It seems you can't throw a rock anywhere in southern Africa these days without knocking over a famous movie star. Celebrities have put the region in the spotlight of late, led by Brad and Angelina, whose sojourn in Namibia raised awareness of that country's singular enticements. Oprah is a big supporter of South Africa—she recently opened a $40 million girls' academy in Johannesburg and celebrated the 2007 New Year at Sun City with 100 celebrity friends. Barack Obama, Madonna, Morgan Freeman, Bono—the list goes on—all have made highly publicized pilgrimages here.
But celebrities aren't the only people enamored of the area's charms—southern Africa is for many the destination of a lifetime, as few places on earth can claim its beauty and breathtaking diversity. Where else can you combine an intense few days in the African bush tracking lions, elephants and giraffes with a relaxing beach stay, for example, or a luxury spa vacation? You can dive into the azure water off Mozambique, cross miles of Namibian desert, watch hippos cavort in a pristine waterhole in Botswana and stand on the precipice of one of the world's most splendid falls in Zimbabwe—all in one trip (okay, more likely two).
Glowing word of mouth among globetrotters is dispelling the perception that southern Africa represents third-world travel. Travelers are discovering not only first-world infrastructure, but also first-class infrastructure.
Those seeking high adventure and high-end accommodations are well-served in southern Africa: Its resorts consistently rate at the top of travelers' "Best Of" lists. At safari camps, tents become hotel suites—complete with Oriental rugs, silver tea sets and teak furniture—just with canvas walls.
The heaviest tourist activity in southern Africa is in South Africa, but Botswana, Namibia and Mozambique are humming as well. (Zimbabwe has some of the best game parks on the continent, but political and economic instability has put it on the U.S. State Department's Travel Warnings list.)
South Africa alone is blessed with miles and miles of big game country, picturesque winelands, a whale-watching coast, a Garden Route and the urban electricity of two vital cities: Cape Town and Johannesburg. The world's eyes will be on the country in a few years: The 2010 Soccer World Cup will be held in nine cities around the country, marking the first time this sporting event will be played on African soil.
Botswana, in particular, with its low-density, high-yield tourism ethos, is a stunning success story in sustainable ecotourism. Its luxury concessions have earned high marks among travelers. In Botswana, where nearly half the country is protected wilderness, the emphasis is on quality service and an unparalleled game experience. It's a place with wide-open spaces and very small camps: If you see another vehicle during a game drive, it's a crowd.
Many travelers consider Mozambique one of the region's best-kept secrets. After years of civil wars, drought and floods, the country now enjoys a politically stable climate and a gorgeous coastline that is a magnet for divers and beach lovers.
Few people had considered Namibia a tourism contender before Brangelina; now people are discovering not only spectacular unspoiled scenery but a well-developed tourism infrastructure. Namibia is definitely becoming more popular, but it tends to be more of a second or third destination or a trip you might combine with a safari. Those who do include Namibia in their itinerary find that the country has much to recommend on its own: lush, oasis-like camps surrounded by miles of desert; lodges with views of the famous red sand dunes of Sossusvlei; the stunning Skeleton Coast, where you can see seals playing in the water on one side of the sand dunes and elephants cavorting on the other.