If you follow my on Instagram you *may* know that I’ve just come back from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to South Africa. It has pretty much ruined me for any other holiday ever again (the safari at Chitwa Chitwa pretty much took the biscuit!). Lot of people have asked me for a little guide and while all the info is in the piece below, I’ve also added a little in about my personal history in Cape Town and tried to offer a balanced view on the pros and cons of travelling to the country. Any questions—or feedback— feel free to DM on Instagram! 

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Overview

Before my mum moved to South Africa in 2003, I had several, not particularly positive impressions of the country. Crime, racism, the fractured society and economy of the post-apartheid trauma certainly didn’t seem appealing. Though at the time I was hardly a nervous traveller—I’d taken third class trains through India and managed to get arrested on a three-week hostel trip across Russia (basically I was a different human being as a teenager). It was more that everything I heard to recommend the country involved some form of natural beauty and as a consummate and unashamed townie, those attractions held little pull for me.

I can remember feeling trepidation when I made my first trip to SA—some friends had filled my head with horror stories and I have a suggestible mind at the best of times. Mum was living temporarily in a flat in the folksy beach town of Muizenberg—the birthplace of surfing in Africa, famous for its art deco architecture and colourful beach shacks—just outside Cape Town. It was off-season and a little eerie, though not unlike Cornwall in November. Over the course of that first holiday, I slowly started to fall in love with the city and its surrounding areas. Since then I’ve made seven trips to South Africa—including an aborted attempt to move wholesale to Cape Town in 2010. After living on Long Street (Cape Town’s Soho equivalent) for three months and travelling extensively through the Cape, I’d say I’m something of an expert and that expertise is dramatically enhanced by the fact that my mum and her husband run a boutique travel agency in SA and bring hundreds of travellers from all corners of the world to the country every year.

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So, what are my take-aways and recommendations? Let’s start with the first issue that most people bring up when I mention South Africa: crime. There’s no beating about the bush—excuse the pun—because South Africa is a dangerous place with a very high level of crime including murder and rape. However, the truth as described by the UK Government’s advice, is that the vast majority of these violent crimes happen within the townships, far away from tourist destinations. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to be vigilant and you must be prepared to experience many of the symptoms of an extremely poor country where the disparity between the haves and have nots is still desperately vast. People will beg you for money on the street every day and they might, if they think you are vulnerable, become aggressive and threatening. You could be followed, pickpocketing is rife, gun-ownership is high and many people carry knives. Cyber and card crime is also extremely prevalent—so you should never let anyone take your bank card away and always keep anything that could be used to assume your identity on your person or locked in a safe.

In saying all that, a level of perspective is also required. South Africa ranks above Russia and alongside Mexico and Brazil in terms of crime levels—no badge of honour for sure, but it’s a good proxy for what to expect. The crime rate in coastal regions, especially outside of metropolitan areas is significantly reduced and if you stay in a secure hotel, don’t drive into townships, don’t walk alone along unlit streets or flaunt your cameras and jewellery, the risk of getting into trouble is seriously minimised. What you can’t do is just go out and get wasted with no plan for how you’re getting home or wander aimlessly along deserted streets at dusk—you have to be alert to the risk because it’s no joke. But I’d give the same advice to anyone travelling to most of South America, India, Central America, Russia, areas of Asia & the Caribbean—ultimately you have to be aware of your choices when you travel anywhere.

“South Africa is an assault on the senses—even for someone like me, who is a nature programme philistine.”

So what are the delights which it make it worth the calculated risk? Firstly, coming back to the natural beauty thing. South Africa is an assault on the senses—even for someone like me, who is a natural programme philistine. The mountain vistas are breathtaking, the coast is an endless collection of white sand wonderment and the opportunity to go on safari is a once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed experience. You cannot fail to be awed by the rawness of nature—so if you’re already a fan of the outdoors you will be blown away.

It also has incredible cities—including my favourite mountain to beach spot in the world, Cape Town. From top-notch coffee shops to craft beer breweries, restaurants that compete with the best in London or LA to exquisitely tasteful hotels, spas and workout studios. You can get your matcha latte or coconut yoghurt smoothie before you head to a pilates class, or join super-fit Capetonians jogging along the Seapoint Promenade in their Nikes and Lulu Lemons. Woodstock Market, held every Saturday brings together young creatives with hip restaurateurs (The Test Kitchen is the rez to nail) and street food stalls sit alongside minimalist fashion pop-ups. What I lack in National Geographical interest, I make up for in interior obsession and while some establishments go a bit crazy with the tribal masks, in general South African decor style is chic, genteel and incredibly design-conscious. 

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Now, did I mention the wine? For me, the Cape Winelands are one of the most magical places on earth and every single time I visit, I’m completely overwhelmed by the experience. In stark contrast to the formality of European wineries and the exorbitant prices typical of American viticulture, South African wineries are accessible, warm, seriously affordable and inviting—vying with each other to provide you the taster, with the ultimate experience. My winery recommendations at the bottom of this piece are just a fraction of what’s on offer—and I can highly recommend taking the Franschhoek Wine Tram where you get to stop off at 5 wineries without worrying about going over the limit (tasting measures are fantastically obscene). Seventy-five kms away from Cape Town, Franschhoek, which means ‘French Corner’ in Dutch is the birthplace of African wine, founded by persecuted French Huguenots in 1688. It has retained a Provençal feel with fields of lavender and an annual Bastille Day parade and also has some of the most beautiful Cape Dutch architecture going with thatches and pretty lattice porches lining the streets. Nearby Stellenbosch is more vibey—as it is home to thousands of students—with great bars and a buzzy nightlife.

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The thing I love most about my trips to South Africa is that even now, I always leave feeling there was so much more to do. Whether it’s seeing penguins or whales along in Hermanus, walking through history at the incredible museums—not least Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years—sampling the fusion of innumerable culinary cultures (Cape Malay curries, Bobotie, the best meat in the world, European and American traditions thrown into the mix), taking in peaks and beaches, leopards and lizards or drinking wine that never seems to result in a hangover, it offers relentless surprises. It is a trip for people that want to squeeze every ounce of experience out of their travels. So, if you like the sound of all of that, here are my top recommendations for a trip to SA.

Hotels

1. Cape Town: Cape Grace

Not cheap and definitely not hip, but one of my favourite hotels for service in the world. Positioned just on the V&A Waterfront, in the shadow of Table Mountain, it’s merely steps from the shops and restaurants of the slightly Disney, but still quaint, marina. We stayed in a beautiful two-bedroom suite with my parents and the beds were a dream. White marble bathrooms, a private balcony and a cosy sitting room and kitchenette made for the perfect city base and the breakfasts were worth writing home about.

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At the pricey end, there’s also the Mount Nelson, a rose painted ode to colonial style, The One & Only, which is suitably ritzy and the brand new Silo, a concrete and glass structure which will soon house the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. More reasonable are the Waterfront Village Apartments or the Grand Daddy on Long Street in the thick of the old city.

2. Camps Bay: The Marly

We only had one day at the beautiful Camps Bay beach and typically it poured it down! Luckily the Marly was an incredible place to hole up, watch the storm outside and draw a bubble bath. While it was slightly shiny for my tastes and there isn’t much at all to the hotel outside of the rooms, there’s no doubt it’s your own private slice of minimalist heaven. I would say that personally I have always felt that Camp’s Bay itself is over-rated—the beach is beautiful, but the strip is pretty cheesy—think very Playa del something. I much prefer Clifton 3rd beach & Llandudno, though you have to pack a picnic. 

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I have stayed at the Twelve Apostles, a little further down the coast, but still technically ‘Camps Bay’. The rooms are gorgeous and shuttered and there is a very chic pillow menu. The terrace at the Leopard Bar is an incredible spot to take in the sunset—but not subtle. POD is a gorgeously minimalist boutique hotel that is definitely on my list for next time and if money is no object Camps Bay Apartments are the Bond villain dream come true.

3. Franschhoek: Mont Rochelle 

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There a few superlatives to describe the views out on to the mountains from Richard Branson’s Mont Rochelle Winelands property. With discreetly designed, individual rooms (all of which are huge and vaulted), the serious cost for staying in this tranquil paradise feels justified—simply because it’s beyond dreams. 

While Mont Rochelle is right up there in winelands accommodation, there is stiff competition for high-end shelter. Consider Graff Delaire Estate—replete with an impressive collection of contemporary African art, surrounded by verdant rows of vines rigidly ascending the Stellenbosch valley and a restaurant with peerless views. If the lodge prices make your eyes water, book in for a lunch and taste of paradise. I’m a long-term fan of La Petite Ferme, listed by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the top 15 best value establishments in the world.  Babylonstoren is another pinch yourself, ‘is this real?’ experience. Inspired by the original Cape Dutch farm dating back to 1692 it boasts eight acres of botanical diversity complete with a prickly pear cactus maze, 100 year old tortoise and a dreamy hotel & spa. 

Safari

It’s not straightforward to book a safari, firstly because if you make a mistake it’s an expensive one and secondly because they are booked so far in advance—especially in peak season. While our choice Chitwa Chitwa isn’t the most expensive option available in the Kruger Park, in terms quality of accommodation, safari expertise and food, it’s the best value high-end experience out there (and incidentally the one that mum, who has been to every safari lodge known to woman always recommends for an all-round experience).

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We flew into the game reserve on two small aircrafts, the first from Cape Town to Nelspruit where we transferred into a death-defying 4-seater. While it wasn’t for the feint-hearted, the short flight to the Chitwa Chitwa airstrip was one of the highlights of the trip and well worth the extra money to avoid a long road transfer in the blistering heat.

Our suite was absolute bliss—and would be perfect for a honeymoon, or special anniversary—though twin beds are also available if you decided to make the trip with a girlfriend or family member. The romantic mosquito-netted bed was matched by a private pool, deck and frankly ridiculous bathroom with a pretty picture window out on the lake on which the property is situated.

The main lodge is beautifully decorated and staff are on call to top up your Cap Classique (South Africa’s answer to Champagne) as and when you fancy it. The main pool is situated to offer a broad view out on to the bush (one day we saw a herd of 25 elephants hydrate) and between the short distance to our suite we often encountered wildlife, coming into the lodge to explore (indeed your ranger escorts your from your room in the dark just incase the hippos luxuriating in the lake make a bid for your plunge pool).

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When it comes to the safari itself, there are two three to four hour game drives a day, the first setting off at 5.45-6am and the second at 5.30pm—so dawn and dusk, when you are most likely to encounter the Big 5. I found the 5am wakeup calls brutal, but every single drive was worth missing a few hours sleep (which I inevitably caught up on, margarita in hand by the pool). Our ranger was a font of knowledge and his relationship with his tracker (who was, incidentally, his cousin) was almost telepathic. Born and raised in the bush, they know the terrain and its beasts better than anyone and they bring constant wonderment to the drives. We saw everything we had hoped to see—though the Cape Buffalo eluded us. There were climatic moments like when we tracked a leopard high into a tree, with its impala kill hanging on high, or when we witnesses lions mating. There were tender moments between elephants and their babies and a lioness with her month-old cubs. There was also a lot of driving around—but for me, just seeing the sun rise or set in the bush and taking in the spectacular starscapes was something special all in itself. Plus there were morning coffee and evening G&T stops and while I was nervous about happening across a lion on foot, those little breaks definitely kept energy levels up. 

Evenings were jubilant with secret bush dinners on quickly erected outdoor dining tables and aperitifs down on the lake. A ‘boma’ or a roaring fire marked an evening of celebration and as the delicious food (which kept coming and coming…this is not a trip for abstinence) and endless courses finished we all retired back to our cool, peaceful rooms, ready for another early start. Breakfast was served in a secluded, airy outdoor restaurant every day with whatever you fancied on offer while lunches were light and delicious—think fish tacos and bone dry Sauvignon Blanc. 

As for any negatives, they were very few. It takes a bit of time to get used to the rough ‘n’ tumble of the safari vehicle—and my hips definitely felt the ache days after, so that’s something to definitely be aware of. However, my big fear—mosquitos—was completely unfounded. Normally I’m a beacon to the bastards, but I didn’t get bitter once. One issue was the poor-to-extremely-patchy wifi service—which is obviously positive in a digital detox sense. But when I couldn’t check in for my return flight from Johannesburg, it was a nightmare trying to dial up on old modem. But these were myopic issues in an endlessly exciting, wonderfully luxurious stay. It’s certainly one of the best experiences of my life to date. 

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Vineyards

Aside from the properties I’ve already mentioned above, some of my Wineland favourites include: Fairview—do the master tasting class and enjoy wonderful cheese pairings (the Fairview goats are renowned), also great for lunch. Camberley: small, but perfectly formed winery which only produced red wine (for Harry Potter fans, a bottle of Philosopher’s Stone is a must). Ernie Els winery—golfer Ernie Els has a beautiful vineyard well worth the visit. For an induection in the Methode Cap Classique, stop in at Haute Cabriere for the cellar tour and few bottles of Pierre Jourdan. 

Wine-tasting is cheap and wine buying is equally unbelievably affordable. I often bring a part empty suitcase and buy bubble wrap—one trip I managed to bring 7 bottles home, though sadly they didn’t last long. You can also get bottles shipped back—but it often works out cheaper trying to source a local wine agent at home who distributes in larger quantities. 

Restaurants

I could write a whole post about the meals Ive experience in South Africa, but suffice it to say, they have been some of the best of my life. I’ve already mentioned La Petite Ferme, Delaire Graff, The Test Kitchen & Babylonstoren, which in my opinion are total must-visits, but here is a selection of my other favourites.

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Fork—delicious low key tapas on Long Street, perfect for fuelling up before a night of cocktails. Arnold’s—for the African game platter and Kloof Street ambience. Bree Street is the central Cape Town address to know for new restaurants and the vibe is seriously Instagram-friendly—check out Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room for brunch, La Parada for tapas & cocktails, Jason’s Bakery for breakfast and Chef’s Warehouse for dinner. It’s a great street to wander and sample on foot—but for dinner make sure you book. La Colombe—French restaurant in the Constantia wine valley (another wine-making area closer to Cape Town). Ryan’s Kitchen—a Franschhoek easy going restaurant with eye-popping food (get the soufflé). Bread & Wine at Moreson winery—another wonderful spot for tasting too. For an impressive tasting menu with wine pairing, in an upscale environment head to the Grand Provence, while one of my favourite informal spots is Schoon de Companje in Stellenbosch–aside from its peerless bread, the garlic mushroom breakfast haunts my dreams. 

Other Activities

There simply isn’t space to go into all the options for activities–but some of my favourites include:

Tea at The Mount Nelson, sundowners on Table Mountain (take the cablecar up and a bottle of fizz), abseiling down Table Mountain, hiking up Lion’s Head (it gets a bit hairy towards the top), shopping on Long Street, food shopping at Woodstock Market, a stroll around the coloured houses of Bo Kaap,  the Garden Route – one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Make sure you stop off at Wilderness Beach and lodge at Emily Moon or Plettenberg Park Hotel. Chapman’s Peak Drive is stunning, a day on the beach at Clifton 3rd or Llandudno. District Six Museum and Apartheid Museum. A stroll around the beautiful Company’s Gardens or a visit to the botanically bursting Kirstenbosch. And that’s just for starters.

My trip was entirely organised (from inbound, outbound and internal flights, all accommodation, safari and restaurant bookings by my mum Beverly Brentnall at Travel Exclusively Africa—email her at bevb@travelxa.com and mention my name and she’ll give you a discount). I stayed at a discount at some of the properties in return for social and on-site coverage.