For Americans, travel to South Africa is not exactly a spur-of-the-moment decision. But now more than ever, it feels conducive to that possibility — a place at least temporarily more accessible with only-during-COVID experiences. Those who go now can take advantage of the wide-open space, the half-booked safari lodges, the country’s best restaurants having availability, and the nonexistent lines for Table Mountain’s Aerial Cableway. Visitors will essentially be alone with the famous Western Cape penguin colonies, like in Betty’s Bay, where instead of hundreds lining the wooden boardwalk to gawk at the adorable birds, we were football fields from the nearest humans. And that’s to say nothing of supporting the decimated economy and livelihoods of so many who depend on it.
In mid-December, with omicron in every headline, my husband and I made a decision we’d agonized over: to proceed with our long-planned trip to South Africa to first meet my family for the holidays and then embark on our own tour. We were vaccinated and boosted, and we promised ourselves as little time spent indoors as possible — easy, since summertime there is truly lived outside — and that we’d continue wearing masks and washing our hands diligently. It was scary forging into unknown territory, but we felt peace almost immediately with what I believe was the wisest call for us.
South Africa currently requires a PCR test taken within 72 hours, and upon landing, you can expect temperature checks, health questionnaires, and mandatory sanitizer — dispensed via foot pedal, a ubiquitous hands-free contraption I saw at virtually every entryway in the country. Masks are mandatory and most wear them correctly everywhere — without complaint — often even in outdoor settings, like while hiking through delicate fynbos and behemoth rocks at the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden. The temperature check and sanitizer routine was relentless, but it never dampened our fun, and certainly didn’t overshadow the beauty embracing us.
Even as the nationwide curfew was lifted on Dec. 30, 2021 — for the first time since March 2020 — precautions remained, with some businesses keeping contact-tracing logs of patrons with their temperatures. In fact, I’ve never been so conscious of mine. Hardly one day in the entire month passed without me being acutely aware of the reading, since it was taken almost everywhere, including at Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge, where a staff member tracked us down each morning before our 6 a.m. safari drive.
As we settled into our first Airbnb, in the Cape Winelands, I watched South Africa’s daily positive cases steadily decline as numbers in the U.S. skyrocketed. Still, streets were emptier than before, and the mood was toned down in previously bustling places, like Cape Town’s vibrant V&A Waterfront. I’m not sure what’s happened to the city’s incredible bar scene — I didn’t think of going to one this time around. But I didn’t fully grasp how much COVID had hurt tourism until we flew out of Johannesburg’s international airport, where two-thirds of the shops and businesses were shuttered. “Is this because it’s the morning?” I asked the staff at a lounge. “It’s COVID,” she replied. “It’s been like this for two years.” In an artisan souvenir shop, a trio of salespeople idled by a display of intricately stitched pillow covers. “It’s devastating,” one told me. “We’re just standing here — there’s no one, no tourists.”
But despite the enduring hard times, you won’t find rude staff or attitude anywhere. It’s the opposite, in fact. Across almost a dozen hotels and lodges, we were met with the kindness, warm enthusiasm, and welcoming hospitality that I know to be signature to South Africans. At The Silo, I noticed the telltale signs of wide smiles beneath masks, and the friendly staff wore pins denoting they were vaccinated. This show-stopping Royal Portfolio boutique hotel in a former grain silo is only hiring new employees who are vaccinated, I was told, to make guests of the technicolor, art-filled architectural landmark feel secure. (It’s the little things: Even their Wi-Fi network password — staysafe — furthers that mission.) And at a small restaurant outside the city, they obliged our request to sit outside, offered blankets, and respectfully wore masks when approaching our table.
In Franschhoek, beautiful wine tastings — like at Atlas Swift, which the husband-wife owners bravely opened during the pandemic — occurred outside. We savored stunning dishes at Chefs Warehouse at Maison under massive trees while chickens clucked around, as well as fantastic, decadent picnics at wine farms like Boschendal and Mont Rochelle — without ever being in an enclosed space.
The plush lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff, Johannesburg, wasn’t at all diminished by plexiglass surrounding its 360-degree front desk. Safety measures abounded, too, from the golf carts with plastic partitions taking guests throughout the village-like grounds and classically beautifully rooms to QR codes, plastic sleeves for masks, and extra table wipe-downs during dinner at Flames restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised by creative solutions to buffets, such as at Sabi Sabi, where guests used their own clean tongs to self-serve from a lovely outdoor lunch spread. Careful deep cleaning was also de rigueur at the InterContinental Johannesburg O.R. Tambo Airport — convenient for a night-before-your-flight-home stay since it’s just steps from the terminals and offers quick-turnaround Navomix Health COVID testing tents inside.
Essential to traveling right now — regardless of the destination, I’d argue — is flexibility. In South Africa, especially, it’s even more critical to enlist the help of an expert travel outfitter such as Extraordinary Journeys, which handled our arrangements beautifully and took the stress of last-minute changes off our plates. When a key flight of ours was canceled, they let me know on WhatsApp with several options, and when other itinerary issues arose, they again offered lightning-fast solutions and took care of making all necessary changes. Though things are getting shuffled around more right now due to low bookings, I’ll never complain about a half-empty flight, and the preeminent South African airline Airlink offers extraordinarily good service, including fresh food, even on the shortest hops.
Another thing to bring is patience. Some businesses, like the gracious and historic Mount Nelson, A Belmond Hotel — with its breathtaking panoramas of iconic Table Mountain and Lion’s Head — felt slightly understaffed. In these situations, service may take a bit longer, but I chose to revel in a slower pace. Hotels, too, have suffered countless setbacks necessitating patience: See the enriching and exciting new Marine Biologist for a Day experience with a Cape Town shark scientist that the Mount Nelson is eager to launch — safely.
Challenges aside, progress is being made. Mount Nelson is refreshing its famed fine-dining restaurant, Lord Nelson. Top Cape Town restaurant The Test Kitchen was sadly a COVID casualty, but it’s been reborn as an inspiring training restaurant concept, The Test Kitchen Fledgelings. Cape Town’s beloved La Colombe has just opened a new restaurant on the waterfront, an encouraging sign. And Babylonstoren, the beautiful winery, farm, and hotel in the Winelands, has continued developing gardens and singular creations across the vast, inspired property.
On a morning walk, my guide, Liesl, told me through her mask in a soothing fairy godmother voice about how they strengthened ties with neighboring farms during the pandemic, began offering local produce delivery, and built a large new kitchen garden to serve their award-winning restaurant, Babel.
The bottom line is, yes, there’s still caution being exercised, and that, to me, is a positive, especially if it means we lucky visitors get the privilege of watching a pair of cheetahs stalk across the Kalahari, with no other vehicles in sight. Or, that we can sit quietly watching a half a dozen white rhinos munch through their dinner, uninterrupted. Even being the sole person atop Lion’s Head as the fiery sun begins its dramatic descent over the Atlantic Ocean — that didn’t happen in pre-COVID times. Beyond savoring those wild, intimate, and rare opportunities, my heart felt warm knowing the direct positive impact of my tourist dollars. South Africa is welcoming us, and I happily accepted the invitation.