As cooler temperatures sweep the Northern Hemisphere, summertime is in full swing in South Africa—the perfect time to explore the outdoors.
While the Cape Town water crisis may have put a damper on international arrivals last year, savvy travelers are returning to South Africa to admire its natural beauties—and their tourism dollars are supporting local economies. From blooming botanic gardens to coastal penguin colonies, here are seven ways to extend your summer vacation.
Hike through the Valley of Desolation
Like works of fine art, hundreds of millions of years of geology are on display at Camdeboo National Park. But its most spectacular corridor is the Valley of Desolation. Stacked dolerite columns, formed by millennia of erosion and volcanic activity, stretch up to 400 feet high. Visitors can take in the sweeping views by car or explore marked hiking trails. The park is also home to an array of wildlife, including the springbok, Cape mountain zebra, black wildebeest, and the bat-eared fox.
Room with a view: The historic Drostdy Hotel is nestled in the charming town of Graaff Reinet, surrounded by the wilds of Camdeboo. After hiking the valley, treat your sore muscles to a massage at Africology Spa before indulging in local fare at De Camdeboo Restaurant.
Raft through one of the world’s largest “green canyons”
Blanketed in lush, subtropical vegetation and framed by precipitous cliffs, Blyde River Canyon is one of the most striking natural wonders in South Africa. The gorge stretches 16 miles and plunges 2,600 feet, making it one of the world’s largest “green canyons.” Travelers can go white-water rafting, hot-air ballooning, hiking, and kloofing (adventurously descending ravine-like waterways). The canyon is also located on the “Panorama Route,” a scenic road that connects several noteworthy stops in the Mpumalanga highlands, including Bourke’s Luck Potholes, Three Rondavels, Pinnacle Rock, and God’s Window.
Room with a view: Located in the heart of Blyde River Canyon, umVangati House accommodations were designed with privacy in mind. The hotel itself overlooks spectacular mountain views, providing easy access to the Panorama Route and canyon.
Stargaze in the Cederberg Mountains
Millions of years of wind and water carved the Cederberg into a dramatic landscape of sandstone arches and deep ravines. Visitors can spot baboons, zebras, and antelope, plus—if they’re lucky—the more elusive porcupine, honey badger, and aardvark. Low light pollution and cloud cover also make this region a stargazing standout. The Cederberg Astronomical Observatory is open to the public on weekends (avoid planning around the full moon when visibility is low). But you don’t need the observatory for impressive views of the southern skies—just wrap yourself in a warm blanket and gaze up at the velvety, starlit ceiling.
Room with a view: Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, leaves guests starry-eyed. Not only is it ideally located for stargazing, fly-fishing, and birding, but visitors also have access to more than 130 ancient rock art sites.
Discover the Cradle of Humankind
Thirty miles outside of Johannesburg lies one of the most significant records of human evolution: the 180-square-mile Cradle of Humankind, one of 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites in South Africa. True to its name, archaeologists have unearthed more than three million years of history at multiple fossil sites, including Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Kromdraai. Together these stone tools, fossils, and skulls are evidence that human life originated on the African continent. Travelers can learn about our shared history at the Maropeng Visitor Centre and explore the Sterkfontein Caves where the Little Foot and Mrs. Ples fossils were discovered.
Room with a view: Located in Johannesburg’s creative center, the beautifully designed African Pride Melrose Arch, Autograph Collection feels like stepping into an art gallery. Take tea in the gorgeous Library Bar, dine in style at March Restaurant, and visit the nearby Melrose Gallery, which showcases African artists.
Spot the Big Five in Kruger National Park
A trip to South Africa wouldn’t be complete without spotting the Big Five: lions, rhinos, giraffes, buffalos, and leopards. Spanning 7,523 square miles, Kruger National Park is South Africa’s largest park and home to almost every species of game found in South Africa, including cheetahs, elephants, crocodiles, hippos, and numerous birds. To explore the park’s 5,000 miles of roads, visitors can take a self-drive safari at their own pace or book guided daytime and nighttime tours. Stay a few days and explore during different times of day to increase your chances of seeing them all.
Room with a view: The rustic Protea Hotel Kruger Gate is located on the doorstep of the park’s Paul Kruger gate. Wind down at Dees African Spa and enjoy live entertainment on Saturdays at Lapa Restaurant.
Take a tram through wine country
More than a hundred years ago, farmers laid down train tracks on the Western Cape to transport produce to the marketplace. Today, those tracks take visitors through miles of rolling vineyards aboard the double-decker Franschhoek Wine Tram. The open-air, hop-on hop-off service allows visitors to explore their choice of eight different lines, which include stops at some of South Africa’s oldest wine estates for cellar tours and tastings. Aboard the tram, guests will learn about the region’s 300-year-history and winemaking techniques. Remember to leave extra room in your suitcase—you’ll want to take a taste of South Africa back home in a bottle.
Room with a view: Near Franschhoek village, the fairytale Franschhoek Country House & Villas is an idyllic countryside escape. Go shopping in the nearby village, try wine tasting on horseback, and indulge in perfect pairings at Monneaux Restaurant.
Go whale watching in Hermanus
Off the coast of South Africa, the warm waters of the Indian Ocean meet the cold waters of the Atlantic, forging a haven of marine biodiversity. Located on the “Cape Whale Route,” the quaint seaside town of Hermanus is one of the world’s best land-based whale-watching destinations. Between July and November, visitors can spot the southern right whale, humpback whale, and Bryde’s whale (seen year-round) along the bay’s cliffside paths. Find an elevated spot, scan the waves for whitewater disturbances, and look out for the southern right whale’s distinct v-shaped blow. Stop for lunch at the Bientang’s Cave Restaurant & Wine Bar for fresh catch and stellar seaside views.
Room with a view: Tucked away in the UNESCO-designated Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, the African Pride Arabella Hotel & Spa, Autograph Collection is a nature-lover’s oasis, home to more than 1,880 plant species. Relax at the Arabella Spa, book tee time at the top-ranked golf course, and sip on maritime wines from Benguela Cove while watching sunset on the lagoon.
- Nat Geo Expeditions