South African spa retreats

by Sarah.Todd

South Africa has been in the spotlight recently for the 2010 World Cup - but it also deserves celebrating for its fantastic spa retreats. Here are my tried-and-tested personal top three

Everyone should visit South Africa at least once, and there has never been a better time to do so than now.

There has been a huge investment in the country's infrastructure because of the World Cup and the exchange rates are extremely favourable at the moment. The quality and standard of accommodation has never been better, and you'd pay three times as much for the equivalent levels of luxury elsewhere.

I’ve chosen three gorgeous places to stay, with something for every taste. Whether off the beaten track or in the middle of the action, all three offer exceptional spa experiences as well as a wide range of other activities. From an open-air massage overlooking the savannah to stalking lions in the wilderness or simply exploring the vibrant life along the Cape, each of my choices offers an experience unique to South Africa that you simply couldn’t get anywhere else in the world.

Best for wildlife

There is a huge range of different safari and game reserves in South Africa, each offering a slightly different experience. Thanda Private Game Reserve was the first I visited, and remains my favourite. To be this close to nature was, at first, scary and intimidating, but with knowledgeable game drivers constantly on hand, it was easy to relax and appreciate the amazing beauty and diversity of my surroundings.

While the reserve covers a vast area, the 'human' part of the lodge is really intimate, with a main building for meals, only nine accommodation villas, and a separate building housing the spa. There is an understated luxury that runs throughout at Thanda. While the villas are gorgeous, with each boasting a private terrace, plunge pool and massive beds, chances are you won't be spending as much time in them as you may like.

Thanda is the place to go to experience the open-top Jeep game drives. To make the most of your time here, you're going to be getting up well before the sun rises and crashing out long after the sun has set. It's more than worth it, though. Each of our group had a different favourite from the huge range of animals, birds and reptiles on offer. For me, sitting no more than an arm's length away from a lion was unforgettable. Although the owners are discreet about it, Thanda is a favourite with celebrities - being this far into the wilderness on a private reserve pretty much guarantees anonymity.

High tea is served every afternoon at the main lodge, and be sure to try a traditional African boma - a cook-out under the stars, where you could end up eating some of the warthogs you saw earlier!

To soothe any post-game drive aches, there's the opportunity to indulge in an open-air massage at the spa or take a dip in the swimming pools and chill on the sun decks. For gym bunnies, there's a dedicated fitness area with equipment that boasts views across the veltland.

Best for wine-lovers

Wine-lovers are spoilt in South Africa, but never more so than at the Lanzerac Hotel & Spa. Situated north of Cape Town in the Stellenbosch region, the hotel sits at the foot of the imposing Jonkershoek Mountains, surrounded by working vineyards and giant oak trees. 

More than 300 years old, the estate has a pretty much unrivaled heritage and provides an ideal platform for exploring the surrounding Cape region, taking in a round of golf, enjoying cellar tours of other vineyards, or going mountain biking. For those more horizontally-inclined, Lanzerac also boasts a fantastic spa, which opened a couple of years ago and uses vinotherapy (wine therapy and grapeseed extracts) in its treatments. There’s also a Spafari option, where you receive an open-air massage under a willow tree at sunset. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

Be sure to check out the Esquire Whiskey Bar and Cigar Lounge, at the back of the main restaurant area. Open from 5pm until very late, it’s reminiscent of a glam speakeasy and even offers a wooden cupboard where you can store your own bottle of Johnnie Walker until your next visit.

Best for romance

Karkloof Spa is a lush, romantic hideaway and would be a perfect place for a honeymoon. Situated within a game farm in the Karkloof Valley, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, it has a boutique lodge offering 16 villas and an eight-tent camp. There is also a substantial terrace, which is an ideal spot to take in the stunning backdrops over breakfast, and a large open-air swimming pool.

The game farm at Karkloof breeds a number of animals, including Cape buffalo, white rhino, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest, but not lions or cheetahs, making it a good location to bring children for their first safari taste. The food here is top rate, while the activities on offer, such as walking, hiking and mountain biking, certainly build up your appetite. There are also four waterfalls and three rivers located on the property, some of which are a short bike ride away.

Inside the lodge, there is the option of wine-tasting, where you can sample the hand-picked collection of estate wines and champagnes. There is also an outdoor, heated swimming pool adjacent to the main lodge building.

One of the main focuses for Karkloof is its environmentally-responsible spa. Therapists specialise in Thai treatments, while the spa’s Reflections Room is a unique take on a standard spa chillout room, complete with panoramic views over the valley. It’s not unusual to find a wildebeest peering through the window or, in parts of the spa with glass reinforced skylights, to hear trotters on the pane and find warthogs – of which there are many – ambling over the roof!