Local + Travel
Adventure In South Africa
Article and Photography by Lexi Desimone
Over the last few years, my husband, Luke, and I have explored far and wide. We’ve road tripped across the entire United States and Canada and traveled to Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Spain, Italy, and the Balearic Islands. But we would have never imagined a trip around the world to the diverse landscape of South Africa.
This past February, we packed our bags and spent two weeks in this culturally rich destination. A country where land meets sea, exotic animals roam free, mountains form lush wine regions, and rich cultures collide. This destination was initially out of our comfort zone, but the country proved itself to be inviting, affordable, and easy to navigate.
We flew directly from the States to Cape Town and, 19 hours later, arrived in the rainbow nation. All travel jitters melted away as we made our descent into Cape Town. Passengers got their first glance at ‘Table Mountain,’ one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Our seatmate, a local born and raised in Cape Town, pointed out the “Tablecloth over Table Mountain.” This is a recurring cloud formation that hovers over the mountain, creating the illusion of a white tablecloth draped over the flat-topped mountain.
We landed at sunset just in time to see the orange and pink hues dance over Cape Town, a beautiful city surrounded by dramatic mountains and stunning beaches. We stayed in Camps Bay, known for its long stretch of white sandy beaches bordered by trendy restaurants, clubs, and hotels. There was no shortage of activities, ranging from hiking, surfing, beach hopping, shopping, wine or gin tasting, and museum visits.
We stayed at Bakovenbay Luxury Suites, an exquisite B&B. This villa offers sea and mountain views, just 400 meters (1,312 ft) from the beach, within walking distance of Camps Bay Promenade and the beach. Our hosts, Wolfgang and Suzanne, were extremely accommodating and helpful with recommendations—the antique French romantic decor allowed for a luxurious experience matching the beauty of our external surroundings.
There are a few must-dos around Cape Town to fully immerse in its nature and beauty. Hike Lion’s Head at sunrise or sunset for breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Hottentots Holland Mountains. Drive or bike along Chapman’s Peak, one of the most scenic coastal tour routes in the world. Swim or sunbathe with the penguins at Boulders Beach Penguin Colony. Ride the Flying Dutchman Funicular up to the Old Cape Point Lighthouse at the Cape of Good Hope. Explore the lush Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Dine and shop at Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and Woodstock markets.
After Cape Town, we made our way to wine country. We sipped our way through the two regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Both wine regions are just over an hour from Cape Town. Here, you can go to the Franschhoek or Groot Drakenstein wine tram stations to explore the Franschhoek Valley through curated wine and cuisine experiences. This is a hop-on, hop-off experience, so you can create your perfect day and pick each vineyard you wish to experience.
Franschhoek offers towering oaks, rolling vineyards, Cape Dutch architecture, and French flair that dates back to 1688. There are over 45 wineries in this region to explore and enjoy! But some of the most popular include Boschendal, Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, Anthonij Rupert, La Motte, Eikehof Wine Estate, La Petite Ferme, Haute Cabrière, Mont Rochelle, Maison Wine Estate, Grande Provence.
Our favorite winery was Babylonstoren, one of the oldest working Cape Dutch farms in the Winelands region. You can schedule wine, olive oil, and tea tastings or explore the wine cellars, hotel, spa, shops, and family houses. We enjoyed wandering the miles of botanical gardens and farms. The property has three restaurants, but the greenhouse was our favorite for its farm-to-table culinary experience. One of the best keepsakes from this region outside the wine are the scents. Be sure to snag some lotions, candles, and soaps, all exquisite and easy to travel home with.
We were lucky enough to stay at Johannesdal Villa, located on the 1207 Johonnesdal secluded estate in the Stellenbosch region. The villa is a modern farmhouse curated by the designers who own the property. It sits between dense woodlands and lively gardens with breathtaking mountain views as a backdrop that you can enjoy from your private lap pool. The 1207 property can also be rented for weddings, events, and accommodations. We attended a wedding with the most picturesque mountain views and aesthetic amenities we’ve ever experienced here. Our favorite Stellenbosch wineries were the Delaire Graff Estate and the Tokara Wine Estate. Both encompass incredible food, views, and wine.
After wine country, we flew from Cape Town to George, where we rented a car to drive the famous Garden Route. The Garden Route is South Africa’s most popular 300 kilometers (186.4 miles) stretch of winding coastal roads, beaches, forests, rocky shorelines, and culturally rich towns. This route offers activities such as hiking, whale watching, beach hopping, oyster samplings, game reserves, national parks, and elephant sanctuaries along the way.
Our first pit stop was Thesen Island, in Knysna, one of South Africa’s most picturesque and popular coastal towns. Located in one of the richest ecological estuaries in South Africa and is famous for its natural vistas, oyster festivals, and top-notch wining, dining, and shopping. We stayed at the Turbine Hotel and Spa, an old power station transformed into a modern, luxury boutique hotel. Thesen Island offers many activities, all within walking distance, which makes it accessible for any traveler.
Next, we stopped at the Knysna Elephant Park and Sanctuary. This park was the first facility in South Africa to house and care for orphaned African elephants. This sanctuary offers educational experiences with rescued elephants in their natural habitats. We booked the elephant walk and then stayed for a second encounter, where we fed and interacted with the herd. If you’re not ready to leave, there’s even an option to have a sleepover with the elephants! Kruger National Park, Indalu Game Reserve, and Elephant Sanctuary Plettenberg Bay also offer similar experiences along the Garden Route. Words cannot describe this remarkable experience with such gentle giants.
Last but not least, we had to experience a safari. A few notable game reserves along the Garden Route are the Gardens Route Game Lodge, Gondwana, Addo Elephant National Park, and Aquila and Invedoorn, which are closer to Cape Town. We stayed at the Botlierskop, a 4,200-hectare (10,378.43 acres) Private Game Reserve. This reserve is located between George and Mossel Bay and tucked between the magnificent Outeniqua Mountains and the Indian Ocean. It offers a unique South African Safari Experience with luxury accommodations from tented lodges and manor suites to villas for all size groups. We chose this family-owned game reserve because it is home to four of the Big 5 (lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino), as well as cheetahs, antelope, rare black impala, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, hippo, and more. Activities include morning and afternoon safari game drives, horseback safaris, spa treatments, restaurant options, swimming pools, and lodging right on the reserve. We chose the all-inclusive experience to soak up as much as we could during the last few days of this dream vacation. We especially loved our wake-up calls when the herd of elephants or giraffes would graze the treetops outside our patio.
Our safari ranger, Silas, had extensive knowledge of the animals, habitat, and country. On our last night, we got to witness a new mother cheetah teach her three cubs how to hunt and stalk prey. Our experience was educational, high-end, and packed with adventure, but we left feeling a true connection and understanding of the animals and the land. No South Africa trip is complete without a safari to feel a true appreciation of the land beneath your feet.
Then, it was time to travel home. We left with a sense of pride and respect for the country that we spent the last two weeks in. South Africa has something to offer to any traveler, from adventure to relaxation. From the people, the landscape, the food, and the wildlife, we have never experienced a diverse cultural experience like this before, and are eager to return to explore what else this country has to offer.