Our South Africa specialist's guide to the finest safari lodges the country has to offer
02 Jul 2020
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Time spent on safari is an integral part of any South Africa holiday, with discerning visitors delighted by the sheer number of incredible safari lodges on offer there. When planning trips, many South Africa safari-goers will automatically gravitate towards the private reserves surrounding the world-famous Kruger National Park, which is renowned for its amazing wildlife and superb range of lodges to complement this.
For those who want to spread their wings a little, there are plenty of other choices to consider.
If you are doing a family holiday to South Africa then the malaria-free reserves of The Eastern Cape, as well as the Madikwe Game Reserve in the North-West province also blend luxury with wonderful wildlife viewing and world-class guides.
Further east, the reserves of KwaZulu-Natal are amongst the finest in the country and have a superb array of wildlife to see, allied with the fact that the reserves of the area were the first in the world to focus on rhino conservation.
Wherever you choose to go, out experts will be able to recommend the best lodge for you, but here are what, in our opinion, are the 10 finest lodges in the country and should feature high on any traveller’s list, perfect for a luxury South Africa holiday.
When we are asked the question “what is the best safari lodge in South Africa?” it has hard to not immediately respond with the answer of Royal Malewane. Guests staying at the main lodge can choose between the beautifully designed luxury suites, all of which have their own unique style, antique furnishings and private swimming pools, or the sprawling royal suites which are even more spacious with two bedrooms, catering for both families and groups of friends travelling together. Even more luxurious are the luxury farm suites, a more modern take on safari rooms, but complete with the traditional touches and private pools that make Royal Malewane so enduringly popular.
Larger groups are able to book the Farmhouse on an exclusive basis, ensuring a private chef, housekeeping team and guides, or plump for the outstanding Africa House, one of the continents most iconic and desirable places to stay. Hosting up to 12 guests, this beautifully designed villa is crammed with owner Liz Biden’s most treasured furnishings and artwork. A stunning swimming pool overlooks the bushveld of the Thornybush Game Reserve and the world-class guiding team is on hand to ensure an unparalleled wildlife experience is enjoyed by all guests. Nothing is left to chance at Royal Malewane, guests’ every needs are planned from well before they arrive and the on-site team are on hand 24 hours a day to ensure no-one wants for anything from the moment they arrive to the sad time that they say farewell.
The premier offering from the Sabi Sabi stable of lodges, the stunning Earth Lodge is one of the most uniquely designed properties in all of South Africa, offering its guests the best of everything that visits to the country has to offer. The main lodge, as well as the suites, have all been built out of baked earth and straw, so their construction was completely eco-friendly and lends a unique purple-brown hue to the buildings. The vast suites have their own indoor sitting areas, huge beds and gloriously appointed en-suite bathrooms with luxury toiletries provided. There is a private outside area with huge comfy sofas, a hanging chair and swimming pool – the perfect place to relax in the afternoons and have some well-earned down time. The main area is a huge open-plan dining and indoor lounge area and the cuisine is amongst the finest any lodge in Africa has to offer.
Chef swap programmes with renowned London restaurants have helped to develop unique and innovative menus, accompanied by a vast wine list which boasts some of South Africa’s finest vintages. The bar is made from a huge piece of driftwood, with bar tenders proudly serving South African wines, craft beers and a huge array of spirits. Mix all of these factors with the outstanding guides and superb game viewing for which the Sabi Sand is renowned and you have a truly incredible place to spend a few days in the bush.
For many years now Singita has been renowned for offering the finest safari experiences that Africa has to offer, with painstakingly designed, impeccably run and gloriously located lodges throughout the continent. Safari aficionados gently argue about which of their lodges is “Number One” but for us it is hard to beat their Sabi Sand lodge Singita Boulders. Found in one of South Africa’s prime game viewing areas, a private reserve bordering the Kruger National Park, the lodge offers an unrivalled game viewing experience in the company of some of the country’s best guides. Big cat sightings, especially leopard, are outstanding here, whilst resident packs of wild dog move through the reserve and guides will always keep an eye out for them. The lodge overlooks a sweep of the Sand River, offer breathtaking sunsets from the sprawling deck and infinity pool.
The lounge, bar and dining area is an amazing place to relax, with outstanding food, a wonderful wine collection and unique cocktails served throughout the day. The spa offers an extensive range of treatments for individuals and couples – a lovely way to break up a day in the bush. The suites are amongst the most luxurious anywhere in Africa, with curtain-encased four poster beds, indoor sitting areas, beautifully-appointed an-suite bathrooms and private decking areas complete with rim flow swimming pools. If you love the finer things in life and have an appreciation for some of the most extraordinary wildlife sightings anywhere on Earth then Singita Boulders is without doubt the place for you.
Unique and innovative design has taken a while to take hold in the safari lodge world, with most operators preferring to stick with traditional styles and design. Tucked away in a private concession in the far north of the Kruger National Park, The Outpost proudly broke this mould, offering guests who make the journey up here a truly unique and innovative safari experience. The suites are built on a hillside, hidden from one another by the bushveld and built “side-on” so wherever you are in the suite you get the amazing bush views. Indeed, the fronts of each room can be fully “rolled-up” to maximise the views. The granite baths have been specially sited to maximise these views, so we highly recommend a post morning game drive bath with the sights and sounds of the bush rolling out in front of you.
When relaxing in the public area guests can choose between the open plan and open-fronted lounge area, which is packed with comfy sofas and private places to hide away, or the beautiful swimming pool area, complete with loungers and staff on hand to serve drinks. The food is outstanding, defying the remote location to offer guests a culinary experience to delight the senses, accompanied by amazing wines from renowned South African vineyards. If unique design is your thing, along with getting away from the crowds then we couldn’t recommend anywhere more than The Outpost – it is truly a sight to behold.
If you are looking for the ultimate in luxury in the Madikwe Game Reserve, then look no further than the amazing Madikwe Safari Lodge. The camp is split in to three “satellite” camps, with one dedicated to families, with the others hosting couples, so you will always be accommodated with like-minded guests, which helps to enhance the experience. The feeling of luxury hits you the moment you arrive at your lodge, with a huge open-sided lounge area filled with deep sofas and bar area to greet you. In the rooms the feeling of luxury continues, with wonderfully comfortable beds, spacious bathrooms with outdoor showers and open decking areas complete with their own plunge pools.
Minibars come filled with an array of drinks and snacks, with the lodge able to offer in-room dining for guests celebrating special occasions. The guides are outstanding, navigating Madikwe’s extensive road network with the utmost authority, giving guests up close and personal with the incredible wildlife that the reserve boasts and telling them all about what they are witnessing. This beautiful part of South Africa has been somewhat bypassed by those looking for luxury, but Madikwe Safari Lodge is undoubtedly one of the leading lodges in the country and always right at the top of our list of places to recommend.
When looking for luxury safari lodges, the size of where you stay is always an important factor. Smaller properties mean a more favourable staff to guest ratio, fewer people in game viewing vehicles and more space in which to spread out and relax. With these factors in mind, few lodges are more desirable than the delightful Phinda Vlei Lodge, a 6-bedroom lodge found in the heart of the Phinda Private Game Reserve’s breathtaking belt of sand forest. The elegant lounge area is a wonderful place to relax with comfortable sofas, a bar area and stunning views out in to the forest. Meals focus on seasonal, locally sourced ingredients are served outside, or in the lovely dining room which has a roaring fireplace at one end. The chefs are incredibly innovative and pride themselves in offering some of the finest cuisine of any of the South African lodges.
The suites are wonderful blend of modern stylings and traditional touches, with the curtain-draped four poster beds an especially alluring feature. Fully stocked minibars mean that guests are able to take afternoon drinks out on to their verandas which look out in to the eerily beautiful sand forest whilst the sparkling plunge pools are a great place to cool off in the heat of the afternoon. A truly wonderful lodge, Phinda Vlei is perfect for those who like the finer things in life with plenty of privacy and personalised service.
When seeking luxury many safari-goers place a premium on space, allowing them to spread out, relax and revel in glorious isolation. When it comes to offering space, nowhere in South Africa does this to the extent of Safari Lodge. The suites are utterly vast, accessed by a raised walkway from the main area with a huge open deck complete with swimming pool, covered day bed and even a private boma for candlelit evening meals the first thing that you see. Sitting back, relaxing on the deck or swimming in the pool and taking in the views over the bush is the perfect way to spend the afternoons. Inside the suites the bedroom and sitting room areas are separated by a roaring fireplace, which is lit for guests on cold winter evenings and is a wonderfully homely feature. The bathrooms have plenty of space, twin vanities and baths that look out through the windows over the bush.
The feeling of space continues in the main area where the large open-plan lounge and bar area leads out on to the decking area, another popular spot to relax in the afternoons and take in the sights and sounds of the bush. A stay at Thanda is a very special experience, with the wide-open spaces of the bush replicated by the design of the lodge to offer one of the most luxurious safari experiences that South Africa has to offer.
One of the (somewhat unfair it must be said) criticisms of safaris in South Africa is that they are too “samey” with similar ecosystems found throughout much of the country, leading to very similar wildlife experiences wherever you go. So, if your idea of luxury is something off the beaten track and truly unique then you should look no further than Tswalu The Motse, a stunning lodge in the heart of the private Tsawlu Kalahari Reserve. Privacy really is the watchword here, with the spacious suites able to host guests throughout the stay, with space for private dining, relaxing in between game drives and enjoying the views out over the desert. That said, the main area of the lodge is wonderfully spacious, with plenty of private nooks where guests can relax, enjoy meals, drinks and the outstanding service for which the lodge is renowned.
The swimming pool is very welcoming – afternoons in the desert can get especially hot, whilst the decking area is great for alfresco meals when the weather allows. The notion of privacy is extended to safari activities, with all guests given their own guide and safari vehicle, meaning they are able to explore the reserve to their heart’s content. Special wildlife sightings here including rhinos, legendary black-maned Kalahari lions and endearing meerkats, all spotted in some of the most mesmerising landscapes that the Rainbow Nation has to offer. This is a very special place indeed, the ideal spot to round off any journey to South Africa – undoubtedly one of its crown jewels.
South Africa’s Eastern Cape has long been beloved of visitors to South Africa for the safari element of their trips and being malaria free with a pleasant climate and an easy drive from another popular tourist area, The Garden Route, it is easy to see why. For a long time it did lack the really “uber-luxury” lodges that draw visitors to South Africa and was perhaps missing out the visitors who wanted something truly special to stay accordingly. In recent years that has all changed, thanks in the main to the massive investments the world-famous Shamwari Game Reserve, home to the Born Free Foundation, made in their lodges and safari offering. Their programme of improvements has allowed them to compete on an even footing with other lodges across the country and nowhere embodies their bold vision better than the gorgeous Eagle’s Crag. Tucked away at the base of jagged hillsides where eagles are known to nest, it is a wonderfully modern take on safari lodges, with lots of dark woods, private spaces to eat and relax and open sides to maximise the incredible views.
The food is outstanding, amongst the finest in the country with bold and innovative menu choices, alongside traditional favourites, complemented by a dream-like wine list. Exquisite bedrooms welcome guests when they get back from game drives, with light, modern furnishings, plenty of space and a lovely outdoor decking area, complete with a sparkling plunge pool which is a wonderful addition to the lodge. Those who want the convenience of a safari on the Eastern Cape, but with luxuries that other areas of the country are renowned for need look no further than the glorious re-invention of Eagle’s Crag.
When planning family holidays to South Africa safaris are always an important element of the trip, but often there are not the same number of luxury options that visitors travelling has couples have to choose from. One of the long-standing exceptions to this has been the outstanding Kwandwe Ecca Lodge, a luxury family-friendly lodge in the heart of the exclusive Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, a remote parcel of land in the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape. Guest staying here can expect all of the luxuries associated with modern safari lodges – spacious rooms, the finest linens, private plunge pools and stunning views. Combine these with a beautiful main area that boasts a stunning swimming pool, incredible cuisine and top-notch service, anyone staying at Kwandwe will want for nothing throughout their stay.
It is undoubtedly the dedication to offering the ultimate family safari experience that elevates Kwandwe in to the upper echelons of South African safari lodges. The three family suites allow parents bring children of all ages to the lodge. Safari times and lengths are tailored to ensure that families can all enjoy their game viewing together, but there is also a babysitting service to ensure adults can enjoy longer game drives should they wish. Children can learn to cook with the chefs, acquire animal tracking skills or simply enjoy a film and popcorn should they wish. Meal times can also be staggered, meaning the entire safari experience is optimised and no-one from the youngest to oldest guest misses out on anything they want to do.