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There’s something about South Africa.

It’s the third time I’ve been to the African continent, and every time the plane touches down, there’s a visceral, deep emotional shift that occurs. I mentioned this to my husband and teenage son as we walked to our gate pre-flight, and could literally feel their eye rolls – what’s interesting is that by the time we left, they totally understood and agreed.

You can’t talk about South Africa to anybody without acknowledging the logistics of the travel itself – my mother-in-law’s first question: HOW many SHOTS did you have to have to go there? (Answer: none, but obviously I’m not a doctor and you should check with your own medical professional before making this decision). My own mom: HOW are you going to deal with that FLIGHT? What is it – 24 hours long? (Answer: it’s 16 hours and we flew United Polaris with a little help from Xanax – again, consult your own medical professional). By the time we boarded, had a light dinner and answered a few last minute emails using the in-flight wifi, there was time to watch one movie and then we went to sleep and woke up in Cape Town.

Cape Town is a joy to visit – the Belmond Mount Nelson feels exactly exotic enough to remind you that you’re in South Africa (palm trees + views of Table Mountain while enjoying poolside breakfast al fresco) but still embracing the timeless luxury feeling that Belmond is known for – exquisite food and beverage and oversize suites with soaring ceilings, and service so loving that it feels as if you’re staying with really well appointed friends.

We hit the ground running. In our four days enjoying the city we experienced all of the following: a visit to the Cape of Good Hope and some time chilling with the South African penguins who make their nests along the coast line; a thrilling ride via motorcycle side car along Chapman’s Peak; lunch in Hout Bay overlooking the wharf and hanging with the seals; a cable car to the top of Table Mountain, zip lining that was so terrifying I quit halfway through (judge if you must; I’m an adult and can say ‘no thank you’ when I’ve had enough), an incredible visit via e-bike through the wineries of Franschoek, and ate much too much outrageously delicious cuisine (of particular note was the tasting menu at Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia, but truthfully, every meal we ate was incredible).

By the time we boarded our flight for Lion Sands River Lodge, everybody was ready for a nap and some down time. Alas (not really, though) that was not to be! Upon arrival at the Lodge we were greeted by our fantastic guide and tracker and given about 90 minutes to check out our amazing waterfront two bedroom digs, eat our included gourmet lunch (served by our dedicated butler), and change for our first game drive into the bush. Now – your mileage may vary, and there are no promises on what you’ll see on any given safari drive, but – O.M.G. Between four and seven in the afternoon on that amazing first day we saw zebra and elephants, a leopard actually approached our jeep and looked me dead in the eyes from less than four feet away, we stopped for an outdoor happy hour overlooking the hippos bathing below, and to cap it off on the way home we witnessed a pride of lions tearing apart a fresh kill. True story. We couldn’t believe our good fortune in witnessing so many miracles of nature on our first day.

Daily life on safari camp flows like a beautiful dream – we arose at 5 AM, and after a quick coffee and granola bar found ourselves in the back of a stadium-seating four wheel drive vehicle, snuggled under thick fleece blankets. It’s notable that these jeeps are stocked with every possible accessory to keep guests comfortable – from thick ponchos in case of rain to emergency toilet paper and everything in between. As we rolled out of camp, only half believing we are awake, as the vehicle slowly pulls to a stop for the family of baboons who have decided to have their first argument of the day in the road ahead. Moving on from there, you might expect to see hyenas, wild dogs (if you’re lucky), kudu and impala, and many giraffe. The goal, of course, is to complete your checklist of “the Big Five” – buffalo, lion, rhino, elephant and leopard. About 90 minutes into the drive, our guides stop for a “bush breakfast,” consisting of coffee lovingly spiked with Amarula Cream (elephants get drunk on the stuff) and fresh baked savory and sweet pastries. We took one of our morning coffee breaks overlooking a river of hippos, and it was one of many moments during our time on safari that we almost had to pinch ourselves – things are just so vivid it becomes kind of hard to believe they are real. Back to the lodge, and it’s time for a full hot breakfast – in case you’re counting that’s three breakfasts and it’s not even 10 AM. Most people take a mid day siesta, keeping in mind another full meal is offered at 12 PM lunch time, and a proper English tea service at 2 PM. At 4 PM it’s time for the sunset drive, and everything starts all over again!

After two dreamy days at Lion Sands, we boarded a four seater plane (not my favorite, but my son and husband both really found it exhilarating) for our trip to Singita Lebombo. Probably one of the most luxurious lodges in South Africa, the rooms were nothing short of remarkable – think exquisitely designed adult-oriented treehouses overlooking a river of crocs and hippos, featuring the best of everything and including an outdoor shower, deep soaking tub, a day bed on the balcony ythat your butler can convert to a glamping tent for overnight stays, and all manner of board games, indulgent books and cozy throws – it was like living in a novel. Here, the crystalline pool was the place to be in the early afternoon – after coming in from our morning drive, we changed into suits, took a fabulous dip and enjoyed an early gin and tonic as we drifted off into a lovely early afternoon nap.

The game drives at Singita were similarly exhilarating to those at Lion Sands – the sunsets were a highlight – when we stopped the first night for our “sundowner” cocktail on the edge of a cliff, the concept of golden hour took on a whole new meeting. The warm orange, bronze and gold hues as the sun slowly sank behind the mountain ridge separating Mozamique from South Africa touched all the scenery around us turning everything into a sepia toned fantasy. Even my teenage boy looked around in awe. We had fantastic adventures with our guide and tracker – and our visits were full of baby sightings! We saw brand new lion and leopard cubs, an elephant calf only a few days old snuggling up to her sibling, watched a mother baboon rocking her baby to sleep… but for sure the most memorable moment was when our guide pulled the jeep over and allowed us to slowly exit – walking in single file and as quietly as possible through the bush on foot to see rhino parents (super endangered, victims of poaching for their unique horns) and their precious, previous baby up close and personal. It was one of many experiences at Singita that took our breath away.

Our time in South Africa was over much too soon; we connected back through Cape Town and spent one last afternoon walking along the waterfront and doing a little shopping for artwork and souvenirs. We got on the plane, and felt an impending sense of sadness – we weren’t ready to leave; we wanted to stay, to come back, to be South Africa.

Simply put, there’s no place like it. It stamps your heart with indelible ink. And without question, we will return to visit our love again.

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