Sthu Zungu, president of South African Tourism, North America, says that South Africa is currently experiencing a significant increase in its tourism industry. “We have had double-digit increases and record-shattering arrival numbers of tourists for the past three consecutive years.
“Specifically, a shift is taking place that is repositioning South Africa from a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ destination to a place worth visiting now,” continues Zungu. “Americans in particular are exploring the Rainbow Nation and its diverse experiences, beyond safari, as the U.S. remains our second biggest source market.”
In South Africa, wildlife viewing is a top priority, but travelers can also trace the history of humans with a trek to the caves at the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Cradle of Humankind, about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg; be carried in a cable car to the crown of Cape Town; view whales in Hermanus; or soar above the lush countryside in a hot air balloon. Delving into South Africa begins with days exploring Johannesburg and Cape Town, so here we highlight both cities.
Most travelers begin their visit to South Africa in Johannesburg, the city with the most nonstop flights from the U.S., and with top-notch restaurants, five-star hotels, world-class shopping and numerous attractions, including the MuseumAfrika located in the old Bree Street fruit market. The museum contains exhibitions on the Treason Trials (1956-61) and the development of South African music as well as the history of the city. Adjacent to the MuseumAfrika is the Market Theatre, the scene of some of the country’s finest productions and an interesting produce market.
Constitution Hill, meanwhile, is one of the city’s most popular attractions relating the story of the South African struggle for freedom and equality. The children will enjoy a visit to Gold Reef City, a popular theme park attraction revealing the city’s early gold rush days. Pretoria, South Africa’s executive capital, is an easy day trip from Johannesburg and features government buildings, Voor-trekker Monument and Nature Reserve with zebras, wildebeests and bucks. The Pretoria National Gardens is also worth a visit, housing a reptile park, aquarium and a cable car ride overlooking the city.
Evenings in Johannesburg are lively and vibrant. The Melrose Arch area in Newtown has fine dining spots like Moyo restaurant, with mostly outside tables, an upbeat talented band of musicians as well as excellent cuisine at reasonable prices.
STAY: The DaVinci Hotel, a member of the Legacy Hotel Group, in the sophisticated Sandton area of Johannesburg is a good hotel from which to explore the city. This five-star, 166-room property has direct access to Nelson Mandela Square, an upscale shopping mall with restaurants, gaming and art galleries. It features 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom suites, a gym, infinity-edge pool, luxurious spa and fine cuisine at the Maximillien restaurant. The hotel offers transfers to the airport. Rates, including breakfast, start at $185 (sgl) and $253 (dbl) per night.
GETTING AROUND: JMT Tours offers a variety of well-planned itineraries that can be arranged for a few hours to five days, including safaris. Joe Motsogi, owner of JMT Tours, has been in the tour business since 1997 and is an expert at showing visitors the area. “We arrange cultural, heritage, historical and adventure tours, shuttles, shopping trips and transport in general,” he says. “Our clients cover a broad spectrum of ages with the majority being older visitors with disposable income.”
The operator’s Apartheid Museum Tour in Johannesburg is a must-see for first-time visitors. The museum describes the political upheavals beginning in the last century and the country’s segregation and oppression through film, photos, text, audio and live accounts. It also documents South Africa’s struggle toward freedom and democracy. The 2.5-hour tour is $66 pp and includes pick-up and drop-off at hotels around Johannesburg, guides and admission fees.
Your clients can also view a pre-human skull, “Mrs. Ples,” dating back more than 2 million years, at the Sterkfontein Caves at the Cradle of Humankind. Guests can tour the caves and the museum. On the lower level of the museum, a boat ride takes visitors back in time through the various stages of Earth’s creation, and a restaurant on the top level has great views and excellent local cuisine. The cost of the 5-hour tour is $94 pp and includes pick-up and drop-off in Johannesburg, guide and entrance fees.
JMT Tours also offers a $66 pp, 3-hour tour to the nearby township of Soweto providing an interesting glimpse into everyday life in South Africa. Soweto has several attractions, including the Hector Pieterson Museum and former home of Nelson Mandela, now a museum. There’s also a 5-hour hot air balloon tour option that includes a buffet breakfast with champagne ($300 pp); all tours have a 2-person minimum.
The stunning city of Cape Town, voted the No.1 place to visit in The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2014,” is a city that lies at the southwestern tip of Africa situated between Robben Island and Table Mountain. Visitors can take the revolving cable car ride to the top of the mountain for magnificent views of the city and be awestruck by the experience of walking among the cloud formations at the summit.
The waterfront area, meanwhile, is a bustling spot with boats, shops, restaurants and bars; it’s also the gateway to Robben Island, setting of the former prison where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years imprisoned. The prison, now a tourist venue, is accessible by a 30-minute picturesque boat ride and includes a 45-minute bus ride with commentary and a docent prison tour led by a former political prisoner.
STAY: Cape Grace, a five-star property, located in the waterfront area, is flanked by luxury yachts with views of Table Mountain. Service is exceptional and the staff is eager to arrange the smallest request. Rooms are spacious and have separate bath and shower, dressing area, flat-screen TV and WiFi. There’s also an onsite spa and a gourmet dining room with an extensive wine list. Rates range from $515 to $700 per night dbl.
GETTING AROUND: “Cape Town is fast becoming a city known for its warmth and people in addition to the picturesque landscape,” says Shaheed Ebrahim, director of Escape to the Cape. “Our luxury segment has also improved tremendously with many five-star hotels opening up in the city in the last few years.”
Escape to the Cape offers an excellent 8-hour Cape of Good Hope Tour that includes visits to the Atlantic seaboard, Cape Point, the Boulders Beach penguin colony and an ostrich farm. The tour is designed for a maximum of three persons in a sedan ($300 plus $20 pp entrance fees), or a minivan for up to six persons ($400 plus $20 pp entrance fees).
Miles of rolling hills and lush greenery are seen along the drive to the wine region, less than an hour from Cape Town. Stellenbosch, a charming city in the wine region, is worth a visit. Check out the Village Museum, period houses from the early-1700s, local shops, an art museum and wine shops. There are numerous wineries in the area including the picturesque Waterford Wine estate that offers a unique wine and chocolate pairing. An 8-hour tour of the wine region is offered by Escape to the Cape for $267 for a sedan (up to three persons) and $305 for a minivan (up to six persons). Wine tastings and meals are additional.
South African Airways provides excellent service between the U.S. and South Africa. Passengers in business class, for example, receive plush comforters, pillows, amenity kit with toothbrush, visors, socks, lip balm, moisturizer and earplugs. Seats recline into a bed—absolutely flat. Unlimited drinks, superb service and delicious meals complement the flight along with in-flight
entertainment, music and movies.
SAA offers daily direct flights from Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) and JFK to Johannesburg. In its domestic market, SAA has an extensive schedule operating 660 flights per week between Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth. Regionally, it offers 26 destinations across the African continent. The airline is a member of Star Alliance, giving patrons a chance to rack up additional frequent flyer miles.
Cape Grace Hotel: capegrace.com
DaVinci Hotel: egacyhotels.co.za/en/hotels/davincihotel
Escape to the Cape: escapetothecape.co.za
JMT Tours: jmttours.co.za
South African Airways: flysaa.com
South African Tourism: southafrica.net
According to Lucille Sive, president of Lion World Travel (lionworldtravel.com), the country appeals to visitors of all ages and income brackets. “We’ve made South Africa more affordable,” says Sive. “People can visit the area for less than $3,000 including airfare, or up to $30,000. Our demographics are changing. We’re finding that more young people and a lot of singles are traveling to South Africa.”
Lion World Travel has waived the extra charge for sgl supplements on some of its tours. Its 9-day Classic South Africa Tour ($2,999 dbl, including airfare for sgl) features four nights in Cape Town at The Commodore Hotel and three nights at the Ivory Tree Game Lodge near Sun City.