South African-born Mary Holland reveals what the country is like and how to get the most out of your trip – from little-known wine regions, beaches and national parks to the best travel time and cost. As a South African, I’ve always known that my country is beautiful and culturally rich, but I had to cross the Atlantic to see what a stunning place it really is. I now live in New York, but i still travel back at least once a year, and every time my plane lands in Cape Town and I see the monumental Table Mountain out of my window, I’m overwhelmed. Beyond Cape Town, South Africa has many extraordinary landscapes and unique experiences to offer.
South Africa is more affordable than you think
Travelers often assume that South Africa is expensive because the flights have a high price. But once you’ve arrived, it’s very affordable because of the weak South African rand. While certain excursions (such as .B a high-end safari) can blow up the bank, there are many experiences that don’t. In most national parks, travelers can easily forgo five-star accommodation and opt for simpler self-catering accommodations – in Kruger National Park, for example, there are plenty of affordable accommodations. Keep in mind that lounging on the beach or hiking in the mountains costs nothing. When it comes to food (and wine), prices are usually very wallet-friendly, and we tip between 10 and 15 percent. A fancy coffee like a Flat White (we make very good flat whites) will cost you about 2 US dollars, and a glass of wine (we make very good wine) will only cost you about 4 US dollars. Some high-end restaurants that attract visitors from overseas can be expensive, but all major cities have excellent, affordable options that appeal to South Africans (who don’t spend US dollars or British pounds).
Travel during low season
During the December holidays (summer), hordes of foreign visitors flock to the country. But the best time to visit South Africa is outside the local school holidays. The spring and autumn season is perfect – not only is the weather generally milder, you can also experience seasonal experiences such as whale watching in the Western Cape (the season starts around June) or the flowering of wildflowers in Namaqualand (September) along the west coast. Outside the high season, prices are more affordable and accommodation is more available – especially for those who want to go on safari.
Don’t consider Johannesburg a short stopover
Many people are warned that Johannesburg is dangerous. And yes, as in many major cities around the world, it can be dangerous in certain parts and you have to be aware of it. But if you’re staying in a reputable hotel in one of the revitalized neighborhoods and looking for a knowledgeable guide, you can explore one of Africa’s busiest cities. There is a thriving art and design scene and unmistakable historical sites that easily deserve to spend two or three days here. Take a guided walk through Johannesburg’s Maboneng district (try Main Street Walks) to discover cool galleries and restaurants; try an art tour in Soweto, visit the iconic Apartheid Museum or spend a weekend with locals at one of the many hip markets or pop-ups like Victoria Yards.
There is more in the Winelands than Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl
There is no denying that the Paarl/Stellenbosch/Franschhoek area has excellent wineries that produce award-winning wines, but there are also other wine regions that do not get the attention they deserve. An hour north of Paarl lies Swartland, a rugged wine region that revolves around the historic town of Riebeek Kasteel. This hot, dry region is one of my favorite places to visit, and it’s known for its handful of independent winemakers who produce world-class Chenin Blancs. In the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, north of the coastal town of Hermanus (two hours from Cape Town), the winemakers produce excellent Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. I recommend to spend a few days on the beach in Hermanus and then a weekend of wine tasting in the valley.
Kruger Park is not the only safari park worth a visit
Most people who go on safari in South Africa probably end up in Kruger National Park. There’s nothing wrong with that, I’ve been there countless times – the park is one of the largest reserves in Africa, packed with wildlife. But it is just one of 20 national parks and many reserves. In the Eastern Cape, the bushy Addo Elephant Park is known for its abundance of elephants. The lush iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a protected coastal area in KwaZulu Natal, is a great place to watch hippos, crocodiles, pelicans and flamingos. In the northern part of the country, the Kalahari – a dried-up savannah bordering Botswana and Namibia – is home to meerkats, cheetahs and wild dogs.
If you think Cape Town has great beaches, try KwaZulu Natal and/or the Garden Route
Cape Town has a fantastic coastline where the deep blue ocean meets cream-white beaches. The Indian Ocean (around Muizenberg) tends to be much warmer, while the Atlantic Ocean (around Clifton and Camps Bay) is cool. Both areas are undeniably breathtaking, but this also applies to the coastlines along the Garden Route and KwaZulu Natal. The Garden Route – a stretch of land stretching between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth – has a number of beach towns such as Wilderness, Plettenberg Bay and St. Francis, with warm water and brown beaches. The climate is also more temperate, so swimming is possible in winter. In KwaZulu Natal, a hot and humid part of the country, there are wild sea beaches galore. Sodwana Bay, Umhlanga Rocks and Kosi Bay all have rugged beaches that are great for surfing.
Don’t miss out on lesser-known art, design and culture
South Africa is not only diverse in terms of landscape and temperature, but also culturally extremely rich and has 11 official languages. There are some iconic sites and museums that you shouldn’t miss, such as Robben Island, the Apartheid Museum and the Zeitzer MoCAA. But don’t miss out on the smaller galleries and museums that encourage aspiring creatives. Both Johannesburg and Cape Town have a number of brilliant spaces such as the Norval Foundation, MOMO Gallery, Southern Guild, Goodman Gallery and Michael Stevenson. You will be impressed by the variety of talents and hopefully be able to take home a ceramic or a painting.