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Thanda Safari Landscape - South Africa - Vacation of a Lifetime

Exploring South Africa – Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

In South Africa by Daryl & Mindi Hirsch6 Comments

Thinking of a dream vacation? Exploring South Africa is the vacation of a lifetime for many, including us. We journeyed to the country of endless beaches, world class vineyards and safari adventures. Read this first installment in our South Africa series to see what it was all about.

Cape Winelands Scenery - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

The scenery in the Cape Winelands is as epic as the wine itself.

We never intended to visit South Africa. Yes, this trip of a lifetime was not on our itinerary. We stumbled into our South African vacation with a fair bit of serendipity and several thousand frequent flyer miles.

We originally planned to stay in Europe after spending the month of January eating pizza in Naples Italy, but that would have involved braving cold February temperatures. After mulling over vacation ideas and taking a leap of faith, our plan to fly deep into the Southern Hemisphere coalesced. Many people spend months if not years planning for South Africa but we booked our flights on a whim less than four weeks before our departure date.

Yes, after a mere one month’s planning, we jumped on a flight to Cape Town (from London) and, 12 hours later, found ourselves situated at the foot of imposing Table Mountain. We were tired but ready for an adventure that would soon catapult us over sunny Signal Hill, across the devastatingly beautiful Cape Winelands, past sprawling Garden Route beaches and hurtling across the timeless African savannah. We would drink great wine, eat lots of biltong, dip our toes in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and see rhinos, lions, impalas and a leopard (oh my!) along with the rest of the Big Five.

Pro Tip:  Book a car service in advance to make life easier when you arrive after a long flight. We used Blacklane. Trust us, it was awesome to arrive with a car waiting to drive us to our Airbnb apartment.

Our thoughts? Go to South Africa and go now. Flights, while not cheap, are the lowest in price that they’ve been in years. Once you arrive, the incredible value for rooms, meals and transportation will quickly compensate for the cost of the airfare. If you’re willing to splurge (and even if you can’t), you must add an African safari as a very expensive cherry on top of your South African sundae. South Africa is a lot to take in, but, with two to three weeks, this can all be done with no regrets.

The Garden Route - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

Just a few hours drive from Cape Town, the Garden Route includes towns like Plettenberg Bay (Pictured). The Route features huge beaches, incredible sunsets and world class surf spots.

South Africa Vacation of a Lifetime

For many, South Africa is a once in a lifetime destination. We abhor ‘bucket list’ thinking since we believe that great travel is something people should experience throughout their lives, not just at the end. Bucket list or no bucket list, travel in beautiful, timeless, edge-of-the-world South Africa is about as life altering as travel gets.

Do you have a couple weeks to get away for a trip to South Africa? Here’s how you do it.

Cape Town – Living the Good Life

Cape Town Picture Frame - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

Daryl poses in front of Table Mountain in one of the many yellow ‘picture frames’ around Cape Town. There’s not one bad view in Africa’s southernmost city including this one.

Cape Town is one of the first places in South Africa that often comes to mind and rightfully so. This urban paradise, located near the southern tip of Africa, marks one of the first colonial-era trading settlements on the continent and astounds all with its sheer beauty and tumultuous history. Vistors never get bored with all the adventurous things to do in Cape Town.

And the food! We liked the food so much that we prepared an epic Cape Town Food Guide with all the best spots for eating and drinking in the city.

Braai at Mzoli's - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

Locals dance and eat some of Cape Town’s best South African style barbecue or Braai at Mzoli’s. Going to the restaurant located in one the ‘townships’ located in the suburbs of the city is a great way to connect with genuine African culture and eat some amazing grilled meat.

Chefs Warehouse and Canteen - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

Along with gorgeous mountain scenery and beaches, Cape Town features a booming dining scene. Pictured here is Pork Croquette with Mushy Peas and Pea Purée at Chefs Warehouse and Canteen.

Cape Town is a world in itself. Mountains surround the city’s central ‘City Bowl’, the heart of the city’s commercial and art centers, with lively nightlife and cutting-edge dining. Multi-colored homes light up the Bo-Kaap neighborhood. Farmers and craftspeople set up shop along the V&A Waterfront. Hipsters hold court at various bars and cafes along Bree and Kloof streets. Shoppers look for wares of all shapes and sizes in gentrifying Woodstock. Cape Town coffee drinkers convene in one of the centers of the Third Wave coffee universe with over 100 roasters.

The Pot Luck Club - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

Chef Luke Dale- Roberts’ The Pot Luck Club is one of the best restaurants in Cape Town. This dessert, Heaven’s Bacon Tart topped with Popcorn Ice Cream and Maple Glazed Bacon, was a decadent finale to our great meal there.

Signal Hill Sunset - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

There’s never a bad sunset in Cape Town. On the ocean side of Signal Hill, a group gathers on a concrete platform for a ‘sundowner’ party.

Jump past the bowl over Signal Hill, and you’ll find great beaches in Camps Bay, Clifton and Simon’s Town (an awesome location for penguin spotting) along with great surf spots in Muizenberg and Noordhoek. Cape Town sports an endless range of adventure activities. You can ascend Table Mountain (by cable car or on foot), go cage diving next to great white sharks, wander idyllically through the Company’s Garden or experience the most beautiful sunset of your life from the top of Signal Hill. You can also experience ‘real’ African culture and history by visiting the fascinating and tragic District 6 Museum, Robben Island or one of the nearby townships. Then again, if you’re like us, you can just relax in the utopic Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden while breathing in the stunning views of Devil’s Peak while catching an outdoor rock concert.

In other words, Cape Town is happening place.

Table Mountain Mist - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

On many afternoons, a mist envelops the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town. The tablecloth-like, natural phenomenon is what gives the imposing mountain its unique name.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

Located just a short distance outside the Cape Town CBD, the dreamy Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden features a large variety of flora and fauna with incredible mountain views. Kirstenbosch also holds a late afternoon music concert series that is not to be missed in the summer months.

Check Cape Town Hotel Rates

Cape Winelands – Drinking Our Way Through Wine Country

Cape Winelands - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

The Cape Winelands region features some of the best wines for the price in the world with views to match. Pictured here is a majestic mountain view from Ken Forrester Wines near Stellenbosch.

South African wine surprised us. The world-class Cabernets, Pinotages and Chenin Blancs that are produced in the Cape Winelands are shockingly excellent in both quality and value. We’ve been to some of the most beautiful wine regions in the world including Napa and Sonoma in Northern California, Burgundy, Beaujolais and Alsace in France, Willamette Valley in Oregonthe Rhineland in Germany, the Finger Lakes in New York and Emporda in Catalunya, Spain. In our opinion, the ethereal beauty of the vineyards in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl and Durbanville equal or outshine them all.

Peter Falke Wines - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

We can’t think of anything better than relaxing on the lawn at Peter Falke Wines with some of the best valued wine in the world.

In timeless Stellenbosch, it’s entirely possible to purchase a world class bottle of Cabernet for the equivalent of $10-12, twist open the bottle and then sit back at a stylish picnic table to enjoy a romantic sunset view of misted craggy peaks that exist as if in a painting. You can also experience some of the best dining in South Africa with fine Stellenbosch restaurants in the fashionable downtown or at the area’s amazing wine estates. We loved our time in the Cape Winelands so much that we may head there directly when we next journey to South Africa.

Check Stellenbosch Hotel Rates

The Garden Route – Relaxing on Beautiful Beaches

Surfing Class in New London - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

The Garden Route along the Cape has stunning beaches and some of the best surf spots in the world. Pictured here is a surf class in East London.

Knysna Sunset - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

The garden route has not only great beaches but also some radiant inlets. We enjoyed dusk at the Lofts Boutique Hotel in Knysna.

The Garden Route provided us with a wonderful break from our busy South Africa itinerary with pristine beaches in Plettenberg and quiet bayside resorts in Knysna. This was the chill part of our itinerary where we basked in purple hued sunsets and took barefoot jaunts across mile wide beaches.

Garden Route Oysters - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

On the Garden Route, fresh seafood, like these oysters and mussels at Freshline Fisheries, is on order.

The Garden Route also has great roadside markets with local food, both raw and cooked, and an abundance of affordable roadside seafood including some of the best oysters we’ve ever eaten. Though we’re not avid surfers, we still enjoyed checking out classic beach towns like Jeffrey’s Bay and Mossel Bay. The Garden Route even has wineries that offer tastings and game reserves where you can go on mini-safaris.

Check Garden Route Hotel Rates

South Africa Safaris  – Chasing the Big Five

Thanda Safari - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

The timeless African savannah at Thanda Safari evokes a Turner painting.

We had no safari plans when we traveled to South Africa, but, before we knew it, we were in for not one, not two, but three safaris. Yes, we experienced three safaris during our time in South Africa.

Going on a safari can be the ultimate luxury travel experience with appointed rooms and food prepared by seasoned chefs. Many bucket listers who travel to South Africa choose to head directly from the airport straight to a luxury safari lodge. Once there, Rangers whisk guests through a private game reserve twice daily; once in the early morning (most drives begin at about 6 am) and once in the late afternoon into dusk. Even though these excursions through the wild are called game drives, in most cases, there is no hunting involved. The animals are in a protected, preserved habitat and, on the really great safaris, guests get to observe these incredible creatures up close. Safaris are also a great way to commune with the timeless and classic African savannah.

Elephant - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

Safari ‘Game Drives’ are one of the best ways to see the Big Five up close. Pictured here, an elephant waves its trunk at us during one of our Thanda Safari drives.

So what are the ‘Big Five?’ We’re so glad you asked. In no particular order, the big five consist of African Lions, African Leopards, African Elephants, Rhinoceros and… Cape Water Buffalo. (We’re still trying to understand how Water Buffalo got on the list higher than Giraffes and Zebras, but that’s a different discussion for a different article.) Some game lodges are privately held with animals specially shipped onto the property while others adjoin public nature reserves like Kruger National Park. Whatever your preference or budget, a safari can be a fun way see many of these grand species in their natural habitat and live like royalty at the same time.

Cape Water Buffalo - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

Cape Water Buffalo make up one fifth of the ‘Big Five.’

Johannesburg and Soweto – Connecting with The Real Africa

Soweto Girls - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

The township of Soweto, just outside of Johannesburg, has grown into a prosperous community since the end of Apartheid.

Johannesburg Food Vendor - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

South Africa’s largest city is growing into a thriving cultural center. Pictured here is a food vendor in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Maboneng.

Our final stop in South Africa was the capital city of Johannesburg and the surrounding township of Soweto. Many tourists skip Johannesburg, choosing to bypass the South African metropolis and spend all of their time in more scenic locales like Cape Town and Kruger National Park. But Johannesburg, a burgeoning center of art and culture and place to touch South Africa’s recent historic and racial struggle, shouldn’t be missed. Johannesburg is South Africa’s most racially progressive city and the closest example of a modern, vital African city with hip neighborhoods and progressive attitudes. And, yes, you can eat and drink well in Johannesburg too.

A photo of Nelson Mandela at the Regina Mundi church - Exploring South Africa - Get Ready for the Vacation of a Lifetime

A photo of Nelson Mandela adorns the museum walls at the Regina Mundi church. The church transports visitors deep into the Apartheid struggle and the black South Africans’ fight for equality.

A side trip to Soweto inspires and educates. This is a township that has emerged from the depths of Apartheid and now stands as a symbol of how Black South Africans ‘rose up’ against oppression to create a great new society. Here you can visit the significant Regina Mundi church where Nobel Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu preached against the forces of Apartheid. You can also tour Nelson Mandela’s home and see the new ‘ritzy’ Soweto – a symbol of South Africa’s modern Black prosperity.

Check Johannesburg Hotel Rates

Follow Our Journey

An epic adventure can’t be told in one capsule.

Follow along as we share more about our South Africa vacation – what we did, where we slept and, of course, what we ate. We’ll even provide a South Africa itinerary complete with our recommended South Africa destinations so that you can plan your very own adventure filled with great wine, fab hotels, exciting safaris and memories to savor for a lifetime.


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South Africa | Dream Vacation | Cape Town | Cape Winelands | Garden Route | Kruger National Park | Johannesburg #SouthAfrica #SouthAfricaTravel #DreamVacation

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Comments

  1. Beautiful, beautiful pictures and post! South Africa has always been on my list of must-visit places, too. 🙂 Somehow, I’ve never planned a trip there. Now, you inspire me to do it!

    1. Author

      It’s certainly worth checking out. The farther away in time we get from our trip, the more we cherish our time there.

  2. How fun! Our last trip to South Africa is far too long ago, back in 2004 we spent 5 weeks self-driving the country, split equally between Cape Town and the Garden Route region, and the Eastern side where many of the safari parks are. We loved it so much and what we discovered is that food in South Africa, particularly to the West of the country, is incredible! Glad you had such a great impromptu trip!

    1. Author

      How were the roads back in 2004? Were there a lot of potholes? People warned us about the rugged road conditions near the safaris but many of the roads were in relatively good shape. South Africa just didn’t have many four lane highways like in the U.S. which forced us to move around a lot of truck traffic. Did you visit areas in the West like Swartland when you were there? We heard that they’re agricultural regions that are worth exploring.

  3. Wow, so lucky and so awesome you went last minute and did so many amazing things. I have been seeingloads of Capetown Ytube videos lately and I really want to go soon. Looks like a geat trip with amazing expereinces. So if I can ask how does a safari go for? And thkns for naming the big 5 lol. LOVE the pick of the MZOLI’S restaurant.

    1. Author

      Evelyne – We’ll have more on our Safari experiences in the coming weeks. They’re not cheap but these once-in-a-lifetime thrills and luxury experiences are still a good value. Also – Going to Mzoli’s was a special, ‘real’ South African experience we would recommend for anyone traveling to the Cape area.

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