Affordable luxury safaris in South Africa

South Africa is renowned globally for its safari experiences, and deservedly so.  Historically, there have only ever been a handful of truly luxurious safari destinations in South Africa, such as Londolozi, Singita, and Mala Mala, with very luxurious price tags associated with them.  These are all located in the Kruger area, which is ideal for game viewing but not much else.  However, in the past few years the availability of a luxury safari has grown widely in the industry, and today travelers can enjoy an exceptionally luxurious safari at a much more reasonable price while ensuring an equally high level of game viewing pleasure.  In particular, Kwazulu-Natal, which is famous for its fantastic beaches and resorts as well, offers numerous safari experiences on a par with the best.  All of the resorts reviewed are in malaria-free regions of Kwazulu-Natal.  My favorite three are:

Lion’s Valley Lodge, near Ladysmith, Kwazulu-Natal

My first sense that this was going to be an incredible safari was in the help I received in getting directions on how to drive there from Durban (about 3 hours).  Adri, the General Manager, was unbelievably friendly and helpful over the phone, so my expectations were high.  I was not disappointed.  Upon arrival, we were whisked up to the main lodge, where we were awe-struck by the lodge and welcome by the staff who seemed genuinely delighted in our arrival. The massive thatched porte-cochere and entrance dips down into the reception area, and the infinity pool.  You are immediately left in no doubt whatsoever that Lion’s Valley is ALL about the luxury experience.  The Main Lodge also boasts a beautiful and very comfortable ‘Ralph Lauren’ style combined library and large living room, the boma (traditional open fireplace), gorgeous bar, and beautiful dining room.  The infinity pool and terrace have exceptional views of the bush and its wildlife, and several times while I was swimming elephants would wander over and put their snouts in the pool for a “sneaky drink”.

Lion's Valley Lodge

Checking in was as complicated as handing us the key to our suite, which was the Livingstone Suite.  I’ve been on plenty of safaris, and rarely have I been given a room as big as this.  Massive and beautifully appointed, there wasn’t a single luxury amenity that I could think of that was missing from the suite.  Our huge patio area included a large outdoor shower area, lounge chairs, and of course our own dipping pool.

Safaris are all about the game, and the ranger who is assigned to you can make or break the experience regardless of the amount of game in the area.  Lion’s Valley’s rangers are exceptional.  Our ranger dramatically enhanced our experience by mixing in local awareness of birds and flowers in addition to ensuring that we got a lot of close-up game viewing, and lots of it (particularly Elephants, for which it is well known, and cats).  The camp, as the name implies, is within a valley and grasslands area, which ensures that the number and type of game available to see is very extensive.  They also provide incredible panoramas for your morning game drive coffee, or evening drive drinks (mine was a martini gently shaken in an antique silver shaker).   The game drive experience at Lion’s Valley felt highly personalized.  For photography buffs, I never once had to ask for a change in vehicle position for better lighting or shot angle: our ranger instinctively knew how to position the vehicle for maximum effect every time.

Luxury safaris are also about the post-game viewing experience, and Lion’s Valley exceeded here as well:  The pre-dinner drinks at the bar and boma were a convivial experience and while none of us had dressed up for the occasion, the bar staff treated us all like a bunch of swells at Harry’s Bar.  The piece de resistance was definitely the cooking: an unbelievable smorgasbord of epicurean delights, presented in a way that would match top restaurants in London or New York.

And the kicker?  It was less than a third of the price of the other places near Kruger, and you can finish your vacation at exceptional beaches only a few hours’ drive away!

Phinda Mountain Lodge, Phinda Private Game Reserve, Kwazulu-Natal

Phinda and its parent company &Beyond have a well-deserved reputation for impeccably luxurious safaris.  Located in its own private reserve just to the north of Huhluwe-Umfolozi, Phinda Mountain Lodge goes to great lengths to ensure that its guests enjoy the ultimate luxury safari experience.  My first impression is surprise: The walkway up to the Lodge gives me the impression of a more traditionally-styled camp until I get past the rock walls and arrive at the modern, elegant, and expansive buildings.  The buildings surrounding the U-shaped entrance courtyard are all floor to ceiling glass-walled, and the effect is both to pull you into the area and focus your attention on the exceptional views outward.  Both the bar area and dining room showcase the views in very comfortable settings, with the boma in a separate and traditionally African setting.

Phinda

Our suite, while beautifully appointed and exceptionally comfortable, was smaller than Lion’s Valley.  Once again, every luxury amenity imaginable was provided for.  The staff was very responsive to any and all requests, and terrifically friendly.  There was no doubt that they wanted you to feel pampered at all times, and they succeeded at that.

From a game-viewing perspective, Phinda’s private reserve ensures that you get to encounter the animals across a vast expanse of bush.  We also benefitted from not only having an experienced ranger driving us, but a spotter on the front of the Land Rover.  Cheetahs were by far and away the most visible and plentiful of cats viewing, and tracking a pride of lionesses kept the excitement level high.  Perhaps most enjoyable was the crash of Rhinos we were able to follow and get very close to for days, a big highlight of the Phinda experience!

Phinda’s post-game viewing experience was less luxurious than very social: meals and post-drive drinks were all served around the boma, a fenced and separate enclave from the lodge and bar there.  This was a uniquely genial South African affair, more focused on a gregarious opportunity to meet and enjoy fellow adventurers.  The fantastic and creative meals showcased both the Chef’s talents, and his focus on a luxurious dining experience under the stars.

Phinda Mountain Lodge is about half of what you would expect to pay at the top-shelf destinations in the Kruger areas, and another great value.

Thula Thula, Zululand, Kwazulu-Natal

Thula Thula is located just outside the Huhluwe-Umfolozi  Reserve, and is well known for its Elephant herds & conservation efforts.  While it is older than Lion’s Valley and Phinda, it works just as hard to deliver an exceptional luxury safari adventure.  The lodge is reminiscent of the more traditional thatched safari lodges of yore, with the large open internal area shared between the bar, living room-style area, and dining room appointed with style and luxury in mind. The lodge and adjacent pool area are surrounded by wide expanses of grass, giving a resort-like feel to the area.  The overall impression is one of great comfort: yours.

Thula Thula

We stayed in a Thatched Chalet, a large, very comfortable, and luxuriously appointed suite adjacent to the lodge.  While smaller than the others reviewed here, it certainly lived up to my high expectations.  The staff was incredibly friendly and sweet, and generous in their attention to our needs.  The post-drive massages were divine!

The highlight of Thula Thula’s  game-viewing experience was the elephant herds.  We were able to get very close to the herd and spend long periods enjoying the calves, a very rare experience in such proximity (we were later mock-charged by one of them, an extra level of excitement).  Our ranger was very charismatic and knowledgeable, and also gifted in ensuring that my photography objectives were more than met.  We were also provided a spotter, a definite benefit in the often thick bush areas.  A martini sundowner served in a chilled glass with a starched linen napkin by a drinking pond teeming with various animals, certainly met my criteria for a luxurious cocktail.

Thula Thula’s dining experience was cozy and romantic.  The emphasis was less on luxury for its own sake, but rather the opportunity to reflect over a great day of game-viewing over a delicious meal, beautifully presented.    My consistent feeling was one of an understated luxury safari, where the guests’ enjoyment of a five-star safari by the staff was very prominent.

Thula Thula is about a quarter of the price of the high-end Kruger and Mpumalanga luxury safari destinations.

Comments (1)

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  1. Amelia says:

    I have to say, I stayed at Phinda Mountain Lodge and it was absolutely incredible. Highly recommended!

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