As a tourist destination, South Africa really has it all. There's the spectacular scenery and magnificent wildlife for starters, great food and wine, and a cultural mix unlike anywhere else in the world. If you've never been to Africa, South Africa is an ideal introduction to the continent. And with the NZ dollar soaring against the rand, now's the ideal time to go.
Glorious Cape Town
In any list of the world's most beautifully situated cities, Cape Town always comes out near the top. Set on a peninsula beneath the magnificent Table Mountain, Cape Town has great restaurants, fascinating culture and spectacular scenery, including multiple gorgeous beaches. Since 1929s, the Table Mountain Cableway has been safely transporting visitors to the top of the mountain. The view from the top is an unarguable Cape Town must-do, as is a trip to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years in captivity. The V&A Waterfront is a huge retail and hospitality precinct, built on the site of Cape Town's former docklands. Already the most visited site in Africa, the V&A Waterfront will get another boost next year with the opening of Zeitz MOCAA, Africa's first major contemporary art museum.
Whether you're a picky eater, a “try anything once” type, or something in between, South Africa is a great place to dine. This is a nation of meat lovers, where gathering at a braai (community barbecue) is an important social custom. Prefer to eat indoors? Some of the best steaks in the world are found at restaurants like Carne SA in Cape Town or the Butcher Shop & Grill in the upmarket Sandton area of Johannesburg. Other top restaurants include Cape Town's Test Kitchen, Jo'burg's Five Hundred and Pretoria's Restaurant Mosiac. You'll want to try at least a few “only in South Africa” dishes – the list includes biltong, the ubiquitous air-dried meat snack; bobotie, a spicy cross between meatloaf and stew; melktert, a kind of custard tart; and the street food bunny chow, a hollowed-out bread loaf filled with curry.
Wine-buff visitors head straight to the Western Cape, South Africa's viticultural heartland. With nearly all of the country's wine production concentrated in this one area, all you need to do is hire a car (or driver) and start exploring. The most famous regions are Paarl, Stellenbosch and Constantia, all a short drive from downtown Cape Town. A little further afield is Franschhoek, where the restaurants are as acclaimed as the wine. Top wineries to visit include the historic Vergelegen, the biodynamic/organic Waterkloof, and Fairview, the home of one of South Africa's leading wine brands. Historically, South African wine production focused almost entirely on white varieties. But these days the Cape is known for superb red wines too, many of them produced using South Africa's “own” grape variety, pinotage.
The Rainbow Nation
“Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld,” said President Nelson Mandela, “A rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” In South Africa, “Rainbow Nation” is a celebration of multiculturalism, including the numerous ethnic groups which make up the country's black majority. Learn about the traditions of Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele peoples at numerous cultural villages across the country, or join a guided tour of Soweto, the famously vibrant township. South Africa is also home to the largest Indian diaspora outside of India, largely centred in and around Durban. Mahatma Gandhi lived in the area for 21 years before returning to India to lead that country's independence struggle. Phoenix, the communal settlement he founded outside of Durban, is now a tourist attraction and remains a symbol of peace, justice and the fight for equal rights.
The Amazing Wildlife
Lots of countries can boast of varied wildlife, but few are quite as spectacularly diverse as South Africa, where you can go whale-watching one day and track cheetahs and lions the next. The world-famous Kruger National Park is one of Africa's largest game reserves, with impressive populations of all the Big 5 (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos), plus mongooses, baboons, zebras and more. If you're in the Eastern Cape, take a self-drive day trip through the Addo Elephant National Park – as the name suggests, elephants are the big draw here, but you're likely to also spot warthogs, kudu, zebras and antelope.