A view of South Africa’s Franschhoek valley from a suite at the Mont Rochelle Inn and vineyard. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
Standing on the balcony of a suite at Mont Rochelle, I felt more like I was staring out over a European village than the South African countryside.
As the sun rose over the mountains and valley of the famed Franschhoek wine region, all I could see were pristine estates and the lush countryside, like a picture-perfect postcard from France or the Netherlands, or maybe the Napa Valley with mountains.
It was just one of the many pleasant surprises I encountered on my first trip to the country, sponsored by the International Luxury Travel Market in conjunction with its April ILTM Africa event. The trip highlighted South Africa's abundant and diverse luxury offerings beyond what most Americans associate with Africa: safaris.
The first surprise came in Cape Town, where I was captivated by not only the sheer natural beauty of its coastline and mountains but also the modern, clean, cosmopolitan feel of the city.
I spent three days there at the One&Only resort, a modern haven that offers the best of both the city hotel and resort worlds with a waterfront spa and retreat-style setting in the heart of the bustling Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.
While the main building offers dramatic views of the city's Table Mountain, I was in a villa on a private island in the center of the waterway. Just a short walk over the bridge from the main hotel, the villa was near the pool and spa and felt more like a resort getaway.
The One&Only Cape Town, in the heart of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.
Described as "urban chic," the hotel offers the best in modern luxury amenities and service: a huge bathroom with an oversize tub set in the center, a dressing area larger than most hotel bathrooms and a large combo bedroom and sitting area with a private balcony that overlooks the water where paddleboarders occasionally floated by.
While some might prefer the more traditional settings of the Belmond Mount Nelson or the smaller inns in the city's Garden District, one of the things I really liked about the One&Only was its proximity to the waterfront, with its shopping areas, including a native arts and crafts market, restaurants and one of the city's more sobering tourism draws: the ferry to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.
A three-hour excursion to Robben Island is a must, not only for its history but also for the panoramic views it offers of Cape Town and the South African coastline.
Diamonds and wine
After Cape Town, Thompsons Africa arranged what admittedly was a whistle-stop tour intended to give us a taste of as much as possible in a very short time. We said goodbye to Cape Town with a morning helicopter ride along the coast, then headed to the wine lands of the nearby Stellenbosch and Franschhoek valleys.
Our first stop was Val de Vie Estate, a vineyard and polo club where we tasted its fine vintages and got a quick polo lesson. From there we headed to the sprawling DeLaire Graff Estate in Stellenbosch, owned by the chairman of Graff Diamonds Holdings, where you can buy fine diamonds along with your fine wine.
The exterior of the Mont Rochelle, located in Franschhoek, widely considered the food and wine capital of South Africa.
We had lunch overlooking the vineyards of Stellenbosch, then headed to our final stop, Mont Rochelle, a nicely renovated, Cape Dutch-style, 26-room inn and vineyard in the town of Franschhoek, widely considered the food and wine capital of South Africa.
I stayed in a spacious suite with two balconies, one overlooking the main building, the other with stunning views of the nearby mountains and valley.
The resort, now owned by Richard Branson as part of his Virgin Limited Edition collection, is situated on a vineyard estate that is open for exploring (with a picnic basket and bottle or two of wine, of course), two restaurants, a bar, a spa, a gym and a heated, outdoor pool.
Going on 'Spafari'
Of course, no trip to South Africa would be complete without a safari. So from the wine lands we headed to Kapama River Lodge on the Kapama Private Game Reserve on the outskirts of South Africa's Kruger National Park. The reserve merges varying levels of upscale and luxury lodge and tented accommodations with one of South Africa's best safari lodge spas, a stunning open-air facility that offered the final surprise of the trip, what I have dubbed a "spafari."
While we hit the jackpot on our game drives, spotting the Big Five — a leopard, lions, hippos, rhinos and elephants — the spa is set off from the main lodge in an unfenced area of the reserve that offers its own alternative viewing.
When I walked in for my midday treatment, there were buffaloes wandering in the pond just outside the pool deck, doing whatever buffaloes do. After one of the best massages of my life, the buffaloes were gone but a hippo had emerged. And apparently I had just missed seeing a lion chasing its prey along the side of the buildings.