SA Trip Report- Sabi Sands and Cape Town

Aug 11th, 2011, 06:36 AM
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Join Date: Jul 2004
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SA Trip Report- Sabi Sands and Cape Town

We just returned from our first trip to South Africa (late July). We are in our early thirties and have traveled extensively (all over Western Europe, North America, Australia, Tahiti) but had not been to Africa yet. Our approach is to maximize our vacation days, but also try to enjoy what we’re doing and not just check the box. We’re not big tour people; we booked everything ourselves, with the exception of a couple transfers.

We visited Sabi Sands (4 nights) for our safari and spent time in both Franschhoek (2 nights) and Cape Town (2 nights). We flew direct from Atlanta to Johannesburg, round trip, and spent one night in Joburg due to the travel arrangements. I had been nervous that 9 nights wouldn’t be sufficient to justify the flight time or jetlag but I think we could even do a week here no problem. Having the direct flight was very convenient and meant we got some real sleep on the flight. We essentially experienced no jet lag on either end of the trip (flying to the West Coast is way more painful for me).

We landed in Joburg on our first night at 5:00pm. We had booked one night at the Peermont Metcourt, one of four hotels connected to the Emperors Palace complex. Touristy, but very convenient. There is a casino, several restaurants and a movie theater all in the building. This meant we could get dinner and get a little entertainment before going to bed, without having to drive around Joburg (we wanted to spend as little time there as possible). They also have a free shuttle to and from the airport. From a safety perspective, we thought this hotel location, with the shuttle and encompassing restaurants, was ideal for our one night.

The next morning, we flew to Hoedspruit (tiny little airport) on South African Air, then met our driver to take us to Elephant Plains, the lodge we chose. We had arranged the driver through EP and found him to be a good driver and personable (telling us about his family and town, etc.). The vehicle was in great condition, a Nissan SUV or something similar. The drive was about 1.5 hours, with about 30 minutes on dirt roads. We drove past several rural villages, so it was an interesting drive. I could not justify the cost to fly from Hoedspruit directly to Sabi Sands and we did enjoy getting to see the villages.

We spent 4 nights at Elephant Plains and loved it. For our first safari, 4 nights was the right amount of time. If we were going back for a second safari, we would do 3 nights, or perhaps split it between 2 properties in different areas. We participated in the morning and evening game drives every day, as well as the bush walks. We did not have as much free time as I expected during the day, as we used it for napping. But I didn’t feel rushed or that we weren’t getting a chance to relax.

While we do not have another safari experience to compare ours to, we felt our expectations were exceeded. Our ranger was great, we saw tons (the Big 5 in the first two drives) and learned a lot about the animals. There were definitely some times I held my breath when I was a little closer than I wanted to be to an animal. I don’t feel our ranger put us in danger but they are still wild animals. (Some guests I think were oblivious to that!) Other guests who had been on other safaris said Sabi Sands was the way to go in terms of the most and closest animals, so we felt we had made a good choice. Similarly, there were many repeat guests to Elephant Plains, and we could see why. The rooms were very nicely appointed (really great duvets), the service was great, and staff was knowledgeable (although not conversational - I think just a cultural thing). The food was average to good, but we were expecting that. I couldn’t justify paying significantly more to get better food at the more expensive lodges. We saved that money for later in the trip.

It was definitely chilly going in late July. We had packed long underwear, gloves and hats and used all of it every day. We had bought a lot of bug-off clothing but we didn’t see a single bug. We also didn’t need our ‘safari hats’. We did take Malarone – better safe than sorry I guess. We used our binoculars more than expected. We also packed some nuts on the morning game drives as we got hungry part way through.

On our morning of departure, we went on the game drive, then immediately met the driver to take us to Kruger airport. This was about 3 hours and I hate car trips, but it was a very pleasant and interesting drive (although the first hour+ is on dirt roads). From Kruger, we were able to take a direct flight to Cape Town without laying over in Joburg (on South African Air)

We picked up a rental car in Cape Town and drove to Franschhoek for 2 nights (1 full day). We found the roads in great condition and pretty well marked. We had a GPS but it was wrong a lot so we stopped using it and found the street signs more effective. The drive was about 1 hour; we were in rush hour traffic for part of it.

We stayed at the La Cabriere Country House and found it just okay. I think it’s mostly that I don’t care for that ‘simple’ type of furnishing. The room was just kinda blah and being winter, the heater did not do a good job keeping the room warm. It was just drafty and I was constantly cold, especially in the bathroom (cold floors). The common area was a little junky with too many books and knick knacks. It was nice to walk to the village (but we were warned to only do this during the day) but I think we would’ve been totally fine driving to the village. The owner was pleasant but we rarely saw her.

We did really like Franschhoek. Gorgeous views, a cute town (worth about 1-2 hours of wandering in the actual town) and great restaurants. We did a wine tour, arranged by La Cabriere, with Jaci. She took us to 3 wineries (Rickety Bridge, Boekenhoutskloof and Dieu Doone), some for the wines and some for the views. We laughed that she could have been taking us to the best wineries or the worst and we wouldn’t have known the difference. But we liked many of the wines and later saw them on the wine list at restaurants. She came in with us to each winery and we got to chat a lot with her about her background and living in South Africa. She then dropped us off at Bread and Wine for lunch and picked us up when we were ready. This restaurant was our choice for lunch and we loved it – an amazing cheese plate! We also did a tasting on our own here, at the Moreson winery. For the tour, the cost of lunch was not included but all the tastings were. We paid about $100US pp for the three hour tour plus picking us after lunch. We also used her as a taxi for dinner each night. She was extremely prompt for this service. Her contact info is: [email protected] or cell 076-060-8507. I believe she also does airport transfers and peninsula tours/drives.

While in Franschhoek, we had dinner at Le Bon Vivant, which had great food, service was a little slow. We also ate at Pierneef a la Motte, great service, quite good food and a gorgeous setting of a restaurant. Wine was very good and quite inexpensive relative to the US. Most bottles in a restaurant were no more than $30-$40. We bought some at the wineries for as little as $15.

Had we had one more day, we would’ve either done another set of tastings or driven over to Stellenbosch. We otherwise felt we had enough time here to get a feel for the area.

Leaving Franschhoek on our second morning, we drove to Cape Town, directly to our hotel. We stayed at the Derwent House. They call it a boutique hotel, it had maybe 10 rooms…I’m not sure I would go so far as to call it a hotel. But we did really like the property. They have a large common area, a gorgeous pool tucked in one corner and the rooms were modern and warm! There was also an honor bar, which was a nice feature. The proprietor was super helpful with lots of realistic suggestions. We chose this property to stay a little more ‘in-town’. The waterfront places seemed very touristy. And I actually think this hotel was a great base for our needs; close to the road that leads to Camps Bay and the peninsula drive, as well as the cable cars. It’s about a 10 minute drive to the waterfront. We also walked to dinner from here one night, down to Kloof Street, and felt safe.

So we dropped our bags and headed to the waterfront. I must say, we were a little underwhelmed by this area. Extremely touristy, very much like Fisherman’s Wharf. We had lunch there and took a 30 minute harbor tour, which was worthwhile for the price (maybe $8 USpp). I would say 1.5 hours here is sufficient. We would not have spent as much time here as we did except we had arranged a bike tour leaving from the waterfront for that afternoon.

Our bike tour was with Bike and Saddle, a 3 hour tour around town for $100US pp. We are not big tour people but wanted a little bit of information about the city – this seemed like a better option than the hop on-hop off bus for us. We hit all the highlights so the tour worked for that. Our guide was from Spain though, and I do think he could’ve done a better job explaining the history of the city. The tour ended at Bascule’s, a really great whiskey bar at the Cape Grace hotel. I would recommend this bar, if nothing else! Very classy and if you like scotch/whiskey, this is the place for you! The tour included cocktails and appetizers.

From there, we taxied to Savoy Cabbage for dinner and had an excellent warthog dinner. Dessert was the local malva pudding, which we loved. Then taxied back home after a very full day!

(Note – ‘nice’ jeans were perfectly acceptable at all the restaurants we went to, which I would classify as high-end restaurants.)

On our second day in Cape Town, we did the peninsula drive. We left about 10:30 and got home at 5:30. We went out the Hout Bay route, stopped there for a look, then continued on to Cape Point for pictures. We came back down the other side, stopping at the Black Marlin restaurant (in Millers Point) for a really fresh, great seafood lunch overlooking the ocean. We visited the penguins at Boulders Beach. We found the drive to be really pretty and we enjoyed ourselves a lot (surprising since I hate being in the car!) We were probably lucky to have a gorgeous sunny day.

Being pretty worn out when we got back, we walked to Kloof Street and ate at Yindees, a local Thai place that came recommended. It was quite good and inexpensive.

The next day was our last day but our flight wasn’t until 3:00. We took the cable car to Table Mountain in the morning (we had a perfect clear day and the views were great). We had bought tickets in advance so the wait was very minimal.

Then we went to La Colombe for lunch (stopping quickly at Groot Constantia for another bottle of wine!). What a way to end our trip – La Colombe was excellent. Our server was friendly and helpful and the food was really excellent. The menu was the same as at dinner plus we got to see the grounds driving in, so we didn’t feel we missed anything by going for lunch. By far our most expensive meal but what a memorable one. (Up to this point, we kept saying that restaurants hadn’t really been too expensive! Most with a bottle of wine and three courses were $100-$130US. La Colombe ran us $250 for lunch!)

Then we zoomed to the airport, connected in Joburg and flew home. Security in Joburg was a little ridiculous, so that was annoying, but otherwise we had smooth sailing.

I had been nervous that we weren’t going to have enough time in Cape Town, but for us, 2 nights and 2 full days was sufficient. It reminded us a lot of San Francisco. If we had had one more day, I think we would’ve driven to Hermanus or done the abseiling down Table Mountain. We elected not to do Robbens Island as I had just heard it wasn’t worth the time.

All in all, we thought South Africa was a great place to visit. The infrastructure is quite good – zero issues with water or food, everyone we met spoke English, driving was fairly easy. We didn’t wear anything flashy and were smart travelers but always felt safe. We loved the safari and then the 180 degree turn to fine dining and great wines. Traveling was easy and the lack of jetlag is a bonus. I think there’s a very good chance we’ll be back!
LM3682 is offline  
Aug 11th, 2011, 10:14 AM
Join Date: Dec 2003
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LM - thanks for the on-the-ground report. We're doing a similar trip (in reverse) at the end of August. We start with Cape Town, then Stellenbosch, and then Lion Sands/Pondoro. It's good to hear that the jet lag wasn't an issue. Now about that wine...

We were thinking that buying any wine during our Stellenbosch days would be pointless unless we drank it at our safari lodges. Your report makes me think you did pack some wine to take home. Or am I reading that last purchase at Groot Constantia incorrectly?
egbear is offline  
Aug 11th, 2011, 11:08 AM
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Thanks for your report, very informative.
The Kruger airport, I take it is the Mpumalanga, KMIA?

regards - tom
cary999 is offline  
Aug 11th, 2011, 01:25 PM
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Cary, yes the Kruger airport is Mpumalanga/KMIA, which took me forever to figure out when I was doing my planning!

Egbear, I bet you're so excited! You'll love it. Yes, we brought nine bottles of wine back to the US. We had purchased seven at wineries and two at the duty free in the airport right before flying home. A couple wineries packed it in good boxes with styrofoam for us, other bottles we wrapped in plastic bags, then in our clothes to cushion it. We checked all of it in our suitcases. (We technically carried on the two duty free bottles, but still had to check them in our suitcases once we arrived in the US since your bags have to go back through security.)

A little risky in case any broke, but all bottles made it home! We are going to Italy soon and are going to carry some packing supplies with us.

We got several different answers about how much was allowed back to the US but could never figure out the actual limit. We told the truth of how much we had at customs and they let us through with no problems and no additional duty.
LM3682 is offline  
Aug 11th, 2011, 02:40 PM
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Nice informative report. Glad you had a good time.
cristeen is offline  
Aug 11th, 2011, 06:04 PM
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Thanks for posting
Femi is offline  
Aug 11th, 2011, 07:12 PM
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The Terracotta Warriors is the eighth wonder of the world. Terracotta Warriors ()and Horsesof Qin Shi Huang large-scale, powerful scenes, with high artistic value. Xi'an, once the capital of eleven Chinese dynasties, is famous throughout the world for life-sized terra-cotta warriors and horses. They have won fame as one of the greatest archaeological finds of this century. Back in 1974, while digging a well to fight drought, some farmers from Lintong county, about thirty kilometers east of Xi'an, unearthed some brown pottery fragments, which led to the great discovery of the executed terra-cotta legions as an exterior section of the mausoleum, of Qin Shi Huang or First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (255-210B. C.)
oppole is offline  
Aug 12th, 2011, 02:02 PM
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Thanks for the great report. We're also doing a similar trip (in reverse) at the end of September. We start with Cape Town (4 nights) visiting Stellenbosch while there and then head to Tinga Private Game Lodge (3 nights) in Krueger National Park.

We are thinking of planning a private tour of the peninsula. Do you have any recommendations on what not to miss in Cape Town?
winnick is offline  
Aug 16th, 2011, 05:17 AM
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Winnick, I looked into a private peninsula tour but decided to skip it. We found the drive very easy and with a little research, figured out where to stop along the way. Just personal preference, but we didn't really want to be in a car with a guide all day.

We had a short time in Cape Town, so we very likely missed some things, but my not to miss would probably be La Colombe restaurant. We had fit it in at the last minute and I'm very glad we did...a very memorable meal. We also thoroughly enjoyed the peninsula drive, but I'm not sure that counts as 'Cape Town'

Have a great time!
LM3682 is offline  
Aug 17th, 2011, 04:12 AM
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For a good historical City cycle tour in Cape Town go to the V&A Waterfront information centre for a private personal 3 hour tour with a local qualified tour guide who will regale you with the facts. AWOL tours charges $50 for a 3 hour tour. Tours leaves on demand on a daily basis
Sally_leif is offline  
Aug 17th, 2011, 06:15 AM
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Thanks for your report. Lots of good reviews on Elephant Plains and now yours. How many other people were usually in your EP vehicle?

When you were comparing costs of driving vs flying Hoedspruit to Sabi Sands, were the flights scheduled or would you have had to charter your own plane? I found it interesting that a private road transfer was less expensive. Thanks for that info.

Welcome back and glad it was a good trip.
atravelynn is offline  
Aug 17th, 2011, 08:17 AM
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Atravelynn, we had up to 8 people plus the driver and tracker in our vehicle. At times we had fewer people. The lodge can only accomodate 24 guests in total and so they send out 3 trucks, which were usually pretty even in numbers (although you have the same driver/tracker team for every drive). We saw trucks from 3 or 4 other properties and they were about the same.

Yes, the Hoedspruit - Sabi Sands flight was a privater charter and much more expensive than the road transfers. The landing strip at Sabi Sands is basically a dirt road so only tiny private planes can get in there.I thought I was going to hate the drive but I really didn't mind it.

We did enjoy Elephant Plains and felt good about that choice for a lodge. While there, we met a couple and the husband runs small group tours through Africa. This was actually a scouting trip for them and they thought EP compared very favorably to other resorts in Sabi Sands(in the same or slightly higher price points).
LM3682 is offline  
Aug 17th, 2011, 12:24 PM
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Great trip report. Thank you. We are about to do a similiar trip in a few weeks. I wanted to see what places you'd recommend stopping at around the peninsula. We're debating whether to drive down there straight from our stay in Stellenbosch, or do it as a separate day trip on one of our days in Cape Town.
internetwiz is offline  
Aug 17th, 2011, 01:42 PM
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Thanks for the report. I´m more-or-less living in Cape Town now but planning for visitors next year. It sounds like 4 days of safari is the norm, so I think that can be our guide.
TravellerSuzanne is offline  
Aug 17th, 2011, 07:14 PM
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Thanks for the great report! We're doing a similar trip at the end of August too. I've heard the drinking and driving laws are so strict in SA that one can barely have one glass of wine and drive home from a restaurant. Did you feel that one person had to totally abstain? I'm almost relieved to hear that you had heard Robben Island wasn't worth it. I'm trying to decide between that and the peninsula drive.
misha2 is offline  
Aug 18th, 2011, 12:09 AM
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Misha - If it's a choice between Robben Island & the peninsular drive then I would opt for the later, it's a beautiful scenic drive, plenty of beaches, very small towns & wildlife roaming free, can highly recommend Kalk Bay, Kalkies fish restaurant, the Brass Bell for refreshments, you may spot a shark in the waters here & there is a stunning view point across False Bay above this quaint town along Boyes Drive. I lived in Clovelly, near Fish Hoek for 2 years & never once did Robben Island I do not regret it, I have seen a few TV documentaries. The waters maybe to rough for boat trips to Robben Island at the end of August ?

LM - Did you see any whales ? Good to hear the Black Marlin still lives up to it's reputation.
braaiseason is offline  
Aug 18th, 2011, 08:50 PM
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Braaiseason, thanks for the advice. I can't wait!
misha2 is offline  
Aug 18th, 2011, 08:58 PM
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"...they send out 3 trucks.."

What were the "trucks" like?

regards - tom
cary999 is offline  
Aug 18th, 2011, 09:20 PM
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tom - they are Land Cruisers, no top, stadium seating (the good kind). Met up with an EP vehicle when at Arathusa. All the vehicles I've seen in Sabi Sands and Timbavati are the same - not that I've seen them all, for sure. Seems to be the norm on all the website pics at the camps in the area I looked into.
christabir is offline  
Aug 19th, 2011, 01:51 AM
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internetwiz - I would recommend you go to the Cape peninsular from Stellenbosch, it's easy to get to from there without going via the city, head towards Muizenberg.
braaiseason is offline  

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