Imagine waking up not to the buzzing of your alarm clock but to the sound of a thousand chirping birds, or falling asleep to a lion’s roar instead of the distant hum of traffic. In South Africa, you don’t have to imagine. The country has some of the most well-situated wildlife lodges on the continent, and no visit to South Africa is complete without a stay in one. They can be pricey, however, so if you’re on a budget, balance a night or two in a lodge with stays in South Africa’s many hotels, bed and breakfasts or guesthouses. For more adventure, consider camping or caravanning.
The Tourism Grading Council of South Africa assists travelers by rating many of the country’s properties on a one- to five-star scale. However, don’t let a lower star count necessarily discourage you — a charming hotel may have a lower rating due to simpler amenities.
Many accommodations overlap in what they offer. Hostels, for example, sometimes provide camping grounds while many B&Bs also offer self-catering options. If the price of lodging seems too good to be true, check that it’s not listed per person instead of per room.
Those traveling during peak season (approximately November to March) will pay higher prices and would be wise to book well in advance. Many locals travel domestically during December and January’s school holidays, so accommodations of all varieties sell out. For the most exclusive and sought-after properties, booking a year in advance isn’t unheard of.
There’s no standard wildlife lodge — they range from basic self-catering options known as rest camps to luxurious properties that rival the highest-end hotel. At some you’ll stay in simple safari tents while at others you’ll retire to an extravagant lodge with a gym, private plunge pools, gourmet meals and safari guides with master’s degrees. Certain properties require guards and fences to keep you safe from wildlife; at others these precautions aren’t needed. The only constant is that all wildlife lodges are found in the bush and offer safari drives at least twice a day.
If you’re looking to splurge, it doesn’t get much more luxurious than the Royal Malewane, which offers spacious suites on a private reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park. The lodge boasts its own watering hole, four-poster beds, open fireplaces, freestanding tubs and an award-winning spa.
nThambo Tree Camp is a less expensive option at another nearby reserve. Guests enjoy stellar views from five private chalets raised on stilts; you can often see wildlife without leaving the verandah.
Many lodges are off the grid and require either a shuttle service to the property or a chartered airplane to a private airstrip. Needless to say, you’ll want to book your accommodation and transportation in advance.
South African Wildlife Lodge Resources:
You can expect to find the same variety of hotels — and subsequent range of price points — in South Africa as you would in most developed nations. Several worldwide chains are represented, including Holiday Inn, Radisson and Marriott, which acquired Protea Hotels in 2014. South African chains include Three Cities and Tsogo Sun.
While there are plenty of budget hotels, the quality is usually low. You’d often be better off staying at a well-reviewed hostel that offers private rooms.
Many hotels catering to business travelers offer reasonable prices, but if character is what you’re after, opt instead for a boutique hotel. The Kurland Hotel near Plettenberg Bay is a five-star, 12-suite, colonial-style hotel set on a 1,700-acre private estate. The Concierge Boutique Bungalows in Durban is a more wallet-friendly choice with contemporary, funky decor.
For travelers seeking an out-of-the-ordinary experience, try the Breakwater Lodge in Cape Town. The building was originally a 19th-century prison, though fortunately you wouldn’t know it once you step inside. Rooms are modern and spacious, and amenities include a spa and restaurant.
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Guesthouses and Bed and Breakfasts
Though they technically are different — primarily based on whether the owner lives on site — in practice the terms “bed and breakfast” and “guesthouse” are used interchangeably in South Africa. This type of accommodation is popular in the countryside, and whether you prefer a simple room in a family home or a purpose-built building with a separate entrance and private bathroom, you’ll find it here. Greenwood Guides offers a fantastic website of handpicked recommendations and detailed property descriptions.
Many B&Bs and guesthouses can be as memorable as the sightseeing that brought you there. Happy Jackel Guesthouse near the Addo Elephant National Park is one such example. The property’s buildings have thatched roofs and five of the six rooms overlook the Sundays River. You can book activities, including safari drive and boat trips, directly through your hosts. If quiet and relaxation are what you’re after, consider the economical Hoekie B&B in the fishing village of Paternoster. The small cottage offers just five rooms and is situated right on the beach.
South Africa B&B and Guesthouse Resources:
Self-catering accommodations provide a fully equipped kitchen, enabling guests to cook for themselves. It can be an inexpensive and flexible way to go, and you can find some lovely choices throughout the country. The owners often live elsewhere; if they do live on site, it will be in a private area. Before arriving, check whether linens and towels are provided and be prepared to pay a small deposit for potential damage to any of the items.
If you’re traveling to smaller towns outside of peak season, consider asking a local shop owner or the tourism office for nearby options that may not be easily found online.
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Camping and Caravan Parks
There’s arguably no better place to camp or caravan than South Africa. This is how many local families spend their holidays, so you’ll find parks virtually everywhere. Note that municipal campsites can be rundown and unsafe; opt for a privately owned campground instead.
Many campsites offer surprisingly nice amenities, including communal kitchens, pools, restaurants, convenience stores and onsite laundry facilities. Some rent tents and many, but not all, have electricity. Margate Caravan Park on the South Coast even has its own mini-golf course. Other sites, like Driehoek Farm in the Cedersberg region, offer upgrades to simple huts or cottages — a nice option on a rainy day.
Communal shower and restroom facilities, known as “ablutions,” vary by park, but are often clean and modern. If you’re camping in the summer months, shade can be a serious consideration — opt for a site with ample tree cover. Don’t miss an opportunity to socialize with other campers over the “braai,” the local name for a barbeque. The website of CampSA provides a helpful rating system, classifying sites by the amenities they offer.
South Africa Camping and Caravan Resources:
South Africa’s hostels are a great deal for those who want to travel on the cheap but would prefer a bed rather than a tent.
Popular tourist areas are rife with options, and the competition has resulted in some first-rate hostels. Many offer communal kitchens, TV rooms and staff who can book local tours. Private rooms, some with their own baths, are still inexpensive but provide more privacy than dormitories.
While some hostels are geared toward young backpackers, at others you’ll find families and travelers of all ages. One such hostel is Inkosana Lodge in the Drakensberg Mountains, which attracts hikers and includes accommodation in “rondavels,” round huts with thatched roofs.
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–written by Marsea Nelson