South Africa lodges: Heavenly hideaways
They are the stuff of memories - that familiar beach, river or mountain hideaway that live on in dreams of childhood.
Every country has holiday spots that are cherished as part of our happier selves. Though I've lived in Australia for more than 35 years, places I visited as a child in South Africa stay with me and I've been lucky enough to revisit them over the years on family trips home.
South Africa is still brimming with such places, which mostly cater to locals constrained from extensive overseas travel by their weak currency.
The lodges have loyal followings, are often off the beaten track and are relative bargains for overseas visitors.
Our 2000-kilometre "local secrets" road trip takes us from Durban through the Drakensberg Mountains, Wild Coast and Garden Route to Cape Town. Some of these places have only dirt road access.
Book well in advance for these five gems, especially during school holidays, and try to stay for at least two nights.
UMNGAZI RIVER BUNGALOWS AND SPA
The western sky floods crimson, as we relax on the deck of Ntabeni, our luxury spa bungalow with sweeping views of sea, beach and river estuary. We're in the heart of Pondoland on the subtropical Wild Coast, one of South Africa's unspoiled areas, five hours' drive from Durban.
Below us, the broad Umngazi estuary glistens and across the river, children surf the giant sand dunes while Nguni cattle plod homewards.
We're beyond relaxed from our late afternoon couples' massage with spa and champagne, so it's no wonder we're lolling stupidly on Ntabeni's sun loungers, with a cheese platter and yes, another bottle of something delicious.
But the motto of this place goes something like: "Don't worry about tomorrow - shoes optional." We're happy to oblige.
This full-board, family-run lodge, which evolved from a tiny trading station in 1906, is a perfect example of a place that makes memories. Most guests are South African and families who met when their children were babies still return with adult offspring. You hear their joyous reunions in Basil's Bar, named after Umngazi founder Basil Leach.
Umngazi is where guests learn the art of playing, exploring, relaxing and running wild. There's fishing, sunset cruises, night crabbing, canoeing, mountain biking, horse riding, hiking or just mucking around swimming, playing tennis, trampolining or excavating the sandpit.
The 52 thatched-roofed bungalows are scattered up the estuary's eastern hill amid indigenous gardens, with Sugar Loaf Peak above. There are six different types - garden, sea or river views are child-friendly, while the honeymoon, Ntabeni and Emlonyeni are adults only.
Ntabeni is majestic, with elegant furnishings in cream and salmon, soaring thatch ceilings, spa bath and double outdoor shower, dressing room, kitchen area, delicious "Transkei gold" coffee and fruit. Generous home-cooked meals are served in the dining areas, but we elect to have breakfast delivered to our suite, happy to laze and watch the vista turn gold by degrees.
UNDER MILKWOOD SELF-CATERING CHALETS
Knysna, one of the gems of the Cape Garden Route, 500 kilometres from Cape Town, has a special place in my childhood memories. My grandmother's Knysna house was a holiday haven and Under Milkwood's log chalets on the Knysna Lagoon, nestled amid milkwoods and indigenous gardens and sheltered from the south-east winds, became a retreat for generations of my family.
So it's always good to return to these self-catering chalets that sprawl up the hill on the eastern side of Knysna Heads, with their views across to Featherbed Bay and Leisure Isle, knowing exactly what you will do.
On arrival, you will dash down to the resort's own little beach to grab a canoe to paddle on Knysna's watery heart - its 18-square-kilometre lagoon, actually a giant estuary, home to the endangered Knysna seahorse.
You will stroll to the nearby Heads to watch the sea surge through this narrow opening. You will braai (barbecue) and sip sundowners while the sun slips behind the Outeniqua Mountains.
You will wake to low tide and walk across the pristine lagoon sand to Leisure Isle. You will visit Ile de Pain on Thesens Island for a breakfast of fresh-baked pastries with homemade jams. You will walk Knysna's magnificent forests.
And you'll just laze in your comfortable two-bedroom cabin named for characters in Dylan Thomas' play. We're in Mae Rose, the character who desires to be sinful. We are sinfully relaxed.
The chalets are set among indigenous gardens of milkwood (a giant one shades us from the afternoon sun), cabbage trees and strelitzia. Choose from hillside or waterfront chalets rather than the middle ones which have no views and reduced privacy. Paul at reception is charming and helpful. See milkwood.co.za.
KOB INN BEACH RESORT
Kob Inn Beach Resort.
The sign in our bathroom says: "Save water, drink beer". A joke, but serious too as we are miles from civilisation (yes, those dirt roads again). Drinking water is precious at this fishing paradise at the mouth of the Qora River on the southern reaches of the Eastern Cape's Wild Coast.
Kob Inn was built in 1932 as a fishermen's hostel. It's one of several beloved holiday spots along this stretch of the Wild Coast. In fact, visitors can experience them all if they walk the Wild Coast Meander which begins at Kob Inn.
During our stay, groups plan their 60-kilometre hike of this pristine coastline with its rocky headlands, coastal forest and estuaries.
Kob Inn, flanked by spectacular sheltered beaches, has simple, cottage-style accommodation less than 100 metres from the sea. We are in freestanding Lalaphantsi, with only the milkwoods and rocky shore keeping the growling sea from our door. It's a large, comfortable wooden bungalow with bath, double outdoor shower, kitchen and log fire for those windy nights.
This traditional family getaway has fixed meal times, good, home-cooked food, drinks before dinner at the Tumble In Bar and friendly staff. Trail maps are available for numerous nature walks, there's rock, surf and river fishing of course, horse riding, tennis, table tennis and pool, bird watching, biking, trampoline, billiards and pool, baby sitting and gillies.
THE CAVERN DRAKENSBERG RESORT
Loyal return guests have dubbed this thatched family holiday resort on 3000 hectares of private mountain reserve "the resort of many happy returns". In fact, I spent childhood holidays there more years ago than I care to remember.
Set high in the foothills of the Northern Drakensberg and surrounded by sandstone cliffs, forests and streams, the Cavern is adjacent to the Royal Natal National Park and World Heritage-listed Amphitheatre.
Accommodation spreads up a hill so it's wise to research which type suits your needs - either for families needing level access or couples seeking peace and views.
Hikes, guided and unguided, are offered, as is horse riding, birding, mountain and quad biking and more. There are numerous Bushman paintings, 213 bird species and 150 tree species and wild animals galore. Bit of a paradise, really.
OYSTER BAY LODGE
Between Port Elizabeth and Knysna, down 25 kilometres of dirt road on 235 hectares of coastal reserve, is Oyster Bay Lodge. It's set among dunes, woods, a river delta, beaches, wetlands and lagoons and is a paradise of indigenous fynbos, whose presence announces itself with the familiar spicy Garden Route aroma.
Highlights are the marked fynbos trails where sunbirds flit and feed, and you may see duiker, bushbuck, mongoose, monkeys, turtles and whales in season. The riding horses roam freely. There are 10 nice guestrooms and four luxury thatched Cape worker chalets - spacious and elegant with kitchen, log fire, clawfoot bath, rainwater shower, underfloor heating and verandah with views of the private, 3½-kilometre beach.
The lodge has a bar and fireplace, dining room and lounge, swimming pool and boma. Make the most of your cottage by bringing some of your own food (request a barbecue). You are asked to buy your drinks on site.
The dining room provides meals which could be simpler, but breakfasts are nice. The lodge is less full-on family and more upmarket getaway.
The writer was a guest of Umngazi, Kob Inn and Oyster Bay.
STAYING THERE Umngazi River Bungalows from R890 (NZ$98) a person daily full board, see umngazi.co.za; Under Milkwood from R556 a chalet, see milkwood.co.za; Kob Inn Beach Resort accommodation from R770 a person daily full board, see kobinn.co.za; The Cavern rooms from R950 a person daily full board, see cavern.co.za; Oyster Bay Lodge rooms from R750 a person daily bed and breakfast, see oysterbaylodge.co.za.
DRIVING THERE Try rentalcars.com for cheap deals, which can include no extra cost for trips starting in Durban and ending in Cape Town. Our Hertz VW Polo cost $25 a day. Do not drive at night on untarred roads on the Wild Coast, which require slow driving.
MORE INFORMATION southafrica.net
Sydney Morning Herald