Aerial view of Camps Bay

Travel Stories from the Secret Escapes Team: South Africa

When we’re not busy curating the finest escapes around the world, we’re heading out on our own adventures. Get the insider tips from Secret Escapes staff who’ve been lucky enough to travel to South Africa. Here are their insights. 

Cape Town

Cape Town had everything we wanted for a long weekend; adventure (paragliding), great food (The Codfather) and a lively bar vibe. We hired E-bikes to marvel along Chapmans Peak at leisure which was nicer than driving. Hout Bay, just south of Camps Bay, was our preference to stay. It’s more tranquil and has some understated but great restaurants, with a quieter beach for walks with fewer tourists.

Sam Palmer, Head of UK Media Sales

I recommend V&A Waterfront and The Old Biscuit Mill for the best food and local shops. And, obviously, you cannot skip Table Mountain! The walk up is very challenging, but the views are so rewarding. 

Kirsten Verwoerd, Commercial Excellence Manager

Cape Town has many highlights, the most impressive of which was a visit to Robben Island, the infamous prison island where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. A former inmate guided us around the island by bus, showing us the prison, quarry and some beautiful viewpoints. Although it wasn’t the right season, my wife spotted a whale just off the shore, to the delight of everyone on the bus.

My recommendation is to spend half a day at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden with its treetop walk, and join a tour with one of the enthusiastic guides – and don’t miss the endemic cycads which are so rare and valuable that they need protection against poaching.

Jeroen van Marle, Senior Editor
Penguins at Boulders Beach, Sophie Hetzel

I’d highly recommend gin tasting at Pienaar & Son Distilling Co. – delicious gin and all-round a fantastic experience. Also visit District Six Museum, a gorgeous building that has been turned into a space to tell the story of the inhabitants that were forcibly moved during apartheid; it’s an absolute must for people to understand how far Cape Town has come but how much further it still has to go. Finally, I recommend Kalk Bay, a gorgeous arty community by the sea with pretty streets and houses. 

Tanith Langford, Director of Financial Operations

I visited the Victoria & Albert Waterfront almost every day, because I loved the buzzing atmosphere! It’s a beautiful place with everything you could imagine: mountain views, sea breeze, beautiful architecture and the most incredible restaurants serving fresh seafood. I remember having a full bucket of garlic king prawns three days in a row for lunch because they were that good!

Elena Havenga, Sales Production Coordinator

Pot Luck restaurant was amazing, and Greenhouse (just outside Cape town) for haute cuisine with a tasting menu. Ooh, and Black Sheep was great. We climbed Table Mountain and took the cable car back down. My husband is scared of heights and wanted to face the mountain on the cable car down – he was very alarmed when it started rotating to give everyone a good view! 

Samantha Mandel-Dallal, Director of Commercial Analytics

Johannesburg

Soweto Township, Jo’Burg, Jeroen van Marle

I lived in Jo’burg for almost four years and loved the experience. This mining town was founded in 1868 and is now Africa’s economic hub, infused with an entrepreneurial spirit – it’s the big city hustle that makes it so fascinating. The apartheid-related sights are some of the most impressive in the country; besides the excellent Apartheid Museum, there’s the Constitution Hill prison museum where both Gandhi and Mandela spent time, part of it now housing South Africa’s constitutional court. 

I can highly recommend visiting the city centre on the weekend when lively crafts and food markets take place in renovated industrial areas; the Market on Main in the Maboneng district and The Playground market in the Braamfontein district attract a wildly interesting mix of locals and tourists. 

Jo’burg can be hard to explore for newcomers, so joining a tour is a great way to safely get to know the city; there’s a sightseeing bus but I loved the city centre walking tours with Dlala Nje and MainStreetWalks. The free local http://www.johannesburg.inyourpocket.com city guide has up-to-date tips and organises excellent tours around the city’s main sights and most spectacular rooftops.

Jeroen

Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park, Sophie Hetzel

We stayed in Sabi Sands at Arathusa for a safari. Kruger and especially Sabi Sands is great for safari because it’s really well protected, which means that the animals aren’t scared of humans because they don’t really see poachers. They’re really used to safaris, not scared of the cars, and all the different lodges coordinate via walkie talkies so everyone gets to see the best stuff. 

We saw something different every day and covered all of the animals we wanted to see. Sabi Sands is known for leopards and we saw lots – we even saw them mating, which is something you won’t forget in a hurry – male leopards have a barbed penis! We had a “bush facing” room, and could hear hippos outside in the middle of the night, and a little pool, where it’s not uncommon for elephants to come and drink from!

Samantha Mandel-Dallal

For our Kruger visit, I actually booked a lodge via Secret Escapes that was amazing, it’s called Ekhaya Bush Villa. I can recommend this place because they organised everything, the food was amazing, they were nice people and it was great value for money. I highly recommend a night safari!

Sophie
Kruger National Park, Jeroen

My favourite destination in South Africa! I’m fascinated by the variety of wildlife in this massive park and have visited many times, in various seasons, joining guided drives and walks every time. After a few days here, it’s easy to lose track of any sense of time, as you get used to the rhythm of getting up early for a morning drive, cooking breakfast on a rented skottel pan at one of the beautiful picnic spots, relaxing by the pool in the afternoon before going on another late afternoon drive or perhaps a night drive with a knowledgeable guide. The easy interactions you have with the local staff and South African nature lovers who have been coming to the park for decades make a visit even more fascinating. 

Our most memorable experience was joining a morning walk in the bush, where small groups walk in single file, guided by armed rangers. While walking by some bushes along a dry river, a large lion suddenly jumped out of a bush just a few metres away, and ran off – it took quite a while for our hearts to calm down. On other occasions, while driving around, we’ve been surrounded by a pack of playful endangered wild dogs, watched a rhino have a mud bath beside the road, saw a graceful giraffe mourn by the bones of another giraffe that was killed by lions, watched elephants wade through the river right beside our accommodation, and defended our lunch from baboons.

Jeroen

Garden Route

Coastlines, Samantha Palmer

I highly recommend Knysna Elephant Park – A beautiful park dedicated to rescuing elephants from poor conditions. They are so well looked after there. Before you enter they talk you through what the park is doing to protect and rehome elephants. Then you go around the park, meet some of them and have the opportunity to feed them. All elephants remaining in the park cannot be reentered into the wild and they are so well looked after there. 

Also, don’t miss Angie’s G Spot, an amazing little bar tucked next to some cliffs and a small stream. Difficult drive to get there but absolutely worth it. I would highly recommend you try the bobotie with your tipple. 

Tanith

I prefer smaller resorts such as Nature’s Valley, where a magnificent beach is backed by dunes and a village hidden among dense subtropical plants. Near Plettenberg Bay, I walked around the Robberg Nature Reserve for several hours, looking for seals and enjoying the strong wind whipping across the peninsula. Further west, the open-air Drostdy museum at Swellendam is the Dutch East India Company’s original 18th-century local headquarters, which catalogues the cruel treatment of slaves. On my trip, I also spent a few relaxing days in Greyton, a charming small town with lovely B&Bs, art shops and a fynbos nature reserve.

Jeroen

The Garden Route -insane views, fresh produce and delicious local wines at every stop. Hire your own car and have accommodation booked in advance – all the B&Bs / hotels we stayed in were stunning – this is a tourist route but somehow maintains a chic and homely style. We recommend whale watching in Hermanus!

Sam Palmer

Addo Elephant Park is a real recommendation! They’re still expanding the park by buying land, and there are so many more animals than just elephants (although there are a lot). We’ve even seen a lioness hunt here!

Kirsten

Cape Winelands

Le Petit Ferme near Stellenbosch is a must for stunning scenery, food and wine. It’s been nine years and we still reference this as the best meal we’ve ever had. A breathtaking setting overlooking winelands (you can actually see the vines of the wine you’re drinking) and all local produce. It’s not only delicious but a fraction of the price compared to anything you could find for this standard anywhere else. 

Sam Palmer

EVERYONE SHOULD DO THE WINE TRAM. It’s just so much fun, takes you around all the different vineyards and they do tastings (super cheap) or amazing food, or you can just walk around – Babylonstoren had the most incredible gardens. 

Sam Mandell

On my last trip I treated my wife to a surprise picnic at Solms Delta Wine Estate, one of several Franschhoek wineries that offer picnic baskets if you book in advance. With blankets in hand, we strolled for a while and had a wonderful lunch beside a pond, overlooking the vineyards and mountains.

Jeroen

Uva Mira is really the place to go. It’s a local winery with some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted, and the winetasting + charcuterie + views from the estate are the best!

Kirsten
Dining near Stellenbosch, Sophie Hetzel

Durban

Even in the winter months, the weather is usually warm in Durban, and a walk along the seafront to watch the surfers is always fun. I found the beachfront aquarium well worth a visit and loved exploring the city centre, sampling local Indian specialities like bunny chow (bread filled with curry) on the way. The beach towns east and west of Durban are great for spending a few days watching the pounding surf and splashing around in the rock pools. My favourite Durban experience was a visit to the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Maritime Centre, where they inform the public about sharks in SA waters and perform a shark dissection several times per week – who knew sharks move their liver around for balance?!

Jeroen

Eastern Cape

West of Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) there’s bungee-jumping from bridges – but I settled for a less intensive experience, visiting the wild coastline at Storms River, where you can watch the waves pound the rocks and can walk along the cliffs and across suspension bridges between protected fynbos vegetation. I remember watching cormorants diving for fish – and was astounded to clearly see them ‘flying’ smoothly underwater from my viewpoint on the bridge.

Jeroen

The Eastern Cape is very green and full of nature´s paradises. We went turtle watching in Thonga Beach Lodge. It is also eco-friendly as the whole lodge is run by people from the village – well worth the money!

Sophie

Drakensberg

The Drakensberg escarpment is simply the most spectacular mountain range in South Africa. I visited the Royal Natal National Park one cold winter – snow was on the peaks – and was amazed by the huge wall of mountains rising three kilometres into the sky, with one of the world’s tallest waterfalls as an added bonus. I really enjoyed the light day trip hike from Thendele Camp along the Tugela River to the foot of the mountains.

Jeroen

Panorama Route

I regularly visited the Panorama Route as it’s a nice stop on the way from Johannesburg to the Kruger Park – if you leave early enough you can even do it all in a day. Starting with a quick stop at Harrie’s Pancakes in Graskop, I’d drop by the Pinnacle Rock and God’s Window viewpoints – but the best one I think is the Three Rondavels viewpoint further north, where you peek across some awesome rounded mountains and across the Blyde Dam lake to the flat Lowveld, with Kruger beckoning in the distance.

Jeroen