The Travel Group's Megan Meeres, Shareen Thude of the Namibia Tourism Board, and Neil Strickland, also of The Travel Group
Welcome to Indaba! The largest travel show in Africa is taking place in Durban, South Africa, this week and everyone arriving for it is abuzz with World Cup fever. The Olympics of soccer takes place in June 2010, and every agent, hotel, lodge, and transportation is ready to strike on new business.
After one of the most comfortable overnight flights I’ve taken— on South African Air’s new (as of May 1) nonstop from JFK to Johannesburg— I jumped on a short commuter flight to Durban. My first sight of the tropical city on the Indian Ocean is the new soccer stadium being built for the World Cup. The modern silver bowl is traversed by a rainbow shaped arc that soars into the sky. Off in the distance we can spot the construction of the new international airport which will replace the one we’re landing at (this airport, interestingly, will become a giant headquarters for Toyota).
Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, CEO of Cape Town Tourism; Bicole Woody, PR and communications manager for Cape Town Tourism; and Neil Strickland of The Travel Group
This is the night before the official start of conference and I’m at swank Harvey’s in Morningside— a restaurant that, with Durban’s palm trees and subtropical climate, feels all the world like it’s in Miami—for a dinner hosted by African Pride hotels. This upscale boutique arm of Protea Hotels is creating not just one, but two new properties in Cape Town. Both the ultra-sleek, modern 15 on Orange and hipster-targeted Crystal Towers will be open by the end of the calendar year and will be operating full-speed by the time the World Cup starts.
Sheree Simpson, director of Rijk's Country House and Kathryn Monaco, executive director of the Association for the Promotion of Tourism to Africa
Animal-loinclothed drummers are banging, traditional dancers are stomping and clamping, and costumed performers greet us at every turn. Indaba definitely has a beat all its own, and it’s close to impossible to not be excited about African travel while you’re here. The great halls are filled with not only hundreds of vendors, but also representatives from dozens of destinations. There’s Namibia with a 100-foot-tall picture of rolling red sand dunes on the skeleton coast, just beyond is the Botswana stand where National Geographic-worthy portraits of wild game—elephants, lions, giraffes—mark operators tables. “She’s just there, under the impala, don’t you see her?” Says one safari guide as he points out his business partner.
Everyone is talking about Swaziland, a small nation completely within South Africa’s borders. It’s a quick trip from Johannesburg and a great way to see a completely different country and culture without much time or travel. The East Africa booths are also buzzing— Tanzania is popular with safari-seekers, and Kenya is seeing a rise in interest from the U.S. after the election of Barack Obama.
Today is actually inauguration day in South Africa, with a new president, Jakob Zuma, being sworn in, a fact which has brought the speakers at the Johannesburg 2010 presentation to tears. She can barely contain her excitement over the continued success of South Africa, as well as her city, Johannesburg where the 90,000-person Calabash soccer stadium is in its final construction phase.
Abigail Klarr, Clay Bebee and Paul Gardiner of the Mantis Collection, with Neil Strickland and Megan Meeres of The Travel Group
Umshalosa is my favorite South African folk song; it’s about a train taking people home to see their families; but before today I had never actually experienced train travel in South Africa, a country known for their stellar rails. That all changed tonight when I took a dinner excursion on Rovos Rail, one of the country’s leading luxury overnight trains. Burnished wood, polished mahogany, and elegant linens, silver, and crystal fill the comfortable cars. Most amazingly, the suites evoked a feeling of an elegant British country home; the largest one even has an antique, claw-foot, free-standing bathtub. It was a romantic ride down South Africa’s coast, and as I stood enjoying the breeze in the open-air front car, it left me longing to try one of the longer sojourns, perhaps to Victoria Falls or even to Namibia.
Speaking of unusual African travel options, today’s Indaba show presented one of the most compelling travel opportunities I’ve seen to date: Silver Cross helicopter safaris. Noted safari guide Ralph Bousfield leads the trips that go into previously unvisited areas of northern Kenya and southern Uganda. The modern helicopters can take visitors from rolling undisturbed sand dunes straight up 10,000 feet to green, lush, nearly prehistoric jungle. The helicopters give nearly private access to not only waterfalls and wild game, but also to remote villages that otherwise would take three days riding a donkey to reach. The cultural and wildlife opportunities are unsurpassed, and the trip has definitely moved to the top of my “bucket list.”
Neil Strickland of The Travel Group; Gregg Truman, VP of marketing for South African Air; Marc Cavaliere, EVP of North America for South African Air; and Todd M. Neuman, VP Sales of North America for South African Air
My time at Indaba wraps up with a breakfast to celebrate South African Air’s 75th anniversary (also the hosts of last night’s great train trip). Then it’s off to the airport to try out an SAA domestic flight to Cape Town. The two-hour trip is like a step-back to the more genteel days of U.S. air travel. I get to keep my shoes, and my jacket, on during security. My water bottle isn’t confiscated. And, most excitingly for me, it’s lunchtime, in coach, and there’s a hot meal!
In Cape Town, my destination is the new One & Only resort, which has been a hot topic of conversation at Indaba (Have you seen it? Has anyone been there?). Open only for five weeks, but already a magnet for celebrities (Sharon Stone, John Travlota, and Matt Damon among others), the Sol Kerzner hotel has the equivalent of a new car smell: everything is so pristine I wonder if I’m the first person to use my super-luxe room (I’m not).
On a man-made island in the middle of the V&A Waterfront, there’s a real sense of place here: you can see Table Mountain from the minute you enter the lobby, and custom-created African art fills the walls and rooms. After refueling at the continent’s first Nobu (where local kingclip is on the menu), I’m ready to explore the waterfront the next morning.
The O&O is adjacent to the Two Oceans Aquarium (you can see penguins when you walk out of the hotel!) and across from the crafts shed. I fill up on views of the mountains, buy up a suitcase worth of beaded crafts (my weakness), and then it’s time to head back to the airport for a return flight to the States.
I can’t wait until my next trip to Africa to try out some of the great destinations I saw at Indaba: perhaps the fascinating Skeleton Coast and Caprivi Strip of Namibia; or South Africa for World Cup 2010; or maybe even a safari circuit of Zimbabwe now that the U.S. has lifted travel sanctions. There’s an old saying on the continent, “Out of Africa, always something new,” and I couldn’t agree more.