South Africa Vacation

You Don’t Bike Near Lions

The pool at Singita offers breathtaking views of Kruger National Park.

It was my idea. We already had done the Land Rover-see-wild-animals game drives a bunch of times (and, yes, loved it every time), but the young manager at Singita Lebombo Lodge, a spectacular multi-award-winning resort located in a remote concession area in Kruger National Park, had mentioned we could go on a bicycle safari—“if you’d like.” I’d like.

It was the second day of our stay at Singita, an exquisitely modern game reserve that is so stunning and luxurious, Travel & Leisure has time and again named it one of the World’s Best Resorts. It’s easy to understand why: each of Singita’s 15 suites, built high along cliffs abutting the Mozambique border and cleverly constructed out of slatted wood and bleached timber, has magnificent floor-to-ceiling glass walls, giving guests ravishing views of the gold-and-sage-colored African plain. From our suite, we could see hippos lolling in a pool of water and baboons swinging from trees. Each suite also has an outdoor shower and an outdoor bed so guests can spend their nights under the stars.

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Elephants gather steps from Singita’s door.

And the food? Scrumptious—delectable carrot-and-ginger soup, heavenly beetroot appetizer with butternut squash, and, yes, game (I especially recommend warthog)—enjoyed in a sleek and beautiful open-air dining room, right next to a cool-looking lap pool. Our safari guide, the highly experienced and capable Deirdre, told us that many men, presumably overwhelmed by the beauty, have proposed at Singita. “And we at the Lodge think, ‘Jeez, what will he do next to top this?’”

We woke up early that second day (elephants, hyenas, giraffes, impalas, and the 300 or so other mammals in Kruger apparently like to nap midday, so to maximize the chances of seeing game and wildlife, safaris usually head out at 6 am and return at 10 am, and head out again at 4 pm to 8 pm), and mounted mountain bikes. The day before, seated in a Land Rover, we spotted wildebeests, zebras, buffalo, kudus, jackals, waterbuck, hyenas, elephants, and then—wow!—a pride of lions. They were spectacularly beautiful, quite big, and apparently hungry. “You can’t see their stomachs,” Deirdre, a veritable walking Wikipedia for all things fauna and flora in the park, pointed out. “They haven’t eaten for awhile.”

Singita has been named one of the World’s Best Resorts by Travel & Leisure.

Now we were back in the bush but on bikes, with Deirdre in the lead and Timber, our tracker, nearby in the Land Rover, his long rifle beside him. We happily pedaled on winding paths, stopping to study a chameleon and a snake (playing dead), riding off track to see crocodiles and rhinos in a river, pedaling some more when—wow again—we happened upon that same pride of lions. You don’t bike near lions. They’re not used to the shape—yet. So back into the Land Rover, and we drive up close. This time they are a mere 10 feet from us and their stomachs are full and visible.

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It’s impossible to imagine getting any closer to a wild animal. It’s thrilling. It was all so fascinating and fun—until, going way too fast down a rocky road, I lost control of my bike. Quite bruised, I ached for weeks afterwards. Still, since it is really hard anywhere in the world to top this (and since Singita is such a magical place), I’d go back again in a heartbeat.

If You Go: Singita, Kruger National Park; (212) 967 5895. COST: $1,483.22, per person, per night, double-occupancy. Includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea and coffee, all drinks including alcohol (excluding Champagne), two Land Rover safaris, return surface transfers from airstrip to lodge, laundry and valet services.

Leopards and Luxury

The Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge brings luxury to the African plain.

Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge is surely one of the more special places on earth. You sit on the Lodge’s deck (or on the little porch of your own suite) and watch a troop of baboons frolicking in a tree. You mount an uncovered Land Rover in the early morning, and a few minutes outside the Lodge’s gate, some rhinos are sleepily getting to their feet for the morning’s grazing. Zebras, giraffes, and elephants also abound on those twice-a-day Land Rover safaris—over there, here, all around. And—while such experiences are not guaranteed—one beautiful morning, a female leopard is prowling within a dozen feet of your perch in that Land Rover. (Not to worry: she has no interest in the familiar shape of your vehicle or its occupants—as long as everybody stays seated and quiet.) The next morning, this leopard and two more(!)—though they are notorious loners—are staking out territory around you.

Sabi Sabi’s interior spaces bring the outdoors in.

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In this human-overrun world, such animal riches survive only in Africa. South Africa is a vibrant, lovely, fascinating, and a relatively easy-to-navigate country. And the animal viewing is as good as anywhere in the world here on the edge of the country’s Kruger National Park. You don’t have to stay at a luxury resort to see Kruger, where so many of the great animals you might find in a zoo roam protected and free. A slow drive down the park’s roads (and you are required to drive slowly) should take you by plenty of elephants, giraffes, and maybe even that other member of the old-time big-game hunter’s “big five”: the aggressive buffalo. There are also less expensive safaris and accommodations in the park.

Spot cheetahs, leopards, and other majestic creatures from your Land Rover—or even your bike.

Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge is a luxury game lodge, ranked in the top 10 by Travel & Leisure as one of the Best Hotels in the World. The food is yummy. The spacious, thatched suites are unpretentiously plush in their ecologically correct woods and earth tones. The service is friendly and impeccable. The other guests are international and interesting.

Waking at 5 am is not normally our style. However, it is easy to roll out of bed when what awaits you is a three- to four-hour drive through spectacular bush and when around every corner there is the chance to spot an animal you had only before seen in a cage. Have some lunch when you get back. A nap. And then, before dinner, it’s time for another leisurely safari. At night, an armed guard will lead you to your room—in case any animals have surmounted the gates. If there is a more thrilling way to spend a vacation, we haven’t encountered it.

If You Go: Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge, Kruger National Park; (800) 524-7979; Cost: $672-$760 per night, per person, includes all meals and local South African drinks, and two game drive safaris per day.



Old Meets New at the Bottom of the World

The Steenberg Hotel is situated on the oldest farm in South Africa’s premier wine-growing region.

Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world—and Africa’s main tourist destination. For good reasons. There are mountains (some tourists hike up its famous Table Mountain, but the tour-bus ride to near the top is pretty spectacular, too). And this cosmopolitan city at the bottom of the world is also endowed with world-class beaches, quaint architecture, good weather, and, yes, lots of restaurants and shops. It is bustling—and can be exhausting. However, a mere 20-minute drive away is the profoundly calming and thoroughly luxurious Steenberg Hotel, a lovely haven with Old World charm and New World amenities.

Heritage Suites at the Steenberg Hotel blend period antiques with a contemporary design sense.

Our suite at the hotel, situated on the Cape’s oldest (325 years old) farm, was bigger than home. We could have brought the kids and the kids’ friends along. But that would have defeated the purpose of a Steenberg stay. The idea is to relax. Wake up to a glorious and leisurely buffet breakfast, meander lazily through the beautifully manicured gardens, play a round of golf (if that’s your thing; there’s an 18-hole championship golf course), get a heavenly massage at the spa, taste some wines from its award-winning winery (the Steenberg with its lush vineyard is located in the Constantia Valley, South Africa’s premier wine growing region), and take a long bath in your suite’s gorgeous bathroom. Then, as the sun sets over the Steenberg Mountains, treat yourself to a heady, sophisticated South African meal at the beautifully appointed Catherina Restaurant. Be warned: the medley of chocolate desserts is sinfully rich but, hey, you did stroll through the gardens, right?

The Steenberg is, perhaps not surprisingly, popular with Europeans. Many Americans haven’t discovered it—yet. But when you do, watch out. Apparently, the Steenberg can be habit-forming. At the spa one afternoon, I met a Swiss woman and inquired if this was her first time at the Steenberg. “Oh no,” she answered. “I’ve come here every year for four weeks for the past ten years. I love it here.” You’ve been warned.

If You Go: Steenberg Hotel, Cape Town; Rates: $240-$635 per room.


Africa’s spectacular sunsets are made even more awe-inspiring by the local wildlife.


Our Wine & Food Festival returns June 4-9!

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