The variety is endless, from the urban sophistication of cities like Cape Town to the remote coastal forest south of the Mozambique border. The Garden Route, along the Indian Ocean coast between Mossel Bay in the west to the Storms River Mouth in the east offers an enticing combination of remote beaches, deserted forests and well-developed seaside resorts, while diamonds are still mined in the sandy wilderness north of the Orange river.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
Built on a peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Town is the main visitor destination and a centre of cultural and, increasingly, culinary attractions. The latest project of one of the city's most successful chefs, Bruce Robertson, is theshowroom, at 10 Hospital Street on Harbour Edge in Green Point (00 27 21 421 4682; www.theshowroomrestaurant.co.za). Other places worth eating include Haiku at 33 Church Street (00 27 21 424 7000) which has an Asian menu; 95 Keerom, on Keerom Street (00 27 21 422 0765), which does modern Italian; and Fork, a tapas restaurant at 84 Long Street (00 27 21 424 6098).
The choice of top-class accommodation is increasing all the time. Among the best hotels on the waterfront are the Table Bay on Quay 6 (00 27 21 406 5000; www.tablebayhotel.co.za) and the Cape Grace on West Quay (00 27 21 410 7100; www.capegrace.com). For old-style luxury, head for the City Bowl, as the central business district is known, and check into the Mount Nelson Hotel. Surrounded by lovely gardens at 76 Orange Street (00 27 21 483 1000; www.mountnelson.co.za), it was built more than a century ago to accommodate visitors arriving on Union Castle ships.
The city is presided over by Table Mountain - the summit can be reached by cable car. Other essential places to visit include Robben Island, whose idyllic setting makes it hard to imagine that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there; and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden on Rhodes Drive in the Newlands suburb (00 27 21 799 8783; www.sanbi.org), a must for horticulturalists. The garden opens 8am-7pm daily, and admission is R27 (£1.95). Cape Town's most upmarket shopping areas are the malls at Cavendish Square and Canal Walk, but the liveliest area, for shops, restaurants and classy hotels, is the redeveloped Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and South African Airways (08707 471111; www.flysaa.com) fly daily non-stop from Heathrow to Cape Town as well as to Johannesburg. Flyglobespan (08705 561522; www.flyglobespan.com) flies to Cape Town twice a week from Manchester. SAA operates a network of internal flights to the main cities, including Durban, Port Elizabeth, Kimberley and Bloemfontein -- as does Comair (00 27 11 921 0111; www.comair.co.za), which also flies on behalf of BA. If you are heading to any of the private game reserves around the Kruger Park, the lodge will usually arrange transport, probably on one of the private charters operated by Durban-based Federal Air (00 27 31 563 8020; www.federalair.com).
Helicopter transfers from the Kruger and Nelspruit airports close to a number of private reserves including Sabi Sands can be arranged through the Mpumalanga Helicopter Company (00 27 13 737 6754; www.mhelicopter.co.za). The company is based in Hazyview at the south-west end of the Kruger and also operates sightseeing trips along the Sabi River Valley and Blyde River Canyon. Trips last between 45 minutes and five hours, and prices start at R4,950 (£355) per person, for a minimum of two people.
OTHER WAYS TO SEE THE COUNTRY?
All the main international car hire companies have offices in South Africa, although it is often cheaper to arrange a fly-drive package before you leave the UK, with a company like Virgin Holidays (0870 220 2788; www.virginholidays.co.uk). On the whole, the roads are good, although long distances are involved if you really want to explore. A more relaxing - and luxurious - way to travel is to take the Blue Train (00 27 12 334 8459; www.bluetrain.co.za).
This express was originally devised to carry passengers arriving by ship in Cape Townnorth to Pretoria. The blue rolling stock has been updated and refurbished to provide lavish accommodation in deluxe suites, each with its own bathroom and the services of a butler. High tea is served in the Lounge Car, drinks in the Club Car, and meals in the elegant restaurant; you are expected to dress for dinner. An excursion to Kimberley is included on the southward journey; on the trip north, there is a trip to Matjiesfontein, a historic town in the Karoo National Park. The Blue Train runs on four or five days each month, leaving Cape Town at 11am and reaching Pretoria at 1.45pm the following * * day. The southbound departure is at 8.50am and the train reaches Cape Town at noon the following day. One-way fares with accommodation in a double suite start at R8,875 (£637) per person, singles 50 per cent higher at R13,310 (£955) in the low season, which includes departures around Christmas and New Year, with higher rates from 1 September to 15 November. Fares include all food, drinks and excursions. An alternative is the privately-run Rovos Rail service (00 27 12 315 8242; www.rovos.com), which uses beautifully refurbished Edwardian carriages that offer a variety of well-appointed suites. These trains operate routes between Pretoria and Cape Town, Victoria Falls and Durban. The shortest route is between Cape Town and George. One-way fares start at R4,540 (£326) with a 50 per cent supplement for single travellers. Prices include accommodation, meals, drinks and excursions.
CAN SOMEONE ORGANISE MY TRIP?
A trip on the Blue Train is incorporated into a seven-night trip offered by Kuoni (01306 747 008; www.kuoni.co.uk). The price of £2,264 includes three nights' B&B at the Westcliff Hotel in Johannesburg, one night's full board aboard the Blue Train, three nights' B&B at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, return Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow to Cape Town and transfers. A number of tour operators include South Africa in their brochures, often offering a choice of guided group visits or tailor-made trips, most of which will include a few days on safari. Among the companies offering both options are Cox and Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) and Abercrombie and Kent (0845 0700 610; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk).
The tailor-made holidays offered by Elite Vacations (01707 371 000; www.elitevacations.com) can include trips along the Garden Route and tours of the battlefields of northwestern KwaZulu-Natal, with stops at places like Rorke's Drift, where 100 British soldiers defended themselves against 4,000 Zulus in 1879.
I'D LIKE TO GO ON SAFARI
Choose between a safari in a National Park, like the Kruger, or one of South Africa's many private game reserves. All offer good game viewing, although the smaller ones are not always home to the "big five": lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. The first private reserve to be incorporated into the Kruger Park was Ngala (00 27 11 809 4300; www.ngala.co.za), which offers accommodation in luxurious thatched cottages that surround the main, colonial-style lodge building; there is also a camp offering luxury accommodation in six tented suites. Nightly rates at Ngala start at R2,605 (£189) per person, for full-board accommodation, drinks and safari drives.
Typically, these take place twice a day, departing at around 6.30am and then again in the late afternoon, to maximise the chances of seeing the animals at close range.
There are plenty of smaller reserves in other parts of the country, many of which offer equally good game viewing possibilities and whose locations are so secluded that two-legged animals are far rarer than the four-legged variety. Some of these are run by CC (Conservation Corporation) Africa (00 27 11 809 4300 or its UK number, 020-8133 1592; www.ccafrica.com), a company dedicated to wildlife conservation, and to making sure that profits from visitors are used to benefit the local communities. CC Africa's flagship property is Phinda ( www.phinda.com), on the edge of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
Here, land that had been ravaged by poor farming has been restored to wilderness, and animals have been reintroduced. The accommodation at Phinda is in suites. The luxurious facilities include private viewing decks and plunge pools. All-inclusive nightly rates start at R2,605 (£187) per person. Another interesting CC Africa private reserve is Kwandwe ( www.kwandwereserve.co.za) near Grahamstown at the end of the Garden Route in the malaria-free Eastern Cape.
Accommodation is in the lodge, a secluded homestead, and a more futuristic-style Ecca Lodge. All-inclusive rates here start at R2,605 (£187) per person. All these properties can be booked through CC Africa.
WHICH ARE THE BEST BEACHES?
The beaches along South Africa's coast are among the best in the world, from Camps Bay in the Western Cape, with its dazzling sunsets, to the unspoilt white sand of Cape Vidal. One area that is relatively little-visited is KwaZulu-Natal, and in particular Rocktail Bay. Turtles lay their eggs on the beaches here, and the marshes are a haven for birds. The Rocktail Bay Lodge (00 27 21 702 7500; www.wilderness-safaris.com) is a good base for snorkelling or diving among dolphins and sharks. Accommodation is in wooden chalets, built on stilts into the jungle canopy.
Between the two extremes of the South African coast is Plettenberg Bay, a popular holiday destination on the Garden Route, to the east of Knysna. It is an upmarket resort with plenty to occupy visitors, from mountain biking and diving; it is also an excellent location for whale-watching. Among the choice of places to stay is the five-star Plettenberg (00 27 44 533 2030; www.plettenberg.com). Rooms start at R1,600 (£116), with breakfast, in the low season, May-August, and R3,000 (£218) at other times of year.
North of East London in the Eastern Cape is the unspoilt and scenic Wild Coast, an area of sheltered bays and towering cliffs.The region around Durban is renowned for its beaches, although their proximity to the city means that they are very popular, particularly at weekends. Many of the beaches to the south of the city are family resorts; for a more exclusive seaside outing, head north to resorts like Umhlanger Rocks and Ballito.
I NEED A SPA TREATMENT
An excellent place to spoil yourself is the Village Spa at Lebombo Lodge (00 27 21 683 3424; www.singita.com) on the south-eastern edge of the Kruger National Park. In addition to a steam room and fully-equipped gym, there is a huge choice of treatments. These include Africa Hot Rock therapy costing R880 (£63) for a 90-minute treatment, and a pedicure, known as "Elephant's footprints", designed to re-energise the body and re-balance its energy. This costs R690 (£49).
Spa treatments are available away from the safari parks, too. Some, like Pezula on Lagoonview Drive in Knysna (00 27 44 302 3333; www.pezula.com), are in equally dramatic locations. This luxury resort hotel on the Garden Route is sandwiched between the mountains and the Indian Ocean. The Hydro at Stellenbosch (00 27 21 809 3800; www.thehydro.co.za) is a health resort founded in 1972 that offers a variety of therapeutic treatments in packages from a weekend to two weeks in duration. Programmes combine massage and hydrotherapy with lectures and workshops.
The Sante Winelands Hotel and Wellness Centre in Franschoek (00 27 21 875 8100; www.santewellness.co.za) is situated in the lovely surroundings of the wine country, and combines five-star accommodation with the opportunity to de-stress with massages and body scrubs. Also available is Vinotherapy, a rejuvenating treatment in which grape products and oils are rubbed into the skin.
I'D RATHER DRINK THE WINE
Franschoek, along with Stellenbosch and Paarl, are at the centre of the Cape Winelands district, and there are many fine wineries in the region, most of them geared up to welcome visitors. They offer tastings, but the best way to enjoy the wine is in one of the winery restaurants, where you can enjoy the sunshine and a good meal at the same time.
This attractive area of verdant countryside and Cape Dutch architecture is easy to reach from Cape Town and has some excellent hotels and restaurants. Most of the wineries are found along clearly-marked routes, the longest of which - possibly the longest wine trail in the world - is Route 62, which links Paarl with a number of smaller wine towns like Robertson and Rawsonville. Wineries are signposted everywhere, but look out for names like Weltevrede and Janeza, as well as some of the more established places like Wolvendrift and De Wetshof. If you feel that driving through the region is incompatible with taking full advantage of the tasting opportunities, companies like I and F Elegant Country Tours, based in Paarl (00 27 21 862 2665), will be happy to take you to visit some of the vineyards.
Alternatively there are plenty of places to stay in the wine country, like the Grande Roche on Plantasie Street in Paarl (00 27 21 863 5100; www.granderoche.co.za), which also has an award-winning restaurant, Bosman's. The Auberge du Quartier Français at 16 Huguenot Road in Franschhoek (00 27 21 876 2151; www.franschhoek.org.za) has a restaurant, the Tasting Room, that has been voted one of the best in the world by Restaurant magazine.
TIME FOR A FLUTTER
Sun City, north-west of Johannesburg and Pretoria, is a glittering resort - and a relic of Apartheid. It was founded in the days when gambling was illegal in South Africa but legal in this "independent homeland" of Bophuthatswana. The casino is its key feature, but it also has a challenging golf course, set in the attractive surroundings of the Pilanesberg National Park.
The most luxurious of the four hotels in the resort is the extravagant Palace of the Lost City (00 27 14 557 3111; www.suninternational.com), built inside the crater of an extinct volcano. According to legend there was a royal residence here which was destroyed by an earthquake and later rebuilt. Whether this modern palace, with its hand-painted ceilings, carved walls and jungle surroundings, is more fanciful than the original is hard to know, but a stay here is likely to be unforgettable. Rooms at the Palace of the Lost City start at R3,555 (£255); breakfast is extra.
A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND?
The town of Kimberley, in the Northern Cape province, has been the centre of the diamond mining industry since the diamond rush of the 1870s and 1880s. The Kimberley of that period has been recreated in an extensive open-air museum (00 27 53 833 1557), where visitors can stroll past the homes of the mineworkers and go into the village store and pub. The museum is on the rim of the "Big Hole", the largest hole in the world to have been dug out by hand, and from which millions of carats of diamonds were mined. The museum opens daily from 8am-6pm, and admission costs R20 (£1.45). You can tour a working diamond mine, by taking one of the Bultfontein Mine Tours, which depart from the Mine Gate on Molyneux Road (00 27 53 842 1321). Surface tours depart Monday-Friday at 9 and 11am and cost R15 (£1.10); and there are underground tours departing at 7.45am Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, which cost R80 (£5.80).