While visitors admire the giraffes, backlit by a vibrant South African sunset from atop an elephant, the pachyderm parade enters a clearing where elegance reigns supreme. There, in the wild bushveld, the Camp Jabulani staff has created a swanky spot for sundowners to end the elephant safari, complete with silver candelabras on the table, crystal wine glasses and mahogany chairs upholstered in striped zebra skin with the spiked mane running down the back.
The 13 elephants line up to salute their riders, crossing their front legs, bowing their heads, and then curling their trunks onto their foreheads with the precision of a line of showgirls. The safari group salutes the fading sunset with vintage South African cabernet sauvignon. We sample artisan goat cheeses, and canapés with thinly sliced impala and ostrich.
World-class luxury has become a hallmark of tourism in Southern Africa. Hotels have stunning architecture, exotic art, butler service and massage pavilions with inspiring views. Wildlife viewing is Southern Africa's main draw, and the elephant-back safari at Camp Jabulani on Kapama Private Game Reserve west of Kruger National Park is a natural high point of many trips. Sitting on a comfortable canvas saddle, you feel the rhythm of your massive mount, while viewing cheetahs and African wild dogs at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. A trainer leads guests into an enclosure with two hand-raised cheetahs: an experience for Camp Jabulani guests only. The pampered cats purr loudly.
The six thatched-roof rondavels at Camp Jabulani provide views of blue woodland kingfishers at the stone infinity-edge plunge pool, and iridescent sunbirds outside the glass-walled showers. Inside, the textures of the cement-and-straw walls and massive stone fireplace contrast with refined wildlife paintings, bronze elephant statues and soft white linens.
The architectural styling at Sabi Sabi's Earth Lodge in Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve is avant garde. The main lodge and 13 individual villas are built into the hillside; a curved walkway leads around a grassy hillock, which opens into a breezy lobby/lounge area studded with tree trunks turned into benches and pillars.
Villas feature broad views sloping to a waterhole from huge windows. Stone walls, skylights, tree elements and furniture echoing animal horns bring nature indoors. During the evening game drive, a bull elephant chases a rhino, a herd of elephants with babies, a pride of eight lions and a leopard stalking impalas.
Another natural attraction is Victoria Falls, the largest on the planet and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The thundering cataract is more than a mile wide and presents double rainbows to poncho-clad visitors as they cross the footbridge over the gorge. Upstream from the falls, the wide Zambezi River is calm and the banks reveal yawning hippos during a cruise on the African Queen. High tea on Livingstone Island, in the middle of the river, offers dizzying views. Adrenaline junkies can take helicopter or biplane flights over the falls, bungee jump from the bridge, zipline over the gorge and whitewater raft.
Cool, scented washcloth are offered to guests returning from the bush by staff in British Colonial uniforms at the Royal Livingstone. The hotel's public spaces have the feel of a turn-of-the-century hunting club, with massage gazebos by the river, a formal library, a massive dark wood bar in the pub and 173 rooms.
Most Southern African travelers spend a day or two in Johannesburg, a hub for air travel. Five-star properties help them enjoy the suburbs, chic shopping malls, art galleries and day tours. Free shuttles to the prime shopping and dining districts put the Westcliff Hotel at the top of the list for convenience. Peruse the boutiques and jewelry stores of Sandton City, before hopping the shuttle to Rosebank Mall, which features an African craft market.
The Westcliff has spectacular views from its restaurants, infinity-edge pool and 117 suites clinging to a hillside. The 24-suite Saxon Hotel in Sandhurst has hosted President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, and the 19-suite Fairlawns Hotel in Sandton features classical stone buildings evoking an old-world European villa.