Now that we have returned from our two week family holiday in South Africa, here are our top recommendations for places to stay and things to do, see and buy. I’ve already posted suggestions for successfully travelling with children (based on my trip with Oliver to Europe last year and which we tried to follow this trip). And you can read here for safari packing tips. So in this post I focus on people, places and things in South Africa that we loved and recommend to others (especially families).
We all agreed that the highlight of our trip to South Africa was our four night stay at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in the Green Kalahari of the Northern Cape Province. Tswalu is a luxury private game reserve catering to just 30 guests at a time. We chose (and extended) the Cape Grace/Tswalu package, which gave us five nights in Cape Town (see below for more on Cape Grace) and four nights in The Motse, Tswalu. Read about our magical experiences at Tswalu here, here and here.
Getting There and About
We flew to South Africa from Sydney, Australia on Qantas. We were pleased to secure direct flights to Johannesburg with no stop over in Perth. So just 14 hours to South Africa and 12.5 hours home (which is a very manageable flight time and distance coming from Australia). The outbound flight worked well because we arrived in Johannesburg in the evening and could go straight to bed when we arrived at our hotel in Maropeng. Our evening homeward flight also worked well because the kids slept most of the way home, tired from the early starts for game drives at Tswalu.
We travelled from Pretoria in the north east to Cape Town in the south west on the Blue Train. The journey, in luxurious surroundings, takes 28 hours. Through the large picture windows we gained amazing insights into the South African landscape and life. Read about our experiences on the Blue Train here. Although we enjoyed the novelty and comfort of our overnight train journey, I think it is one best suited to couples, young or old, than to families with young children. We were the youngest by far on the train and the train’s magnificent style and five star service probably are best appreciated by those with time and freedom to sit and ponder in the Club Car or linger over drinks in the Dining Car. The Blue Train also is best for people who are untroubled by motion sickness. The ride could be rather bumpy at times and I had 24 hours of mild disembarkation syndrome when we arrived in Cape Town.
As above, our #1 hotel recommendation is Tswalu Kalahari, especially if you are looking for a unique safari experience. But we also stayed at four other hotels, three in the major cities of Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg.
In Cape Town we stayed at and highly recommend Cape Grace Hotel. Situated on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, Cape Grace is a beautiful and very comfortable hotel. We stayed in a two bedroom apartment, which was enormous and included a kitchenette, dining area, large lounge area, two ensuite bathrooms, an extra toilet and a verandah with an outdoor table and chairs. The service was impeccable with lots of complimentary in-house activities for kids (including gingerbread decorating, free xbox games for the room’s xbox machine, board games). We used room service quite a bit for dinner, eating on the verandah. The meals were amazingly inexpensive. Louisa and I also tried Cape Grace’s Spa, which again was lovely and inexpensive. The Concierge and Reception Staff were extremely helpful, providing lots of tips for our stay in Cape Town as well as complimentary shuttle service within a 10km radius. On one day we ordered a picnic lunch to take on a tour of Cape Peninsula. We ended up with bags and bags of food and drinks that lasted us all day and night for a very reasonable cost of less than AUS$50. Read about our experiences in Cape Town and at Cape Grace here.
Outside of Johannesburg, in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, we stayed for two nights at the Maropeng Hotel. This boutique hotel is located just moments from the Maropeng Visitor Centre and saved us a long drive from Johannesburg to this fascinating place. I was very keen to see the Cradle of Humankind Exhibition and the hotel made this easy. Again, it was geared more to adult visitors than children but the rooms were large and comfortable. The breakfasts, included in our room rate, were delicious. Maropeng is quite a way from Johannesburg and near no other shops or activities — we came just for the Maropeng Visitor Centre — so may not suit everyone, especially if you don’t have a car (we were driven from the airport to Maropeng in a shuttle). Read about our experiences in Maropeng here.
On the night before we joined the Blue Train we stayed at the Sheraton Pretoria. As you would expect from Sheraton, this was an extremely comfortable and beautiful hotel right across from the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African Government. Finally, on the night before we flew home, after Tswalu, we stayed at the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg. This hotel seemed very large and busy after the privacy of Tswalu but appealed to us for its position next to Nelson Mandela Square and the Sandton Shopping Complex (good for souvenir shopping!). There are lots of hotels to choose from in the Sandton area.
All of our hotels included free wi-fi, which made life easier for adults and kids with devices!
Recommended Guides, Tours and Transfers
In places such as Johannesburg foreign visitors are recommended to hire cars or drivers since public transport is limited. So in Johannesburg and Cape Town we organised guides/drivers to transport us from airports to our hotels or to take us on tours.
In Cape Town we highly recommend Safari Lodge Shuttle. We were very fortunate to book Liese Mossner-Sequeira from this company to collect us from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and drive us to Maropeng, and then the next day to take us on a tour of the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre and some local markets before driving us to our next hotel in Pretoria. Liese was incredibly knowledgeable, very friendly and wonderful with our children. Read about our experiences with Liese at the Cheetah Centre here.
In Cape Town, the Concierge at Cape Grace recommended Jarat Tours. We booked them for a day to drive us down the Cape Peninsula. Read about our drive here and here. Although our driver was not as excellent as Liese in Johannesburg, our shuttle bus was comfortable and affordable (about AUS$325 for 7 hours of driving plus we paid all entrance fees and tolls).
Here is a list of places we visited in Maropeng, Johannesburg, Cape Town, the Cape Peninsula and at Tswalu. All highly recommended for adults and kids.
5. Two Oceans Aquarium, Cape Town
7. Tswalu Kalahari Spa, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve
We mostly ate in our hotels or quite simply. But in Cape Town we went to the highly recommended Gold Restaurant, featuring Cape Malay and traditional African food. Dinner included a lesson in African drumming as well as African face painting, music and dancing. This was a fantastic, and inexpensive, night of African food and culture.
Suggestions for Souvenirs
Although we had strict limits on the amount of luggage we could take on the small plane that flew us to Tswalu and our safari, we managed to find a few lovely souvenirs of our trip in Maropeng, De Wildt, Cape Town, at Tswalu, and in Johannesburg. Some suggestions:
1. Football jerseys. When Oliver and I visited Europe last year he bought some football (soccer to us in Australia) jerseys in London. We found some terrific new ones in a sports store in Sandton: the jersey of the Kaizer Chiefs and the jersey of the Orlando Pirates, two South African Premier Soccer League teams based in Soweto.
2. Carrol Boyes silverware. Carrol Boyes is a South African designer who makes beautiful pewter and silverware with African and other motifs. In Tswalu I found some wonderful teaspoons with Meerkats on the handle. In addition to the specially created designs at Tswalu, we visited Carrol Boyes stores in Sandton and OR Tambo International Airport.
3. Born in Africa plush toy african animals. During our trip Louisa collected a whole zoo’s worth of plush animals including Cheetahs, African Hunting Dogs, a Rhino, a Zebra etc etc. Relatively inexpensive, good quality and a great souvenir for smaller kids.
4. In Cape Town we found Taunina, makers of hand embroidered teddy bears. From their website:
Celebrated for its iconic hand-embroidered teddy bears, Taunina is a luxury house synonymous with timeless artistry and social upliftment. The company provides full-time employment to women from disadvantaged communities in Africa through its flagship atelier in Cape Town. Each creation is one of a kind, designed and embellished by a single artist over five to seven days. The rare beauty of a Taunina collection piece lies in the opportunity it affords a woman in need to provide for her family and be recognized as an artist. Taunina bears carry the initials of the women who make them, symbolic of their sense of dignity and pride. Each bear travels in a handcrafted hatbox with his or her very own bespoke passport. A Taunina creation is a work of art, an heirloom to be passed from one generation to the next. It a gift that changes lives.
I chose a little one named Crispin who looks somewhat like this but in grey.
5. Books about South African history. I chose two with great reviews on Amazon: Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa by Martin Meredith; and A History of South Africa by Leonard Thompson.
6. Finally, in De Wildt outside of Johannesburg, in Cape Town, and in Hout Bay we visited local markets and shopped for smaller trinkets and jewellery. Because of Australia’s strict customs laws we were careful not to choose anything made of wood. But the kids chose a number of bracelets and necklaces made of stone or beads. I got ripped off in the De Wildt market when one stall holder started the bargaining process by asking for 4500 Rand (AUS$450), which I managed to get down to 700 Rand, but still too much for what I bought. I preferred the Cape Town and Hout Bay markets and shops where the prices were marked on the items. If not, then take a local with you.
We hope these recommendations are helpful. Please add your own suggestions below in the comments.