Since the success of the 2010 World Cup, tourism to South Africa has dramatically increased and for the first time, Americans are leading the pack with reservations for South African adventure packages.
If you feel that you are past the stage of backpacking and youth hostels, South Africa offers a multitude of luxury adventure activities that allow you to experience Africa without roughing it. To set the tone for a luxury vacation, I recommend that you splurge on a business class ticket on South African Airlines to compensate for the extensive flying time. You may pay more for the ticket, but your body will thank you later. Upon arriving in Johannesburg, I quickly realized a reason why Americans are flocking to South Africa in droves; most of the country's infrastructure is extremely developed and therefore is equipped to provide Western tourists with all the creature comforts of home.
One of the first lessons I learned in South Africa is that all tents are not created equal. While staying at the Mattanu Lodge in Kimberlee, I lived in a tent that included heat, a four poster bed, marble sink, and a jacuzzi! During the day, you can work with the owners of lodge, who are professional large game vets, as they tend to the giraffes, antelopes, and buffalo that roam freely throughout the range. If that wasn't enough, you can also go on safari, make rounds in their helicopter and at night enjoy torch light gourmet dinners in the middle of the bush.
If diamonds really are a girl's best friend, than the Kimberlee diamond mines are a must see. Kimberlee is where the fever for diamonds began and is consequently the home to the De Beers diamond company. 'The big hole,' as the site is referred to, is actually the largest hand dug hole in the earth. You can get aerial views of the holes via helicopter or take an underground tour into the actual mines. Kimberlee is also known as the most haunted area in South Africa, due to the large number of miners who lived and died in the area. You can also add ghost walk tours to your itinerary too, fun!
If wild safari animals and ghosts roaming around your luxury tent isn't enough of a thrill for you, don't worry -- the South Africans have more wild activities stored in their vuvuzelas. For some reason if you feel completely out of your mind, as I did, you are more than welcome to sign up for a shark cage diving activity. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. I don't recommend the shark activity for anyone who is on heart medication, sentimentally attached to their limbs or worried about getting their hair messed up. If you have an aversion to blood, blood and more blood, you may also want to reconsider.
To participate in this activity you can go to Cape Town and sign up for a cage diving tour to Shark Alley. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Once you arrive in Shark Alley you will put on a wet suit, climb into a thin metal cage attached to the side of the boat, allow yourself to be marinated in old fish parts and blood, then wait to be surrounded by an infinite amount of great white sharks who are eager to get up close and personal for lunch. The shark's lunch consists of old fish parts and blood, which you will just happen to be wearing. After you get over the shock of your stupidity and check to see that you still have all your limbs, you will realize that diving with the ocean's greatest predator is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
Back on land in Cape Town, you can pamper yourself at the luxurious One & Only hotel which is considered to be a seven star hotel, due to the private island, butler service, massive suites, art gallery and NOBU restaurant. The average price of a room is roughly $650 USD (though of course that's subject to change). The hotel is a great launching pad for the Cape Town water front district, shops and restaurants. You will also see an up close view of the glorious mountains that surround the city. Just outside of the city you can visit the Table Mountain nature reserves. The historical Cape Point is within driving distance and provides a stunning cliff side view of the tip of Africa. Whale watching is also pervasant along the coast.
If you've had your fill of traveling by road, you can experience South Africa via The Blue Train. The Blue Train is Africa's equivalent of the Orient Express. The Victorian train features immaculate tiger wood cabins, full size beds, bathtubs, formal dining, and an excellent waitstaff and butlers for each cabin. Once on board all meals, drinks, toiletries, and Cuban cigars are provided free of charge. Each cabin also has a bay view window.
Just in case you thought you exhausted the adventure possibilities, you can also see South Africa by air. To see the great expanse of farmland and vineyards from above, take flight in a hot air balloon. Generally, hot air balloon rides cost approximately $300, takes flight just before dawn, and lasts approximately two hours. The ride gives you a feeling of gliding effortlessly across the sky, in serene silence.
As things begin, they often end, and in this case all roads lead to Johannesburg. The city of Johannesburg serves as the hub for arrivals and departures for South Africa. One of the most compelling destinations in Johannesburg is the amazing Apartheid Museum, which houses a dynamic presentation of South Africa's cultures, politics, and art. The museum is simply one of the best art institutions in the world.
The next must see is the historical Soweto township. Soweto is no longer a mass of shanty dwellings that were broadcast on our western TV screens. Soweto is now one of the most popular destinations in all of South Africa, boasting a population of four million people living in a diverse landscape of Mandela estates, middle class neighborhoods, local shops and stadiums. It is in Soweto where you really get a tangible sense of the local people celebrating their journey of resistance and reconciliation, as they march toward the future.
If you are searching for both a cultural and action packed adventure, South Africa is waiting for you.
Photo Credit: Lauri Lyons, David DiGregorio, Marine Dynamics