape Town. You won’t have to look hard to find your own adventures.
Hands-on History Lesson
A morning visit to Robben Island, the penal settlement off the coast of Cape Town where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, offered a moving example of the ugliness of apartheid. While standing in
his tiny cell, I recalled our guide’s vivid story of the willingness of Mandela and his cellmates to teach the guards how to read despite working in the eye-damaging limestone quarries, and I was awestruck by the graceful strength these men displayed under such inhumane conditions.
One afternoon, I walked through Cape Town’s brightly colored Bo-Kaap neighborhood, the historic home of the predominantly Muslim Cape Malays. Originally brought over as slaves or political exiles from places such as Sri Lanka and the Indonesian islands, the Cape Malays have significantly influenced both the country's language and food. Check out the Bo-Kaap Museum to immerse yourself in the rich information on local Islamic culture.
Tastes for All Tastes
South African cuisine is best described as multiethnic, so get ready for a heady mix of the indigenous African dishes with influences from the Dutch, Indian, German and Malaysian immigrants. Every town offered delicious dining with regional personality, including: pancakes stuffed with lamb, trout, or biltong (reminiscent of beef/wild game jerky) at Harrie’s Pancakes in Dullstroom; small plates of fish pops with “chakalaka” ketchup and sticky bun. ice cream from sexy boutique hotel Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek; fish fresh from local waters such as kingklip, trout and snoek, which was divine as pâté; and tender meat seasoned with peri-peri, a savory pepper sauce.
The coup de grâce was scoring some kitchen time in the home of Zainie Misbach, a Bo-Kaap local and expert in the unique African-born Cape Malay cuisine. We sat down to a home-cooked feast of traditional dishes such as bobotie (spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping, something like Greek moussaka), samoosas, roti with chicken curry and donut-like koesisters for dessert. Jealous? Don’t be! You can have the same experience on Misbach’s Cape Malay cultural cooking tours (bokaapcookingtour.weebly.com/).
Traveling to South Africa without taking the time to enjoy wine is like visiting Hawaii and not having pineapple. I was looking forward to immersing myself in reds such as shiraz or the South African-created pinotage, but the local estate-bottled sauvignon and chenin blancs demanded room in my glass. To cap off the vino experience, I took the scenic hour-long drive from Cape Town to Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands, walked through the quaint town and visited Môreson Wine Farm for a tasting.
One With Nature
Hazyview's Elephant Whispers allows close encounters with the stately creatures (I am talking leaning-on-the-leg-of-a-six-ton-beauty-and-feeding-it-veggie-snacks close). A visit to the Jane Goodall Institute’s Chimpanzee Eden in Nelspruit yielded a demonstration of how smart those animals are. I was almost manipulated out of my lunch by one charmer. Equally interesting is the Birds of Prey and Rehabilitation Centre in Dullstroom, where damaged birds are cared for and released back into the wild.
Safari Done Luxe
No trip to South Africa is complete without a safari, and the folks at Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in Mpumalanga specialize in next-level fabulous. After arriving at the private guest plane landing strip, I hopped in the Land Rover, drove through impressive terrain and up, up, up to the hilltop lodge. My accommodations were spectacular: the Makwela Suite featured two levels, two decks, a netted king bed and its own plunge pool! I bravely committed to the morning (5:30 a.m.) safari and was rewarded with four of the Big Five: lions, elephants, Cape buffalo and rhinos—in a territorial fight!
Cape Grace Hotel, Cape Town (capegrace.com)
The spacious rooms with harbor views are stunning and the courtesy chauffeur transfer service (a stretch Mercedes) was the icing on the cake. Walkerson’s Hotel and Spa, near Dullstroom (walkersons.co.za)
This is a comfortable, luxurious environment with huge individually designed lake-view suites. Ask for one with an outside (private) shower.