With the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (and baby Archie) touching down in Cape Town today, our South Africa expert offers a guide to following in their footsteps
I’m often asked about the best time to visit South Africa, but the answer depends on exactly where you’re heading and what you intend to do. December to February is peak season on the coast, with everyone broiling in the sun and gazing out to sea, but those in the know arrive in March and stay until balmy April, my favourite month. Come May, most hotel beds are empty, yet it’s still a fine time to visit – the Cape moody as a British summer, with light bouts of rain producing a luminosity of colour.
Visitors can enjoy wine tastings warmed by fires, and the first waterfalls glistening on the mountain. I used to love pitching up at restaurants unannounced, walking on deserted beaches and traversing traffic-free passes. I still do and one still can, but it’s a sad fact that people are cottoning on: the Cape is beautiful, regardless of the season. Aside from this, winter sees humidity drop in Kwazulu Natal, spring is for many the best safari season, and autumn is the ideal time to explore South Africa’s extraordinary desert regions. In short, come any time that suits. Here is a guide to the year ahead.
Have a flutter
Pack your fascinators and Panama hats. As thoroughbreds pound the turf at Kenilworth (a suburb of Cape Town) for the trophy first awarded by Queen Victoria in 1861, fashionistas will likewise be competing in the racecourse’s Style Lounge and Stud Club. The L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate Racing Festival (lqp.co.za), billed as one of the top five race days in the world, kicks off South Africa’s social calendar on January 10 and 11.
At this classic see-and-be-seen event, the blue-and-white dress code is elegant enough; that said, expect plenty of drinking and a fair amount of gawping at local celebs and vintage cars, compliments of the Franschhoek Motor Museum and BMW (watching horses entirely optional).
On February 1, the Sun Met (sunmet.co.za) – also in Kenilworth – produces another round of silly hats and no-stilletos-on-the-turf-please. Dubbed “Africa’s Richest Race Day”, with £300,000 in prize money, it is a slightly more louche affair than the Queen’s Plate; this year’s theme is “African Luxury: Visionaries”.
Located in Cape Town’s old harbour silo, beautifully repurposed by UK design company Heatherwick Studio, MOCAA opened in 2017 and immediately joined the firmament of must-see art museums. It’s an inspiring space, as is the collection.
If you’re the acquisitive type, February is the month to visit. First off there’s the Cape Town Art Fair (investeccapetownartfair.co.za), where the most comprehensive collection of contemporary art goes on sale from February 14 to 16. Then, from February 26-28, the Design Indaba Festival (designindaba.com) takes place. At its heart is the Design Indaba Conference, three days of experiential talks and performances by world-class innovators across all creative disciplines (in fact it was prodigious talent-spotter Ravi Naidoo who invited the British designer Thomas Heatherwick to speak at the 2005 Design Indaba, and took him to explore the then derelict silo).
Wiggle your hips
The largest timed cycling event in the world, the 65-mile Cape Town Cycle Tour, takes place on March 20. Much more fun and easier on the legs is the Cape Town Carnival (capetowncarnival.com), when more than 2,000 costumed performers and musicians parade along Cape Town’s pedestrianised Fan Walk.
Having limbered up on the streets, you should be ready for a weekender at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (capetownjazzfest.com), where the continent’s top jazz musicians transcend the slightly sterile vibe at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on March 27 and 28. The largest jazz festival in sub-Saharan Africa, it has featured in previous editions the likes of Chaka Khan, Corinne Bailey Rae, En Vogue and Angie Stone.
This is the month in which to visit the extraordinary Namib desert, stretching for 1,200 miles along the Atlantic coasts of South Africa, Namibia and Angola. Daytime temperatures drop but the nights are not yet cold, and April rains often transform the gravel plains into carpets of green.
April is also the most pleasant time to visit the Karoo region, not least for Afrika Burn (afrikaburn.com; April 27-May 3), the arts festival at which large sculptures are set on fire in the desert. Promoting “Radical Self-Reliance”, Afrika Burn also features performance art, themed camps, live music and crazily designed “mutant vehicles” that are not allowed to resemble a car.
By contrast, a quiet weekend stargazing in the Groot Karoo with Hans and Tilanie Daehne might appeal. Based in the charming village of Prince Albert, the Daehnes run trips to the town of Sutherland – home to SALT (the Southern African Large Telescope), the largest such instrument in the southern hemisphere. They also offer night tours to the South African Astronomical Observatory. Bookings must be made well in advance and not during full moon (see astrotours.co.za).
Alternatively, pop into the Cape Town planetarium: its brand new digital dome provides a remarkable 3D experience, without the silly glasses (iziko.org.za).
Take a trip
From May 1, accommodation prices drop across the Western Cape, roads empty after Easter, and the release on bookings makes it easier to plan a looping itinerary that traverses several mountain passes through the majesty of the semi-arid Klein Karoo and on to the verdant Garden Route. From here it’s a two to three-hour drive to a variety of malaria-free safari destinations in the Eastern Cape.
Been there; done that? Fly into Durban and take a road trip that loops through the foodie-friendly Midlands, then either head north into the soaring Drakensberg mountains, or back to the coast to loll in the warm Indian Ocean. Another idea is to head into the bush for a safari in subtropical Zululand, tracking rhino on foot, before heading home. Africa Travel (africatravel.co.uk) can arrange a tailor-made trip.
In the northern provinces of North West, Gauteng and Limpopo, hot-air-balloon enthusiasts welcome the advent of the dry winter season. You can fly year round but according to Bill Harrop (www.balloon.co.za) “winter’s lack of moisture and stratified air makes for great flying”; chances of operators having to cancel your booking due to rain or wind are low.
Catch a unique performance
If you want to understand the current state of South Africa, get to the small university city of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape by June 25 for the 11-day National Arts Festival (nationalartsfestival.co.za). Like Edinburgh, it comprises a main programme and a fringe festival showcasing emerging talent – and the brightest minds are recognised by the annual Young Artist Awards. Performances take place in more than 60 venues across town, many of them poorly insulated, so pack warm clothes (winters here are icy).
June also marks the start of what is often described as the “Greatest Shoal on Earth”, when enormous shimmering shoals of sardines traditionally leave the cold Atlantic to make their way along the east coast to Kwazulu-Natal, pursued by feasting sharks, dolphins, gannets and whales. Despite the fact that the sardine population is far from healthy, and feasting these days centres on pockets of baitfish, it’s still a huge draw. Scuba Addicts (scubaaddicts.com) runs a seven-night programme that starts from Durban International Airport and heads to Port St Johns, an excellent base; departure dates throughout June and July.
Celebrate Mandela’s birthday
This is the month in which many South Africans pay homage to Nelson Mandela’s birth by volunteering 67 minutes – one minute for every year of Mandela’s public service – to a community project. See www.mandeladay.com for more information.
To learn more about the freedom-fighter-turned-president, Robben Island is a must. Set four miles off the mainland, due north of central Cape Town, it was here that Mandela was incarcerated between 1964 and 1982 – sentenced to literal hard labour in gravel and lime quarries, and frequently thrown into solitary confinement. His concrete cell, just 8ft (2.4m) by 7ft (2.1 m), still stands as testimony to his ordeal. Tours depart from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town (robben-island.org.za).
Enjoy a summer spectacular
Some time in August, the alchemy of rain and nascent sun transforms the semi-arid plains of the west coast and northern cape into a living canvas, with some 2,600 species in bloom, hundreds of them pixilating to create yellow and orange carpets as far as the eye can see. Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com) can organise a package to the region taking in the wildflowers of Namaqualand.
If you’re travelling with children in the school holidays, Ampersand Travel (020 7819 9770; ampersandtravel.com) is offering a good-value luxury family adventure that both entertains and edifies. The 13-day tour starts in the malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve, where youngsters are entertained with lessons in bush arts and crafts, pizza-making and stargazing. Then it’s off to Cape Town for surfing, swimming with seals and spotting penguins. The trip ends at luxury eco-paradise Grootbos near Hermanus, where activities include flora safaris, whale watching and shark-cage diving.
Take a magical journey
This is the month to head to Darling, 20 minutes from the West Coast National Park entrance, for the annual Voorkamerfest (winelandsweb.co.za/darling-voorkamerfest). The concept, imported from Holland, is a fabulous “lucky packet” experience: you buy a ticket for a random choice of six or seven mystery journeys, each transporting you to three authentic “voorkamers” – literally “front rooms”, aka living rooms – volunteered by residents and surrounding farmers. In each setting, a group of actors or musicians puts on a 45-minute show, after which you are transported to the next voorkamer.
Go whale watching and wine tasting
The whales arrive in June to mate in the safe waters off the Overberg coast – but if you want to see the calves, October is a great month. If you don’t like crowds, time your trip to avoid the seam-bursting Hermanus Whale Festival (September 27-29). Book a property on the Hermanus cliff path, offering the best land-based whale-watching in the world, or head towards Gansbaai and cocoon yourself in luxury at Grootbos (grootbos.com). Wine lovers should not miss a wine tasting in the Hemel en Aarde (“Heaven on Earth”) Valley, which produces some of South Africa’s finest pinot noirs and chardonnays (see hamiltonrussellvineyards.com and bouchardfinlayson.co.za). If you time your visit to coincide with lunch, Creation (creationwines.com) is the place to head.
Further along the Overberg coast is the Unesco-listed De Hoop Nature Reserve, my favourite coastal reserve, where you should definitely book into Morukuru Beach Lodge (morukuru.com/places/beach-lodge). The five-room property is one of the best beachfront retreats in Africa. By October the weather will be warm enough to enjoy the setting fully, along with the whale-watching and guided marine walks on offer.
While male leatherback and loggerhead turtles remain resolutely at sea, females come ashore during November to lay their eggs in the soft sands of Maputaland, on the north coast of KwaZulu Natal, and Mozambique – on the very same beaches where they were spawned. It’s magical to watch these large-shelled vertebrates heave up on to these pristine sands, and later to see the hatchlings emerge 55 to 60 days later.
The best bases from which to witness this ancient, instinctive ritual are the 16-room Rocktail Bay (wilderness-safaris.com) and the 12-suite Thonga Beach Lodge (thongabeachlodge.co.za) in Mabibi. Both also offer snorkelling and diving, though the best dive sites are further north on the Mozambique coast. For a tailor-made itinerary that includes turtle tracking and other adventures, contact Cedarberg Travel (cedarberg-travel.com).
Celebrate with bubbles
Franschhoek, a narrow valley dwarfed by mountains, is the prettiest winelands region. In early December it hosts the Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival (franschhoekmcc.co.za), held in the Huguenot Monument gardens. The village, with its delightful wine tram, is understandably popular – so don’t wait too long to book.
There are plenty of tempting places to stay. La Clé Country Lodge (lacle.co.za), which opened in 2018, is a fabulous five-bedroom “house-hotel” located in a working vineyard yet within easy strolling distance of the high street. Perks include a private pool, tennis court, heli-pad and the services of two professional chefs.
If you prefer your bubbles malted, the Cape Town Festival of Beer (capetownfestivalofbeer.co.za), billed as “the most comprehensive festival in the southern hemisphere”, takes place over the same period at Hamilton’s Rugby Club in Green Point. Loud and raucous (think big-screen rugby), it allows you to work your way around the 60 or so breweries in the area.
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