Africa was a life changing trip for me. It’s changed my perspective on travel and where I want to go and who I want to do it with. If you want to read part one of the trip – check out our layover in Doha and safari in South Africa. Lots of cute animals and some crazy life experiences.
If you don’t want to read the other blog, here’s a quick summary of the background: We originally wanted to go for scuba, but couldn’t time it right. Thanks to The Points Guy I found an amazing deal to fly into Johannesburg – flights on Qatar Air (one of the top airlines in the world) were ~$600 instead of the typical ~$2000. Kevin was all “cool” and booked and sixteen people followed: committing to go for two and a half weeks. INCLUDING THREE KIDS UNDER THREE. Most of the things we did had to be split into two – rental vans, safari trucks, etc. and that ended up being families and non-families for the most part. We had two married couples no kids, one married couple with a <1 year old, one married couple with a <1 year old and a ~3 year old, my former roomie and I were the single girls, and then three single dudes. Organizing this trip worked out pretty well because everyone was given *a thing* – someone found the safari lodge, someone planned the wine tasting, someone planned the shark diving. My job was Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head hike, as well as Cape Town accommodations. We didn’t have to get thirteen people to have a consensus on everything, we split up when we needed to, but we always had a “responsible adult” for each day that knew what was going on.
We flew LAX to Doha, had a nine hour layover to explore the city, then flew on to Johannesburg for one night. We then flew to Sabi Sands Game Reserve, and stayed at Elephant Plains Game Lodge for six game drives and two bush walks.
Blyde River Canyon – Panorama Route
Not my thing to organize, and not even anything that I knew I would want to do – we had tour guides pick us up in two vans from our safari lodge and take us along the Panorama Route through the Blyde River Canyon and drop us off at our hotel. This canyon is GRAND CANYON big. It’s one of the world’s largest green canyons, and it’s glorious. The whole adventure was a full day of driving. If you look on a map, the airport we flew in to (Hoedspruit) is directlly to the north, and we were heading south towards Nelspruit, where we flew out the next day. I am usually a do-it-yourself person, but with 16 people, it was nice to have our guide take care of the driving and the tolls and entrance fees to all the sites.
We started by rolling up at a pull-out at the side of the road to take pictures of these cool cliffs covered with lichen. This is the problem with me writing this blog so late, I don’t remember what they’re called or why they’re significant other than their beauty – if anyone knows please write a comment! There were several stalls of locals selling souvenirs. It was the theme of the day – everywhere we stopped there were shopping opportunities from street vendors. And all along the major roads there were stalls after stalls of colorful citrus.
The Three Rondavels are the subject of most of the blog posts that you’re going to see about this canyon. Absolutely beautiful view off the edge of the world. I don’t need to tell you the stats on this spot – if you’re researching this trip you already know, though I didn’t even know them when I was there. This and God’s Window were my favorite two spots of the day.
For lunch we simply stopped at what seemed like a tourist rest stop. Nothing to really recommend, our drivers picked it for convenience.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes was a fun spot to stop. The original “discoverers” were looking for gold in this area that was carved out by the Blyde river, but it was really found across the river. We had some fun hiking around. Make sure you wear good shoes – I still had my hiking boots on and it was great for the slippery stone.
Berlin Waterfall was really pretty, but ultimately a really quick photo stop.
God’s Window is a 900m tall viewpoint – the day was so clear we actually saw all the way to Mozambique! I haven’t seen The Gods Must Be Crazy in years, but I know there was something about a glass coke bottle. At the end of the movie, someone throws the bottle off a giant cliff, and this is the cliff. We actually went to another viewpoint a few hundred yards away, which our guide said had the same view but was less crowded. I thought it was stunning.
For the night we stayed at Hippo Hollow in Hazyview. I didn’t pick it, it was just convenient. It was pretty, the food was good, they had a nice patio overlooking the river. I didn’t see any hippos. Again the rooms were pretty cool – individual houses that had a loft. LOTS of mosquitoes in early June. We didn’t really do anything here outside the hotel. Food was good and drank some good wine and beers. However I would not recommend this spot – my friend Kevin turned on the sink in the kitchen and came up with the grossest water we have ever seen. It looked more like Starbucks drip than water.
Cape Town – Night One
We were picked up at Hippo Hollow after breakfast and then flew out of Nelspruit to Cape Town. It was very nice that I have Priority Pass through my credit card – I wasn’t expecting the chance to use it in a small town in South Africa, but it was great!
We took Ubers to our hotel – The Protea Cape Town North – which is centrally located and middle of the road for the other Proteas (which I was in charge of picking – and is a Marriott brand). It was great because the rooms were all suites, so we had somewhere to hang out, and we were able to do laundry in our rooms. I’m going to let you in on a trick on how I got some of our nights for free. I have the highest level of status at Marriott, which I’m telling you not to brag but because it’s the trick to the free nights. I earn a 75% bonus on points earned anywhere I stay. We had six rooms for six nights, so I calculated how many points I would earn if I reserved all the rooms at my higher rate using both my bonus and my Marriott credit card. It was enough for me to earn enough points that they were the same value as several nights at that hotel. So I used the points I had previously banked (since I wouldn’t receive the points until after check in) because I didn’t want to earn off my friends. It made it super reasonable. We also got my perks – which included free breakfast for everyone. I’ll also say that it would have been better, and our original choice for the trip, to stay at an Airbnb. There was a really dire drought in Cape Town while we were there and when we booked we were worried about there being water at all or long lines. We thought we would be better taken care of at a hotel, especially with kids, than having to do everything ourselves at an Airbnb. We took very short showers and didn’t flush and the pools were closed, but it didn’t affect us too adversely.
For dinner we went to Rick’s – and the reason is because it’s also an infamous bar in Ann Arbor Michigan where my roommate and I have had a few too many pitchers. There was a photo with a Michigan flag. We’re not shy about it. Lucky for us, the food and the beer were REALLY good. Would absolutely recommend going there! It was loud and crowded and popular with the locals. Our Protea hotel was super awesome with hooking us up with a ride to the restaurant with their shuttle. (We covered it).
Not everyone was ready to finish afterwards, and Rick’s is in a super popular location. We stopped Kloof Street House before we headed back to the hotel. (Would recommend!) It also happened to be the soft opening of a new fantastic restaurant/cocktail bar called Milk & Honey. We were their only customers, the bartenders were learning all the drinks (which were fabulous and creative – they smoked the drinks and had amazing presentation and snacks. We went there several times over the course of our stay. But some of us had rooms in the Protea over the bar, and were pretty pissed the last night when they turned into a night club with loud music. Hopefully they got that sorted out. Either way, if you’re in the area, it’s a good spot to go for a drink!
Cape Town – Cape of Good Hope & Boulders
It’s famous and a big deal, so we knew this was a thing we were going to do. We picked up our two big-ass rental vans in the morning and drove to the Cape of Good Hope. My #1 tip was actually for a thing that didn’t happen. When you’re there the monkeys are super aggressive and food motivated and they’ll fuck your shit up. They must have been messing with different tourists and they left us alone. There’s a funicular there (it’s like a trolley on an angle) that we took to the top and walked around and took some pictures. I have a bad back, so I opted out of the hiking around that the rest of the group did and went to the Two Oceans Restaurant and got a beer and sat outside in the sun and looked at the view and enjoyed being alone for a few minutes. A super important thing for any traveler to do.
Next we went to Boulder’s Beach – which you’ve probably seen on Instagram. There’s a bunch of Jackass penguins that build their nests there and raise their chicks. And no, I’m not being mean, they’re actually called Jackass Penguins. I think it’s because of the noise they make, though the smell could be a factor too. I thought from the Insta photos that we would be able to get right down on the beach with them and get the perfect picture for the gram. But when we were there and I saw the huge crowds with busses and busses of idiot tourists, I’m glad the public doesn’t have that sort of access. We were on elevated walkways and away from the birds and their chicks. Seriously, they’re wild animals and could be stressed out by you. Don’t get too close.
We got home and dropped off the cars at the hotel and decided to walk to V&A Waterfront and check out some spots. Thankfully someone had the amazing idea to go check out the One & Only, which is a super fancy hotel, where I had one of the best drinks of my life. Definitely check out the lobby bar for the view and the spread. I had FROZEN ROSE with pomegranate seeds and actual rose essence in it. It was like drinking a cloud and I loved it. I did a photoshoot with my drink. That good and that pretty. They had a full brunch going on and it was gorgeous and looked fancy and expensive. They had live music and it was super great.
There is a great warehouse shopping building called The Watershed right down by the waterfront that I thought was a great place for shopping for gifts and souvenirs. It was almost like a craft mall – a lot of hand made wares. I liked Siyakatala for some good jewelry.
We “continued the safari” and saw a bunch of cape seals on the docks (technically they’re sea lions because of the ear flaps, but that’s just their name). We went to dinner at a fancy seafood spot (Baia) on the waterfront. It was good, but I’m not going to say it wasn’t touristy. I had steak tartare (my favorite) and a crème brulee trio that was to die for.
Gaansbai – Shark Diving & Drinking
Not everyone went on this part of our adventure. Not that I blame them. We woke up quite early and loaded up the rental van and went in search of great white sharks! But this is where our luck ran out from our amazing safari and we had no luck. It was ABSOLUTELY FREEZING and we were on the boat for several hours throwing smelly, oily chum into the water singing Baby Shark to no avail. The sharks were not interested. Since this trip initially started out as a dive trip, we were all really excited for this, but no luck. The place we went to was cool in that they gave us vouchers for a chance to come back and look for Jaws again. We called every day and checked the reports of sightings, but nothing sounded too good, so we didn’t go back.
On the way home, we looked up things to see, and we ended up finding an absolutely beautiful winery – Walker Bay. I’m both a wine snob and the absolute opposite. If you like Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck and it blows your hair back, that’s cool and I totally respect it. I’m not going to shame you for it. But when applied to myself only: if I don’t enjoy it I’m not going to drink it, and some people (Neal) has said that makes me snobby. (It’s fine, I love you, I can take it!) I did not enjoy the wine at this place. They were a winery/brewery, and we tried the beers too. Not too impressed. But my-goodness, this place is so pretty it’s worth an average glass of wine.
We looked up on Yelp to find a brewery on the way back, and we found the slightly racist brewery – aka Hermanus Brewery. As a bunch of comfortable white and Asian people, and we don’t have any sort of personal history with the awful racism that happens in South Africa. We got to this brewery and realized that it was not in the best part of town. The owner/brewer gave us a great tour and showed us his whole operation, and poured us beer right from the tanks. But then he started talking about the shitty Chinese workmanship of the tanks (his words, not mine, and yes, we did have someone from China in out group). Then he started talking about how shitty all the blacks were for wanting reparations for their land and how they had shot up his business. We were really uncomfortable and left really quickly.
When we got back to the hotel, we were starving. We had those who had stayed behind order a bunch of pizzas and hung out in one of the suites and demolished them.
Wine – Stellenbosch
This is my second favorite part of the trip after the safari. I’ve drank wine in a lot of amazing places – California, New Zealand, France, Italy. This was hands-down the best day of wine tasting I’ve ever had. Both because it was seriously the most beautiful place on Earth and because the wine is really good. Seriously you guys, if you ever see it in the store or have the chance to order some off the menu, get the Chenin Blanc from South Africa. It’s quite affordable there, but it’s not so much here when you consider the shipping. For lunch, while some of the team were in Gaansbai, the rest went to the grocery store and got charcuterie and sandwich stuff from the grocery store. It was a great way to keep the costs down. Here’s where we went and my thoughts:
- Boschendal – literally made my jaw drop with the gorgeous gardens. It was so green and the hills around it were so beautiful. They did an out-of-this-world sparkling tasting that was incredible. We were in a little farmhouse that felt like we were in the French countryside. Absolutely do not miss this place.
- Stark Condé – This is maybe the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life. Boschendal had the beautiful gardens, and this had the stunning scenery. I mean, it helps that we had perfect weather – a true blue bird day. The tasting was really nice here and the grounds were gorgeous. Another do not skip place!
- Middelvei Winery – This place was super cute! It was a farm as well. We saw a goat riding a turtle. The wine was just OK. I went and took some time to hang out on one of their giant oversized pillows on the lawn.
- Waterford Estate – This was my third do not miss recommendation of the day. Magnificent views, and probably the best wine of the day. The courtyard that we drank wine in was stunning – like we had been transported to Italy. We got a tour of the barrel rooms and had a chocolate pairing with our wine. I got really close to joining the club. My buddy Zach and I went to the main tasting room and added on the reserve tasting. Seriously worth the price of the entire plane ticket to South Africa.
Lion’s Head & Table Mountain & The Best Meal of my Life
This was my day to plan. Not really much to, everything was really easy.
I have a back injury from a car accident (Don’t text and drive! It was the other chick, not me) and I knew that as much as I wanted to hike Lion’s Head, it wasn’t going to happen for me. Half the crew went and really enjoyed it. They said that it was a pretty difficult hike, with some areas that needed some scrambling towards the top.
While everyone was on the hike in the morning, those that didn’t go decided to check out the famed best coffee spot in all of Cape Town. Truth Coffee was amazing and worth a stop. Very cool Steam Punk vibe and the coffee really was that good! Getting the beans to go was a great gift to bring home!
The hardest part for us for visiting the top of Table Mountain was finding the parking! We took the tram to the top and the views were really great! We had a beer at the cafeteria at the top and it was amazing. This is more of a pictures say a thousand words sort of a deal.
I think the one thing you should plan as far in advance as possible, and plan your whole trip around this – is getting reservations at The Test Kitchen. This restaurant is consistently ranked in the top 50 restaurants in the world and the best restaurant in Africa. We didn’t have reservations in advance, but Kevin kept calling for cancellations and we lucked out with a table for six. I’m really glad I lucked out and got in. It was expensive (~$150/person before drinks) but I thought it was worth it. The whole experience made this the best meal of my life (beating out French Laundry, two different Joël Robuchon restaurants, and dinner in a fancy French chateau.) I recommend you come STARVING and totally sober, because there’s going to be a lot to eat and drink. The restaurant is divided into two different rooms – light and dark. You start in the dark room. They had amazing cocktails, and we all ordered a different one and did a “take a sip and pass to the right.” The drinks were crafted to tantalize your taste buds – there was a sweet, a sour, a salty and a bitter. The menu in the dark room was based on a map – you had appetizers/amuse bouches based on different parts of the world.
I have to give you an aside here to tell you that I have typically never had seafood. I never grew up with it and it’s not a thing I ever order or even try. I usually tell people that I’m allergic, because otherwise they’ll try to convince me to try it and I simply don’t like it. Here, I decided to go all in and try everything. I went from eating zero seafood to eating trout and sashimi. Everyone was actually shocked, and I didn’t die! I’ve started trying more seafood since this experience. I’m not going to show you pictures of the food, because they can change and this isn’t a food blog.
The light room was the main dinner. Everything was amazing molecular gastronomy – they used dry ice and celery snow. You could pair your menu with sommelier-picked wines, or with curated teas that were delicious! You should definitely try to go here.
Robben Island and V&A Waterfront
This last day that we had in Cape Town was originally planned as a free day. We gave ourselves the freedom to know that we would get tips and recommendations and a better feel for what to do once we were already on the ground. Our first hope was to go back to Gaansbai to get to dive with the great whites – the company we used offered a guarantee that we could go back for free. We had been calling them and checking the reports on if there had been any sightings, and there was no luck, so we decided to not do it again.
We went to the V&A Waterfront and bought the tour to Robben Island, which is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for part of his 27 years in jail. Nelson Mandela’s life and inspiration are so important to study and learn from – and I’m glad that our trip included part of it. But I’m going to say, that I didn’t particularly care for how this tour was set up. You take the ferry across to the island like a cattle car full of tourists. Then when you get there you are divided into several groups and put on busses. You go all around the island and see that there was more to it than just the prison. The really neat part is that the tours are given by former prisoners, so you really get a feel for what life was like there. We got to see Nelson Mandela’s cell, which was the highlight, but overall it was a lot of down time for very little pay-off. It was great to put myself in his shoes, but I think I’d be better off to read his book than do the tour.
We ended our last day in Cape Town by heading back to the V&A Waterfront. Yes, it’s the touristy area, but there were a few things that we really enjoyed. We went back and did our souvenir shopping at the Watershed and had lunch at the V&A Food Market (right next to Nobel Square). This was a great spot for our group – it was a big food court with a few stores too, and everyone could find what they liked. I had a Springbok wrap at Vagabond that was great! I had some macarons from Daniela’s bakery and right next to it there was a spice stall and I got a bunch of spices that I brought back as gifts.
I did it for the gram – after seeing a lot of cool pictures, we stopped for cocktails at the Silo Hotel on our way back to the hotel. Expensive, beautiful, and awesome. Definitely a good spot to stop.
For our last dinner in Cape Town, we had the majority of us went to Reverie Social Table and it was really really good. The chef came out and brought us different wine pairings with each course and explained the dishes. It was one big feast table and we had other diners there with us. I’m really digging the social table format and I would do it again. It was an incredible lovely personalized experience that I would recommend.
And that’s it for Cape Town – one of the most amazing cities I have ever been to. When I go back, I’d like to spend some time in Camp’s Bay (it was a little too cold for the beach for us) and I’d probably stay in Stellenbosch for a longer chance with the gorgeous wine country and maybe some hiking there.
Now on to part three about our trip to Zambia and Zimbabwe to visit Victoria Falls.