Day 1 & 2 Sun City
I’m lounging next to an Olympic-sized swimming pool sipping on a glass of Cap Classique sparkling wine while enjoying a vigorous foot massage from a lady who shyly admits that yesterday she was giving a similar treatment to Steven Tyler, the Aerosmith vocalist.
It’s easy to slip into rock star mode in the Bel Air-meets-the-bush ambience of the Palace of the Lost City, the flagship hotel of mega resort Sun City.
After a flight from Australia and a two-hour drive from either Johannesburg or Tambo Airport, being pampered poolside is a perfect way to wind down.
I take in the dramatic surrounds, wild mountains and the red African earth. Sun City used to be best known for its casino. Nowadays it pitches itself as an African-themed luxury resort with something for every member of the family.
The Palace is a member of Leading Hotels of the World and an exercise in opulence; from the flamboyant external towers to the lavish lobby. There are 335 rooms and suites, each with an African theme and grand bathrooms. Activities on offer include balloon safaris, two golf courses designed by Gary Player and swimming at an artificial beach with a wave machine.
The Pilanesberg National Park is just a 10-minute drive away and I can’t wait to get out into the wilderness. It’s the fourth-largest national park in the country; a melting pot of terrains in the crater of an extinct volcano. It is home to lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo – Africa’s Big Five – as well as fleet-footed cheetah, giraffe, zebra, hippo, crocodile and all manner of bucks.
Seeing an elusive leopard close up, after a wild drive in a bucking, sliding, jeep, was a real treat for our small group – as was seeing 19 elephants moving as a herd, including several young ones.
After getting all hot, sweaty and excited it was back to The Palace for cocktails at the chic Tusk Bar before a meal at Franco-Afro Plume (think dishes like Cape crayfish, crisp pancetta and bisque; or maybe Springbok carpaccio).
The other up-market dining option is the Grill Room; a steakhouse offering a bewildering range of cuts, sides and sauces. The more voracious can tackle the 750-gram Tomahawk steak. Breakfasts at the Palace are billed as “the best in Africa” with more than 260 choices – and entertainment from a tuxedo-wearing pianist (a bizarre sight at 8am). It’s a real challenge to try all the different cuisines over just a couple of days.
Leisure options across the sprawling resort (there are three other hotels and apartment complexes) including a classy spa facility, one of Africa’s largest mazes; quad bike adventures through the bush (be prepared to end up muddy and tired – I loved it), Segway tours, zip-lining, archery, clay pigeon shooting, parasailing, jetskiing, a cultural village where you can learn about African tribes and their customs.
There is also a water theme park, beautiful botanic gardens and a crocodile farm, while a kid’s camp offers qualified child care. Or there is time by the pools to soak up the African sun.
Day 3 & 4 Johannesburg
You can feel the throbbing vibe of South Africa’s largest city. There is energy and optimism in the exciting cultural, arts and music precincts of the city known as “the heartbeat of the rainbow nation”.
For over a century, Egoli – the city of gold – has been a magnet for people from all over Africa. Today, it is a city of remarkable contrasts; rich live cheek-by-jowl with the poor but I never once felt threatened even when walking alone downtown. Everyone here is in a hurry, searching for their own chance to strike it rich.
Once avoided by many tourists because of its reputation for crime, Johannesburg is a city re-born and Soweto has become a tourist destination in its own right.
A visit to the township (the markets are a great place to pick up local crafts and artifacts) is de rigeuer and we combine this with a visit to the Apartheid Museum to discover what life used to be like in a racially-segregated nation (apartheid only ended just more than 20 years ago).
Soweto is a fascinating mix of mansions and squatter camps and we walk busy Vilikazi Street, once home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, each of them Nobel Peace Prize winners.
I particularly enjoyed visiting urban districts like Newtown, which is full of galleries, jazz clubs and funky eateries, and Maboneng, a vibrant urban renewal project that stretches across several city blocks that were formerly no-go areas and is home to loft apartments, cafes, galleries, funky boutiques and regular markets. Here you’ll find places to eat and hip and young entrepreneurs and artists setting up shop in what were formerly shipping containers. It’s a great spot for people watching.
Most of the hotels and malls are in the northern suburbs of Sandton and Randburg. Pop in, as we did, to Nelson Mandela Square and eat at the Butcher Shop steakhouse for an authentic taste of African flavours (bring a big appetite as South African portions are huge), or head to Sandton City for upmarket shopping.
Transformed and edgy Joburg was recently named Rough Guides’ No.1 city destination for 2015 but there are still parts of the city that should be avoided, so it pays to choose your hotel well. The Maslow is brilliantly situated with its own gardens and swimming pool and is just a couple of blocks from the fast Gautrain to downtown and the airport.
Day 5, 6 & 7
The beauty of Cape Town never fails to take my breath away – no matter how many times I visit. It remains one of the most strikingly beautiful cities on the planet with its beaches, superb gardens and lively waterfront.
Cape Town is the shining symbol of the “new” South Africa, offering an intoxicating combination of a lively African vibe and western sophistication. A cultural melting pot situated at the junction of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, under the brooding gaze of Table Mountain and surrounded by vineyards on all sides.
We base ourselves at The Table Bay Hotel, right in the centre of the action on the buzzy V&A waterfront, with its many restaurants, bars, shops and museums and offers superb views of both the water and mountain.
It’s easy to spend a day here sampling fresh local seafood and local snacks like bobotie, a Cape Malay dish and samoosas, a local take on an Indian favourite, after browsing the arts and crafts shops.
We wait for the clouds to lift from Table Mountain and the next morning take a cable car ride to the top of the mountain and take in the views and also to view the dramatic new Sunstar sculpture on Signal Hill, partially constructed from the fence that used to surround Nelson Mandela’s prison on Robben Island, which can today be visited by ferry.
Next up was a visit to the colourful Bo Kaap district, a quiet Muslim quarter on the fringe of downtown, for a glimpse into a very different culture to view the brightly-painted cottages and mosques.
There are 17 nearby wine regions, including Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, but for those with limited time the Table Bay offers a range of luxury gourmet experiences on site, including an urban foraging expedition and bespoke wine tastings with leading local winemakers.
We found ourselves scrambling over rocks in the ocean-front suburb of Sea Point with executive chef Jocelyn Myers-Adams and local urban hunter-gatherer Charles Standing, plucking cockles and mussels from the rocks and seeking out edible seaweed, dune spinach and indigenous plants like hibiscus blooms and nasturtium blossoms. Then it is back to the hotel to turn the diverse ingredients into a lunch feast. The hotel also serves arguably the best high tea in Africa and the edgy Camissa restaurant, where Meyers-Adams creates delicious African fusion dishes.