After another busy week at Travelwise, organising personal travel itineraries for South East Asia, The USA and last minute Northern Light breaks, I was excited to head home for the weekend to pack for my travels on Monday morning. Passport…check. Toothbrush…check. Binoculars…check. Once I had squeezed all that I needed for the upcoming week into my bag I hit the road and headed for Birmingham Airport.
Upon arrival I went through the usual formalities; grab a coffee and frantically recheck where my passport and flight details were located! I was then met by our group leader for the week, Abbey from Visions of Africa. As the check in time grew closer we soon snowballed to a larger group of 10 excited travel agents. Some from the surrounding region and others from further afield. An efficient check in of our main bags soon found us sat in the No1 Lounge in the departures area. Away from the madding crowd, we were able to enjoy a coffee and a light brunch before heading down to our gate.
Once welcomed aboard our Turkish Airlines flight we were able to enjoy the onboard entertainment and refreshments as we flew on to Istanbul. A brief wait and a group debrief was all we had time for as we then made our way onto the second leg of our outbound journey onto Cape Town.
We arrived into Cape Town where we were immediately met by our driver for the week, Carlos. He assisted with loading up our minivan and we headed out into the unfamiliar November sunshine & warmth. A short transfer time and we were already in the heart of Cape Town, meandering our way through the morning’s business traffic. We enjoyed a brief tour of the city pointing out many of the city’s main sights before heading up to Table Mountain. Unfortunately due to the cloud and high wind on the summit of the mountain, we were only able to enjoy the cityscape view from the lower cable car station; stunning none the less! We then made our way across the city up to Signal Hill to enjoy the view of Table Mountain over shadowing the city bowl with Robben Island, to the South of the city.
Our first couple of nights were at the Waterfront apartments; ideal for larger family or friend groups wishing to enjoy a self catering experience. Located in the famous waterfront area of the city centre, this was the perfect spot to visit the shops, bars and restaurants. Diving with great white sharks or taking a scenic helicopter flight over the city, are just a couple of the more extreme activities to take part in during a stay in Cape Town. A day trip out to Cape Point was the option we opted to take. Just a leisurely 2 hour drive from the city centre down the Cape Peninsula finds you down at Cape Point; the most South-Western point of the African continent. A quick stop on route at Hout Bay enabled us to embark on a quick boat ride out to visit a colony of Cape Fur Seals; their sleek bodies writhing in amongst the jagged rocks and fierce sea swell. The other seals were found fighting for a sunny spot on the small slivers of rocks.
A further drive found us down at the peninsular tip, from here the expansive deep blue sea was as far as the eye could see. The only things which broke the blue canvas were the white streaks of ocean freighters and small fishing boats. Our visit was at the very tail end of the whale season, but from here in the peak visiting time of the whales, would be the perfect lookout point for nature’s greatest giants. A quick lunch stop was most welcome at this point; a delicious dish of calamari and Cape rock lobster at the Two Oceans Restaurant sure did the trick!
On the return journey was another stop to visit a native creature to the beaches surrounding Cape Town. Famed for being a more unusual inhabitant of South Africa, the jackass penguin (known for its donkey like bray) proved to be top of the ‘must-see’ list of my fellow group. Boulders Beach is a small inlet with granite boulders littering the white sands, where, large colonies of birds were busy sun bathing and swimming.
Our final night in Cape Town we finished up with a fine dining experience in one of the city’s fine restaurants. Overlooking the glinting harbour front, the City Grill Steakhouse offers a variety of South African dishes, including crocodile and Zebra! There are also more popular Western dishes of hearty steaks and vegetarian salads and platters.
After a much needed sleep back at the Waterfront apartments, we packed up camp early and headed inland to Stellenbosch. Located 50km from Cape Town allowed the winds to die down and we found ourselves surrounded by rolling countryside dotted with the occasional splashes of purple jacaranda trees. Arriving into the peaceful university town we headed straight to the Oudewerf hotel for a fine breakfast. This oasis of calm is the perfect haven to explore the Cape wine lands further. From Stellenbosch there are many wine estates within striking distance where you can enjoy wine tasting visits to sample some of the region’s best produce. Our tour included a stop off at a wine estate where we were able to taste a selection of white and red wines, set within the grape growing countryside.
A further 25km on from Stellenbosch is the small town of Franschhoek; a perfect spot for a bit of souvenir shopping, lazing in a cafe or having a lavish lunch at the highly acclaimed Rubens restaurant. A fantastic day trip from Franschhoek is the wine tram which gives you the flexibility of a hop-on-hop-off service enabling you to visit the vineyards, cellars and rolling countryside. As we made our way away from Franschhoek, we drove through yet more stunning vineyard landscapes, where we reached the Angala hotel. With its own eco-pool, outdoor showers and open plan design, the Angala hotel instantly soothes and relaxes guests allowing for a peaceful countryside retreat. We were treated to lunch; another fine offering of fresh calamari, mussels and a crisp white wine to match; a perfect lazy afternoon in the South African sunshine.
Our accommodation for the evening was the fabulous Val Du Charron wine & olive estate. Set overlooking their own grounds with a mountain backdrop, this made for a perfect location to enjoy the local wine and food. Before dinner a special feature offered by the hotel was the ‘Theatre of Wine’; a more interactive wine tasting experience put on by the ‘Black Countess’. She talked us through the three different wines but with a story behind each of the wines making for a more engaging & unusual taste experience.
- The Four White Legs is a ghost story that captures the pioneering spirit of the first explorers of South Africa’s hinterland
- Pieter Erasmus was the first owner of the farm back in 1699 and also produced the first wine in 1702.
- The Black Countess pays homage to the first person of colour in the British realm.
Yet another banquet awaited us that evening as we joined the estate manager Stewart and his partner. A personal highlight was the grass-fed, 48-day matured beef fillet with a full bodied red wine to accompany. The following morning we were then given a tour of the property. As a working wine estate we were also shown the heart of the wine production; the large steel vats and fermentation tanks crowding the cavernous warehouse.
As we were running on a tight schedule to visit as many locations within the week, we soon left the Val Du Charron as we made our way down to Mossel Bay. The roads are very good in across South Africa making it very easy to hire a car to explore the countryside. Many of the towns and villages are well sign posted making navigation relatively simple. The scenery constantly changes as you travel from West to East; ranging from rocky outcrops similar to that of the Welsh hillsides to lush meadows found in the Kent countryside. We stopped off at Mossel Bay taking in the beautiful views of the Indian Ocean rather than the Atlantic Ocean found on the Western Cape. A brief lunch stop on the white sandy beaches was the afternoon treat for the day.
Mossel Bay marks the start of the famous Garden Route; a picturesque 200km or so route down to Storms River. Dotted along the route are several little villages that make great stop offs for souvenir shopping or coffee breaks. Our port of call for the evening was Lairds Lodge; with animal horns, skins and skulls, this lodge oozes South African character from a bygone era of trekking & hunting. Two members of our group were lucky enough to have birthdays during our stay, so we were treated to a birthday cake and singing from the entire kitchen & housekeeping staff. This certainly made for a memorable stay!
The following day we were greeted by another scrumptious breakfast of cured meats, cheeses and fresh fruit. We packed up the minivan again and hit the road; skimming past Plattenberg Bay and onto Alexandria, home of the Kariega wildlife reserve.
Upon arrival we were met by our two safari rangers as well as a cold beer in the sunshine. We then waved off our fabulous driver for the week before switching modes of transport to a riverboat. The transfer was unlike any other, which took us up the river to our final stop of the week, Settlers Drift. On the way we had different animals pointed out to us such as the weaver birds and rock hyraxes. The 15-minute river transfer eventually found us at the lodge, where we were driven up to the main entrance in the roofless safari land cruisers. A cool towel and light refreshment waited our arrival.
A brief site tour of Settlers Drift revealed the high level of luxury; open fire pits, large sofas and an elegant dining area welcomed us. Built up on the hillside in amongst the bushes and trees, the large communal area had a fabulous view over the valley, enabling easy viewing of impala, wildebeest, giraffe and elephants. After a quick freshen up we soon found ourselves bumbling along in the back of the land cruisers again, trying our best to spot the different species of animal in the game reserve. Some rare sightings included the shy warthogs with their tails standing on end as they trotted away from sight and a hunting black backed jackal.
Dinner was promptly served at 8pm; the highlight of course was dining whilst overlooking the open plains with the animals roaming in the distance. An early night’s sleep was the next priority as we were up the following day at 5am for our early game drive. A chill was in the air as we drank a coffee to wake us up in the morning. We jumped aboard our safari trucks and once again embarked on safari. We went out in search of the more sought after ‘big 5’ animals, spotting a lone rhino, herds of elephant and water buffalo. After our morning game drive we were able to use the on site facilities, but this was soon cut short by an afternoon downpour.
The rain continued for the rest of the day, but we did not allow this to dampen our spirits as we headed out on our 3 rd game drive of our stay. Our final mission was to locate the four lions that were in the reserve. After hearing on the radio of the lion’s last sighting, we quickly made our way across the reserve to see if we could catch a glimpse. After a 20 minute hunt around in the bush, the rain and low light eventually beat us. The lions may have taken refuge beneath the bushes out of sight and undercover from the rain. Finally admitting defeat and becoming more and more windswept and soggy, we headed back to camp. The clay roads soon turned to rivers making the drive back a little treacherous.
The evenings dining and entertainment took a turn for the more authentic South African experience, with a Braai; usually an outdoor fire pit barbeque. But due to the rain this was easily switched indoors over the open fire. A grand selection of meats, stews and salads were on offer, with an after dinner dance and drumming session put on by the housekeeping staff.
The following morning we were allowed a brief lie in as we were not going on safari, but instead packing up as we were due to return to the UK that afternoon. Our departure transfer was the reversal of our arrival, with a safari jeep drive down to the river launch jetty. The boat then whizzed us down stream to the sister property the River lodge. This property had a wonderful location on the edge of the river allowing guests to see the birdlife along the waterway. We were able to squeeze in a brief site visit before heading off from the reserve to the airport.
From West to East, this itinerary certainly packed a punch! Although we were limited to just a week away, this itinerary would certainly deserve a slower pace to soak up even more sights, culinary delights and of course the fine South African Wine. It was certainly a welcoming warm spell to beat the winter blues back home, a South African adventure makes for the perfect alternative winter break. It ticks all the boxes; breathtaking beaches, buzzing city life, stunning scenery, great food and sumptuous wine. I’m now safe in the knowledge a safari can be done in 100% luxury!
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