South Africa: No Safari? No Problem!

Table Mountain looms majestically over Cape Town, a city filled with iconic cultural and heritage attractions.

Table Mountain looms majestically over Cape Town, a city filled with iconic cultural and heritage attractions.

The one question I found myself answering over and over again in the months before my recent trip to South Africa was, “Are you going on a safari?” And when I said no, the common response was, “Well, then why bother going to South Africa?”

Now, don’t get me wrong; a safari, especially with the right company, can be a life-changing adventure, but by no means is a trip to South Africa pointless without one. During our week there, Travel Agent uncovered amazing selling points for clients who are interested in more than lions and tigers. Here is a break down of those points.

Robben Island Is a Must

Whereas many people suggest that a safari is a must on any trip to South Africa, I will instead contend that a trip to Robben Island is even more mandatory for anyone visiting the country for the first time.


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Robben Island lies in Table Bay, about four miles west of the coast of Bloubergstrand, Cape Town. The island is internationally known for the fact that former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.

South Africa’s Western Cape is dotted with lush, scenic vineyards, many of which offer visitors a tour and a taste.

South Africa’s Western Cape is dotted with lush, scenic vineyards, many of which offer visitors a tour and a taste.

The tour includes a return trip across Table Bay, a visit to the Maximum Security Prison, and a bus tour of the Island. This was by far the most surreal activity we took part in during our stay in the country. Tour guides take you through the whole island, from the lime mining fields where prisoners were forced to perform eight daily hours of grueling manual labor that often led to cut and bruised hands, to the school that used to be on the island. But for the prison portion of the tour, the guides turn it over to the former prisoners. This is obviously something that will not be offered for too much longer as most of the inmates are elderly.

The former prisoners actually take you into Mandela’s former cell. It was a small room no bigger than your average bathroom, with a small window barely letting in any light and what looked like a glorified potato sack on the floor that served as a bed.

Tours of the island will set you back about $25 each, and a little extra if you want to take a private tour. Children cost about $12 each. Private tours in a small van usually involve 5-10 people, where the larger, public tours are done on two buses with roughly 75 people on each. We highly recommend spending a little bit more for the private tour since you can ask all the questions you want.

The prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was confined for 18 years, is a must-see relic from the country’s apartheid past.

The prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was confined for 18 years, is a must-see relic from the country’s apartheid past.

Our excellent guide was Llewellyn Damon, co-owner of Quena Tour Enterprises, who shared everything from the history of the prison to some lighter ghost tales that former inmates and staffers of Robben Island have passed down over the years. You can contact him at [email protected].

Wine Estates in Cape Town

There are 600 wine estates around Cape Town and throughout the Western Cape, and La Couronne Wine Estate is just one fine example of what your clients can expect when they visit such an establishment. Note to agents: The best wine here is the Unwooded Chardonnay 2012. This vintage is bursting with zesty, vibrant citrus fruits with a firm, fresh finish. We also sipped—and enjoyed—the Merlot Rose. It was crisp and elegant with an intense strawberry and Turkish delight bouquet. The palates make for a mouth watering and appetizing wine. No matter what wines your clients decide to take home with them, there is value in every bottle. Generally a case of any six wines will cost clients no more than $35.

ATV and Helicopter Tour at Cathedral Peak

For soft adventure lovers, ATV and helicopter rides along Cathedral Peak are a must and provide some absolutely beautiful landscape views. Clients staying at the Cathedral Peak Hotel, the best hotel near the mountain, can be picked up at the lobby.

We recommend using Westline Aviation for the helicopter rides. They charge about $90 per person for a roughly 15-minute helicopter ride, with a glass of champagne upon landing. A ride with no champagne would cost about $10 less. Agents should e-mail [email protected].

Westline Aviation does the helicopter rides at the same property that Drakensberg Quad Tracks & Adventures offers ATV rides along the mountains. It is a must for agents to pair these two activities together. For the ATV rides, agents should e-mail [email protected].

Drakensburg Boys Choir School

Music lovers need to visit the Drakensburg Boys Choir School. Drakensberg Boys Choir School is a school near the small town of Winterton, in the heart of the Drakensberg mountain range in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The choir is internationally famous and has performed for the likes of Nelson Mandela, and even sang at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II. Clients can see them in concert at the Ken Mackenzie auditorium on the school’s campus. Concerts are held at 3:30 p.m. on most Wednesdays. For bookings, agents should e-mail [email protected].

The Dragon Mountains

About a three-hour drive from Durban is where clients will find one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world—Drakensburg, or “Dragon Mountains.” A tour here will take clients on an adrenaline-fueled ride along some windy roads that all have a pretty big drop off.

As it makes its way through these mountains, there are stops every 20 minutes for guests to get out of the vehicle and capture images of some of the most gorgeous landscapes to be found in all of South Africa. The tour then goes beyond the border of South Africa and into the small African country of Lesotho, where participants can see first-hand how local villagers live in huts. Make sure your clients bring their passports along for this journey. We would suggest that they stay overnight at any hotel near the Dragon Mountains as the six-hour round-trip took its toll on our tour group. We recommend booking with Beach Bush Berg Travel & Tours Day Tours. Specifically, agents should request co-owner Rudi Botha for clients. He is arguably one of the best storytellers I have ever met.

The Best Hotels We Stayed At

South Africa has a countless number of impressive hotels worth staying at. The value at all of these lodgings is unsurpassed. The U.S. dollar goes a long way in the country and clients should not be surprised to find bottles of delicious wine for less than $10 at the hotels or a good local beer for as little as $1.50.

For clients staying in the Midlands Meander, from a collection of arranged routes in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal that offer visitors hospitality in truly beautiful surroundings, we suggest the very charming Granny Mouse Country House & Spa. It is located in Balgowan, Midlands Meander and its name is almost as sweet and homey as its guesthouses.

We stayed in guesthouse #32. It was a lower level room. Although the upper level rooms offer better views, there are obviously no elevators, so clients will have to either call a bellhop to collect their bags or choose to lug them down a long flight of stairs on their own.

This was a Deluxe Room that came with a King-sized bed and a flat-screen TV, but the best features were a balcony with a view of the Lion’s River, a small, easy-to-operate fireplace, and a fully stocked minibar, something that we found was hard to come by at most South African hotels. The shower is small but the pressure is tremendous. Each room comes with a heated towel rack that makes your towels warm and toasty.

Besides the quietness and smoky, campfire aroma of the surroundings, the other features that will please anyone staying here is the food and the wine. Tell clients to ask about the hotel’s five-course, wine-pairing feast in the main dining room, which used to be a stable and even has an old stable door latched up just below the ceiling. Request the sweet soy braised pork belly. It was the best dish. And the Pecan Stream Sauvignon Blanc that accompanies it was by far the best sip of wine we had during our trip to the country. Vegetarian options can be substituted in place of meat dishes.

The Granny Mouse Spa is modest in size, but robust in offerings. Guests can choose treatments for all preferences.

Using Matis products, clients can choose among a full range of massage and beauty treatments, Jacuzzi and hydrotherapy, as well as a steam room.

The hotel also offers a host of tours, including a wine, beer and cheese outing, a tour of the popular Abingdon Wine Estate, another to Gunther’s German Sausage, and visits to the Terbore Coffee Roastery, and also the nearby Tasha’s Fudge.

For clients staying in Cape Town, look no further than the classically elegant Belmond Mount Nelson. It is located in a vibrant area of Cape Town, with many bars and restaurants in walking distance.

We stayed in room #124, a Superior One-Bedroom Suite. The best features of this room are the King-sized bed; a roughly 50-inch, flat-screen LG TV in the bedroom; a rain shower that packs a punch with the pressure; an elegant bathtub; and tons of closet space.

Divided into four separate compartments, the closet nearly extends from one bedroom wall to the other.

The rain shower is also amazing. It is a little cozy as far as space goes but the water pressure is excellent, and it comes with Charlotte Rhys bath products and large, puffy shower towels that felt more like a blanket.

Although this room was pretty impressive, advisors should ask for a Superior room that offers views of Table Mountain. Our room offered views of the hotel gardens, which are also impressive, but not as unique as a mountain view. Interconnecting rooms are available on request. Each unit has a mini-lounge area, writing desk and lavishly equipped en-suite.

The best meal we had here was the nut-and-seed-crusted springbok loin, or antelope, served with Jerusalem artichoke, caramelized onion, crispy chakalaka croquette and German spaetzle dumplings. If you have never had antelope, think filet mignon medallions. The beef was very tender, and cut like butter. But the vegetables here should not be ignored either as they are purchased through an exclusive partnership with a local farming company and may be some of the freshest we’ve ever tasted. The beetroot and radish salad with eugenia berries and hazelnut sour cream is a must.

For dessert, ask for the caramel and chocolate fudge. The fudge is homemade and will please even the most discerning lovers of sweets.

Room service was also very impressive. Tell clients to get the grilled beef sirloin with a sautéed brown mushroom, onion and plum tomatoes. With this meal, you have a choice of mushroom or peppercorn sauce and potato wedges or fries. We went with the wedges and mushroom sauce and paired the whole meal with a Mount Nelson Collection Shiraz, and were not disappointed.

The hotel offers clients the option to order a pot of coffee or tea to accommodate your wake-up call. When we took them up on this service, there was a knock on the door with a steaming pot of coffee literally seconds after hanging up the phone following the wake-up call. The hotel also offers VIPs the opportunity to order picnic baskets for the road so long as the property is given 12 hours of notice.

Laundry service here is also very efficient. We had delivered a healthy amount of clothing to be washed at around 8 p.m. at night and received them by noon the next day. Guests’ clothes are returned folded and wrapped in paper with a red rose on top.

Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Waterfront offers magnificent ocean and mountain views as well as numerous shops, restaurants and tour options.

Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Waterfront offers magnificent ocean and mountain views as well as numerous shops, restaurants and tour options.

The hotel’s Librisa Spa works with well-known skincare companies Dermalogica and Africology, both of which use natural ingredients. Each visit begins with a consultation, taking into account clients’ needs. They can choose from a wide range of face and body treatments in one of eight treatment rooms, tucked away in three late-Victorian buildings. Guests can relax before or after their treatment in the Finnish sauna, steam bath and plunge pool, or enjoy the tranquil surroundings of the conservatory with a selection of herbal teas. Guests who need to bring their little clients along will not have their experience disrupted as the spa has its own children’s club available at no extra charge.

Recommended Tour Operators

For all activities in Cape Town, we highly recommend Shaheed Ebrahim of Escape to the Cape. Ebrahim is very knowledgeable and friendly and also has a unique offering in that he uses a small, air-conditioned van that has free Wi-Fi and phone chargers for all devices. Agents can reach him at [email protected].

For clients heading to the Drakensburg Mountain range and the Midlands Meander, we strongly suggest Bee African. Agents should contact Briony Smith at [email protected].

Flying to South Africa

There is simply no better way to go to Africa than flying Business or First Class on South African Airways. We actually flew Business Class both ways but can only write about the flight back, having slept, comfortably, for about 95 percent of the way there.

The return flight to New York, however, was simply one of the most relaxing and stress-free flights we have ever experienced, right up there with Business Class flights on Cathay Pacific Airways, All Nippon Airways and Air New Zealand.

The beds are actual beds. They are completely flat and wide enough for one to curl up in a ball to catch some Z’s. The control panel for the bed is located in between yourself and the person next to you and provides enough of a barrier so, unlike most flights, it doesn’t feel like you are sleeping with a stranger. You are completely separate, and there is ample room to walk past the person in the aisle seat without disturbing him or her, depending on how tall that person is of course. And there are full pillows and full blankets.

The food and beverage service rivaled some of the best restaurants we’ve eaten at in New York City. The quality of the food was excellent, but it was the attentive service that set this meal apart from most of our other flight experiences. When we were halfway through our glass of M’Hudi Platinum Pinotage 2011, a blend of pinot noir and hermitage that is purely South African, there was my flight attendant there to fill it back up.

The movie selection was a healthy mix of newly released flicks such as American Hustle, Monuments Men, Grudge Match and Gravity along with classics like Invictus, which, being set in the tense, early post-apartheid days of Nelson Mandela’s first term as president, is very appropriate for someone just arriving or leaving South Africa.

INDABA: Why We Were in South Africa

INDABA, a three-day trade event, is one of the largest tourism marketing events in Africa; it showcases Southern Africa’s tourism products, and attracts international buyers and media from across the world. INDABA, which drew more than 13,000 delegates to Durban this year, is owned by South African Tourism.

van Schalkwyk says South Africa tourism nearly tripled over last 20 years.

van Schalkwyk says South Africa tourism nearly tripled over last 20 years.

For two years in a row, INDABA has won the award for Africa’s best travel and tourism show. This award was presented by the Association of World Travel Awards.

But perhaps nothing was more impressive than the keynote speech by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, minister of tourism for South Africa, that chronicled the progress his country has made in tourism during the last two decades, since 2014 marks the country’s 20th year of democracy.

In 1994, South Africa received a very modest 3.6 million overall arrivals, while that number nearly tripled over the last 20 years, says van Schalkwyk. According to the minister, South Africa saw a nearly 300 percent increase in arrivals during that time as 15 million people visited the country in 2013, 9.6 million of which were tourists.

It was the development of a host of internationally renowned attractions that have come on board in the last 20 years that has made South Africa the envy of the global tourism industry.

Today, tourism accounts for 610,000 employees, or 46 percent of the country’s total employment. And from 2012 to 2013, the country saw an 11 percent increase in accommodation revenue. This year’s INDABA includes tourism representatives from 23 African countries and marks the 26th year the show has been hosted in Durban.

RELATED: Minister of South Africa Tourism Hails Country's Progress at INDABA 2014 Opening Ceremony

General Tips for Clients Heading to South Africa

Time Differences: South Africa’s Standard Time is two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and seven hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Saving Time.

Climate: As this is the Southern Hemisphere, May, the month we visited, is the end of fall season. South Africa is blessed with sunny days and warm temperatures at this time of year. You can expect it to be comfortably warm during the day and cool in the early mornings into the late evenings.

Bold colors are the hallmark of Cape Town neighborhoods such as Bo Kaap.

Bold colors are the hallmark of Cape Town neighborhoods such as Bo Kaap.

Electrical Currents: Appliances operate on 220/250-volt, 50 cycle. Although hotels do provide accommodating outlets, we recommend that as a precaution, you bring a converter/adapter with you for small appliances such as curling irons or electric razors. Most hotels provide hair dryers in the rooms.

Luggage/Personal Insurance: It is recommended that clients take out their own insurance on personal/valuable items, as operators do not cover such items. A luggage restriction of 40 pounds only is strictly enforced on the domestic flights and charter flight from Kruger. Additionally, a TSA lock is strongly recommended on all luggage when traveling domestically in South Africa.

Passports and Visas: A visa is not required for a visit of less than 90 days if you hold an American passport, which must have three consecutive blank pages in it and must be valid for at least six months after guests’ return date.

Health Considerations: South Africa has excellent medical facilities. However all medical treatment must be paid for, so you may want to purchase travel insurance for your stay. The tap water is safe to drink throughout South Africa. No vaccinations are required for U.S. visitors. All travelers are asked to consult their own physicians for recommendations on travel precautions, immunizations and travel medications. You should take anti-malaria tablets before visiting the game reserves in South Africa and parks of Zambia and Botswana.

Languages: South Africa has 11 official languages: English is the language of administration and is widely spoken. Others are: Afrikaans, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

Currency: The South African Rand is divided into 100 cents. Coins are available in 1c, 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R5. Notes are available in R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200. The exchange rate at the time of my visit was around 10R to $1.

Tipping: Tipping is common and is similar to how we practice it in the U.S. In restaurants and bars, 10 to 15 percent is the accepted standard. The going rate for porters at airports is between $1-$2 per piece of luggage. Hotel porters usually expect a tip of $1-$2 as well. Some of the other service providers you may want to tip are taxi drivers, tour guides, trackers, drivers, and game rangers.

Customs Allowances: Clients are allowed to bring back 400 cigarettes, eight ounces of tobacco, 50 cigars, two pints of spirits, four pints of wine, 12 ounces of perfume, and 60 ounces of eau de toilet. Gifts, souvenirs and all other goods to the value of R500, or about $50, are permitted. Note: Souvenirs may be exported without restriction but game trophies such as tooth, bone, horn, shell, claw, skin, hair, feather or other durable items are subject to export permits.