Nelson Mandela statue in Cape TownOn Dec. 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95, leaving South Africa a far better place than the country he was born into.

Nobody was as instrumental in transitioning his nation from apartheid to a true democracy than this giant among men.

I had the opportunity to explore the country in the weeks before his passing. Along with wildlife, world-class winelands and an exploration of its diverse and vibrant cultures, Mandela's life and legacy is an integral part of any visit to his homeland.

After crossing the Atlantic and much of the African continent from New York onboard a South African Airways Airbus 340 to Johannesburg (known locally as Joburg), then a two-hour connecting flight, I arrived in Cape Town, the metropolis known as the country's "Mother City."

The Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront in the heart of Cape Town's harbor is South Africa's most-visited destination. It's home to variety of shopping and entertainment options as well as high-end hotels, including the 131-room One&Only, with its Reuben's and Nobu restaurants; the 120-room Cape Grace, with its Signal Restaurant and Bascule Whiskey, Wine and Cocktail bar offering a dizzying 500 whiskeys from around the world; and the chic boutique, 35-room, Queen Victoria Hotel.

Boats depart the Nelson Mandela Gateway here to Robben Island, a sobering trip that brings visitors face to face with the stark reality of South Africa's apartheid years. Mandela spent most of his 27 years of incarceration in the island's prison.

One and Only Cape TownTours of the former penitentiary are all the more poignant because they are led by former political prisoners. My guide was Ntozelizwe "Ntoza" Talakumeni, known as prisoner 58/86, the 58th prisoner to be incarcerated on South Africa's notorious island prison in 1986. Ntoza stopped in front of cell No. 10, where Mandela spent most of his time on the island as prisoner 466/64 before becoming South Africa's first elected black president.

The days of apartheid ended in 1994, but they are not forgotten. South Africans of all shades do not hide from their past.

On the ferry back to the mainland, the magnificent site of Table Mountain hovers ever larger over Cape Town. A cable car carries visitors to the top of flat-topped mountain, where spectacular views, a nature trail, a restaurant and a gift shop await.

As beautiful as the city looks from terra firma, it is even more spectacular from the air. Cape Town Helicopters offers a number of helicopter tours departing from the V&A Waterfront, including flights to the Cape of Good Hope.

Cape of Good HopeDay-tripping in any direction from the city of 3.7 million by car or rented motorcoach yields vastly different experiences.

Options include a drive down to the Cape of Good Hope, stopping along the way at Boulder's Bay, home to hundreds of African penguins; whale-watching off the coast of Hermanus; and exploring Cape Winelands, including the town of Stellenbosch. Not to be missed in the winelands is the pinotage, a varietal unique to South Africa, bred in 1925 from the pinot noir and cinsaut grapes.

After a final night in Cape Town, the alarm is set for any early morning departure aboard the Blue Train for its 990-mile northbound journey to Pretoria. The train's suites, service and cuisine live up to the company's label as a "magnificent moving five-star hotel."

The Blue Train arrives at Pretoria Station after a 27-hour journey. After exploring South Africa's capital in the afternoon I continue onto Johannesburg, a one-hour taxi ride to the southwest, basing myself at the DaVinci Hotel. The DaVinci and its sister property the Michelangelo are on Mandela Square.

Unlike Cape Town, it's a good idea to take a guided tour in Joburg because of street crime concerns. With Joe Motosogi of J.M. Tours at the helm and a request to better understand Nelson Mandela and the county's apartheid years, we head to the Apartheid Museum and then on to Soweto for a tour of the Mandela House on Vilakazi Street and the Hector Pieterson Memorial.

Apartheid MuseumVisitors enter the Apartheid Museum through doorways marked "Black" and "White" depending on the ticket they get, which is not based on your skin color. This ingenious first step helps visitors understand the apartheid years. Once inside, visitors are greeted by large photographs of the former separation of facilities around the country.

The Mandela House and Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto continue to clarify the reality of the apartheid years. The museum tells the story of Hector Pieterson, a teenage student who was gunned down by police in Soweto in 1976 during a peaceful demonstration against the implementation of Afrikaans and English as dual languages of instruction in secondary schools. Afrikaans was seen as the language of the oppressors. The museum was opened in 2002.

Mandela lived in the Mandela House prior to his arrest and briefly after his release, along with his first wife, Winnie; it now serves as a museum to his life and legacy.

Back in Joburg we explore the stylish Melrose Arch area before settling in for a classic African dinner at Moyo.

The next morning, dawn comes early with Bill Harrop's Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride followed by an exploration of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

A visit to South Africa without experiencing the country's wildlife would be to miss one of the its greatest offerings.

Cheetah at MalaMala Game ReserveLess than an hour by air from Joburg is Nelspruit, the gateway to Kruger National Park. Some camps offer fly-in options to avoid potentially long drives.

MalaMala is one of the high-end camps in the greater Kruger National Park area. The resort has its own landing strip, MalaMala Airfield, or can be reached by a 2-hour drive from the airport.

The unfenced borders between MalaMala and Kruger on one side, and the Sabi Sand Wildtuin on the other, enable animals to migrate unhindered to the perennial Sand River which flows through MalaMala.

On arrival, I'm greeted by Peter, a ranger who acts as host, guide and educator during my two-night, three-day stay.

Morning starts with a 5:30 wake-up call, since the edges of the day are when animals are most active and visible. After some rusk, a kind of African biscotti dipped in rooibos milk tea, I join Peter and five other guests aboard an open-air Range Rover with big expectations and even bigger camera lenses. It is minutes until we encounter three cheetahs as they chase a group of impala that escape into the brush only to be flushed out a moment later by a hyena in hot pursuit. Throughout the rest of my stay I have numerous wildlife encounters and am able to check off the Big Five — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo — from my list.

After a farewell dinner in a boma and an Amarula nightcap (a liqueur, kind of like South African Bailey's), it's time to pack for the next day's departure to Nelspruit for a flight to Joburg's O.R. Tambo Airport, then on to my international flight. As the SAA flight tucks its wheels, I gaze down at a country that Nelson Mandela and his fellow South Africans of all shades have over the past two decades transformed from a pariah state into the crown jewel of the African continent.

For more information, visit South African Tourism at www.southafrica.net and South African Airways at www.flysaa.com.

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