Claire rediscovers South Africa

As a South African living in London for nearly 15 years it’s always a treat to head home and rediscover what makes our Rainbow Nation so special.  I am just back from a recce (gotta love my job!) to check out some of the #IconsofSA including the famous Blue Train, the tourist hotspot that is the V&A Waterfront, the Winelands and SA’s  first ever private game reserve – MalaMala and here’s what I discovered…
CITY OF TSHWANE
I grew up not far from Pretoria on the East Rand (my town was home to both actress Charlize Theron and Princess Charlene of Monaco so don’t knock it) so it was lovely to rediscover Pretoria  some 20 years (gulp) down the road.   We saw some of the historical spots (some of which have caused controversy since) like Church Square and the Union Buildings – and immersed ourselves in local events by partaking in the Tshwane Open master chef type “cook off” on the mayor’s lawn!
Here’s what I discovered:
1.    Tshwane (which includes the capital city Pretoria) has a new 9 metre bronze coated statue of Nelson Mandela with his arms held in an open embrace in the gardens below the Union Buildings, unveiled 16 Dec 2013 – a great modern tribute in a city that largely celebrated Boer history in the past.  The Union Buildings are the seat of Parliament and this is also where Madiba lay in state after his passing.
2.    A gem in the suburbs called Illyria House – the oldest 5 star hotel in Pretoria, run by the gracious and ethereal Marietjie van der Walt.  Entering the villa’s wrought iron gates is like stepping back in time – antiques, chandeliers, tapestries and murals transport you to another world.  Not to be missed is the spa, the heated roman baths, Moroccan lounge and the fine dining on the patio.  The hotel has just 6 suites so very exclusive!
3.    The Sheraton Pretoria is a fantastic property and a great base for exploring Pretoria with great views over the Union Buildings – and if you travel on The Blue Train in 2015 you get a free night’s bed and breakfast plus station transfers (subject to availability and T&C).
4.    I can cook!! My cooking partner “Flora the Explorer” and I won the title of “Best Salmon of the day” in our cook off with South African celebrity chef Fortunato Mazzone and Lorna Maseko, a well-known TV presenter!  And our other #journosontour team (Kgomotso from SA Tourism, Susan from Best Bits Worldwide and Andrew from Family Traveller Magazine) won the prize for most creative presentation! Not bad straight off an overnight flight with little to no sleep!

THE BLUE TRAIN
I am very lucky to have experienced this magnificent train a few times in my (many) years on the job and The Blue Train always more than exceeds my expectations.  In fact it gets better and better – as seeing the familiar faces on-board and feeling like an extended part of their rail family makes it feel extra special.
Here’s what I discovered this time round:
1.    Even between the  4 course brunch and 5 course dinner  – with high tea in between – one can still find space for a few glasses of bubbly and some “salty nibbles” (mmmm biltong!) whilst watching the scenery pass by in the observation car! BLISS…
2.    The Kimberley Hole Museum is fascinating and a great off train excursion if the train is heading Southbound.  The museum is fantastic – we all wished we could spend a few hours there.
3.    Chef Esther cooks up incredible cuisine from scratch with her team in that narrow moving kitchen!  Although I had to confess it was lattice beef loin we were gorging on – not “lion” which seemed really adventurous on the menu, even for such an experienced chef!
4.    The Blue Train will be making a few trips up to the Kruger region in 2016 for those who wish to combine a safari and rail adventure. Contact us for full details on info@ethosmarketing.couk

THE WINELANDS
Our first night in the Cape was in Stellenbosch – the second oldest European settlement and wine producing region in South Africa after Cape Town. Back in 1679 Huguenot refugees settled in Stellenbosch and planted grapes in its fertile valleys and soon it became the centre of the South African wine industry – and today has over 200 producers. It is also famous for its university, lovely shops, galleries, museums, and al fresco café culture.  We also spent a blissful morning exploring Franschhoek – largely considered the gourmet capital of South Africa and without a doubt one of its most enchanting towns.
I discovered:
1.    They have a great “Stellenblog” where you can catch up on all the latest news and events – http://stellenboschexperience.co.za/
2.    If you are a foodie you will love a stay at owner-managed Majeka House!  Tucked away in the suburbs surrounding the town, Majeka is an ultra-stylish quirky boutique hotel with its Makaron Restaurant offering an absolute adventure in fine dining!  Chef Tanja is one of SA’s top up and coming young chefs with Makaron nominated for the Top 10 Eat Out Restaurant Awards.  Add to this a different wine for each course and I can promise you an evening of decadent dining you won’t soon forget… each course is a work of art!  Am I shlurring yet?  And if you’re not a foodie – the spa has real wow factor.
3.    For the ultimate in exclusivity hire out your own private villa at La Clé des Montagnes complete with dramatic mountain views, private pool, butler and “home from (very luxurious) home” ambience tucked away in its own working wine farm, just a stone’s throw from the main road in Franschhoek!  Your butler will make sure you wake up in the morning to the smell of muffins baking in your oven and bacon on the grill – and even fire up your BBQ/braai for you in your garden later!
4.    The Franschhoek Wine Tram is a great way to enjoy visiting the various wine farms for tastings without having to drive/stumble home afterwards!

CAPE TOWN
We had a wonderful day with the team at Ilios Travel who gave us a brief guided tour of Cape Town and dropped us off at the iconic V&A Waterfront, where Cape Town Tourism hosted us for a fantastic lunch at Isola – located on its own island at the One&Only Cape Town (the banana split was epic!).

What I discovered:
1.    The cable car takes less than 5 minutes to travel 704m to the summit of Table Mountain with 65 passengers.  But the queues to buy a ticket can stretch for miles so I highly recommend pre-buying tickets online to avoid “queue rage”.  Tickets (R225/£13pp) are valid for 14 days in case the cableway is shut (it often is thanks to the wind so best to call and check).  The two circular cabins can take 800 people up in an hour and rotate throughout the journey offering 360° views.
2.    I hadn’t fully appreciated how you can be so close to the bustle and buzz of the V&A Waterfront yet on crossing Dock Road and going up the path to the Queen Victoria Hotel, you suddenly enter an oasis of calm and sophistication. And the views over the harbour and Table Mountain are to die for!
3.    Dash Restaurant is named after Queen Victoria’s favourite pet but that’s where the cuteness ends.  It oozes sophistication!  We were joined by the charming Waleed and Angelique from Newmark – good to have locals “in the know” to recommend the prawns tempura and the fillet of beef – all beautifully presented!  The surprise amuse bouches were the best I’ve had!
4.    City Sightseeing Tours run open-top red busses as an easy way to get your bearings.  It is well worth getting their  2-Day Ticket (about £15) to take in all 4 of their tours (city, mini peninsular, downtown and wine)  plus free Canal Cruise, Night Tour and Walking Tour.
5.    Highlights of our all too brief stay included sundowner cocktails on the lawn at the Dock House pool bar and the famous breakfast buffet served at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel’s OYO – made extra special by MD Neil Markowitz joining us to give us an insight into the Newmark brand.  But I think my favourite thing was the view from my bed of the harbour by night!

MALAMALA GAME RESERVE

I have always known that the safari experience at MalaMala is hard to beat given that it was the first ever private game reserve in the country and is still its largest.  Being a bit of a safari fanatic (the back of a landy is my happy place), a visit to this reserve was high on my bucket (and expectation) list.
What I discovered:
1.    It is a very pleasant Airlink flight straight from Cape Town into Skukuza airport (the most gorgeous airport I have ever had the pleasure of visiting!)  – and it was an even lovelier surprise that our driver managed to show us all of the Big 5 just on the drive between the airport and the lodge!
2.    At MalaMala it really is, as their motto goes, #allaboutthewildlife.  We set off excitedly on our first game drive as ranger Greg opened with, “We usually like to ease guests into a safari slowly, but….”  Turned out there were some lionesses hunting just around the corner at the adjoining Sable Camp so we followed them excitedly as they stalked a herd of impala, knowing it was unlikely we would see them attack in broad daylight.  Boy were we wrong.  Suddenly it all kicked off and we watched a proper lion kill including them scuffling over the prize afterwards.  WOW!    A short drive later we came across a beautiful leopard.  We followed her for a while and –  unbelievably … we then got to witness the aftermath of her kill (not a  good day to be an impala) and then what was possibly a bit of a romantic Friday night date over a steak dinner as a male leopard joined her.  Did I discover anything?  It is possible to see two big cat kills on a single game drive – I am still in shock.   Check out the series of videos:   https://www.youtube.com/user/ethosmarketingUK
3.    Main Camp and Sable Camp lie next to each other along the Sand River which runs for 20kms through the MalaMala reserve – talk about location, location, location!  Rattrays at MalaMala is very luxurious and exclusive   – a little further down the river. Most game reserves would love to have this kind of river frontage!  Just chilling in the infinity pool, I watched an entire herd of ellies walk right past the pool and then cross the river bed, stopping for a drink and play – and then a troop of monkeys kept me entertained sliding down a tree slide and playing in the water.  Who needs a book when chilling on the pool loungers?
4.    Our ranger Greg was not only a fountain of knowledge when it came to fauna and flora – he also managed to whip up an incredible breakfast for us in the middle of the bush – nearly burning our fry up when a herd of friendly ellies got a little close.  Clearly they can’t resist the smell of bacon frying either – or maybe it was all the fruit salad and fresh muffin?  Thankfully both they and the monkeys drooling in the surrounding trees allowed us to enjoy our breakfast in peace…

All in all it was an incredible trip – I just wish we had had a little longer to linger and really soak up the atmosphere and explore the various locations a little deeper.   But as a small taste of some of South Africa’s iconic experiences it was the trip of a lifetime with a great group of people.    Sincere thanks to South African Tourism, South African Airways, and all the properties who hosted us on our trip.
Please visit www.ethosmarketing.co.uk for more information on all these properties and follow @ethos_marketing on twitter

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