Trip Reviews

South Africa Trip Report: New Frontiers Tours

2018-07-02T18:00:32+00:00January 5th, 2018|

November 2010, South Africa
By Lyndsay Harshman

November 13 Arrive Johannesburg ORT – Fly to CPT: I am met plane-side, given document pack and escorted through baggage claim and customs and immigration (without queues), then on to the domestic terminal for check-in to my flight to Cape Town – VIP meet and greet made the process smooth and stress-free. Kulula was the domestic carrier and the flight was well-organized and on time. On arrival I was met by the local driver who transferred me to Ellerman House (via Cape Town city centre). It was nice to learn a little bit of local history and cultural facts from him.

Ellerman House was superb. There’s no other way to describe it. The view is incredible, service was impeccable and the room was luxurious while still being understated. I highly recommend Ellerman House to any VIP clients or travelers looking for a luxurious and welcoming home away from home. The gardens overlook Camps Bay (as do the rooms) and the private art collection is jaw-dropping. It’s just a quick transfer into the Waterfront or city center and Ellerman offers complimentary transfers (BWM or Audis) within a certain radius of the House so getting into town is easy and free.  I did a bit of shopping at the V&A Waterfront shops which are safe, secure and open late and then enjoyed dinner at the local hot-spot Caveau. A cozy wine and tapas bar off Long Street prepared excellent lasagna and poured affordable and high-quality South African wines. The restaurant is within easy access of most Cape Town hotels. After a wonderful meal, I headed back to Ellerman for a great rest and jet-lag recovery!

November 14 – Cape Point Tour

Guide: Ananda


Breakfast at Ellerman was divine eggs Benedict overlooking the sea. Can’t be beat! Picked up at Ellerman by local guide, Ananda, and we began our Cape Point journey from Camps Bay and continued along the coastline through picturesque villages, stopping at sea-side markets and vista points (via Chapman’s Peak). The villages of Hout Bay and Kommetjie were favorites. We made a quick stop at Cape Point where I opted for a bit of time to walk to a lower viewpoint rather than take the funicular to the top and enjoyed the views walking through the fynbos and the lack of tour bus crowds! From the Point we continued to Simon’s Town and visited the small colony of African penguins. It was quite warm and windy so many of the penguins were hiding in the bushes for cover, but we did see a few and the beach is so beautiful, too. Simon’s Town is a beautiful village with cobble-stone alley-ways and pastel colored homes. We had a great lunch at Seaforths for fish and chips. The malva pudding was the best I’ve had. We made our way back to Nordhoek and the Baboon Matters office where Jenni and Ian briefed me on the rather urgent baboon/human interaction in the Cape and what the organization was doing to facilitate education and avoid negative interactions between the baboons and local residents. The hiked up to the plateau where the baboons were that afternoon. It was very hot and a really steep trek up the hillside. Any less fit travelers could potentially have problems with the hike. As the baboons move freely through the area, there’s no telling how hard that day’s hike will be. The views and landscape were beautiful and, while I’m not too fond of baboons, I did learn some interesting info and would say that fit travelers interested in human/wildlife interaction would enjoy the hike. However, doing the baboon excursion AND the Cape Point tour in the same day makes for a very busy day and would best be split into two days. Wine tours in Constantiacould be added to a half-day baboon tour. Keep in mind that if travelers have been out on safari, they may find the wildlife element of the excursion to be disappointing (unless they are quite keen on wildlife conservation issues).

We were not able to visit the Kirstenbosch Gardens, which was unfortunate, but having seen the gardens before I can highly recommend them to visitors who enjoy the outdoors and, of course, the impressive South African fynbos.

Ananda was friendly and welcoming. She was an authentic representative of her country and was eager to very intelligently engage in conversations on South African history, culture, politics, etc. I really enjoyed our time together and valued the experience and culture element that she added to the day. It would have been a different tour without her – spending the day with Ananda was like opening a window into South Africa.

I enjoyed two nights and a braai with friends in Durbanville.

November 15 – Cape Town area hotel inspections

One & Only – The only room available for inspection was the entry level luxury room. The room was luxurious, spacious and had nice interior views of the hotel grounds and Table Mountain. The hotel grounds are really beautiful and make good use of the water element of the Cape Town waterfront. The architecture is that of a large urban hotel, but it works well and fits with the harbor and surroundings. The hotel amenities include a Nobu, bar, top-notch spa, swimming pools and more. I’d recommend the One & Only for those who need/want the amenities of an international city hotel in a great location. Other than the orientation of the hotel, it does not offer a particular “South African” or “Cape Town” feel. Experiencing a property that feels more local may be important to some travelers.

Cape Grace– The Grace offers an excellent location slightly removed, but still walking distance, from the V&A Waterfront. I was only able to view one luxury room, which was quite nice and featured a balcony overlooking the water and Table Mountain. The Grace does focus on a highly-personalized service and a particularly Capetonian feel – they achieve both. Staff were warm and welcoming and public areas featured beautiful murals and locally designed furniture and art. Each floor is done in a different “theme” – nothing too dramatic, e.g. nautical, etc. The Bascule Bar in the basement of the hotel offers whisky tastings and seemed like a cool place to hang out in the evening – and in the convenience of your own hotel. I highly recommend the Cape Grace for travelers looking for the amenities of a city hotel, top service and an experience that is distinctively Cape Town.

V&A Hotel – The V&A allows travelers to stay in the waterfront area at an affordable price. The hotel doesn’t offer the same experience as the Grace or One & Only, but the rooms are fresh and nicely decorated (if not a bit small) and the location is really right in the thick of it. This hotel doesn’t offer amenities such as a pool or gym, but has access to facilities nearby. I’d recommend this hotel to active travelers who don’t plan on spending much time in their room, but rather out exploring the city. The hotel offers a good value in the Waterfront area.

Mount Nelson Hotel – My first impression of the Mount Nelson was a bit overwhelming. The property itself is quite large and feels a bit too grand and daunting for my personal taste. That said, the rooms were done in a tasteful colonial theme, the gardens beautifully manicured and the amenities available (pool, health spa and bars/restaurants) were a welcome respite from the city vibe of Cape Town. Several families were enjoying the swimming pool, couples taking tea in the gardens and the bar looked as though it would be a great place to have a drink after dinner. The Nelson would be ideal for travelers looking for privacy and an escape from the activities of the city, while still being centrally located. Anyone who wants to experience a bit of history in a quaint colonial setting would likely enjoy the Mount Nelson. I enjoyed lunch there on the verandah overlooking the pool. The buffet was quite impressive and the meal was excellent.

Cape Cadogan – This boutique hotel is one of my perennial favorites and offers a unique and dynamic experience in a lively part of Cape Town. The hotel is small and welcoming. Bright rooms are simply and tastefully decorated, offering everything that an independent traveler would need, but without the extra frills. Cape Cadogan also offers self-contained apartments for longer stays (connected to the hotel by a footpath) and the owner’s villa which is ideal for honeymooners or couples traveling together. The hotel is centrally located right of Long Street and is walking distance to shopping, dining and nightlife. The hotel is ideal for more independent travelers who want to explore a bit of Cape Town on foot, as well as those looking for a good value or long-stay option.

Four Rosmead – A personal favorite, Four Rosmead offers a variety of rooms types in a small and intimate hotel. The art collection is likely to make an immediate impression on interested guests and the public spaces are really well done with amazing attention to detail and thoughtful touches. This is a spot that an independent world traveler will appreciate. David, the owner, was eager to share the space and give some background on his ideology, which really is visible in the hotel. A former financier, David left that world behind to create a space that travelers could call home (and quite a luxurious one!) while in Cape Town. The location is still within walking distance of shops and restaurants (but not as central as Cape Cadogan) and metered cabs are always available in the evenings. The hotel offers a convenient delivery service from nearby restaurants so you can dine in if you want, otherwise there’s also the option of arranging for a private chef (parties of 4 or more) to come in and cook dinner at the hotel. I highly recommend Four Rosmead for travelers interested in something off the beaten path, unique and offering high levels of service. While the hotel doesn’t offer the amenities of a traditional city hotel, David can capably arrange for almost anything and the rooms do  have mini-bars, a nice welcome letter and honeymooner gift as well as garden patios or private balconies with excellent views.

Kensington Place– This boutique hotel is up the street from Four Rosmead and also offers a more intimate hotel experience in Cape Town. Rooms are spacious and well appointed and the grounds feature a nice swimming pool, public areas and a lovely spot for breakfast. I noticed some street noise, but this would have a minimal impact outside of peak traffic and we were there during the evening commute. Overall, it is a great option for independent travelers, very chic and offers a good value.

The Pod – This small hotel is certainly a great fit for the jet-set beach crowd. Rooms are minimalistic and a bit Scandinavian in feel with light wood and neutral décor. Many rooms have a sea/beach view, but others face a 4-story 1960s apartment complex that is a bit of an eye-sore. Rooms rates are a bit high, but those looking for a trendy spot close to the beach are likely to pay the price. The young assistance manager was eager to show the property and spread the word – the hotel opened just before the World Cup.

Twelve Apostles – Just down the coastal highway from the Pod, Twelve Apostles’ name alludes to the massive rock outcroppings rising above the coastline. The hotel sits opposite the sea and offers a beautiful spot for enjoying coastal life in Cape Town. The rooms are spacious and feature current, but more traditional sea-side décor. Some rooms overlook the sea, while others face the 12 Apostles (some rooms have views of both). The hotel, oddly, feels bigger than it is, and that is a bit of a negative in my opinion. However, for someone looking for the amenities of a large hotel (restaurants, bars, spa, pools, shops) in a more natural setting, this is a good spot. It, of course, comes highly recommended as a top City Hotel by Conde Nast.

After a long day of hotel inspections, I popped into the Pan African market for a quick look at the wide variety of African arts and crafts (very few things are specifically South African, but the variety is nice and prices were good). I also was able to stop at the Phillipa Green shop just off Long Street. She’s a talented local jewelry designer who creates striking rings and cuff bracelets. There’s certainly no shortage of shopping to be done in Cape Town and if travelers are keen to do so, a full afternoon at minimum could be enjoyed exploring the Green Market Square and Long Street areas.

November 16 – Cape Town to Hermanus – Grootbos at Gaansbai 

I was pleased to see Ananda at the City Lodge for my transfer to Grootbos. We picked up conversation where we’d left off a few days earlier as we passed through beautiful countryside and made our way to the coastal town and whale-watching hub of Hermanus. The town is picturesque like many South Africa seaside villages, but Hermanus holds the reputation as the best whale watching in the area. From July to November the Southern right whale enters Walker’s Bay to calve and prepare their young for the open sea before venturing further South. I visited Quarters Hermanus, which is a nice option for self-drive travelers or those looking for a centrally located, good value hotel while whale watching. The rooms were bright and nicely decorated, offering all of the amenities you’d hope for. The hotel is set on the main square in Hermanus right next to the craft market and just a quick walk across the square to several restaurants and cafes. We enjoyed seafood for lunch (I loved the Cape Malay seasoned calamari) and kept an eye out for whales in the bay. After lunch, I visited Liz Biden’s, Birkenhead House. I love Liz’s style and Birkenhead is no exception. The intimate hotel is set right on the edge of the seaside cliffs overlooking the bay (we saw whales while touring the property) and is definitely the most understated of Liz’s hotels decorated with soft whites and her more signature art and collectibles. The private villa is next door and is ideal for families (swimming pool, grassy areas, play structure and TV room. The villa can be booked exclusive use or individually. Guests traveling without children should be informed that the property is family-friendly and does directly cater to travelers with children. That said, there is plenty of space for everyone and outside of main school holidays it’s less likely that there would be many children around. Both properties have immediate and near-immediate beach access and walking trails that lead into Hermanus. Birkenhead House could ideally and easily be combined with La Residence and Royal Malewane for a luxurious South African holiday – a stay in Cape Town at the Grace would add to this experience. The properties do differ enough that the accommodations wouldn’t seem redundant.

After visiting Birkenhead, we continued along Walker Bay to Grootbos Nature Reserve. After seeing Michael’s presentation in January in Seattle, I was greatly anticipating my stay at Grootbos. Even in the short time I was there, it did live up to my expectations. The setting is breathtaking overlooking the sea (the lodge is set quite high above the ocean and is not directly on the seaside like Birkenhead House), dunes and surrounded by the beautiful coastal fynbos. Forest Lodge is the newer of the two properties and it is more contemporary, certainly, with cool-colored décor, enormous bathrooms with separate shower and soaking tub, full living room with its own full bathroom and an adjoining sun deck (with chaise lounges and sun umbrella). To reach the suites, guests walk through dense Milkwood forests along lit pathways; the forests on the reserve are the largest in the world. That afternoon I explored the grounds on a guided horseback ride and, upon return, found a bubble bath drawn for me in my suite.  Dinner was exceptional, one of the best meals of my entire trip. I enjoyed chatting with Sean, the lodge manager over dinner and a bottle of South African pinotage. My “open-faced” butternut lasagna was divine and the dining room was buzzing with conversation and soft background music. It was a nice atmosphere and pleasantly cosmopolitan feeling for the country setting.

November 17 – Grootbos to Franschhoek 

Guide: Keith

Rating: Excellent

After a delicious and early breakfast, I headed out on an invigorating early morning walk (which was really more of a hike – the retired couple struggled a bit with the steep terrain at points) and learned a great deal about the fynbos. The guide was very knowledgeable and adept at explaining the endemic and other flora.

I also saw Garden Lodge and the exclusive-use villa. After hearing people’s pre-trip comments about how nice Forest Lodge was and my personal experience there, I was eager to see the original lodge – Garden. I found the public areas to be nicely updated with current colors and furniture and family-friendly with a game room complete with pool table, foosball and other games. While the rooms were certainly styled more like a traditional lodge with darker colors and more wood than Forest Lodge, I still found it to be a really nice option for families or travelers who aren’t looking for quite as much luxury.

Keith, my excellent winelands guide, met me for my site inspections and transfer into Franschhoek. Keith is a bit of a local treasure, I think, full of interesting tid-bits, history and insider connections. As we cruised through the mountain passes in the spacious Mercedes touring van, Keith explained the region’s cultural and winemaking history.

First stop was Mont Rochelle Wine Estate and hotel. The hotel’s grounds are beautifully manicured and the views of the surrounding Franschhoek Valley are spectacular. While the rooms were lovely and well-appointed, they didn’t strike me as being something really special or unique. The spot would be ideal for a honeymoon couple (the suites were really nice and very private) or travelers interested in specifically staying outside of the town on a working wine estate. We enjoyed lunch at the Estates casual lunch spot housed in a bougainvillea-laced brick building overlooking the vineyards. Lunch was very good and I tasted a few of the estates wines, which were good if not very complex.

From there we headed onto the main street of Franschhoek village and saw The Franschhoek aka The Last Word Franschhoek (one of the Last Word properties). The small property offers 6 rooms in a quaint setting right off the main drag. The rooms were styled in nice wine country décor and a shared rooftop sitting area would be the ideal spot to enjoy a glass of wine and watch sunset before heading out for dinner.

La Residence was full so I was unable to see any of the rooms, but I did tour the grounds and public areas. Holding true to Liz’s style and colorful, luxurious opulence, La Residence is a prime example of what Liz does best: bringing together color and art in a way that few people could do so successfully. La Residence is, in my opinion, her most grand property and walks a fine line between signature and over-the-top. Most travelers who are familiar with La Residence and specifically request it would certainly find it to be on the signature side of that line. It’s not for everyone, but travelers looking for the most luxurious tend to find that Liz’s Biden’s properties deliver just that.

The Franschhoek Country House & Villas are the perfect spot for travelers looking for an epitomized wine country experience. Décor is traditional wine country, as are the beautifully-manicured grounds. Views overlook the valley’s vineyards and surrounding mountains. With many levels of rooms to chose from, the property poses a good value and authentic experience. While the hotel isn’t located right in the village, but just outside, they do offer a shuttle for those guests who’d like to go into town for dinner or shopping.

With some free time left in the day, there was no question of what to do with it. Our first wine tasting spot is the impressive La Motte wine estate – one of the largest and most developed in the valley. Owned by a prominent South African family, the winery reminded me of Robert Mondavi or Coppola in Napa. The wine was excellent and more developed an complex than what I’d tasted earlier in the day – I’d consider the more expensive vintages here to be “special occasion wine.” From there we headed to Moreson, which I had the pleasure of enjoying back in the States when South African friends bought a bottle to dinner the week before my trip. These wines were my favorites of the day, especially the 2007 Mata Mata. Moreson is also home to Bread and Wine (one of Le Quartier Francais’ restaurants).

Overnight at Le Quartier Francais, dinner at the Common Room. Eating tapas alone should be outlawed, especially at The Common Room! I ate far too much in an attempt to try as many things as I could…Karoo lamb kabobs, fish “pops” with curry ketchup, duck confit terrine, sticky toffee bun ice cream. Each was equally amazing. Can’t wait to go back!

November 18 – Cape Town to Durban

Early morning airport transfer from Franschhoek to the Cape Town airport for my Kulula/Comair flight to Durban (note: SA Airlink recently stopped direct service from Cape Town to Durban, Kulula/Comair is the BA codeshare partner operating this route – service was good), albeit a hectic early-morning departure from the winelands.

Day in the New Frontier’s office and lunch at the Freedom Café, which is a cool and quirky local hang out. Overnight in Durban at Craig’s lovely home.

November 19 – Durban 

Morning with Unwind Africa and afternoon at New Frontiers. Late afternoon transfer to Oyster Box for dinner and overnight. Most of the rooms are sea-facing, but I am enjoying my 2-story Garden Suite overlooking the gardens and pool. The suite is so spacious with a sitting room and bathroom downstairs, a verandah and private plunge pool; upstairs is the bedroom, full bathroom and balcony. All of the furnishings and fabrics are cool blues and creams. Other rooms are contemporary, safari-chic and others varying colors and styles. The Ocean Terrace Restaurant prepares an incredible curry buffet that features tandoori chicken from the restaurant’s own tandoor. The curry dinner was some of the best Indian food I’ve had and the view over the sea only adds to it.

The hotel is quite big, but retains a very personalized feel. The location is great and it’s walking distance to the nearby upscale shops and restaurants. For travelers who prefer to stay on site, there is a beautiful spa, swimming pools, shops and great bars to enjoy an evening cocktail. High tea is served and there’s often live music in the evenings. The Oyster Box is a great spot to spend a few days unwinding pre- or post safari.

November 20 – Thanda Game Reserve – Kwa-Zulu Natal

Taryn picked me up this morning and after a quick stop at Upumalanga Rocks impressive Gateway Mall for a visit to The Space (features up-and-coming South African designers at a relatively good value on foreign funds) we continued north to Thanda Private Game Reserve. The 7,000 acre reserve skirts the highway and inland to a low mountain range. The reserve does offer Big 5 game viewing, although we only saw cheetah and rhino on our afternoon game drive. The lodge is certainly 5 star, with spacious suites, private plunge pools, salas, soaking tubs and Africology amenities. On the weekend we were there, management seemed to be a bit scarce and there didn’t seem to be a cohesive manager-type that really pulled it all together. Cuisine was good, but lacked creativity. We did briefly visit the tented property, which was a traditionally Meru-style tent (battery-powered lights, no electricity in the rooms). Tents were nice and it may be an acceptable option for those keen on a tented experience as they are harder to come by in South Africa and are exceptionally well-priced.

November 21 – Sabi Sand – Notten’s Bush Camp

Taryn and I drove back to Durban, where I met up with Tracey and we flew out to KMIA/Nelspruit airport and drove into Sabi Sand (the drive from KMIA to Notten’s was about 2 hrs) – 11/2 hrs paved road. Notten’s Bush Camp is really a great tribute to the original safari days. The grounds and rooms are lit by candlelight and lantern (IMPORTANT: no electricity in the rooms other than ceiling fan, all candles and kerosene lanterns). I really enjoyed the feel of this camp – it really retains the feeling of being family owned and owner-operated. It’s very family-friendly with 2 family suites and a big pool. The camp overlooks a beautiful grassland where we saw buffalo and impala, not to mention watched an amazing nearly full moon rise.

Public areas are very nicely decorated and there are special spots to enjoy like a tree-top viewing deck and a cozy fire-lit library. They do have a small spa with two treatment rooms and a plunge pool. The 8 rooms are done up in cool colors and fresh white with polished concrete floors (keeping things cool in summer) and spacious en suite bathrooms with sunken outdoor showers. Each has a private verandah and sitting area. The food was excellent and service friendly and helpful. Dinner was served, once again by candle light, in the outdoor boma. Dale, one of the Notten’s family, cooked delicious steak on the braai and it was served with a smattering of veggies, salads and hot off the grill potatoes! After dinner everyone hung out by the fire and sipped Amarula before turning in for the evening. Our room was glowing with candles and lanterns when we returned and the staff member made sure to tell us not to venture out of our room at night (hyenas are regularly on the prowl! This is the bush, after all)!

The game drive at Notten’s was impressive – an excellent sighting of a pride of 8 lions on our morning game drive. The camp’s game is reliably top-notch as it is part of the Sabi Sand Reserve and guiding is also quite good – the original local tracker’s family is still actively guiding and involved in the property. I really can’t say enough about Notten’s. It felt very personal and classic. For travelers looking for a more adventurous and authentic bush experience, this is the place. Families with children age 6 and up are welcomed and the owner’s young children are often on site swimming in the pool, too. Everything about this camp is welcoming, relaxed and authentic.

November 22 – Sabi Sand Site Inspections

Dale from Notten’s drove us over to Exeter. Really nice guy. We chatted quickly with David that morning (one of the brother’s that own the camp, Dale is the cousin) and said thanks, etc.

& Beyond

Exeter- River Lodge:  This is the largest of the Exeter camps. It was nice, rooms were spacious and the central dining area overlooked the riverbed. It was what you would expect from an &Beyond property, but didn’t jump out as being anything terribly special. The furnishings and room style was a bit more contemporary than at Dulini.

Dulini – This was a more cozy and romantic lodge (12 guests). The setting amongst the ebony trees was quite nice. It would certainly appeal to a traveler looking for a more classic experience. Suites were quite spacious and offered nice views over the riverbed, plunge pools.

Leadwood – With just 4 suites, Leadwood is the luxe option at Exeter. The suites are very luxurious, spacious and really private. Outdoor plunge pools, soaking tubs, private dinners in room or on your deck, large sitting area to relax, etc. All the luxuries you’d expect. The common areas here were also quite nice, but with the size of the camp, I’d imagine they don’t get used too much. Honeymooners and couples looking for privacy and spending most of their meals in-room.

From here we transferred to Singita for a site inspection of Boulders, Ebony and Castleton private camp. Boulders is certainly a really striking property with such unique design elements that it’s hard not to be blown away. The rooms are ultra-modern and feature a cool color palette echoing the name of the lodge. Amenities include luxury linens, iPod docking stations and an impressive “mini-bar.” The wine cellar is mind-boggling in size and scope. Of course there are the usual spa and pool amenities, as well as private plunge pools at each suite. From Boulders, we visited the shop, which houses the wine shop as well as rooms of design, décor, jewelry and clothing. One could really spend hours exploring the space. Prices are high, but it is Singita! On to Ebony Lodge. This is definitely the more classic safari lodge with rich, dark colors and family heirloom antiques. Over the next year or two, Ebony will be undergoing updates to the rooms (initial then more extensive in 2012) as well as changes to the dining room and soft refurbs in the main area. The room layout is the same as Boulders, as is the price-point, but it is just a matter of what style appeals to the traveler – contemporary or classic. Ebony also has a spa and smaller wine cellar (can offer private dinners for up to 4 pax in cellar). Both venues vary meal locations and offer in-room dining.

We ate lunch at Ebony and the food and wine was excellent, no doubt about it. It was interesting to chat with Jason, the general manager about the future of Singita and how they are really honing in on providing a highly personalized travel experience, as well as giving back to the community and conservation. In Jason’s words: a more authentic travel experience. It’s certainly the direction that things are going if not already there within the industry. During our chat, we kept returning to the top of a personalized and authentic experience and if anywhere should and can be doing this, it’s Singita.

Castleton was out last stop at Singita and it is important to bear in mind that as the owner’s personal use house, it is quite different in standard and appearance to the more chic and designer orientated Singita lodges. The private use lodge is styled around a South African farm and while it would be convenient for families to take the whole property, it should not be sold as a Singita-level accommodation option. It is, at best, a comfortable 4 star room, but of course with the Singita game and guiding experience.

We continued on to Lion Sands where I went out on a private game drive with guide Brandon, who was excellent. The drive was quite fruitful and we had an excellent leopard sighting, as well as lion. River Lodge was recently refurbed and was looking fresh and clean. The rooms were a bit stark for me and just a few soft touches, rugs or art pieces would have pulled it all together. Public areas were lovely and the setting is amazing overlooking the riverbed. The lodge has a viewing deck that guests can walk across the river bed to and enjoy the shaded deck while sipping a drink and watching game. We enjoyed a candlelit bush dinner (with everyone else at the lodge), and it is a bigger property with 20 en suite rooms. If guests are looking for something small and intimate, Ivory Lodge is the better option. River does provide private butlers, excellent service and top guiding, it’s not a disappointment in any way.

Ivory Lodge is the most private and luxurious option, I’ve seen in Sabi Sands – even more so than Singita (at least just considering the suites and amenities). In efforts to provide the ultimate in privacy, ivory lodge has a bush-friendly “butler’s window” that allows any meals or services to be passed through to the guests without entering the room. Each of the 6 suites are U-shaped and offer a spacious sitting room and bedroom facing the private pool. The bathroom is behind the bedroom and is massive – shower, soaking tub and huge outdoor shower area. Décor is also white and quite minimalistic, but is considerably more “finished” than River Lodge with beautiful art, plush area rugs and soft furnishings. This is the top in luxury!

November 23 – Game drive – camp inspections – Royal Malewane

After an excellent game drive (another amazing leopard sighting and loads more game) on the shared Kirkman’s Camp land, we transferred to Timbavati to visit Tanda Tula and Motswari. This was a ridiculous amount of driving that no client would ever do, but we did it! Timbavati is very different looking than Sabi Sand and also doesn’t offer the frequency and quality of cat sightings. If travelers have enough time, they should visit both regions. Tanda Tula is a great little tented camp overlooking the bush and dry river bed. Tents are nicely decorated, Meru-style with attached bathroom and private deck. It’s not fancy and was quite hot when we were there (fans in the rooms), but it offers a bush experience that staying in a lodge doesn’t – much more akin to an East African safari. The camp has also recently launched overnight sleep-outs at the hide/star bed and walking safaris. Micro-lite flights are also available. Lunch was tasty and the grounds were pretty – the refreshing pool overlooked a large watering hole. The owner/manager, Nina Scott, greeted us and took us around the property.

Motswari is also a unique spot. The lodge is modeled around a South Africa farm, as well, with the rooms being rodavels dotted throughout the property. It’s a bit odd that you walk through the rondavels to reach the main guest area, but the dining area and pool overlook the riverbed and it is quite picturesque. Rooms were nicely decorated and understated. The lodge really focuses on being green/eco-friendly and just doing what they do best: being themselves and providing an authentic experience for their guests. Marketing manager Evenlyn took us around. The lodge has an American manager who has worked for them for 10 years and married a South African. The price-point is excellent and I think the value here is quite high. The lodge has its own airstrip, as well. It caters to a rather international crowd and everyone seemed quite relaxed and easy going.

We continued back through Timbavati to Thornybush and Royal Malewane. Sharon greeted us and we spent the early evening relaxing (dip in the plunge pool) before dinner. The bush dinner is a signature Royal Malewane experience – Moroccan-themed cuisine under a Bedouin-style tent all lit by lantern and candles.  It is beautiful!

The suites at Royal Malewane are massive. King size beds, writing desks (wireless is only in lounge and dining room), sitting area, fireplace, bathroom with soaking tub, indoor shower and outdoor shower, private verandah with sala and plunge pool! Colors are classic and wood is dark – it comes together for a rich-looking effect. The only negatives were my air-con going out after dinner and food on the welcome tray not being cooked fully. Both were immediately addressed by Sharon/Lisa after we left and had turned in our guest feedback form. I was surprised at this level that these issues happened at all. Overall, Royal Malewane is a top choice and provides a very luxurious experience in the bush. At times other guests present can make the atmosphere a bit pretentious. The staff is simply lovely and only welcoming and helpful – some of the best service in South Africa can be found at Royal Malewane, Birkenhead House and La Residence.

We popped into Thornybush Game Lodge, which while a large lodge, was pleasant and quite nice. For the price it is a nice entry-level lodge. Rooms were well-decorated and overlooked the seasonal riverbed. Public areas were also nice. The negative here is the size and the fact that group tours frequent the lodge. It is very family friendly, however.

After a bit of a hectic transfer to the little Hoedspruit airport (roads were bad due to heavy rain that night and morning) we caught our flight to Johannesburg where we were met and transferred through the city to Soweto. Tefo, our local guide, was very knowledgeable and I learned a lot about Johannesburg. Lebo’s Backpacker’s was a cool little hang-out where there is a bar, small café and hostel accommodations. Unfortunately Tracey and I both felt sick after lunch (at the on-site cafe) and we only were able to do a short bike ride through the township. It was definitely an interesting experience and I wish we could have gone out for longer. The short ride was interesting and a good glance into life in Soweto. We rode through the “middle class” neighborhood and I felt quite comfortable throughout. People smiled and kids waved. The only complaint was that the local guide, Solomon, used the local term for a bar (which I wasn’t familiar with) and I was caught off guard when we were taken inside a very rustic (tin shed) local shebeen where older folks were drinking the home brew. It was just a bit surprising as I wasn’t expecting it since I didn’t understand the terminology or really hear properly what our guide was saying. The guy I was sitting next to was quite drunk and it was a bit uncomfortable. It is part of life in a township overall, for the right person, I think the bike tour is a great option and an excellent way to really experience Soweto. Our guide Solomon was very good.

We finished our day back at OR Tambo, Tracey and I bid farewell (we were both feeling a bit better) and I connected to my international flight home. Note: Virgin Atlantic provides complimentary baggage wrapping service at check-in. We do highly advise that you make use of this service to maximize security for your luggage.

Throughout the trip, New Frontiers logistics were excellent and carried out as planned. I was met at each stop and transferred as indicated. I was really pleased by the quality of guides – very high quality, bright, welcoming and interesting folks.  Everything went off without a hitch and it was great to see how it all comes together. South Africa is such a diverse destination with food, culture, wine, scenery and wildlife – I’m hoping to be able to expand the areas of focus for North American agents. There’s so much to see and do in South Africa!

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