South African Airways Vacations’ “South Africa in Style” package is a low-cost, one-week introductory journey to South Africa. It gives first-time visitors the chance to experience the urban South Africa of Cape Town, the wine country and the South Africa of the bush for an affordable price and with an extremely wide range of contrasts.
The week breaks down into four nights in Cape Town, with a half-day excursion to the wine country, followed by two nights at a game lodge in Limpopo province, in the northeastern part of South Africa.
The trip starts with a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Johannesburg, South Africa’s centrally located capital and business center. In Johannesburg, there is a flight change to Cape Town, the oldest South African city, dating back from the early 1600s. After the four nights in Cape Town, there is a flight to Mpumalanga province, followed by a transfer to Limpopo, then a flight back to Johannesburg and from there back to New York. South African Airways’ (SAA) internal flights are commendable; it’s a very different experience from the trans-Atlantic flight, with smaller aircraft and shorter flights, but the service is good.
South African Airways Vacations is the airline’s private-label packager and tour operator. The packages are designed and facilitated by Toronto-based Lion World Travel in collaboration with the airline. Lion World Tours is owned by the Travel Corp. and has been operating tours to South Africa for 45 years, the last 25 of which with SAA.
Target traveler: The package is designed for first-time visitors to South Africa. With its low cost and short length, it is very easy to digest. The theory, based on research by South Africa Tourism, is that once people have experienced South Africa, they will want to return to see more.
Guides: The package is largely independent, with minimal guiding. There is meet-and-greet service at the airport, as well as transfers to and from the airport and from Cape Town to the bush. One guided tour is included in Cape Town, a tour to the winelands at Stellenbosch. The guide was courteous, professional and flexible, and had plenty of good stories to tell. Four game drives are included at the game lodge. These were guided by a ranger and tracker who were excellent at tracking game, and who produced consistently good results.
Accommodations: Three choices are offered in Cape Town -- the Commodore, the Table Bay Hotel and the Twelve Apostles. The game lodge in Mpumalanga province is Jackalberry Lodge. The hotels are luxurious: Table Bay and Twelve Apostles are five-star properties, and the Commodore is a four-star hotel. The Twelve Apostles sits outside Cape Town, about a 20-minute drive from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the lively historic, shopping and dining district where the city meets the water’s edge. The hotel provides a free shuttle to the waterfront every hour on the hour, and returning on the half-hour until 8:30 p.m. After that, guests can purchase a ride through one of the hotel’s preferred local tour operators. The shuttle will also take visitors to Camps Bay Beach, an excellent district reminiscent of Florida’s South Beach. The shuttle will also go to other spots in the city that are en route to the waterfront.
Twelve Apostles, named for the mountain range behind it, is a historic, high-end hotel owned by Red Carnation. The structure has an air of colonial aristocracy. It started as a hunting lodge in the 1820s. The original building was torn down in 1920 and a house was erected on the site. This area forms the core of the hotel.
The Commodore is about a block off the waterfront, a short walk to shops, restaurants and pubs. It’s designed with a nautical theme, reminiscent of the interior of a ship. The decor has a soft, traditional feel, with tapestries and wood floors, and throw rugs in the lobby. Pictures and exhibits in the lobby and lounge give the property a traditional, nostalgic feeling.
The Table Bay Hotel, a Sun property, stands right on the waterfront at the end of the massive Victoria Wharf mall, which is packed with all kinds of shops, restaurants and pubs. Rooms face the Atlantic Ocean on one side of the harbor, and the city framed by the mountains on the other. Views from both sides are rich and serene.
Jackalberry Lodge provides an excellent experience. The itinerary in the bush is packed, with four game drives in two days. Accommodations are in small cottages, luxurious and rustic at the same time. The meals are all finely crafted culinary experiences, each a special occasion.
Transportation: Trans-Atlantic air, included in the package, is provided by SAA. The direct flight from New York to Johannesburg makes a stop in Dakar, on the west coast of Africa, which is almost exactly half of the distance.
SAA has been flying to the U.S. since February 1969, almost 40 years, a long time in the volatile airline industry. It is the national carrier of South Africa, and since its main business is flying people into the country from long distances, it is a long-distance specialist, and offers more legroom than most airlines. SAA emphasizes that when people travel to Africa, the experience starts when they get on the plane, not when they land at the airport.
SAA offers well-rounded entertainment choices in both business and economy class, with individually controlled DVD players with many movie choices from America, Africa and elsewhere, with new films as well as classics.
Meals: Daily breakfast is provided at the Cape Town hotels. All three offer first-rate international breakfasts, with a variety of choices, including Continental-style meats and cheeses, fruits, cereals, and the American breakfast elements of eggs and bacon. The hotels also house excellent restaurants, which are good choices for the meals that are not included in the package rate. There’s also a tremendous variety of food choices at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, which is easily accessible from all three hotels.
At Jackalberry, breakfasts, lunches and dinners are provided, all with a gourmet flair. Three meals are provided on each trans-Atlantic flight and one meal on each of the connecting flights, from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back and from Johannesburg to Mpumalanga and back. The food on SAA is way better than what Americans are used to on domestic flights, and the meals are among the best in the industry.
This is an excellent introductory package, a relatively affordable way to visit this exotic destination without compromising quality in accommodations. It’s a good independent package, because the Cape Town waterfront is easy to navigate and very conducive to independent travel. In the bush, of course, it’s not about independence but about support, guidance and care.
For more information, call 888-722-4872 or visit www.flysaavacations.com.--David Cogswell