A Dreamy Two Weeks in South Africa
We knew we had two weeks of vacation time over the 2019 Christmas holiday and had to capitalize on it! This couldn't be any trip, it had to be a fabulous trip to somewhere new, exciting and hard to reach. We initially looked into Australia/New Zealand, moved onto South Asia (Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam), but as soon as I saw a travel along on South Africa I knew that was the winner!
We began the planning process in the spring which gave us tons of time for research, getting good prices, and making sure we didn't miss anything in our itinerary.
The loooong flight over to South Africa was a bit of a dark cloud looming over this trip. I was so worried about having enough to keep me occupied while
also not getting so jet-lagged I couldn't enjoy our time. The flight we ended up booking through British Airways had a 15 hour layover in London. Initially, my thoughts were along the lines of, "YUCK, NO FREAKING WAY". But after thinking more about it, it seemed like a great way to chop up the two days of traveling. Plus, my husband has never been to London. So, we set off on our journey starting with a pit stop to see the Queen.
We landed in London around 5am on a Monday. The early risers, exercise nuts, and commuters were just starting to stir as we took the train in from Heathrow to downtown London. Since most shops and restaurants weren't quite open yet we chose to walk around Hyde Park. This was a great way to wake ourselves up and get some blood flowing. After a few miles of walking around we needed sustenance so Pret a Manger we go! I've been obsessed with Pret since my first time in France and have to make at least one stop when in the vicinity of one.
Fueled up with coffee, breakfast and some sugary sweets we decided to try to pack in the most highlights as possible. The Hop On Hop Off bus is way touristy but for us was the best option to quickly get in all of London. We made sure to stop at Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard. However, it's super disappointing and not worth standing around for hours. You can't see a thing - especially if you're short like me. Best to go at an off time so you can get a better view of QEII's house. We also took in the Tower of London (a highlight for my USMC husband), Tower Bridge, Fleet Street, Harrods, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Westminster and ending up in Notting Hill. It was a chilly day so being on the bus was a warm, dry, and affordable option to explore the city.
After about twelve hours of walking around we needed some fish and chips STAT! We found an adorable pub for a quick bite before heading back to Heathrow. Once we got to the airport and were headed to the gate, the world became extremely small as we passed my husband's cousin and her husband who live in Australia! Such a crazy coincidence and an amazing surprise to spend a few minutes with family.
The flight from London to Cape Town was about twelve hours. Being an overnight flight we had some dinner, enjoyed the free crappy wine, and watched a movie before taking a melatonin for a snooze. We finally landed in Cape Town around 11:00 am and couldn't wait to get into the sunshine!
South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere which means the middle of winter in the U.S. is mid-summer in Cape Town! Sunny and 75° felt wonderful! We decided to stay in the City Centre area of downtown. It was a very short walk to restaurants, bars, historical sites and more. Our specific Airbnb was close to some noisy night life but the windows faced the other direction so we slept peacefully. When we get to a new location we love to take walking tours to get a lay of the land and start our trip off with a little history. We feel it really helps us get acclimated quickly and have some context to behind what we're seeing. Plus, the tour guides usually have some great restaurant recommendations! The walking tour we found was through Free Walking Tours Cape Town. Our guide was wonderful and we enjoyed getting history into this unique city. We had a long day planned for the next day so we grabbed a quick dinner at Tigers Milk off Kloof Street.
Through Airbnb we booked an all-day peninsula tour with Local Knowledge Tours. This tour was one of the best things on our trip! We joined 8 other guests from the U.S., U.K. and Europe along with a knowledgable Cape Town native. The tour started with the colorful changing rooms in St. James Bay, some fish and chips in Kalk Bay, meeting the penguins (!!!) in Boulder's Bay, climbing up to the top of the Cape Point Lighthouse and seeing the Cape of Good Hope, and ending at a new food/goods market in Sea Point. Along the way we were given lunch, tastes of local beers, gin and tonics (with local gin) for a sundowner, and tons of cool stories of the area from our guide. I HIGHLY recommend this tour if you're in Cape Town!
We experienced some weird weather during our trip so a few things we had planned got moved around. The next day we decided to check out the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. A quick Uber ride (all Ubers are so cheap compared to the rates in the U.S.!) from our Airbnb and after hiding out in the gift shop while it poured rain we wandered through the gardens for a few hours. While there you can't miss the canopy walkway! A little shorter than expected but offered great Jurassic Park-esque views. If you're lucky enough to get some nice weather you should definitely pack a picnic and waste an afternoon amongst the beautiful flora and fauna!
For the rest of the day we indulged my husband's military history interests and toured the Castle of Good Hope. Cape Town has an interesting history and there was plenty to learn about here! From there we wandered around the Bo Kaap neighborhood to see the colorful houses. Honestly, I was super underwhelmed with this. Maybe next time we'll take a tour or maybe just skip it all together. During this trip we were always on the hunt for good gin, the liquor of choice for most Cape Town natives, and we found my dream gin joint! In a former mortuary with a chocolate shop at the front, The Gin Bar, was an amazing stop for a pre-dinner drink. Everything we tried was delicious and the atmosphere was idyllic. You must pop in for a G&T (or two) while in CT! We had initially planned a kayak tour around the shore of the city but the weather had other plans. After these G&Ts I wasn't too upset about our Plan B.
The weather settled down a little so we could finally take our hike up Table Mountain. We opted for a guided hike so we didn't get lost and could learn more about the environment in South Africa. We found a fabulous guide via Airbnb experiences. Our Guide, Martin, grew up in South Africa and takes groups up the mountain at least once a day. He was incredibly knowledgeable and our only disappointment was his little pup didn't tag along on our walk. Our group of 7 adults took a winding walk for about 3 hours to the top. It was foggy almost the entire way up but during intermittent breaks in the clouds we had phenomenal views!! You can truly see all of Cape Town from the mountain. Once at the top, we had about 10 minutes before the fog rolled in again. We snapped some "we did it!" photos, grabbed a beer and light lunch then took the Aerial Tram back down the mountain. The Aerial Tram is a great option for those who don't like hiking or if you're short on time. Make sure to check the weather first to make sure the tram is operating and you don't miss the last tram back down. After a much needed shower and brief nap we hopped in an Uber to some breweries in the Woodstock area. This neighborhood is still la little up-and-coming, but the industrial vibe is similar to craft brewery 'hoods back in the states.
The next day we packed up from our little home away from home in Cape Town to head to the Winelands, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Just a 45 minute drive from downtown CT, this is basically Napa at Walmart prices. Before we could check into our guest house, we took a Tuk Tuk tour around Stellenbosch to three wineries: Simonsig, Muratie, and L'Avenir. We had lovely tastings at each stop, took in the grounds and even got to try some local cheeses! The Tuk Tuk was a super fun way to get from place to place without having to worry about drinking and driving.
After our Tuk Tuk adventure we checked into Rouana Guest Farm. An adorable bed and breakfast run by a warm and friendly family. The accommodations were quaint, quiet, and surrounded by the owner's amazing garden. That night we enjoyed dinner at The Fat Butcher, a steakhouse with the most beautiful interior! We both enjoyed our cuts of steak, after an informative walk through the menu by our waitress, and some delicious cocktails! We grabbed a bottle of pinotage, the premier South African wine, and headed back to our guest house.
Franschhoek is the neighbor city to Stellenbosch and also brimming with wineries. The quintessential experience in Franschhoek is the wine tram, an vintage open-air tram/bus that follows several routes through the wine lands. We chose the red line and visited the following vineyards:
Maison - An adorable farm-to-table atmosphere where fluffy chickens wander around the gardens as you sip wine! We took home a bottle of Viognier.
Chamonix - Quiet and casual environment with a shady patio. We took home a bottle of 2016 Cab Franc.
Dieu Donne - Phenomenal views and a delicious restaurant (Roca Restaurant) where we had some lunch. The 2019 Sauvignon Blanc was our favorite and (of course) we took a bottle home.
Grand Provence - Being a little tipsy already we opted for just one glass of the sparkling rosé as we wandered around the beautiful sculptures and garden.
Rickety Bridge - This wine estate boasts some cheetahs so my husband was pretty pumped. We did a quick tasting here and saw the cats.
We could not believe how stunning and enjoyable this area is. Plus, the exchange rate means amazing wine at bottom shelf prices - a true win! Basically, when I die I hope heaven looks a lot like the South African Winelands!
We were so sad to leave the next morning! However, our next stop was a safari so we still had some amazing experiences to look forward to. When it came to this trip we knew we HAD to do a safari and basically arranged our trip around this experience. We figured it would be the best to do our safari during Christmas Eve and Christmas Day since restaurants and shops could be closed. There were some special meals and other perks at the lodge during this time too. We didn't love the idea of flying all the way up to Johannesburg to go to Kruger National Park where many, many game lodges are so I was looking for a place along the Garden Route. When I found Botlierskop I instantly fell in love and knew it would be perfect for us.
The tented lodges at Botlierskop were beyond glamping! This was the only way we wanted to stay at the game lodge and we were blown away by the accommodations - look at that shower!!
As soon as we checked in we were on a Jeep for our first safari! This first one was hard to beat! We saw everything but the lions (we saw them in all their glory on a future ride). Elephants are my favorite animal and our guide got us super close to two of their residents, including a little one! Over the next three days we did morning and afternoon safaris except when we traded one for a horseback ride and another for a couple's massage. The food, wine, staff, views, everything was so amazing and we had to force ourselves to leave. Definitely thought about hiding out here forever!
Holding back tears we packed up and headed back along the Garden Route towards our next stop in Plettenberg Bay. We briefly stopped in Wilderness, Map of Africa viewpoint, Knysna on our way to the little beach town of Plettenberg Bay. Surfers, travelers, and college kids seemed to litter the town. We had no idea that Boxing Day, the day we arrived, was a huge party night for South Africans. Although we loved our Airbnb, the noise from the club across the street hosting a Boxing Day party was a bit crazy. We went to a local beach bar, The Lookout Deck, for some brews and views before calling it a night (or attempting to as the party raged on for several hours after midnight).
The next day we snooped through the shops around town before heading back down the Garden Route for a tour through Tsitsikamma National Park. The park itself is huge and in an effort to doing something different we did a half day kayak and lilo tour with Untouched Adventures. This tour had is swimming, kayaking, lilo-ing (think kayak floating vessel that's the size of a kick board), and hiking to explore the river gorge, caves and more. This was definitely a workout but such a fun way to see the national park! I wish we had more time to go over the famous suspension bridge one more time and see what else the park has to offer. After, we were exhausted and stinky so after a quick refresh at the Airbnb we headed to a nice dinner at The Fat Fish.
Since the flights were cheaper from Cape Town we took a quick flight from George back to CT for one more night before heading home (begrudgingly) the next day. This time around we stayed in the beachside Sea Point neighborhood on the other side of Table Mountain from City Centre. We walked along the promenade, had a patio lunch at a cute Italian cafe, and just soaked up our last few hours in paradise. For a final meal we went for drinks and dinner at Chinchilla Rooftop Bar. The views of the ocean were spectacular, the food amazing and of course the delicious drinks were flowing. Watching the sun set over the ocean was a fabulous way to end our trip.
South Africa has a tight grip on our hearts and we started talking about our next trip there before we even left. I couldn't think of a more friendly, beautiful, and exciting vacation location or future retirement spot. Until next time, SA!
P.S. Be friendly to everyone you meet while traveling, you never know when your kindness could be returned with an airline upgrade to world class :)