When we were deciding where to go on our big family trip with my 5 year old, the choices revolved around a few key points:
2 weeks in South Africa came up trumps and ticked all the boxes and I can honestly say exceeded our expectations in so many ways.
South Africa’s seasons are not so distinct so it really is a year-round destination. Spring-time in South Africa (Autumn in the UK) offers warm but not uncomfortable weather (with a level of unpredictability – the locals don’t even bother with weather forecasts). It’s whale watching season along the Cape Whale Coast; dry season for great game viewing and there is the added bonus of world renowned food and wine. Oh and a favourable exchange rate making it really good value at the minute (Autumn 2017).
Everyone I know who’s been to Cape Town loves the place and you could easily spend weeks here alone. A vibrant city surrounded by beautiful coastlines with the back drop of the magnificent Table Mountain. We gave ourselves 4 nights in Cape Town with the challenge to fit in as much as possible into our time here!
Arriving on a Saturday evening we took a recommendation on a great little family-friendly restaurant (Primi Piatti) opposite Camps Bay beach. We were a little worried about how Maya would handle the evening after two long flights and not much sleep (Emirates via Dubai knocked the socks off the British Airways direct flights on price). But were delighted by our first taste of South African hospitality and their absolute love of kids. She was accosted with high fives on arrival and entertained from there on in while we enjoyed a well-earned beer and delicious, well-priced food.
With no real time difference so no jet lag from changing time zones, we went to bed at 10pm and none of us stirred until 9am the following day feeling bright-eyed and bushy tailed (my longest ever sleep I think). After a blustery wander along Camps Bay beach we took a metered cab to Hout Bay as we knew the market is only there on weekends. Though small the market has lovely art and crafts for sale and a great atmosphere with long wooden benches, food stalls and bands playing on stage. Outside we saw our first seals and then enjoyed boxed fish and chips in the famous Mariner’s Wharf beach-side restaurant before a beach stroll.
Rather than pick up a car on arrival we had decided to take advantage of the hop-on/hop-off bus we had been recommended which departed from opposite our villa in lovely Camps Bay.
It’s a great way to get to see the sights, hear about some of the history and sights in the area (via complimentary headsets with commentary in several different languages and with a kid’s option). The buses run every 20 mins and tickets cost ZAR200/adult for 1 day (about £11), ZAR 300 for a 2 day pass including a fee harbour boat trip and kids at half price or free if they’re under 5 years old. We actually upgraded from 1 to 2 days as we realised it was a cost effective way to get into downtown to pick up our car and fill-in a couple of stops we had missed on our first day.
There are so many beaches and bays around Cape Town, some with natural outdoor swimming pools and each with their own character. The famous V&A Waterfront is impressive.
The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens are beautiful and deserved far more time than we were able to give them as we were on a promise to visit the World of Birds to allow Maya to be climbed on by small monkeys in their Monkey jungle. In fairness she loved it though we spent time from there on educating Maya in the joy of wild wildlife! That said there are some great centres and parks along the Garden route that care for injured and rescued animals and educate people on their plight – so if you’re headed out that way with kids, bear those in mind too.
On picking up the car we took the opportunity to travel the stunning Chapmans Peak coastal drive. This led us on to Boulders Beach and the promised highlight of South African Penguins.
The walkways are nicely done and although it’s quite busy, you get to see plenty of the little fellows beside the paths before you finally reach the penguin-covered beach. We were rewarded with the most wonderful rainbow I think I’ve ever seen. Penguins and Rainbows make a magical pairing (it was even worth the earlier rain)!
The next day we drove out to the winelands and Stellenbosch. We booked to stay 2 nights at Spier Hotel and Wine Farm where we received a lovely welcome again.
Our Signature room was enormous with two balcony areas and a bathroom the size of my living room at home! They offer interconnecting rooms for families as well as suites which have masses of living space. With 3 restaurants and a bakery/farm kitchen all focusing on organic, fresh produce farmed on site; wine tasting (grape juice for the kids); Segway tours; an art studio and craft market; and crucially a kids club - this hotel suited us all perfectly.
On our first afternoon here we visited the Raptor Rehabilitation Centre for rescued birds of prey and other wildlife which we felt was a nice place. Again, Maya loved stroking and handling the owls, snakes and lizards and we all enjoyed the informal bird show.
On our full day, I took advantage of the marked running routes around the estate (5km & 10km) in preparation for wine tasting and dining in the remaining two restaurants! Maya was delighted to have a kids club where she could hang out with her new best mates and we had a lovely time eating, drinking and tasting.
As we’re all interested wildlife, we decided to travel through the lovely tourist town of Hermanus but stay instead at De Hoop Nature reserve, known for being one of the best land based whale watching spots in the world. As we would be self-catering here for two nights, we stocked up on food in the nearest town which is 60km away. There is a good-looking restaurant on site but for a family, it makes a nice change from constantly eating out, depending how your kids are with trying new foods.
This vast conservation area is a protected site and includes 70km of pristine coastline, a 17km ‘vlei’ or wetland, over 85 species of game and numerous birds. There’s a wide range of accommodation to choose from here in the form of chalets and cottages and some glamping options scattered throughout the reserve.
We stayed in a private cottage that despite being at the budget end of the spectrum was an amazing 3 bedroom place with a full kitchen and living area. We had a fire pit in our garden area which just extended out into the wilds.
We had various deer trotting around outside as well as baboons, lots of birdlife and a puff adder at one stage (not to be messed with). One of my favourite quotes of the holiday was, “Mummy, there’s an ostrich in my garden!” - And sure enough, he was followed by his partner and 8 baby ostriches!
From our cottage, the beach was a 20 minute drive. We parked up and wandered down the sandy track and as the ocean came into view, so did the whales. We spotted up to 8 Southern Right Whales at any one time. The reserve has bay after bay of beautiful, barely touched white sand surrounded by rocky outcrops that make for great viewing platforms. It’s a stunning place and one day I would love to do the 3 – 5 day hikes in the area (clearly not until Maya learns the joy of hiking!)
Activities in the reserve include guided bird and marine walks, mountain bike hire and guided trails, a boat cruise on the Vlei and stargazing.
We stopped for lunch in Knysna harbour on route to our next stop near Plettenberg Bay. One of the great things about South Africa is that you see a brilliant waterside restaurant, order anything on the menu with a couple of beers or wine and when the bill comes, its generally a pleasant surprise. A good meal for the 3 of us with drinks cost around £20 – 50 tops. Even in the wine bars, a good bottle of wine costs between £5-10 and much less in the supermarkets if you’re self-catering. A large beer is only around £2.
Near Plettenberg Bay, we stayed in Lairds Lodge, which is an exclusive country house. The staff soon whisked Maya off to feed the fish, light the restaurant candles and to teach her how to make roses from napkins – giving us time to relax in the bar before dinner.
The optional four course dinner menu here is quite magnificent with the kind of cuisine you’d expect in the finals of MasterChef. Rooms here are enormous and beautifully decorated and the added touch of a giant, cuddly monkey waiting in Maya’s bed was very well received.
There’s lots going on in the area including white sandy beaches, Tsitsikamma nature reserve and various animal parks with elephants, cheetahs, monkeys and birds. At this stage we were saving ourselves for our safari so we just hit the beach and tried a bit of canoeing on the river.
Next stop was a 3 night beach break in Cape St Francis on the Eastern Cape and not far from Port Elizabeth. The Cape St Francis Resort has a variety of accommodation options so we booked a room in a luxury villa on the beach. The other 3 rooms are sold separately and you share the rest of the villa and small private pool with the other guests and wow what a result!
Our room (Beach Break - Wave Warrior - room 14) had double aspect corner windows with most magnificent ocean views. We looked looked over a beautiful beach with great sand dunes and a lighthouse marking Africa’s most South Easterly point. To our absolute delight, we were able to watch whales and surfing dolphins from our bed! Breakfast was served in house by our own chef who arrived each morning at a designated time.
Ending your trip with a stay in a safari lodge is a brilliant way to avoid the dreaded end of your holiday. We spent two nights at Kariega on the Eastern Cape which is just an hour and a half from Port Elizabeth.
It's a family-friendly, non-malarial reserve with spectacular biodiversity as it’s so close to the coast and coves five different eco systems. Its home to the ‘big 5’; lion, leopard, rhinoceros (both black and white species), elephant and Cape buffalo.
There are 4 lodges throughout the park, the Main Lodge being most suitable for young children. Our chalet was amazing with two large en-suite rooms either side of a living room equipped with log fire and an open balcony in the treetops where were greeted by monkeys on arrival. Meals at the main lodge are served buffet-style with a good selection and a well-stocked bar (payable locally).
We enjoyed some incredible, wildlife-filled game drives over the course of two days. These trips also always included a specially-selected spot for a tipple and bar snacks served from the front of the jeep (or coffee and muffins in the morning).
Our highlights included watching a rhino called Thandi with her two calves (she’s famous for being the first rhino to survive poaching and having her horn removed); a mating scene between a pair of lions at about 20 feet away; a herd of elephants of all ages who wandered past our vehicle and surrounded us, seemingly not even noticing our presence together with giraffe, zebras and deer galore.
This reserve caters well for kids with little work books to collect leaves and dung whilst you’re out on the game drives. They also have a free kids club where they’re taken on a nature walk and make their own paw prints.
We finished off our stay here with a relaxing boat cruise on the river spotting eagles and kingfishers and were still able to drive to Port Elizabeth Airport ready for our lunchtime flight home.
If you’re interested in planning a trip to South Africa or visiting South Africa with kids, I can plan the perfect itinerary to suit you. From flights and transfers to accommodation, car hire and local excursions – I can recommend the best options for you from first-hand experience. For more ideas, see our tailor-made South Africa holidays or our Trip Ideas which are exclusive of flights.