If you are planning a holiday to South Africa, you may find it difficult to decide where to go and what to include. Do you prioritise lions and elephants? Or vineyards and historic battelfields? How about championship golf courses and award-winning beaches? If you choose the latter, do you prefer the chilly Atlantic shores with their penguins and seals, or the balmy Indian Ocean coastline with its turtles and whales?
The answer is, of course, how do you include the best of all of the above! Few countries rank above South Africa in terms of natural biodiversity and not many can match the fascinating melting pot of cultures that make up this rainbow nation. In fact, South Africa offers travellers all the advantages of a multi-destination holiday in one convenient country.
The key is combinations. South Africa is a big country – twice the size of France – and its best destinations are scattered from Cape Point to the Limpopo River. But South Africa’s world-class infrastructure means combining the best places is easy: you can hire a car and drive yourself, join a scheduled tour or book a private one, or just fly from point to point.
And the best combinations? Since I have been lucky enough to have traveled around South Africa – from backpacking and 4X4 safaris to wine tours and wild hikes – here are my top South African holiday combinations.
Cape Town & Kruger
If you only have time for two destinations, make it these two. Cape Town is Africa’s most traveller-friendly city while the Kruger National Park is the country’s flagship game reserve, home to the Big 5 and some of the best and most reliable game viewing on the continent.
These two destinations could not be more different. Overseen by magnificent Table Mountain, Cape Town basks in a Mediterranean climate, its beaches ringing with a polyglot of languages. Kruger sprawls under sunny skies, the air buzzing with cicadas, the lush scenery interrupted by a prowling leopard. Time your visit well though: Cape Town is at it warmest and driest between November and May, Kruger’s coolest and driest weather is May to October.
For a taste of this classic combo, the 9-day Honeymoon Cape Town & Kruger is the perfect solution: start your adventure at the elegent Ellerman House, a central base to take in Cape Town's main attractions, before flying into one of the Kruger’s legendary private reserves for an unforgettable Big 5 safari.
Cape Town, Winelands & Whale Coast
Keeping the action in the Western Cape, this combination requires a bit of timing. Whereas Cape Townand the Winelands can be enjoyed at any time of year, the Whale Coast is at its best from August to November when migrating southern right whales arrive in the Cape’s turquoise waters in their hundreds to give birth, mate and generally show off. The result is the world’s best land-based whale watching, a time of fin slapping and tail lobbing plus an occasional spectacular breech – 100 tons of joyous mammal arcing out of the sea.
This is an ideal self-drive itinerary - simply collect your hire car on arrival at the airport and set off on well maintained and sign-posted roads. The Western Cape is renown for its convivial welcome, and you'll probably find yourself helped into a chair and handed wine glasses and cheese platters before you have had a chance to say yes please!
The 10-day Romantic South African Winelands is a selection of hand-picked hideaways appealling to honeymooners and couples. Your hire car gives you the freedom to cruise the Whale Coast at your own pace and there is plenty of time to relax at each destination.
Sun City & Madikwe
I did this combination a few years ago with my then 10-year-old daughter. It is hard to say who had the most fun, but it was I who had to be prised from the door handle of our Madikwe lodge for our return flight. I really, really did not want to go home! We still talk about that holiday.
Set close to each other and just a 3-hour drive from Johannesburg, Sun City and Madikwe Private Game Reserve together provide a holiday for families that is hard to beat. Imagine perfect sunnny days, an almost endless choice of activities for children, championship golf courses and gourmet restaurants, malaria-free game viewing, professional baby sitters and spacious family suites.
My advice is to start at Sun City where little ones can let off steam on the water slides and wave pool, on pony rides, nature walks and at their veyr own fort, Kamp Kwena, where supervised acitivities make the most of every day. Then, transfer to Madikwe for a Big 5 safari in the most family-friendly game reserve in South Africa. The 8-day Family Sun City & Madikwe is ideal for multi-generation families wanting a combination that suits different activity levels.
Cape Town, Winelands & Kruger
Perhaps this is the defining South African experience: mountains, beaches, vineyards and big game - a simply dreamy combination.
Making the Cape Winelands a separate destination frees you up to enjoy the breezy, ocean-side of life in Africa's favourite city before concentrating on the important things in life: cheese, wine and chocolate. The Winelands provies a setting for some of South Africa’s internationally acclaimed restaurants, alongside some of the Western Cape's best hiking, golfing and – in spring – whale watching. From the ocean's heavyweight attractions to the Kruger's Big 5, your adventure wraps up in the land of graceful antelope and powerful big cats.
For the best game viewing, choose the Kruger’s private reserves such as Sabi Sands, Timbavati and Thornybush. Here you enjoy exclusivity, extra activities such as night drives and guided nature walks, plus all the adventages of being in some of Africa’s most game-rich reserves.
This 10-day Cape Town, Winelands & Kruger is perfect for kids of all ages, and its independent-minded itinerary makes it ideal for groups of friends too.
Cape Town, Garden Route & Eastern Cape
Had you told me 20 years ago that you were going on safari in the Eastern Cape, I would have expressed my sympathies. Tell me now, and I will give you an envious look! Once a conservation catastrophe, the Eastern Cape is now home to a mosaic of private game reserves, restocked with indigenous wildlife. And it is not just antelope and a few baboons either: several reserves are bona fide Big 5 destinations. The cherry on top? The Eastern Cape is completely malaria-free.
The fastest way to get there is to fly from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, but you'll miss out on the southern Cape coast, charmingly known as the Garden Route. If you are into stunning scenery, dreamy beaches and quirky little towns offering fresh oysters, superb art and championship golf courses, then you may want to take your time travelling up this coastline. As well as being hopelessly romantic, the Garden Route is very family-friendly and ends where the Eastern Cape safari experience starts - it's as simple as collecting your hire car on arrival in Cape Town and making your way up through this jewel of a route.
The last time I toured KwaZulu-Natal I saw Boer War battlefields, rhinos and cheetahs, and the spot where the British Army got its bloodiest nose in all of its colonial wars – the richness of the experience left a lifelong impression.
KZN's balmy Indian Ocean coastline hosts nesting turtles and underwater coral reef kingdoms. The interior beckons adventurers into its abundant game reserves and to its famous battlefields, where guides conjure images of advancing Zulu impis and Boer sharpshooters facing off with the English red coats. Balance this historic drama with the pastoral peace of the Midlands region, home to country manors, spas and KZN’s best restaurants, and you have one of the most diverse holiday destinations in South Africa.
The 9-day Kwa-Zulu Natal Beach & Safari is a self-drive tour that blends a lavish spa resort with thatched cottages set - Robinson Crusoe-style - on a tropical beach.
A Land of Plenty? You bet. When it comes to holidays, South Africa has it all. You can visit at any time of year but it pays to do a little research on the best time to visit South Africa – Cape Town in December is very different to the Kruger at that time of year and some destinations are more seasonally affected than others. But whether it is big game or big views, winelands or whales, beach days or golfing, there is a South African combination holiday for every traveller.