Trip Dispatch: South Africa offers an exceptional golf, wine and safari experience

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Golf didn't come until the third day, and that was just fine by me. After all, why would you travel halfway around the world just to play another golf course or two?

Not that the golf in South Africa isn't exceptional at times -- it certainly was -- but that wasn't the allure. At least not by itself. The chance to see the Southern Cross while looking up at the night sky as a pride of lions lies 20 feet away not bothered in the least by your presence -- that's why you take a golf trip to South Africa.

But this trip didn't start out with safaris; nor should it. It started in one of the most stunning cities in the world, perched between two oceans in a moderate climate that belies its location. Closer to Antarctica than most outsiders can imagine (yep, you can find penguins here), Cape Town -- on the southern tip of Africa -- is a city of outdoors. After 22 hours in the air, I arrived just in time for the world Ironman competition, which took place along the city's famous harbor section.

I was part of what my host -- Pro Safari Golf -- calls a 12-day "educational." Joined by a couple more media members as well as travel professionals, in Cape Town we toured Table Mountain, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope -- places I had only previously read about or seen on the Discovery Channel.

The view of Cape Town from Table Mountain is certainly breathtaking as was the 30-minute walk up to the lighthouse at Cape Point, which overlooks the Cape of Good Hope. But Cape Town for this group would only last a couple of days. There was golf, wine and game to see, and we only had 10 more days to squeeze in six rounds of golf, four wine tastings, five safari game drives and some more sightseeing, of course.

Wine and dine

I'm not much of wine guy myself, but even I could appreciate the vineyards of South Africa. Not far from Cape Town on the Western Cape is the town of Stellenbosch, South Africa's second oldest settlement (1679) behind Cape Town. While the region's Cabernet Sauvignon can be found all over the world, it is also where Pinotage (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut) was born in 1924 at Lanzerac, which is one of the wineries we visited.

The wine tours also coincided with the beginning of the golf tours. And while I may have downplayed the golf scene, it shouldn't be underestimated, especially if you play along the Garden Route, which is where our journey along the Cape began.

Not surprisingly, one of South Africa's best known golfers, Ernie Els, is in the wine business as well, and in between our first two rounds at De Zalze Golf Club and Arabella, we toured Ernie Els Wines, which is perched on a hillside overlooking acres of vineyards, complete with a pitching and putting green in the center of the property.

De Zalze, not surprisingly, not only has a golf course but a wine operation as well, and before we got to Arabella Resort, we went through and toured the town of Franchoeck, a community (you guessed it) that grew up around the grapes.

South African golf: Solid to spectacular

While De Zalze was a solid parkland course with a few tricky holes, Arabella Hotel & Spa was certainly where we saw the first of the spectacular courses on our journey. Laid out along the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, the Bot River Lagoon and Kogelberg Mountains, the views were special from most every tee. The hotel was no less impressive, as were all the places we stayed on this trip, offering large suites, excellent dining and outstanding service.

The next course on our trip was Hermanus Golf Club , renowned for its whale watching, then it was on to a course that left a lasting impression. Pinnacle Point Golf Club , as the name implies, sits high above the Indian Ocean with sea views on literally every hole. This is scenery that rivals Pebble Beach , Bandon Dunes and the coastal courses of Scotland and Ireland. Its only negative, perhaps, is that it isn't walkable with the distance between greens and tees and drastic elevation changes. But the shot value and vistas more than made up for it.

Fancourt would come next. There are three courses at this mega resort, which featured top-notch accommodations, dining and recreation. Owned by Hasso Plattner, the German billionaire and co-founder of SAP who also owns the San Jose Sharks of the NHL and Cordevalle Resort in California, the draw here is the Gary Player-designed Links of Fancourt , where the 2003 Presidents Cup was contested to a draw. It isn't really a links course, but it has many links elements. Best of all, it's in perfect condition; it's all walking, and taking a caddie completes the experience.

The fifth round of golf on this trip came on Fancourt's Montagu Course , an outstanding parkland course originally designed by Player later redone by David McLay Kidd of Bandon Dunes fame. It was the last round of golf I would play for the next three days. After Montagu, it was time to check out another hotel or two, including the fabulous Conrad Pezula, where we had a three-hour wine-pairing meal of epic proportions. Then it was on to the game drives.

An experience of a lifetime

It would be inaccurate to say I didn't know what to expect on these safari game drives. Basically, I knew we'd be driven out into a preserve, where there would be wild African animals that I'd only seen before behind bars at a zoo or in a circus.

The mystery was how this would make me feel, something that's still difficult to describe without actually being there. The first game drive occurred on the private reserve of Kichaka, just east of the Knysna Waterfront and Knysna Heads.

Starting in the afternoon, we didn't know exactly what to expect -- though we were certainly hoping for the big five, the nickname of the most dangerous game (lions, elephants, buffalo, rhinos and leopards). We saw buffalo, but the sighting of 11 giraffes -- which had us completely surrounded as we stopped for a traditional gin and tonic break -- was simply magical.

As we made our way to each game drive, the experiences became more spectacular. At Pumba, a rare sighting of a rhino and her calf just off the path followed by an evening hanging out with a pride of white lions certainly did the trick. And while the drives themselves certainly had somewhat of a rustic feel, the safari lodges were pretty much all five star, though technology such as televisions and internet were certainly limited.

The climax of this trip, though, certainly came in and around South Africa's famous Kruger National Park, which is about the size of Switzerland. We had to take a couple of interior flights to get there from Port Elizabeth, but it was well worth it.

At the Lukimbi and Sabi Sabi Bush lodges, you had to have an escort at night to and from your rooms because of the possible threat of dangerous animals. This is where at night we tracked a leopard on the hunt for impala, and at one point, we parked next to a pride of lions no more than 20 feet away. At any time, if they wanted to, they could have leaped into the open Landrover and enjoyed a human buffet. But apparently, according to our guide, they see the truck and people as one entity and leave it alone. Even on the drive in a rental car through Kruger to our last golf course, Leopard Creek Country Club on the edge of the Crocodile River, we encountered plenty of wildlife, including, at one point, having a dozen or so impalas cross our path, leaping over our SUV. One even damaged the left door but was unharmed.

Appropriately, Leopard Creek, often regarded as the top course in South Africa and only accessible through select game lodges for nonmembers, is represented on each hole by statues of leopards in various stages of their existence, from waking up to the chase and the kill. If only golf were that easy.

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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Trip Dispatch: South Africa offers an exceptional golf, wine and safari experience
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