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Glorious Return to South Africa--Two Weeks in October

Glorious Return to South Africa--Two Weeks in October

Dec 1st, 2013, 12:30 PM
  #41  
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Our time at Londolozi passed very quickly. We had a morning game drive on the day of departure, the 18th of October, and then were driven to the airstrip for our 2pm Federal Air charter direct to Johannesburg. Again, I had no trouble on the flight, even though we ran into a bit of unsettled weather.

We were met at the Federal Air hangar and transferred to our hotel in the city, The Winston.


Built for the World Cup, The Winston Hotel occupies a leafy block in the upscale northern suburb of Rosebank. The two-story red-tile-roofed structure forms a quadrangle around the pool area, edged by gardens flowering with foxglove and bougainvillea. Jaunty black-and-white striped awnings shade the outdoor terrace, where dinner and drinks can be taken.



http://www.thewinstonhotel.co.za/

I had (shame on me!) run out of memory for my camera that morning, so no sooner had we checked in than we headed out in a taxi to the snazzy Sandton City shopping center which houses a Photoland shop. The multi-level premises contain all sorts of luxury chain stores, from Zara, Gap, and Bebe, along with a branch of the SA Woolworth’s, complete with supermarket, and many locally owned shops; there are ATMs there, of course. The mall is open 7 days a week. Apart from the camera store, I am not sure there is much to interest the average tourist, though.

Mission accomplished, we headed back to the hotel, where we were given a ground floor room facing the pool area. I do not think there is an elevator, so ask for the ground floor if you abhor steps.



Johannesburg lacks the reputation for food and wine attached to Cape Town, but we had heard good things about the small DW-11 restaurant. But we were so exhausted that we cancelled in favor of a quiet dinner at the hotel. The most I can say about the hotel restaurant is that the room is attractive enough, and that dinner was passable for tired transit tourists like ourselves: Two parsnip soups, 1 chicken schnitzel, and 1 bottle Chenin Blanc: R344.


There are many restaurants located within a quick cab ride away.

The hotel, however, was pleasant; our room was quiet, the bed was comfortable, and we lacked for nothing. Front desk service was exceedingly helpful and friendly.

The next morning we had time for a 20-minute stroll along streets canopied with flowering purple jacaranda, to the Oxford Street Shopping Center, housing several banks, a supermarket, several restaurants and fast food outlets, and the Pan African Market, with a plethora of stalls offering everything from carved wooden hippos to beaded Zulu furniture. A sign inside the market reads: “This is Africa, We Bargain!”

I should add that we felt absolutely safe walking around this neighborhood and, in fact, I was sorry that we did not have another night in Johannesburg. Several people we spoke to felt that the city had turned a corner and was now attracting artists and creative types to its formerly forlorn, and reportedly unsafe, central business district.

We were collected close to noon for our transfer to the Anglo American hangar, a short drive from the main terminals at OR Tambo International Airport (too far to walk, however), the departure point for our flight to the Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve. Our transfers in the city were handled by RNS Tours, and I would recommend them.


We relaxed at the Anglo American hangar over coffee and sandwiches until it was time to board our 1pm flight to the reserve. The flight, in a Beechcraft 1900 was, once again, smooth and after an hour or so we began to fly over the red sands of the Kalahari, home to Tswalu, the largest private game reserve in the country, owned by the Oppenheimer family of mining fame. As I remember, the flight took a bit over two hours.

We arrived at the tiny “airport” and were met by the ranger, tracker team, Kyle and David, who would shepherd us for the next three days. Guests at Tswalu are accorded a private vehicle, with a canvas shelter from the sun. We learned that there would be no set schedule: We were free to make up our own. For example, we could opt to depart early in the morning and not return until dinnertime. Or to depart in late afternoon and remain out until late at night in search of elusive nocturnal creatures. It would be up to us.

Tswalu is under the Relais & Chateaux umbrella (as is Londolozi Pioneer) and the accommodations are beautiful and luxurious almost beyond belief. We were allotted one of the 10 cottages in the Motse, or “village,” directly in front of the waterhole, and my jaw almost dropped the first time we entered.

The thatch-roofed, mud-walled rondavels enclose a vast bedroom with a netted canopy bed dressed with linen sheets, a massive stone fireplace, and large foyer with bar area. The bathroom is also large, with tub and tiled shower area, and a glass door opens to the outdoor shower area. The large dressing area contains a comfortable desk; an example of the attention to detail here is the fact that the desk is equipped with not only note pads, but pens, pencils, stapler, paper clips and other supplies. There are plenty of outlets.

A daybed on the outdoor deck, facing the waterhole, is comfortable enough for sleeping. (Guests can spent the night at the Malori outdoor sleeping platform in the desert and I initially wanted to do just that, but was vetoed by my partner. Spending a night on our terrace may not have been exactly the same, but it was at least an approximation of what that experience might have been like)

I’m afraid I am not describing the accommodations very well, but there are photos on the website, and in the Conde Nast Traveler article:



http://www.tswalu.com/accommodation/the-motse


http://www.tswalu.com/press_pdfs/Con..._July_2012.pdf


We had selected Tswalu for the contrast in ecosystems between the Sabi Sands and the Kalahari. Before I describe the experience, I will say that this is not the place to come looking for the “Big Five.” While there is plenty of wildlife (80 mammal species) you will not see hippo, buffalo or elephant, or crocodile, and a leopard sighting is a rare occurrence. And there are many species that are quite special and which I will describe later.

I think the Kalahari makes a good companion to a more traditional safari reserve, or a destination for travelers who have already experienced big-name reserves in the Okavango, the greater Kruger area, or other more traditional safari spots.
The vast size of the reserve is a big plus, as we rarely saw another vehicle, and there were never more than two vehicles at a sighting; even this happened only once, when we came across a large pride of lion walking along a dusty track.

http://www.tswalu.com/
ekscrunchy is offline  
Dec 1st, 2013, 02:19 PM
  #42  
 
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I have to disagree about Joburg lacking the reputation that Cape Town has for good food. Rosebank and Sandton have been ok areas for walking around (during the day) at least for the past 15 years or so and Melville has always been an area for artists for many years.
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Dec 2nd, 2013, 08:22 AM
  #43  
 
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ekscrunchy,
Again, you've made me feel like I made the right decision. Our outfitter had first booked us into Kings Pool, but I was getting the impression that it was too luxurious for what we wanted, so I switched to Vumbura Plains.
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Dec 2nd, 2013, 08:32 AM
  #44  
 
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eks - wonderful report - but it's making me want to go back to Africa right now!

Did you read Cry of the Kalahari? Fascinating book.
Elizabeth_S is online now  
Dec 2nd, 2013, 11:16 AM
  #45  
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Odin: Just to press the point a bit: Cape Town is a world-class food and wine destination due to the agriculture and the vineyards of the Western Cape. I don't think Johannesburg has that reputation, although there certainly must be good restaurants in that large city even if few stood out to me when I did my reading and asking around.

For those putting stock into "best of" lists: There are a number of Western Cape restaurants on the San Pellegrino Top 100 list, and none that I know of in Johannesburg. Closer to home, most of the winners of the 2013 EatOut.za awards are in the Western Cape, and none are in Johannesburg.

http://eatout.co.za/News/Category/Ge...taurant-Awards

Luke Dale Roberts, of the Test Kitchen in Cape Town was voted Chef of the Year by the San Pellegrino jury.

When I spoke of the revival going on in the city I was referring to the CBD, not to the northern suburbs such as Rosebank and Sandton.

Eliz: No, but I will put it on my list now!

BB: From all I've heard, VP sounds like a great choice. The couple we met at Londolozi was heading there as their next destination, and we met several others who were enthusiastic to the hilt!
ekscrunchy is offline  
Dec 4th, 2013, 08:21 AM
  #46  
 
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Anxiously awaiting further reports on Tswalu as it is on our next safari itinerary! Looking for the violet-eared waxbill - were you lucky enough to see one? Also, did you enjoy the meals there?
carolines is offline  
Dec 4th, 2013, 08:30 AM
  #47  
 
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Great trip report, so glad you had such a great time. And so glad Test Kitchen didn't disappoint, it is so amazing.

I have to agree with ekscrunchy, the dining in JoBurg really doesn't have the same reputation as compared to Cape Town and surrounds. We have been living here a little over a month now and have eaten out quite a bit and while everything was pretty good, nothing yet has been outstanding compared to the places in CPT. I still have a lot of places to try like Cube Kitchen and 500 so I expect/hope those will be great, we shall see.
kellyee21 is offline  
Dec 4th, 2013, 12:16 PM
  #48  
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Thanks very much for the positive comments.

Carolines: I did not see the violet-eared waxbill, but we did see so many birds and I undoubtedly left a few off the list here. But I would have remembered that sighting, if we had been lucky enough. But if you tell the guide that that bird is high on your list, my guess is that they will do almost anything to insure a sighting.

The food at Tswalu is certainly good enough, but not particularly memorable. Much better than Lion Sands (but remember I was at LS a few years ago) but not as good as Londolozi, if that helps at all. There is a good selection of dishes for each course. Despite being from from any city, they do receive daily flights from both CT and J'Burg, so the variety of foods is more than one might expect. Remember that I am probably more critical than most guests in the food department; just do not set your hopes up too high. The whole experience is just brilliant, and I recommend it highly. Have you looked at the blog on their site? There is a lot of good information there, and lots of wildlife photos.


Here is just a bit more:





Tswalu’s 100,000 hectares--vast reaches of red sand rising blanketed with golden grasslands and studded with terra-cotta hued quartzite outcroppings known as kopjes. I’d never before seen the tremendous shaggy nests that house hundreds of sociable weaver birds:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fi...h_Africa-8.jpg

Lunches were served on the terrace surrounding the small (unheated) outdoor swimming pool and the adjacent (heated) soaking tub--both of which overlook the waterhole).


We took two of our three evening meals in the dining room, where roaring fires provided necessary warmth. One evening, we ended our game drive atop a nearby dune close to sunset. After drinks and cocktail snacks, the grills were fired up (the staff wore headlamps) and we sat down to terrific braised lamb shanks, as well as grilled chicken, sausages, and an excellent array of vegetable dishes including pap with spicy shiba tomato-and-onion relish, creamed spinach, and a very good hot cabbage dish.

During dinner hour, a scorpion was spotted by an eagle-eyed ranger, duly trapped in a wine glass, and brought around for us to admire, illuminated by a special (ultra-violet??) light, before being set free to scurry off into the sands.

As good as that dinner was, Londolozi far outranked Tswalu in the food arena.

There was always a good selection of dishes, and most were good enough.
Highlights were that lamb, and that evening's dessert: Malva pudding, a traditional Cape Dutch baked dessert with a sticky toffee sauce. (Malva refers to Malvasia wine, the traditional accompaniment) I loved this dessert!


If most of the food was less than spectacular, the game drives at Tswalu were anything but!

The vast property is divided into two sections, split by a road running to the Botswana border, just a few miles away, and beyond. Although there are fences surrounding the reserve, the area is so large that one is only aware of these when traveling to and from the airstrip or when crossing from one side of the reserve to the other on game drives.

http://www.tswalu.com/images_interfa...map_hi-res.jpg

We saw several large lion prides, including one procession of 12 females and cubs that were lounging under scrubby trees until, upon hearing a soft call of their leader, the entire group rose and began to promenade along the dusty red track, single file, passing within inches of our vehicle, and continuing until out of sight.

We saw many, many antelope: Oryx, tsessebe, sable, gemsbok, eland, hartebeeste, and roan were those I noted.

We were also thrilled to spot a both a porcupine and an ardwolf on an evening drive. Bat-eared foxes also made appearances, and we saw jackal, giraffe and mountain zebra as well.

Tswalu is also home to wild dogs; we saw these only in a large gated area where they were being acclimated to the environment before being introduced to the reserve.

Yet our favorite of all the animals we were privileged to see were the unbelievably adorable furry little meerkats, including many newborn pups.


Words cannot describe these little creatures, although those who have seen the television series, Meerkat Manor, filmed a few miles from Tswalu, will have an idea.

Although meerkats are not uncommon in the Kalahari, most will scurry away from humans. It is only after a long habituation period that several of the Tswalu groups now allow visitors to approach, and we were able to get within a couple of feet of one large group, which included several weeks-old pups.

http://www.tswalu.com/blog/catching-...-meerkat-pups/


http://friends.kalahari-meerkats.com...g2_itemId=1909


More soon..
ekscrunchy is offline  
Dec 6th, 2013, 11:21 AM
  #49  
 
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I was so excited reading your review. I love all the details because we are foodies as well.
We are going on a very similar trip the end of June early July. We have a group of 9 (5 adults, twin 17 year olds, 14 year old & 11 year old)We will be going to Cape Town, Sabi Sands, Victoria Falls and Botswana.

I hope you don't mind but I have a few questions.

The kids are all very well travels. We want to all go out to one really nice dinner one night. Would any of the restaurants you went to welcome children?

Our single male friend will be going early....would any be fun for a single guy who is a major foodie?

Would you be able to recommend a restaurant that would be great food that the kids would still have fun?

As I mentioned I was so excited reading your review until you mentioned the food at Lion Sands.....that is where we are staying since we have children. I have read that the food was really good there....not Londolozi but still really good....was that not your experience. Would love to hear more about that.

I am extremely excited about the last leg of our trip....we are going to be on the Zambezi Queen riverboat. We love to be on the water.

Thanks
L

FYI....we live in one of the best food cities in the world I think....Charleston, SC
have2seetheworld is offline  
Dec 6th, 2013, 12:13 PM
  #50  
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That will be a terrific trip!

I think that any of the restaurants I visited in Cape town, as well as Delaire Graff in the Winelands, would have no problem with children of that age. For the single guy, I would recommend Pot Luck Club, which is very casual (skip the sous vide meat dishes) or The Test Kitchen, which is also casual but in my opinion has even better food. Both of these are cutting edge kitchen under the same chef's umbrella, and the decor at both is handsome and rustic at the same time. The Test Kitchen needs to be booked far ahead, but a single person can, and should probably, request to be seated at the counter, in front of all the action. Same as Pot Luck Club if they do have a counter--I cannot remember.

If you cannot get a large enough table for your group dinner at either of those places, I would recommend The Codfather in Camps Bay…you choose your seafood or fish and then specify how you would like it cooked and they do it that way on the spot. They also have sushi, and it comes on a conveyor belt, which the kids will love. It is a fun, young place that the kids would like, I think. It is popular with locals, as well as visitors. I had lunch there on my first trip, and would have visited again had I had the time.


http://www.codfather.co.za/about.html

You will take a taxi to all three of those restaurants from central Cape Town….prices are reasonable and the drives are not more than 15 minutes or so. You would need 2/3 taxis, I guess, or a large van taxi to take the entire party.


As for Lion Sands, perhaps I should not have mentioned the food as I was here back in 2007 and things may have changed. (However, I did speak to a couple that was with us at Londolozi who had just come from LS and they were disappointed in the food). But remember again that my trip was years ago and also I had just had the barometer of Londolozi to compare it to…. Also, at LS they asked us upon check in to request any foods that we would like to try, or if we had any dietery dislikes. We did not specify anything and perhaps should have. You might even do this ahead of time. The food was by no means bad, it was just forgettable, and the lunch offerings were kind of heavy considering the heat.

This is the report I wrote after that first trip, and I talked about the LS food, but again, keep in mind the date of my last trip; I never did finish the report, though, so there is nothing on the two camps in Botswana--Stanley's in the Delta and King's Pool in Linyanti..

http://www.fodors.com/community/afri...lsbotswana.cfm

I hope I've answered your questions….I am more than happy to help, so feel free to ask away!

Remember that the men do not need tie and jacket and they do not need even a jacket, even for the top restaurants. Cape Town is very casual.

I LOVE Charleston, by the way, and would love to visit again to sample all the new eating spots!!
ekscrunchy is offline  
Dec 8th, 2013, 05:10 AM
  #51  
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Tswalu permits only one group of guests at a time to view the meerkats on the reserve. Viewing is wither in the morning, when the animals leave their burrows, or at the end of the day when they return. Actual times will vary by season.

On our first appointed morning, we arrived at the burrow area about 6:30 pm, exited the vehicle, and walked about 200 yards to a cleared area of red sand, pockmarked with round holes--the entrance to the meerkat burrows.

We waited eagerly in the cold morning until our ranger, Kyle de Nobrega, sensed activity below ground. He could hear faint sounds that we could not, sounds that would soon signal the appearance of the little animals. Or so he told us. We waited another fifteen minutes or so until finally we, too, began to hear faint chirping. A few minutes later, a tiny head popped up, then another, then another, until we counted almost 20 meerkats including several weeks-old pups.

Slowly they began emerging, to begin digging, shoveling sand away from the burrow entrance, and performing other tasks that our guide referred to as “burrow maintenance,” constituting a show that was almost beyond description.

This has to be one of the best safari experiences in the world! We watched, and snapped photos, for about an hour until a pair of adults began to make forays further and further away from the burrows, toward the open bush. Finally, after determining that the route was safe, almost the entire group began scampering away in search of nourishment, with the youthful members pausing every now and then to chase each other and tussle on the ground. At the end of the day spent foraging for bugs and grubs, they would all return and, after a further round of burrow maintenance, would descend into their lairs for the night.

Happily, we were able to spend two mornings with the meerkats, and these might have been the best hours of the entire two-week-long trip and certainly the highlight of our 6 game drives at Tswalu.


I should mention that our Tswalu package included two spa treatments each; both the Swedish massage and the “Signature Tswalu Touch Experience,” which involved both a massage a hot stone treatments, at the hands of Vanessa from Johannesburg, were very good, although since I am not a frequent consumer of spa services, I may not be the ideal person to offer an opinion. The spa itself is certainly luxurious!

More critical, our three-night stay included the RT flights from Johannesburg. Since guests can also fly in from Cape Town, this makes a great transition between the two cities, as your travel would essentially be free with a stay at Tswalu; one could spend time in Cape town, fly to Tswalu for three nights, and then continue on to Johannesburg to either fly home or to access the Sabi Sands, for example.
ekscrunchy is offline  
Dec 8th, 2013, 04:45 PM
  #52  
 
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What an adventure seeing the meerkats. Someday maybe I'll see them too.
Marija is online now  
Dec 9th, 2013, 05:45 AM
  #53  
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Oh, Marija, I hope that you do see them someday. The experience was thrilling beyond words.

Here are a couple of Kalahari project links with pics:

http://earthwatch.org/expeditions/me...f-the-kalahari

http://www.kalahari-meerkats.com/index.php?id=1
ekscrunchy is offline  
Dec 10th, 2013, 05:09 AM
  #54  
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Correction to my correction, above: I was correct the first time about the orientation of the Londolozi camps, including Pioneer, Varty and the rest. As shown on this great map posted on another thread, these are strung from east to west along the banks of the Sand River.

This is an excellent map showing the layout of the Sabi Sands and the location of all of the traversing areas, with Kruger National Park to the east:

http://www.eyesonafrica.net/south-af...and-safari.htm


Here is another map, also from the other thread, showing the location of the Sabi Sands and the other private reserves.

http://www.sunsafaris.com/south-afri...uger-reserves/
ekscrunchy is offline  
Dec 11th, 2013, 01:41 PM
  #55  
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Sadly, Tswalu was our last stop in South Africa. On the last day, we had a morning game drive (which included that second, priceless visit with the meerkats) and returned to the lodge for breakfast and leisurely packing.

We had lunch outdoors next to the pool, and then lingered in the lobby until it was time to depart.

During this time, each member of the kitchen staff approached, singly, to bid us goodbye. (I would advise having a bit of cash on hand for staff members you might have neglected to tip beforehand; I did find this procession a bit awkward, and wonder if it is the usual practice at other lodges; I had not experienced it before)


About 2pm, we were driven to the airstrip where we found the aircraft waiting to fly us back to Johannesburg. We made the transfer in reverse, and arrived at OR Tambo’s international terminal about 5pm.


I had been uncertain about how we would pass 6 hours until our flight to Amsterdam, which departed at 11:15pm, thinking that we would have to mind our luggage the entire time.


http://www.fodors.com/community/afri...nt-luggage.cfm




Happily, the KLM counter opened early, allowing us to check both of our large duffle bags through to JFK, our last stop.

We then walked through the terminal, which had been renovated since my last visit and seemed much less chaotic, and across the street to the Intercontinental Hotel, where Quill’s Restaurant occupies space on the ground floor. We relaxed in the comfortable carpeted space for about two hours; I had only soup and my partner a chicken dish (I’ve forgotten the details, but although the food--a mix of European and local dishes-- was not particularly memorable, it was probably better than anything we might have found inside the terminal. Prices are high, however).

After dinner, we headed to the KLM/AF lounge, stopping to browse the bookstore and to change some remaining Rand to dollars and to euro.

Upon arriving in Amsterdam in the morning, we stowed our carry ons in storage lockers inside the transit area (US credit cards are accepted; remember that you need the code on the ticket to open your locker and retrieve your belongings), and purchased tickets for the quick train ride from Schipol to Centraal Station (US credit cards NOT accepted for the train; for this reason, try to have euros on hand if you plan to do this).


From the station, we took a long walk to the museum quarter, where we had a seafood lunch at The Seafood Bar:

Seafood Bar is a handsome, contemporary space with great contrast of weathered brick and white ceramic tiles....very glossy and stylish. There is a broad menu of raw and cooked offerings, including both sandwiches and heavier plates.




http://www.theseafoodbar.nl/menu/en






My partner ordered smoked mackerel sandwich...very healthy portion in open faced-sandwich on good bread. Tasty.



I ordered the Plateau Seafood Bar. Enjoyed most of the offerings on the platter including impossibly tiny Dutch (North Sea) shrimp, smoked eel, two types of smoked salmon. Except for the Dutch shrimp, which I had never had before, quality was pretty standard.



But wait: "Crab" salad made from surimi? This was mildly shocking (also thought surimi was pollack from Alaska but no claim was made for local seafood) but perhaps goes along with the "sustainable" orientation. 

So all in all, I would say it is a dependable spot, not too pricey, very friendly and convenient to museums. Nice walk from the station in good weather. I would return if in the area. Next time I might veer towards cooked offerings. (Perhaps should have asked for menu guidance) But keep your expectations tempered.

After lunch, we took the tram back to Centraal Station and headed to the airport, a trip of under 20 minutes. We relaxed in the lounge until the time to board, and I spent most of the flight dreaming about a future trip to Southern Africa.


One of the best vacations I've ever taken!
ekscrunchy is offline  
Dec 11th, 2013, 01:43 PM
  #56  
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Seafood Bar menu in English:

http://www.theseafoodbar.nl/menu/en
ekscrunchy is offline  
Jan 18th, 2014, 03:47 PM
  #57  
 
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thanks for the great report... i am bookmarking possibly for fall 2014. crossing fingers!
kawh is offline  
Jan 19th, 2014, 11:56 AM
  #58  
 
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I have enjoyed your report, ekscrunchy! We may be going to South Africa for Christmas/New Year this year - I am glad to have Liesl Matthews's name - if we do this trip, I will definitely be calling her! Thank you in advance for that!
Florida1 is online now  
Sep 17th, 2015, 08:45 AM
  #59  
 
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Can you comment on the food at Lion Sands Ivory? You mentioned that you were disappointed, but why? Are dinners there served buffet style or is there table service? We are deciding between Lion Sands Ivory and Singita Bouldres or Ebony. We care about food and wine.

Thanks!
poland221 is offline  
Sep 20th, 2015, 03:50 AM
  #60  
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I am from Manhattan and am a cook and very interested in food. YOu won't starve by any means at Lion Sands. They do ask you upon arrival if there is anything yo would like to have. I asked for Mozzie prawns and never got them but remember you are out in the bush here. I perhaps should have been more specific. You do not go to these camps, even the luxury ones, for the food and everyone is so kind it starts not to matter. Having said that, we were offered a dinner in our cottage and it was raining and the butler brought us a filet mignon. That's it....one small steak on a bare plate. Could not bear to make the man rush back to kitchen and bring side dishes so were content. I will tell you that Ivory has a mini bar like none I've sen before..all free...all full bottles of premier spirits. Just do not leave your doors unlocked unless you like monkeys having a party when you are out!!!!!! It IS a gorgeous property.




For give me, Lozolozi every time....I see no need to stray from there and hope in this life I will be fortunate enough to return. Food much better than Lion Sands or Tswalu but again, do not go for the food..it will be fine but you are not going to be eating at Can Roca.
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