An electric silence fell over us as a lounging male lion rose to his forearms, threw his head back and called out to a member of his coalition. A guttural roar so loud and low, it rattled our vehicle and vibrated in our chests like an irregular heartbeat. It was a moment so acute, it felt almost frozen in time.
This was our first game drive in South Africa’s Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, our second time traveling out of the country in more than two years, and a good omen for what lay ahead.
As travelers emerge from the pandemic and reassess their bucket lists, South Africa remains a top contender for summer travel, not only for its soft adventure and diversity of wildlife but for its competitive prices, favorable exchange rate, cooler weather and its willingness to adhere to health and safety protocols. While an indoor mask mandate is still in effect throughout South Africa, fully vaccinated travelers can now freely cross the border without the hassle of a timestamped PCR test.
“Now is the time for clients to go big,” said Jerry Mpufane, the North America Hub president for South African Tourism (SAT). “South Africa is a vibrant country brimming with some of the world’s top accommodations and unforgettable attractions, including scenic outdoor experiences, coastal escapes, cities bursting with color and life and majestic safaris. When you couple that with our uniquely South African brand of warmth and hospitality, it’s a winning combination that can’t be beat.”
We see guests choosing to stay longer and with fewer elements in their itineraries. Ultimately, they want to reconnect with their partners or create lifelong memories with their kids, using nature as a way to surrender and slow things down.
Increased Airlift to South Africa
This summer and beyond, traveling to the destination is only going to get easier. Starting June 5, United Airlines plans to expand its thrice weekly nonstop service to Cape Town from New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport, from seasonal to year-round. This is in addition to their existing service of five flights per week to Johannesburg.
United, however, isn't the only American carrier placing bets on the region. Hinging on approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Delta Air Lines plans to commence year-round nonstop service from Atlanta to Cape Town this fall.
All signs point to an increase in demand as travelers plot their “revenge travel” in 2022. According to the “Tourist Arrivals Aligned to Stats South Africa Tourism & Migration Reports,” published by Statistics South Africa, travel from the U.S. grew by more than 326% in January of 2022 compared to the same time last year. Another welcome sign of recovery in the region: Africa's Travel Indaba returns to Durban, South Africa, in May after a two-year hiatus.
Jacques Smit, marketing director for Sabi Sabi, described this summer, in particular, as a unique transitional period for South Africa, predicting that tourism will come roaring back in the coming year.
“Next year onward, it's going to be busy, and guests might not always be able to get their first choice of space and dates,” he said. “Flights will be fuller, airports are going to get busier and prices will go up. Travelers should come as soon as they can.”
Flights will be fuller, airports are going to get busier and prices will go up. Travelers should come as soon as they can.
Sabi Sabi — whose portfolio includes four unique luxury lodges within the Greater Kruger National Park — reopened in August of 2020 and hosted guests from more than 40 countries in 2021. They’ve worked with trade partners throughout the pandemic by freezing rates for three years and offering postponements without penalties. Clients who travel now take advantage of Sabi Sabi’s 2020 rates — but what’s changed is the way guests choose to spend their time once they get here.
“We see guests choosing to stay longer and with fewer elements in their itineraries,” said Smit. “Ultimately, they want to reconnect with their partners or create lifelong memories with their kids, using nature as a way to surrender and slow things down.”
Josh Smith, president and travel designer of Global Citizen Journeys, is currently planning South Africa vacations for two sets of clients, including a family of five. Both parties are opting for luxury safari experiences and four-night stays in Cape Town.
“This summer, many hotels and operators are maintaining their competitive rates they’ve had over the past year,” Smith said. “However, beginning in October, there’s a noticeable difference of increased prices to pre-pandemic rates. South Africa has always offered a wide range of experiences for all types of budgets, but if you can travel this summer, you’ll get even greater value in the trip with higher room categories and experiences. Plus, it’s the perfect time to visit places like Hermanus, during its whale season, and see dozens of migrating whales breaching the water across the coastal landscape.”
Where to Safari
Animal sightings abound at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge within the Greater Kruger National Reserve.
On the drive between the local Skukuza Airport and the reserve alone, we caught glimpses of a giraffe, a herd of impala, wildebeest, zebra, kudu and a dragon-like water monitor lizard. The sightings continued on property with a vervet monkey staring at me through the window of our villa as I thumbed through a book, a waterbuck racing by our outdoor plunge pool at dawn and a male elephant who made an appearance near the lobby.
Both the food and service were world class, and the hotel’s sustainable design, incorporating trees and other materials that were impacted by a severe flood, blends seamlessly into the natural landscape.
What’s New in Cape Town
Like Smith’s clients, we also paired a high-end safari with an extended stay in Cape Town, where we hiked Table Mountain on a clear and sunny day, explored the Victoria & Albert Waterfront and spent a day wine tasting in Franschhoek via a hop-on/hop-off vintage tram. The local wines were so delightful, and we were so giddy, that we bought additional luggage to haul them home with us.
Development in Cape Town certainly did not halt during the pandemic, and return visitors can stay at a number of new properties, including the 131-room The Rockefeller, as well as boutique hotels such as Vida Nova Retreat, Home Suites Sea Point, TheLAB Robertson, Royal Boutique Hotel in Camps Bay, Anew Hotel in Green Point and the Ellerman House — the first offering in Jenman African Safaris’ new private villa collection.
Our favorite spot to kick back and unwind was the newly opened Cabo Beach Club, where we toasted Champagne and shot oysters in a cabana while watching sailboats, shipping containers, dolphins and a replica pirate ship traverse the marina. At this Instagram haven, the music is pumping (Black Coffee is one of several local DJs to play here), the cocktails are flowing (try the Summer G&T) and the food is spot on.
The lively Mojo Market food hall in Seapoint was another favorite place to try a variety of cuisines, as was tapas restaurant The Pot Luck Club, purveyors of one of the sexiest desserts I’ve ever had: the Peanut Butter Bomb. Pot Luck’s sister establishment, Test Kitchen Fledgelings, mentors young chefs who previously had no access to the hospitality industry. Once these newbies complete their full-time paid apprenticeship, they are able to nominate a fledgling to take their place.
Another mixed-use food hall, Makers Landing, opened its doors in the Victoria & Albert Waterfront Cruise Terminal in late 2020. Clients should head here before their flight home to try dishes from the up-and-coming restaurateurs in its incubator program, then stroll over to the cruise terminal’s COVID-19 testing facility to get their credentials for the flight home.
“This summer is the perfect time for clients to live again and take the trip of a lifetime,” said SAT’s Mpufane. “We can't wait to welcome you and your clients back to South Africa.”
United Airlines offers service from Newark, N.J., to Johannesburg five times weekly and to Cape Town three times weekly. While there are several classes of ticket, including Premium Economy and Business Class, Polaris Business class offers private pods with lie-flat beds and Saks Fifth Avenue bedding. Polaris guests can also freshen up in a shower suite and enjoy an aviation-themed cocktail in Newark Liberty International Airport’s new United Polaris Lounge.
Cape Town Tourism
South African Tourism