When people find out that I’m in the travel industry, one of the most common questions that I tend to get asked is ‘where is the best place you’ve ever been?’ It’s an impossible question to answer in many respects — not least because every destination has its own charm and unique selling points but also because you can’t very well compare apples with pears. Add to that, the fact that such exercises are ultimately biased, based on the individual likes and preferences of the person charged with making such choices and you quickly begin to see how prejudiced such claims can be. Having said all that, if a gun was put to my head and I had to choose just one, then it would probably have to be South Africa!
I first visited this amazing country just six years ago, in the company of my wife and one of my sons and we had an absolute ball. Our itinerary mimicked that of all classic South African itineraries in that we started with a few days in Cape Town, followed by a week or so driving the wine route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth via Stellenbosch, Hermanus, Gansbaai, Oudtshoorn, George, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. We then flew on to a small airport in Hoedspruit via Johannesburg where we enjoyed three unforgettable days tracking wild animals in a private game reserve within the huge Kruger national park in our efforts to see the ‘Big Five’. We all agreed that it was the best holiday that we’d ever had. So last week, I found myself back in South Africa — this time as a guest of South Africa Tourism — and I undertook a not dissimilar itinerary but in reverse and only for a week. All my recollections of the original trip came flooding back, reminding me why South Africa is probably unique in the world and it’s not just because of its amazing wildlife either! Take its cuisine for example! Where else in the worlds can you enjoy exotic fare such as Carpaccio of Kudu, followed by a platter of Oryx, Ostrich and Springbok, washed down by a potent South African red and with all the usual trimmings — all for approximately €20 per person? The infrastructure is first class for the most part (come on guys, you need to sort out your issues with wifi connectivity in your hotels); they drive on the left and everyone speaks English so if you’re English speaking to begin with, it almost feels like home! It’s the people however that do it for me. Given what its black majority had to endure throughout the dark days of Apartheid, it’s simply amazing and humbling to see how magnanimous and gracious black South Africans are. I made a point of speaking with as many of our hosts as possible throughout my trip and all were unanimous in stating that things have improved enormously for them over the course of the past 20 years and although there is still much work to be done and progress to be made, the future looks very bright fro this jewel of a country.
Our last few days in South Africa were spent visiting various wineries in the Stellenbosch and Franschhoek areas such as Waterford Wine Estate (sadly, no connection to my home town of Waterford — I checked!), Kleine Zalze, Moreson Wine Estate and Rickety Bridge. At this juncture, I must confess that I am somewhat partial to the consumption of wine and have visited wineries all over the world in regions as diverse as Spain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, California and Nova Scotia and believe me when I say that South African wineries and estates more than hold their own to their international counterparts in terms of produce, surroundings, aesthetics and customer experience! But perhaps one of the unexpected highlights of the trip was a visit to the organic wonder that is Babylonstoren. Check it out here as my words would simply not do the place justice!
With the current rate of exchange now providing travellers with just over 13.5 Rand for every Euro, there probably has never been a better time to visit South Africa and experience what this enchanted country has to offer. With major carriers such as KLM offering exceptional connections via Amsterdam, it is also one of the easiest long haul destinations to get to and with just an hour’s difference in time zones, there is no jet lag to have to contend with, either going out or coming back.
My advice? It will be the best money you’ll ever spend!