When I was younger, my family moved to Zurich, Switzerland for five years because of my dad's job.
Not only was Switzerland a great place to be an American expat, it was also a great home base for all the traveling my family did both in Europe and in other continents.
Out of all the amazing trips we took, there is one that really sticks out in my mind: our two-week trip to South Africa.
This is one of the only trips my family ever planned with the help of a travel agent. It was an investment, but a worthwhile one, because the trip left me with countless memories that I'll hold onto forever.
South Africa is a diverse country with so much to offer. There are larger cities to visit such as Johannesburg, Capetown, and the capital, Pretoria. Then there's Kruger National Park, which is a must for adventurous travelers hoping to experience a safari. There are beaches for surfers or sunbathers, and vineyards for wine aficionados.
Here are the highlights from my family's visit.
We started our trip with two days in Johannesburg. Because we were short on time, we didn't see a whole lot of the city.
We did go to one of Johannesburg's many flea markets though, where you can find all kinds of unique arts and crafts that are handmade by South Africans. Bargaining is a must at these markets. I walked away with a beautiful painting that is still hanging in my room today — for a fraction of its original price. Besides artwork, you can find everything from jewelry to clothing to fresh produce from local farmers. They're a great place to look for a gift for someone back home or a souvenir for yourself.
Some of Johannesburg's best markets include the Rooftop Market in Rosebank, the Bryanston Organic & Natural Market in Bryanston, and the Hillfox Market in Weltevreden Park. Click here for a full list.
Kruger National ParkWe then took a short flight to Kruger National Park, a large game reserve in South Africa's northeastern Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces.
After a seemingly endless bumpy ride in a van along a dirt road we arrived at the Motswari Private Game Reserve, the resort we stayed at during our five days in Kruger National Park. We slept in private bungalows that were fully equipped with a large bed and bathroom. A bungalow for two runs around $670 per night; if you book three nights, you'll get a discounted rate of $570 per night.
Resorts like Motswari are built right into the wilderness, which is why you shouldn't be surprised if you run into a family of warthogs on your way back to your bungalow from breakfast (yes, that happened to me). Watching the sunset is breathtaking, as is the unobstructed view of the stars at night.
During our stay we went on multiple safaris and were lucky enough to see four out of South Africa's "Big Five:" a lion, a leopard, an elephant, and a rhino (the only one we didn't see was a cape buffalo). Besides those four we also saw zebra, giraffe, a hippopotamus, and an impala.
Our safari guide took us through the park in an open jeep. The guide sits in the jeep, and then there's also a patroler who sits in a seat up front built outside of the car with a gun, just in case. This isn't your average trip to the zoo. You're seeing these animals in their natural habitat and you're getting close enough to actually touch them.
On our first trip, our guide instructed us to always keep all limbs in the vehicle, and to not make any sudden movements or loud noises. You're never permitted to leave the vehicle – although my dad did lean pretty far out once to snap a picture of an elephant. The goal is to avoid scaring off any animals, or worse, frightening them, which depending on the animal, can cause them to charge the vehicle (hence the patroler with the gun).
It's hard to describe the adrenaline rush you feel when a rhino jumps out of the bush directly behind your vehicle, or when your eyes meet those of a lion mother laying with her cubs. It's just something you have to experience for yourself.
The Wine RouteWith a unique climate that's like the Mediterranean, South Africa has multiple wine routes that weave through its scenic wine lands and vineyards. The wine routes are all pretty much within an hour of Cape Town, and the vineyards along them not only offer beautiful scenery, but sophisticated wine and delicious food. The country's signature variety is known as pinotage, a red wine grape that was bred as a cross between Pinot noir and Cinsaut. Some of South Africa's best wines include the Sadie Family Columella, the Mullineux Wines Granite Syrah, and the Kanonkop Paul Sauer.
My family drove what's known as the Garden Route. We started in Oudtshoorn, made our way down south to Plettenberg Bay and the Cape Agulhas, then drove north to Gansbaai, continued to Stellenbosch, and ended our route in Cape Town. It took us a total of five days. During our drive we stayed at some beautiful guest houses, and made multiple stops for activities.
One of my favorite guest houses that we stayed in was the Rosenhof Country House in Oudtshoorn. The rooms were luxurious and elegant, and they looked out onto the Rosenhof's impeccably maintained garden and pool. With only 12 rooms and 2 executive suites, the hotel is small. A luxury double room for two people is around $190 per night.
My family visited an ostrich farm while we were in Oudtshoorn, which gave my sister and me the opportunity to actually ride an ostrich. I can't remember the particular farm we went to, but the Safari Ostrich Show Farm and the Highgate Ostrich Show Farm are both good options.
It was a thrilling experience — they're a lot faster than you would think! Even though they're not particularly friendly, I thought the ostriches were adorable, so I was more than upset when my dad ordered ostrich for dinner that night. I refused to try it, but he said it was delicious, and it's a common dish in South African cuisine.
We also stopped at the Cango Wildlife Ranch, which is basically South Africa's version of a zoo complete with cheetahs, lemurs, tigers, crocodiles, and snakes. During our visit, my dad suggested we take a family photo all holding a huge boa constrictor. My dad and I thoroughly enjoyed it, my sister was petrified, and my mom basically stopped talking to my dad for the rest of the day because she was so mad at him for suggesting it.
We took a look at the world's highest bungee jump (Bloukrans Bridge) — unfortunately we didn't actually try it — and saw the Cape Agulhas, which is South Africa's southernmost tip and the dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
Just before we made it to Cape Town, we stayed at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in Gansbaai. The luxury eco-lodge describes itself as a "floral and marine eco-paradise." At Grootbos, guests can do anything from a nature walk to horseback riding to whale watching to shark cage diving. There's also a spa.
My mom and sister opted for the nature walk, while my dad and I went whale watching and horseback riding. We saw both whales and seals, and witnessed some shark cage divers. We only stayed there for a few days, but we probably could have stayed there for our whole trip and not run out of things to do. Grootbos' room rates are seasonal; in the high season — September through April (when my family was there) — a one bedroom luxury suite goes for $428 per night.
Cape TownCape Town was the last stop on my family's South Africa trip. We were only there for a couple days, so we didn't get to see all that much. One of the city's most popular attractions is Table Mountain, which overlooks Cape Town and provides great views. Unfortunately it was extremely foggy when we were there, so it wasn't worth taking a trip to the top. You can take a cable car up the mountain, or take a helicopter ride which provides stunning views of both the mountain and city itself.
Instead, my family explored the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Besides the waterfront, Cape Town is home to many visitor attractions. You can take a trip to Robben's Island to see the maximum security prison where Nelson Mandela served 18 years, lounge on Beta Beach or Oudekraal (both just 10 minutes from Cape Town's center), see endangered penguins at the Boulders Penguin Colony, and of course sample some mouthwatering seafood at restaurants all over the city.
I made the decision to get my whole head braided, which in retrospect, was not my best idea. After four very painful hours at a local salon, my family headed back to our hotel and flew back home the next day. Let's just say the flight was anything but comfortable.