Best Hotels and Restaurants in South Africa
As Spain and Holland prepare to battle for soccer supremacy, intrepid business traveler Jolie Hunt shows you where to sleep, what to eat, and things to do in South Africa.
Like many of you, I've been caught up in the World Cup craze. Although much to my fellow Americans' chagrin, GWS consciously decided to support England. It is, afterall, where I live, and they are the players and perhaps, more importantly, the WAGs I know. Alas, the Three Lions barely scraped out of the group stages. I now join the legions of jilted British fans.
Months ago I decided to visit South Africa for the final stages of the tournament. I confess that I'm not normally a fly-around-the-world-for-sporting-events type of gal, but this was a longstanding request of my incredibly patient Guy with a Suitcase and his delightful brothers. So here I am, sans vuvuzela.
The scene in South Africa is charged, with the dreaded horns on every street corner, and nearly everyone sporting their team's jersey or flag on their person. It is a thrilling orgy for the eyes and a rotten strain on the ears. A moment on the noise: the vuvuzela can only be described as a large animal — like a cow or a hippo — in labor. Grown men blow for their lives and the primal joy they seem to derive is indescribable. A GWS tip: invest in ear plugs. This is the first World Cup in Africa, and the South African hosts have been superb: welcoming, happy, and all-too-thrilled to be at the center of the most-watched sporting event on earth.
This week I'll briefly highlight a few destinations, given most visitors will want to jump around the country. Let's start in Durban, the busiest port in South Africa. It is art-deco beachy in parts, and inner-city seedy in other areas, ultimately giving it a poor man's Miami feel. To be fair, it is winter here, so you can't get the full feel of a beach destination when the weather is nippy, but on the whole the people are utterly lovely and the destination a bit tired.
The beach is arguably the nicest destination, but the hotels are shabby. Not shabby chic, just shabby. You could try Eden Roc or Blue Waters. Instead, I'd recommend the Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga. It is well-run, has a keen concierge, and is in the happening bit of town--but this is all relative.
To eat, the Durban standout is Restaurant Ile Maurice. The grilled langoustines and seafood gratin are out of this world, as is the locally flavored creole rice. You'd be hard-pressed to order poorly here. It is sublime. The staff is quick to offer excellent local wines and from there you're off. Average price per person, with starters, mains, and ample alcohol will run about 400 rand or roughly $60 per person.
The real 'do' in Durban is surfing or other beach-based activities. A pit stop at Cafe Jiran offers an agreeable breakfast (go for the smoothies and banana muffin) and you're bound to find a few odds and ends strolling up and down Snell Parade.
That said, my big avoid in Durban is the Sun Coast Casino complex (at the end of Snell Parade). Nearly everyone begrudgingly recommends it, yet it is the epitome of tacky. Underage hooligans and crummy fast-food restaurants abound, and the exit strategy once inside is impossible to navigate.
Also underwhelming is the "trendy" Florida Road in the Morningside neighborhood. Give this a pass. Stick to Umhlanga and keep the overall stay brief.
If you're up for a drive and a gorgeous scenic adventure, consider a jaunt to the Drakensberg Mountains. It is roughly three-and-a-half-hours from Durban and a winning in-between destination if you're en route or coming from Johannesburg.
In Drakensberg, head to Cathedral Peak Hotel. Set in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, both a cultural and natural world heritage site, this hidden gem is a remarkable find. On site you'll find heated and cold swimming pools, incredible hiking trails, a climbing wall, tennis courts, lawn chess, nine-hole golf — or the GWS fave, 18-hole mini golf — along with quad biking, archery, and even trout fishing if you so desire. This was one of the most scenic and relaxing destinations I've visited. Rooms from around $300 or splurge on the Presidential Suite for $450 per night, complete with its own golf cart for getting around.
From Drakensberg, plan for a beautiful five-hour drive to Johannesburg, where everyone has gathered for today's final at Soccer City. Expected attendance is 88,000, of which GWS is one.
As the largest city in South Africa, Johannesburg is sprawling and gets a bad rap for violence and crime. Like anywhere particularly urban, you just have to choose your destinations wisely. There are gorgeous neighborhoods like Rosebank and Parkhurst with impressive art galleries and hand-made jewelry.
Bar none, the poshest place to stay is Saxon Boutique Hotel, Villas and Spa in Sandhurst. Behind its gated entrance lies a sprawling, perfectly manicured six-acre resort that subtly boasts eye-catching architectural touches throughout. When this was the site of a private home, Nelson Mandela wrote Long Road to Freedom here. Perhaps it's unsurprising that this is the hotel of choice for World Cup organizers, FIFA. Beautiful people and vehicles abound and the staff operates as flawlessly as any I've seen. Parking your car? There are four people along the way to guide you. Once parked? A white chauffeured BMW collects you to ensure you make it to the main entrance without a calorie burned. Consider dining on the terrace, or sneaking in to one of the pools. As close to perfection as GWS has seen. 26 rooms, but perfection will cost you: rooms run an average of $1,600 per night. Ouch.
For a neighborhood B&B option that's far more pleasant on the wallet, I like Northcliff Manor in Roosevelt Park. Set in a private home, there are five guest rooms available on a high peak offering splendid panoramas of the city of gold. Run by Johnny and Ilsa, you'll get stories, a home-cooked breakfast and local flavor that adds a hearty dollup of authenticity to your stay. Rooms from $100.
In Sandton, there are two standout eating options at 24 Central, at Gwen Lane. Allora, is an upmarket Italian with chef favorites veal marsala, tonno (fresh tuna) or an array of pizza from a woodburning oven. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday. For sushi, try Koi, also in 24 Central. It is Japanese- and Chinese-inspired, offering tasty dishes like sesame-crusted tuna and wok-charred beef fillet. Voted one of the top 100 restaurants in South Africa by Food & Wine Magazine. Open Monday through Saturday. For seafood and steak, head to neighboring Melrose Arch and try Pigalle.
As the largest city in South Africa, there is much see and do in JoBurg. Far too much to attempt offering here. Let's focus. Dubbed the shopping capital of Africa, have your choice of frivolity or head for a historical journey. Opt for the latter; you can get your Gucci fix anywhere. A must-visit is the Apartheid Museum. The topic isn't casual; segregation, oppression and adversity all require the full appetite of your attention.
For another historical adventure, drive an hour to Sterkfontein Caves to experience "humankind's oldest history lesson in the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site." Fossils, skulls, and hominid exhibitions throughout the caves are quite something.
Ah, the inevitable avoid. The place almost everyone recommends is Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. It is a touristy mess. The shops are generic and the square just a mall-version of your mind's hope. Of course the namesake statue is significant, but everything else about this area wreaks. Don't bother.
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50% of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.