8 of the Best…. Winter retreats in South Africa

As winter gets into full, freezing swing and with mid-year school holidays coming up, we thought we would share with you eight of our favourite winter locations in South Africa. Of course, there are many more regions more than worth a visit but the eight listed here are enough to get one started.

The chosen regions are also much visited during summer. However, in winter they undergo a metamorphosis that transforms each region into a winter wonderland, each with its own unique attractions.

  1. Cederberg Mountains, Western Cape

A mere three hours’ drive north of Cape Town, lies an astonishing mountain wilderness of fynbos, indigenous forests, gurgling streams, deep pools, towering peaks, mysterious caves, dramatic rock formations and plenty of ancient rock art. In winter, after the first good rains have fallen, this beautiful area transforms itself into a lush green mountain wilderness. The Cederberg is a prime area for ecotourism, camping, hiking and other outdoor activities.

There are numerous hiking trails, as well as several camping sites and a wide choice of self-catering cottages. There is also considerable wildlife to be spotted when hiking. Here you can view a treasure trove of San rock art, explore the dramatic rock and cave formations, climb the mountains, or enjoy bird watching, bouldering and rock climbing. Or you can just park off in the shade of a tree beside a mountain stream and take in the awesome scenery all around, before dozing off. Parts of the Cederberg wilderness area also lie within the wildflower belt and there is even a wine estate here high up in the mountains. Two historical missionary villages, Wupperthal and Elandskloof, are situated within these magnificent mountains, and nearby is the historic town of Clanwilliam and its similarly named dam, a favourite with water sports enthusiasts. To get there, take the N7 north towards Namibia passing Malmesbury, Moorreesburg, Piketberg, and Citrusdal. About 29km from Citrusdal turn off to the right where a signpost indicated Algeria and the Cederberg mountains.

  1. Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal

The name for the Drakensberg Mountains in isi-Zulu, the language of the Zulu People, is “uKhahlamba”, the ‘barrier of spears’. While the Drakensberg and its immediate surrounds in KwaZulu-Natal are by no means off the beaten track or unknown, it is the literally hundreds of little hidden gems within its spectacular embrace that are just waiting to be discovered by those less familiar with this beautiful corner of South Africa.

Winter up here may be cold, but it’s a real treat. There are many hiking trails that take you up the mountains, across streams and rivers, to caves and other interesting places. Whether you are looking up at the mountains or looking down at the world from on top of the mountains, the views are simply just stunning. The air is crisp and cold up here in winter, so dress warm. Round your days off in one of the many hotels and lodges with some hot chocolate or soup or a glass of wine in front of the fireplace.

The towns and villages that lie spread out along the foothills of the mountains offer quaint little arts and crafts shops, markets, cosy inns, characterful hotels and wonderful little pubs .

The area is a popular hiking destination with plenty of lovely day walks and longer, more difficult hikes. The Drakensberg Traverse is rated quite difficult, but if you have the time and energy, this 300km hike is an absolute delight. Snow falls regularly in the winter, while rains and mists can occur year-round. The uKhahlamba or Drakensberg National Park, located in KwaZulu-Natal, near the border with Lesotho, was inscribed by UNESCO in 2000 as a World Heritage site. The park is also in the List of Wetlands of International Importance.

  1. Eastern Free State

Arguably the most beautiful part of the Free State province, is its eastern region adjacent to the Kingdom of Lesotho and the snow-covered Maluti Mountains which form part of the Drakensberg Mountain range system. This beautiful, timeless region includes the towns of Warden, Bethlehem, Kestell, Harrismith, Clarens, Fouriesburg, Ficksburg, Clocolan and Puthaditjhaba.

One of the region’s biggest attractions is the truly beautiful Golden Gate Highlands National Park, situated in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains. Be ready for some stunning scenery and lookout for the wildlife. There’s an excellent camping site here while nearby lodges and B&Bs cater for every taste. There is plenty to do and see here. In the town of Ficksburg you can join the festivities during the annual Cherry Festival if you happen to be here in November, or you can sample the local cuisine and arts and crafts in nearby Clarens all year round.

However, it’s the beautiful Drakensberg-Maluti Mountains and its annual blanket of snow that makes this a truly wonderful winter destination. If you want to try your hand at some skiing, Afriski Mountain Resort is the place. It is situated at a height of 3,222 metres in the Drakensberg-Maluti Mountains just across the northern border with the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, about 125km by road from the bohemian artists’ village of Clarence and a little further from Ficksburg. Facilities are as good as anywhere in the world and include a 1,000-metre T-bar lift, two intermediate button lifts and a beginner’s tow lift. The resort offers a variety of backpackers’ accommodation, chalets and self-catering accommodation, all just a stone’s throw away from the restaurants, slopes, après-ski bar and rental facilities.

  1. Amatola Mountains, Eastern Cape

The border between the Eastern Cape and Lesotho is dominated by some truly amazing scenery.  Occupying centre stage are the Amatola Mountains, a range of densely forested mountains, that form part of the southern portion of the Drakensberg and the Great Escarpment, rising over 1,800 metres above sea level. The slopes here are densely covered in ancient forests of yellowwoods, white stinkwoods, Cape chestnuts and other indigenous trees while the upper mountains are covered with flower-rich montane grassland. The mountains are famous for their scenic beauty with lush forests, ravines, waterfalls and panoramic views, all to be enjoyed by doing the six-day Amatola hiking trail, one of the top hiking trails in South Africa.

Here you will also find one of Southern Africa’s two premier ski resorts, the Tiffendell Ski & Alpine Resort. Tiffindell was voted number 19 in CNN Travel’s ‘World’s best ski runs’ in 2014. A good idea for checking it out this winter would be to take in the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in July and then head on towards Barkley East, Rhodes and Tiffendel. The route there will take you through awesome natural scenery that becomes ever more spectacular the closer you get to the mountains. Nearby is another must-visit place, the village of Hogsback.

Even outside of the winter season, the area is an adventure destination for action-packed fun. In summer, spring and autumn, activities that are pursued here include high altitude hiking, mountain biking, grass skiing, mountain boarding, photography, rock art, birding, some of the best local fly fishing, quad biking, and the famous ‘8 Passes’ route for motorcyclists and 4×4 vehicles. The area is also known internationally for its unique alpine flowers luring people from around the globe.

  1. Wilderness Lakes, Garden Route

The capital of the Southern Cape, the bustling town of George, marks the beginning of two famous tourist attractions – the Garden Route and the Wilderness Lakes District. The area and its many attractions are absolutely ideal for a winter holiday. From George it is a short hop to the hamlet of Wilderness, and the first water body of this region’s lake district.

The lakes wetlands system here is comprised of four distinct systems: the Wilderness system, which includes the Wilderness Lagoon, the Touws River, the Serpentine, Elandsvlei, Langvlei, and Rondervlei; the central system consisting of Swartvlei, the largest of these lakes, and the Swartvlei estuary at the town of Sedgefield; the landlocked single lake of Groenvlei, which has no connection to the sea; and finally, the Knysna Lagoon and the estuary of the Knysna River.

The lakes are locked in between the towering and beautiful Outeniqua mountain range on one side, and the sand dunes, beaches and river estuaries along the Indian Ocean coastline on the other side. Much of it forms part of the Wilderness Section of the Garden Route National Park and the CapeNature Goukamma Nature Reserve. The village of Wilderness bristles with eateries, pubs, and interesting little shops. From Wilderness, kayakers can paddle across the lagoon, up the Touws River and through the snaking Serpentine channel to the Elandsvlei, Langvlei and Rondevlei lakes. Along the way you will pass millionaires’ mansions intermingled with holiday homes, parts of the Wilderness National Park, caravan and camping sites, and beautiful, forested environs. Hotels, B&Bs, self-catering lodges and backpackers are in abundance here.

The town of Sedgefield is a bustling little centre with restaurants, pubs, arts and crafts shops, B&Bs and very content locals who enjoy living in their own bit of paradise. Knysna is a short distance away. The town is steeped in history and is one of South Africa’s most popular holiday destinations, with plenty on offer such as houseboats, golf, boating, swimming, hiking, golden beaches, angling, restaurants, pubs, arts and crafts, forest walks, birdwatching, and so much more. Historical buildings and other places of interest abound.

  1. High Veld Trout & Lakes, Mpumalanga

South Africa has another lakes district, this one being the Chrissiesmeer Lake District in Mpumalanga. Numerically it the largest lake district in South Africa with more than 270 lakes and pans spread within a 20-kilometre radius of the hamlet of Chrissiesmeer. The charming little village is situated on the northern bank of the largest lake in this system, Lake Chrissie, which is also said to be the biggest freshwater lake in South Africa.

The area is renowned as a bird-watcher’s paradise, home to some 287 bird species. The village and surrounding areas host an annual Crane Festival. And don’t forget the frogs. There are no fewer than 13 species of frogs populating the wetlands area, which explains why the area is also known as Matotoland, the Swazi word for ‘land of the frogs’.

The area was first inhabited by the San, with plenty of excellent examples of their rock art still to be found here. The area also boasts a rich floral diversity which bursts into a spectacularly colourful display of wildflowers in the summer months between August and February. Chrissiesmeer and the surrounding districts are renowned for the many beautiful sandstone buildings dating back to the mid-1800s found here. One of the largest collections of vintage tractors, including examples of nearly every tractor model sold in South Africa since the 1920s, is found at farmer Jan Randell’s Ranch Museum.

When here, your stay cannot be completed without a bit of fishing. A short distance away is one of South Africa’s premier trout fly fishing areas. The area around the town of Dullstroom on the High Veld is considered to be the country’s trout mecca by fly-fishers. Here you will find unspoilt fishing waters and accommodation options in abundance. These trout prefer the winter months, so its ideal for that fantastic winter holiday.

  1. Waterberg, Limpopo

After about an hour’s drive north of Pretoria you will come to the resort town of Bela Bela (Warmbad previously) and the start of the truly exquisite Waterberg region. The region stretches from Bela-Bela in the south to Lephalale in the north, and from Thabazimbi in the west to Mokopane in the east. Much of the area has been returned to its once unspoilt natural appearance, with game farms and reserves coving most of it.

A fabulous place to spend some time is at the Tintswalo Lapalala lodge in the Lapalala Wilderness private game reserve which boasts eight tented suites, each named after a different African tribe and are decorated accordingly. To get there, a drive form Bela-Bela will take about two hours via Vaalwater.

Along the way are mountains that are home to a treasure trove of San art. Driving through the region you will see many animals, including white rhino, wildebeest, herds of impala, and giraffes sailing through the bush on their gangly legs and heads held high above the trees. In the greater Waterberg region, there are many rivers, streams and fountains, and locals say after good rains the region literally sparkles in the sun.

An experience of a lifetime here will be the early morning and late afternoon game-viewing drives in open 4X4 vehicles offered by reserves and ranches of the region. But apart from game viewing and enjoying unspoilt nature there’s plenty to do in the surrounding towns and nature reserves of the region. These include Bela-Bela (Warmbaths), Entabeni Safari Conservancy Lephalale (Ellisras), Mabalingwe Nature Reserve, Modimolle (Nylstroom), Mokopane (Potgietersrus), Mookgophong (Naboomspruit), Thabazimbi and Vaalwater.

  1. West Coast

This coastal area along the Atlantic Ocean is one of South Africa’s premier summer fun regions. Yet very little beats a slow and exploratory road trip through this delightfully unique region in winter. Here you will find everything from charming little fishing villages to what could be claimed as the best seafood in the world; from a water sports and recreational playground to endless carpets of beautiful veld flowers; a little bit of Greece to ancient fossils and San cave art set in the beautiful Cederberg Mountains; wildlife and birdwatching; numerous historical and heritage sites. And much, much more.

The West Coast starts on Cape Town’s very doorstep. Just a 20-minute drive out of Cape Town city centre along the R27 takes you to Melkbosstrand, a friendly little village with endless beaches and many fine restaurants. From here the road up the West Coast stretches all the way to Saldanha and the Langebaan Lagoon; on to St Helena Bay with its fishing harbour and holiday mansions, the quaint fishermen’s cottages of Paternoster and the bustling river-mouth fishing harbour of Velddrif; and from here through many captivating little towns and resorts with names like Elands Bay, Lamberts Bay, Doringbaai, Strandfontein, Papendorp, Ebenhaezer, Lutzville, Tietiesbaai, Lepelfontein, Hondeklip Bay and on to Port Nolloth and the diamond mining area of Alexander Bay on the Namibian border.

Along the way one can venture a little inland to the majestic Cederberg Mountains and the surrounding wilderness areas, the Clanwilliam Dam, the Berg and Olifants Rivers, and Namaqualand where every year at the start of spring the rugged landscape erupts in a festival of natural veld flowers stretching in every direction as far as the eye can see.

The West Coast straddles two provinces, the Western Cape and Northern Cape. Quaint little towns bustling with restaurants, pubs, little shops and more are found all along the way. Amble through the fishing villages of Saldanha, Velddrif, St Helena Bay, Laaiplek, Doringbaai, Elands Bay and Lamberts Bay with their fish processing and packaging factories. Southern Right, Bryde’s and Humpback whales, as well as killer whales, and various types of dolphins, can be watched from boats or lookout points at Paternoster, the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve, St Helena Bay, Yzerfontein and from the West Coast National Park between Yzerfontein and Saldanha. There are plenty more nature reserves.