South Africa Always Steals the Limelight

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Travelers about to set foot on African soil by flying on South African Airways will find few episodes as stirring as their first impression: watching the sun rise while flying over a mesmerizing continent where stirring experiences are the norm.

It’s a long, nonstop haul from New York to Johannesburg and, just about when the plane makes the coast of Angola, bright golden light oozes into the cabin like honey—and Africa, vast, hazy and mysterious begins to unfold below. It’s an entrancing sight, reason enough to request a port side window seat when booking the trip.

The always-spectacular in-flight sunrise is but a preview of the hits to come for those seeking a luscious nibble of the fabled banquet that’s the South African experience. From the onset, it’s clear to see why South Africa is one of the trendiest and most exciting and alluring destinations in the world and why it is a sure bet to rank high on travel plans in the immediate future. We fall in love with South Africa time and again, and because it has so many different experiences to offer, it keeps sneaking into our Editors’ Hot List issue, and we don’t mind one bit.

johannesburg When it comes to drawing visitors, Johannesburg is long in history, but often seems short on patience. Countless construction projects sprout at breakneck speed, solidifying its standing as one of the world’s premier destinations and Africa’s most cosmopolitan city. Even a brief, cursory stop in Johannesburg reveals enjoyable urban surprises.

Indeed, this isn’t the Joburg (as locals call it) of old. Civic leaders have made commendable strides to transform it into a remarkable destination. After all, just a tad over a century ago it was a backwater mining town, a city built on gold, with a strong frontier town atmosphere, traces of which are evident to this day.

Progress is evident throughout, especially in Sandton, a suburb dominated by sparkling upscale malls. Here, the Michelangelo Towers, a superb Italianesque hotel and shopping complex, rises nearly 500 ft., offering panoramic views of Magaliesberg, the Johannesburg central business district and the Sandston cityscape.

With 194 luxury suites (prices begin from about $450 per night dbl for a superior suite, climb to about $650 for larger deluxe suites and top at $1,300 for its super plush presidential suite), the Michelangelo offers first-rate service, excellent restaurants and sterling service.

If that weren’t enough, it’s conveniently adjacent to the modern and festive atmosphere of Nelson Mandela Square, home to some of Joburg’s most popular restaurants and nightspots.

Johannesburg is living up to its motto, “The city where work comes to play,” and nowhere is this as evident as in Sandton, a suburb that reflects the visitor-friendly reputation that city planners had long hoped Johannesburg would attain.

“We have come a long way, but there’s much more to do to transform Joburg from a ‘passing through’ destination into one of South Africa’s more popular stops,” says Laura Vercueil, manager of public relations and communications for the Johannesburg Tourism Company.

Vercueil is sitting on the terrace of a sparkling restaurant at one of the city’s popular spots, SAB (South African Breweries) World of Beer, on the grounds of a complex that houses the largest beer brewery by volume in the world. Approximately 150 brands are churned here, producing more than 120 million barrels a year.

World of Beer is popular with locals and visitors alike who come for a 2-hour presentation on the history of beer. It is a must for beer lovers.

Sitting on the terrace, it’s easy to discern the facelift Johannesburg has undergone. The skyline stretches beyond what any of the early city fathers foresaw. After all, they were prospectors and miners who came to find fortune.

But that was yesterday. Today, Joburg is a thoroughly modern metropolis full of art galleries, museums, music venues, first-class hotels and the hectic lifestyle typical of world-class cities.

Sadly, most Americans who come such a long distance to experience South Africa miss the wonders of Johannesburg in their eagerness to get to more exotic locales.

A must in Johannesburg is the Apartheid Museum, a solemn center that spotlights the days when brutal racial laws marred South Africa’s beauty. Visitors enter through separate gates, depending on their race, before moving through exhibits showing those turbulent times, culminating in the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president.

A tour company with vast experience in Africa is Tauck, offering choices that highlight Johannesburg’s substantial appeal. “Historic South African destinations like the Apartheid Museum, Soweto and Robben Island (the prison off the coast of Cape Town where Nelson Mandela was held) are incredibly compelling for visitors and bring to life the poignant story of the triumph over apartheid,” says Tom Armstrong, Tauck’s corporate communications manager.