South Africa as a bucket-list destination: Ten things you should know if you're considering a golf trip there

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- From North America, South Africa is more than 25,000 miles round trip, so if you decide to take a golf vacation there, it's not only a big investment in time, but money as well.

A bucket-list destination for many, South Africa provides a well rounded and spectacular experience for golfers who are looking to do more than just tee it up. Before you go, or perhaps before you decide to book a trip, there are some things you should know.

Here are 10 guidelines for a golf trip to South Africa.

1. No easy way to get there, but worth it

Let's face it; for Americans, South Africa is on the other side of the world, so prepare for a long trip. It might be best, in fact, to spend a day getting acclimated before you start you adventure. A spa treatment, a couple of good meals and a good night's sleep will go a long way in helping you enjoy the rest of the trip. As for getting there, a number of airlines offer direct flights into both Johannesburg and Cape Town. South African Airways flies direct from Washington, D.C. and New York, though there is a ground stop in Dakar, Senegal, for the former. Most other major carriers offer flights as well, though they're often longer.

2. Safaris have to be on the itinerary

While the golf ranges from good to downright spectacular, alone it's not reason enough to make the long journey. Ideally, you will want to spend part of your trip playing golf and three or four days on safari game drives. If you've never gone a game drive, think going to the zoo without cages. Even better, these animals are in their natural environment. Safari experiences and safari lodges are available from the Eastern Cape all the way up to Kruger National Park, which is about the size of Switzerland, in the northeast part of the country. Rangers take groups in open all-terrain vehicles through reserves -- both private and public -- seeking out these animals in their natural habitat. Finding the Big Five -- lions, buffalo, elephants, rhinos and leopards -- are the primary goal, but there are so many other species, including giraffes, hyenas, warthogs, eland, impalas and endless birds species.

3. Use a tour company

You don't want to do this on your own, especially if you've never been before. And you won't save money trying to book lodges, hotels, golf, safaris and wine tours on your own. The tour operators, especially the bigger ones, get discounts of up to 30 percent and they pass part of those savings along to their customers. Plus, they know the terrain in and out. On my trip, we were in the capable hands of Pro Golf Africa Safaris, one of the largest golf tour operators in South Africa. Our trip was hectic, but seamless and without any hitches. As for price, expect to save a little money with a tour operator. And while a golf vacation in South Africa isn't cheap, it might be more affordable than you think since the dollar has been strong against the South African rand.

4. At least two weeks is best

South Africa is a big country, much larger than it looks on the map, and there is so much to see or do that really two weeks is the minimum for getting a good feel for the country. Almost twice the size of Texas, you may even want to book some internal flights if you're going to see Cape Town and Kruger National Park, for example. (It's about 12 hours by car.) On my recent trip, we toured Cape Town a little, took four wine tours, played six rounds of golf and went on five game drives. It was a working trip for me, but if I were on vacation, I'd want a few more days for that much activity and travel. Also, if you go April through October, remember the days will be shorter than they are in North America since our seasons are opposite.

5. Spend at least three or four days in Cape Town

Honestly, Cape Town is one of the most picturesque and charming cities in the world, so spend some time there enjoying the sights, sounds, cuisine and customs. This is basically where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. You'll want to enjoy the V&A Waterfront, check out the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Grace, take a cable car up to Table Mountain overlooking the city and the sea, see the Penguins at Boulders Beach, beat your drums at Gold Restaurant and get pampered in the city's five-star hotels, which include the likes of the One & Only, Cape Town Radisson and Westin.

6. Best golf is along the Garden Route

There are more than 500 golf courses in South Africa, but only a fraction of them are worth traveling halfway around the world to play. Fortunately, most of great courses are clustered along what is appropriately named the Garden Route, a stretch of highway on the southeastern coast that extends from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to the Storms River in the Eastern Cape. Several of the country's top golf courses can be found here. The views abound at Arabella Resort and Pinnacle Point, the latter of which offers spectacular vistas of the Indian Ocean from every hole, perched high above on the cliffs. Fancourt (owned by SAP's Hasso Plattner, who also owns CordeValle in California), and more specifically The Links at Fancourt , was the site of the 2003 Presidents Cup that ended in a draw, and there are two more courses there as well, including Montagu , which was recently renovated by David McLay Kidd. Jack Nicklaus, who has several designs in South Africa, did one of the other top courses in the country at the Conrad Pezula , which also offers spectacular ocean views.

7. South Africa is for wine lovers

South Africa is renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon and produces some of the best vintages in the world. So for wine lovers, tastings are a must. Vineyards cover the Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, from Helderberg in the south to the lower slopes of Simonsberg Mountain in the north. The terrain and microclimates are suitable for many varieties. Stellenbosch, South Africa's second-oldest settlement behind Cape Town, is home to nearly a fifth of all the vines planted in South Africa and its Cabs can be found on wine lists all over the world. Stellenbosch is also the birthplace of Pinotage (a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut) in 1924. Like Australia's Greg Norman, South Africa's Ernie Els is also in the wine business and offers tours and tastings at Ernie Els Wines in Stellenbosch.

8. Slightly different golf customs

There are more than 500 golf courses in South Africa , ranging from simple public courses to ultra-private. But like most of the rest of world outside the United States, even most private clubs are accessible if you stay at the right resort. For example, stay at one of the high-end lodges in or around Kruger and you can probably play Johann Rupert's exclusive Leopard Creek Golf Club on the Crocodile River. Just don't wear black socks (you have to wear white). Also, it's traditional and almost mandatory to take a break at the halfway house in between nines and have a drink and/or sandwich. Like much of Europe, Stableford scoring over medal (stroke) play is preferred, and golfers are often required to show proof of handicap.

9. Springbok, ostrich, eland and biltong

So I bet you were wondering what do these South Africans like to eat and if you guessed game, you guessed right. Surprisingly, though, it doesn't taste gamey. They like to eat most any kind of antelope, which includes the national symbol, springbok as well as eland and impala. They also like to take these meats and dry them into something called biltong, which is similar to jerky except more tender and flavorful. Perhaps the biggest surprise for first-timers is the texture and flavor of ostrich, which more like steak than bird, except healthier and tenderer.

10. Plenty for thrill seekers, too

If safaris, wine and golf aren't enough, you might want to try your hand at some other adventurous activities, including shark cage diving, bungee jumping or whale watching. Yes, you can go down in a wetsuit and a shark cage and observe great white sharks in the frigid waters of the Atlantic and Indian oceans along the Cape. South Africa has the third highest commercial bungee jump in the world at 216 meters at the Bloukrans Bridge on the border of the Eastern and Western Cape. And the best place on the planet to view Right Whales? That would be Hermanus on the Cape, where the whales come so close to the shore you feel like you could reach out and touch them.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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