West Cork 🇮🇪

West Cork  🇮🇪

West Cork has got a special place in my heart. I have been going there for over 30 years. I have grown up with this stunning coastline before it was given the name Wild Atlantic Way. My kids have grown up learning to sail accompanied by dolphins! We have all made friends for life from our times down in the area. West Cork has some of the best beaches anywhere in the world, some of the most spectacular coastlines and the most friendly, lively and fun-loving people. For me, it is also the clean air and the stunning light that you get in this part of the world which keeps bringing me back. Don’t forget that you can end your day by admiring a spectacular view or enjoying some Irish music with a few jars of the local black stuff!

West Cork is a large area of South West Ireland. It stretches roughly from the Kinsale (just outside Cork City) in the East down to the Mizen Head and up to Lamb’s Head and Dursey Island in the West. It is easily accessible from Cork Airport (which has really expanded and modernised in recent years). It takes about 90 minutes to get to Skibbereen from Cork Airport. It’s not too bad via ferry either, taking 3 and a half hours from Rosslare to Skibbereen.

I could talk for hours about this area, but I am going to limit myself to the Watt Travels Top 10 places to go and see in West Cork (although even with this, it was hard to stop myself from going on!):

1. Glandore and Union Hall

I thought I would start with my spiritual home, where I have spent so many hours in the Summer. Glandore is a picture-postcard village, where you could spend hours taking Instagrammable pictures of the view. Is there any finer way of relaxing Irish-style, than sitting on an outside table at the Glandore Inn (http://www.glandoreinn.ie) or Hayes Bar (http://www.hayesrestaurant.ie) and eating some fresh seafood and/or drinking a pint of the black stuff or a chilled glass of rose, whilst looking out to your left at the Adam and Eve Islands and the opening to the sea or looking straight/right across the bay to Union Hall. In the Summer, as I have done many times, you can also sit and watch the very excellent Glandore Harbour Yacht Club (http://www.glandoreyc.com) doing their junior sailing programs. Completely idyllic. Down at the bottom of the hill is the lovely small harbour (very busy with sailing dinghies in July and August), overlooked by the small but perfectly situated Christ Church.

Across the bay or round the pretty water-hugging road and across the one lane Poulgorm Bridge, lies the fishing village of Union Hall. For a small village, there are plenty of brightly coloured pubs and there is a small shop which stocks pretty much anything you could want. There are plenty of B & B’s which are fully booked in the summer. The main focus is the fishing though, with a working quay which has its own ice plant. The local fish shop run by Glenmar has some of the best fresh produce in the area.

It is well worth exploring the area around Union Hall as well. There are a number of fantastic picturesque walks with fabulous views. It is well worth a trip down to Reen Pier which is about 3 miles away and where there is a spit going out into the estuary and where you can look across at the village of Castletownshend (see below). I highly recommend renting kayaks from here (http://www.atlanticseakayaking.com) for a memorable experience exploring the coastline and maybe even seeing seals or dolphins!

2. Baltimore

Baltimore is another of West Cork’s beautiful coastal towns. It is very busy in the summer and acts as the gateway to the Carbery’s Hundred Isles of which, some of my favourites are Sherkin, Cape Clear and Heir Island (see below for more details).

Baltimore has got a great seafaring atmosphere. The little clutch of bars/ pubs and restaurants above the harbour is a fantastic place to spend an evening watching the sun go down in the West. There is even a superb pizza restaurant sandwiched between two bars. It is one of my favourite ways to spend an evening. Although it can get a bit chilly sometimes with that offshore breeze.

Baltimore has got a rich history. Its most (in)famous incident was the sacking of the town by pirates in 1631. Many locals were sold into slavery. There is a strong pirate theme in the town and the Castle, which has an interesting pirate exhibition, flies the skull and crossbones above it. Another Baltimore landmark is the Beacon which sits above the eastern entrance to Baltimore. There is a good walk up there from the town and you get some more amazing West Cork coastal views. 

A lot of the activities in Baltimore revolve around the sea. There is a very active sailing school, Whale-watching and power boat trips (I recommend http://www.baltimoreseasafari.ie), Ferries to Sherkin Island (across the water), Cape Clear and Heir Islands (slightly further away) and scuba diving. 

In short, land or sea, you won’t be short of things to do and see in Baltimore. 

3. Heir Island, Sherkin Island and Cape Clear

As mentioned above, these island are part of what is know as the Carbery’s Hundred Isles. These three are some of the easier ones to get to and ones that I have visited many times. These islands are like taking a big step back in time. There are not many houses and hardly any cars. There is a sense of peace and tranquility and escape when you visit these islands.

My own personal favourite is Heir Island. It is the third largest of the Carbery’s, after Sherkin and Cape Clear. It is still pretty small though at just 2 miles long and one mile wide. The whole island can be walked comfortably. The best way to get there is the little ferry boat which goes regularly throughout the day from Cunnamore Pier (a few miles outside Skibbereen) and takes just 4 minutes. However you can also get to Heir Island from Baltimore. One of the best day trips for me in the Summer, is to drive to Cunnamore Pier, taking a picnic, then one arrival at Heir Island, walk for about 10 minutes to the beautiful Sandy Beach. Its a great spot to relax and eat and drink and get annoyed by the increasing number of ribs arriving in from Baltimore! After eating and taking a swim (brief one obviously as it is pretty bracing), then I would take a walk to the far end of the island which is about 30 minutes. From there you get some great views out to Cape Clear and with the Fastnet Rock in the far distance. Heir Island is also famous for local artists, and you can often see them displaying their paintings. You can even stay on the island as the Roaring Water Lodge has been opened up for 7 bedrooms (http://www.roaringwaterlodge.com) or you can rent a few self catering options on the island such as Heir Island Retreat which has set itself up as a yoga retreat (http://www.heirislandretreat.ie).

Sherkin Island is a larger island directly across from Baltimore. There is a regular ferry that goes to and from there all day. A trip to Sherkin also gives you a great view of the Beacon as you approach the island on the ferry. Like Heir Island, it is easily walkable. It is about 3 miles long and about 1.5 miles wide. It has some fabulous beaches as well as 2 pubs, a church, a B & B and a coffee shop! Almost the first thing you see when stepping off the ferry is the remains of the 15th century Fransiscan friary. It’s worth an explore and a good starting point for your Sherkin adventure. It is a lovely island for a walk and has quiet roads hemmed in with dry stone walls and surrounded by the distinctive red fuschia. The best walk is to stroll along to Silver Strand which is a fantastic beach where you can swim and look out towards Cape Clear. There are rooms to stay at Sherkin House or at the Jolly Roger both of which have fabulous views looking back towards Baltimore. However personally I think Sherkin is better as a really good day out from Baltimore.

I love Cape Clear. It is remote but still inhabitable. It is Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island. Like the others above, it is not particularly large at just 3 miles long and 1 mile wide. It located 8 miles off the coast and can be accessed by ferry from Baltimore (40 minutes) all year round and from Schull in the summer only. Cape Clear is also only 3 miles from the (in)famous Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse and which is known as the teardrop of Ireland. To the Northwest stretches Mizen Head, the most southerly point of the mainland. It is a fantastic place for spotting birdlife and wildlife, with regular sightings of whales, dolphins and seals. It really feels like a proper escape. There are plenty of places to stay, whether you want a B & B, self catering or even a yurt! Although you will almost certainly need to pre-book in the popular summer months. At the end of the Summer, at the beginning of September is the Cape Clear International Story Telling Festival which is a great event and becoming more popular http://www.capeclearstorytelling.com. I highly recommend staying at Ard na Gaoithe B & B http://www.capeclearbandb.ie and I also advise paying the nominal 5 euro to join Club Cleire where you can listen to some great Irish music.

4. Three Castles Head

Shhh don’t tell anyone! Three Castles Head is a favourite secret place of our family. To be honest, we are not the only ones, but it is a bit of an undiscovered gem. It is a truly stunning headland at the northern side of Mizen Head. You can find some incredible aerial photography of Three Castles which is worth getting hold of after you have been there.

It is usually a bit of a drive to get there, from wherever you are staying, but it is well worth it. They owners of the land have developed some small self catering accommodation options at the foot of the path up to Three Castles Head http://www.threecastlehead.ie.

However it is once you get over the top of the small hill that the beauty of Three Castles Head appears. There is the remains of the 12th Century Dunlough Castle, perched on the edge of cliffs dropping away into the Atlantic on one side and a beautiful freshwater lake on the other. What a location for a castle! It must have been inpenetrable. The views on all sides are remarkable. You can look south back toward Mizen Head (the most southwesterly point of Ireland) and its spectacular lighthouse and walkway, you can look north towards the end of the next peninsula which is Sheeps Head. You can look West straight out across the Atlantic. One of my favourite things to do it to walk/ scramble to the end of the Three Castles Head peninsula, above the freshwater lake, and again look down some sheer cliffs and across to the North East towards Bantry Bay and the Cara Mountains.

5. Play Golf in West Cork

As you may know by now, I always include golf in my lists! Golf in West Cork is not as widespread and varied as in some other areas of Ireland. However it has got some lovely courses and one stand-out course which is on most people’s bucket list of courses to play.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Old Head Golf Links (http://www.oldhead.com) on the Old Head of Kinsale. It is one of the most spectacular golf courses in the world. It is perched on a 2 mile piece of headland jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. It truly is a breathtaking course with several holes running alongside cliffs where the drop off is several hundred feet down to the sea. Then of course, there is the famous black and white lighthouse at the end of the headland to give you something else to aim for! There is even luxury accommodation on site, so that you can stay the night before or afterwards.

There are some other lovely and scenic courses to play in West Cork. My own ‘home’ course is Skibbereen and West Carbery (http://www.skibbgolf.com), which is a lovely little parkland course with a very friendly clubhouse and some great Irish scenery as a backdrop. I like Bantry Bay Golf Club (http://www.bantrygolf.com) which although by the sea is a parkland layout which has fabulous views over Bantry Bay. 14 holes overlook the sea with great views of the Beara mountains in the distance. It is also worth considering Clonakilty Golf Club (which used to be known as Lisellan) http://www.clonakiltygolfclub.com. It is only 9 holes but it is very picturesque, with holes meandering through trout-filled rivers and where you even have to take a small raft to the green on one hole!

6. Skibbereen and Lough Hyne

‘Skibb’ is a personal favourite of mine. I have been going there regularly since I was a teenager. Some times know as the Capital of the Carberies or the Capital of West Cork, it is a lovely, friendly, fairly small market town located at the head of the Ilen River. Skibbereen is a classic Irish town, with plenty of brightly coloured houses and shops. It has a couple of supermarkets (Fields is a great place to meet anyone and everyone!) as well as some lovely small boutiques. There is a great farmer’s market every Saturday morning, with loads of food and crafts to buy and loads going on. I recommend buying the famous local Gubbeen Cheese. I actually bumped into Jeremy Irons (who lives in the area) the last time I was there! And of course there are loads of great pubs and bars! The best place to stay if you want to be in a hotel is the famous West Cork Hotel, situated on the banks of the River Ilen http://www.westcorkhotel.com.

One place you should definitely pay a visit to is the Skibbereen Heritage Centre located in the restored Old Gasworks Building next to the River Ilen, where you will find a number of interesting Exhibitions including a fascinating one on The Great Famine Commemoration Exhibition and also The Lough Hyne Interpretative Centre. Skibbereen was devastated by the Great Famine of the 1840s. One million people died and at least another million and a half emigrated during this terrible period of Irish history. The infamous Famine Burial Pits at Abbeystrowry hold the remains of up to 10,000 unidentified victims.

The other exhibition at the Heritage Centre is full of interesting facts about nearby Lough Hyne, which is Ireland’s first marine nature reserve. Lough Hyne is a stunningly beautiful lake, located about 10 miles form Skibb. It is a fully marine sea lough which is fed with tidal currents from the Atlantic. It is famous for sustaining an incredible variety of plants and animals. Lough Hyne is also very popular for swimming and kayaking in the summer. Atlantic Sea Kayaking (see Glandore and Union Hall section) offer an amazing night time kayaking expedition which is highly recommended. I also love the walk up the nature trail of Knockomagh Hill, which offer superb views of Lough Hyne and all the way out to Baltimore and the island beyond, when you reach the top.

7. The Beaches of West Cork

When you think of Ireland, you don’t always think about beaches. However with West Cork, there are some truly amazing beaches. There are small hidden pieces of sand as well as huge expanses of beach. In the summer, with the sunlight and the green surrounds, these beaches can be amongst the most beautiful in the world! Admittedly the water might not be quite as warm as the Caribbean or the Med, but some of these beaches are more visually stunning.

Here are my favourite 6 West Cork beaches:

  • Inchydoney Beach, near Clonakilty – A beautiful unspoiled beach which is quit often voted one of the best beaches in the whole of Ireland. Good for surfers (there is a surf school located here), but also a lovely place for a walk or a swim or just a day out.
  • Barley Cove Beach , near Mizen Head – This is one of the more famous beaches in West Cork. You can walk onto it via a floating pontoon bridge and there are great sand dunes to play in as well.
  • Tralispean Beach, near Skibbereen – I would call this a hidden gem and a personal favourite of mine. We used to spend time here when we were younger and staying near to Tralispean. It is well protected from the elements and has lovely views.
  • Sandy Cove, near Castletownshend – I love this little beach. It is small and sheltered but quite a sun-trap. It has perfect soft sand and is surrounded by tall rocks and cliffs. It also has stunning views out across the bay.
  • Long Strand, near Rosscarbery – This is the best beach for a long walk! But is also a popular place for kite surfers and has the famous Fish Basket cafe on one end. There is also the Gothic-style Castlefreke estate behind the beach which is well worth discovering on a walk.
  • Sandy Beach – Heir Island – As I have mentioned above when talking about Heir Island, this is a fantastic tranquil and secluded beach which is just lovely to spend the day on with the family.

8. Schull

Keep going south west from Skibb and after about 20km you will reach the pretty village of Schull. It is located at the beginning of the Mizen peninsula – Ireland’s most south-westerly point. It is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty and has a real charm to it. Like many of the coastal villages in West Cork, it is a haven for sailors and watersports enthusiasts. However there are also art galleries, a planetarium, restaurants and bars (of course!), an array of accommodation options including campsites, a weekly country market and some lovely boutiques. I recommend Hackett’s Bar for some great live music and some interesting local characters!

One of the best trips is to take a ferry boat out around the Fastnet Rock. There are also all sorts of other watersports available from powerboating to kayaking and of course, sailing. If you like walking then there are some great walks up and around the nearby Mount Gabriel. There is a great circular walk from Schull going up Mount Gabriel which gives amazing panoramic views from the top.

Schull has also gained notoriety recently with the release of the celebrated West Cork Podcast. It is concerning a murder in Schull in 1996. This is a fantastic and gripping listen. It paints a vivid picture of Schull and the surrounding area and the impact that this murder has on it. I highly recommend it. Download it on Amazon Audible.

9. Castletownshend

Castletownshend is another personal favourite of mine. It is not necessarily on everyone’s hit list, but has got a unique charm to it. It more or less consists of one very steep street with some gorgeous Georgian houses, going from the top of the hill where there is the grand entrance to Drishane House, down past the Sycamore Tree in the middle of the road, past Mary Ann’s (see below) and ending up at the Church and the Castle and the lovely harbour.

There are plenty of houses for rent and you can stay at the Castle as well. The Castle has recently been converted into boutique accommodation and there are few better places to stay in terms of location, being right down by the sea (http://www.castle-townshend.com). The Castle also has a really nice little cafe restaurant where you can sit by the harbour and have some tea or sandwiches. You can even rent cottages in Drishane House. This beautiful Georgian-style house was built in 1780 and is well worth a visit (http://www.drishane.com). The Church of St Barrahane is a large building overlooking the town and the harbour. It was built in 1826 and is famous for its stained glass windows.

The number 1 must-do activity when in Castletownshend however, is to to go to Mary Ann’s! It is a fantastic place, with a cosy little bar area and the most friendly service. However you really have to eat there, because the food is exceptional and it is all presided over by the larger than life character of Fergus O’Mahony. It is probably my favourite place to eat in West Cork. I love the atmosphere and the food and also the local art which is on show and on sale upstairs. It also has a nice little garden area where you can sit outside if preferred. In the evening in the summer you will probably need to call in advance to book, such is its popularity. Don’t miss it!

There is something about the light and the peace and quiet at Castletownshend as you stand or sit by the water’s edge looking across to Reen Pier or far out to Horse Island to the right.

10. Sheep’s Head

Sheep’s Head is one of the fingers of South West Ireland that stretches into the Atlantic. Like all of these peninsulas it has some quite breathtaking views. It is a very popular walking route with plenty of trails that are easy to follow. In fact, the whole Sheep’s Head Way (http://www.sheepsheadway.ie) is about 88km but it is very easy to walk smaller sections, if you prefer. There are also 20 Loop Walks which encompass coastal ways, high peaks and lots of fantastic photo opportunities. From the end of Sheep’s Head where there is a nice little stroll/scramble around the lighthouse, you get incredible views across to the North and the Beara Peninsula and to the South towards Three Castles Head and Mizen. There are also various cycle routes that are well worth doing.

Sheep’s Head peninsula has three villages which are worth visiting. I love Ahakista. It is a very picturesque wooded village on the coast with a secluded harbour, a small sandy beach and some lovely houses. In fact, Graham Norton has a large house here. They hold a small sailing regatta in August which I would recommend taking a look at whilst admiring the view.

Charleston 🇺🇸

Charleston 🇺🇸

I have been to South Carolina many times, and if the Palmetto State is my favourite US state, then Charleston is my favourite city. Not just in South Carolina, but in the whole US!

I love America. I am on the same wavelength with the obsession for sports. Thanks to various visits over the years and some die-hard locals, I have become a big Clemson Tigers fan. I also really enjoy the big, loud culture and am fascinated by the politics. I love some of their big cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami and San Francisco. However I also love the smaller towns. Charleston is small by US standards. It only has a population of about 130,000. There are no real high rise building to speak of. It is steeped in history. In fact, it’s about as far back at US history goes. It has got a kind of quiet, sleepy feel to it, that is in keeping with the sub-tropical climate. However it has some fine luxury hotels (both big and small), a number of superb restaurants that are amongst my favourites in the whole US and plenty of things to see and do.

To cap it all, for a UK traveller, it has never been easier to get to Charleston! British Airways fly direct from London Heathrow twice a week in the Summer. http://www.britishairways.com

Here is Watt Travels list of Top 5 Must Do activities in Charleston:

1. Walk around Charleston’s Historic District

So clearly one of Charleston’s main attractions is that it has some wonderful old buildings, and lots of history (Charleston was established by the British in 1670.) Charleston also has a fairly small city centre and it is easy to walk around the beautiful streets and take in these sights. Of course, there are lots of other ways to get around, such as horse carriage or one of those pedi cabs or even take an escorted guided tour. However I think that making your own tour and discovering Charleston for yourself, is the best way to fall in love with this city.

It doesn’t really matter too much where you are staying in terms of starting a walk. Most of the hotels are situated pretty much in the centre, It is easy to construct a circular walk starting and finishing from your hotel and taking in the best of the historic city of Charleston. My personal favourite to stay at is the Belmond Charleston Place http://www.belmond.com. This hotel is ideally located on corner of King Street and a great place to start a stroll.

I recommend taking in the following sights in a circular direction:

  • Charleston City Market – Dating back to 1788, this is a great place to browse stalls, pick up a few bargains and grab a bite of local food.
  • Waterfront Park – One of the best viewpoints in Charleston. Lots of photo opportunities and don’t forget the famous pineapple fountain.
  • Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon – An interesting piece of history. This is where slaves were bought and sold in the 18th century.
  • Rainbow Row – Famous street of coloured houses. Built in the 1740’s these houses were once owned by wealthy Charleston merchants.
  • Robert William Roper House – One of my favourite Charleston houses. It is a great example of 19th century Greek revival architecture.
  • White Point Gardens and The Battery – From here, you can get spectacular views of the Ashely and Cooper Rivers, and Fort Sumter.
  • Legare Street – One of the quintessential Charleston historic streets, with many stunning houses like No23.
  • King Street – Charleston’s Main Street. You need to end your walking tour with a spot of retail therapy on beautiful King Street.

2. Eat at Hall’s Chophouse

Hall’s is a Charleston institution. Located on King Street just up from Marion Square, it has been operating since 2009 in Charleston. If you like your steak and meat, then they don’t come much better than at Hall’s. 

I have eaten there 3 or 4 times, and on each occasion, it has always been packed. I would always advise booking ahead. The other tip is to get there a bit earlier than your reservation and have a pre-dinner drink at the bar, which is lively and has a great atmosphere.

After you have been seated at your table for dinner, you will spend some time browsing the extensive menu and wine list. When you come to make your choice, one of the extremely knowledgeable waiters, who will give you an education on steak! You also get a brilliant sommelier to give you the perfect winer accompaniment. One piece of advice, is if you like your steak medium rare, then I would order medium here, which works out about the same. I would also recommend some of their great sides – Mac N Cheese of course, plus creamed spinach and you should always give that Southern classic of grits a go! 

A great evening and my favourite restaurant in Charleston. http://www.hallschophouse.com

3. Visit Charleston Farmers Market

Farmers markets seem to have become ubiquitous the world over. However Charleston Farmers Market is pretty special. It is definitely worth going to. The Farmers Market is held every Saturday from 8am to 2pm between April and end November in Marion Square. This market sells so much that you want to buy and take home as a memory of time in Charleston and South Carolina. Whilst you may not be able to take the freshest produce home, there is plenty of food to try whilst you are there. You have to get some pimento cheese spread, which is typical of the South. You can also get all sorts of local art and craft. I bought a great photo of the Atlantic coast mounted on canvas, which I now have up at home as a memory.

The atmosphere and smells and an open-air market in the middle of Charleston is a not-to-be missed experience. I also love listening to that great Southern accent! Y’all have a good time now!

4. Stay and/or Play at Kiawah Island Resort

Kiawah is actually about 40 minutes from centre of Charleston, but I count it as part of the ‘Charleston experience’. The final part of the drive to Kiawah is through a lovely tunnel of oaks. It might only be 20 miles from downtown but it feels like a different world.

If you are a golf nut like me, then you will of course know all about Kiawah from the 1991 Ryder Cup ‘War on the Shore’ and Rory Mcilroy winning the PGA Championship there. It is an absolute golfing mecca. There are 5 golf courses on the estate including the (in)famous Ocean Course. The scenery around is spectacular, the service is excellent and the wildlife is, well, wild! There are plenty of alligators around and on the golf course (see below). 

However Kiawah is not just for golf enthusiasts. There is luxury accommodation and restaurants, tennis, spa and gyms, fishing trips, kayaking, beaches, swimming pools and water slides and a lot more! The luxury accommodation option is The Sanctuary, which is the only AAA 5 Diamond Hotel in South Carolina! There are also a wide range of rental villas which are ideal for families.

In short, you have to fit in a stay at Kiawah into your Charleston trip if possible. http://www.kiawahresort.com

5. Take a trip to see Fort Sumter monument

One of the great attractions of Charleston for me is its history and heritage. Fort Sumter is an important monument. Located at the entrance to Charleston Harbour, Fort Sumter is where the first shots were fired in the American Civil War. The Confederacy opened fire on the Unionist-controlled Fort Sumter on April 12th 1861. They took it over and held it for 4 years. It is a fascinating piece of history and well worth a boat trip out to see it.

You can catch a ferry for the tour from the Visitor Education Center in Liberty Square. The Rangers are really well-informed and offer you some great insights into the people and the history behind Fort Sumter. They will also give you artillery firing demonstrations! The added bonus is the ferry itself which is a lovely ride across, and where you might spot some of the dolphins that regularly visit Charleston Harbour.

South Africa 🇿🇦

South Africa 🇿🇦

Almost from the first moment that I touched down on South African soil, I loved it. Undoubtedly my first real travel love and still my favourite country.

A World in One Country is what they call it. No wonder. There is so much diversity both in the landscapes (from the Drakensberg Mountains to the tropical beaches of Durban, to the spectacular meeting of the Oceans at Cape Town, to the African bush), the climate and the people .

My first visit was back in 1991. It was exactly a year after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. I landed in Johannesburg and spent the next 6 months travelling around this extraordinary country and neighbouring Zimbabwe. My friend and I purchased beaten-up second hand Citi Golf and we had some epic adventures and met some amazing people as we drove around. The full story is for another time. I have been back many times since, and it takes my breath away every time.

Here are my Top 10 Must Do recommendations of places to go and things to do in South Africa. In another blog coming soon, I will give you my top 10 Must-Do’s for just Cape Town (place I would most like to live)!

Watt Travels Top 10 Must Do Activities in South Africa:

1. Climb Table Mountain with a Guide

Yeah sure, the cable car is great (acceptable for the way down!) but you haven’t truly done Cape Town unless you have done a hike up Table Mountain. The only way to do this properly is with a guide. They are hugely knowledgeable and add to the experience as well as taking you the best ways up the mountain. If you get a good guide (as per my recommendation below), they will point out animals, birds, history, plants/flowers and of course, the amazing views. My favourite route is the Kasteelspoort which starts above Camps Bay and goes up the back of the mountain with some incredible views over the Ocean and Lions Head. To begin with you look out over Camps Bay and Lions Head and then as you get higher you look back down towards Cape Point and then finally, as you reach the top, the famous view Northwards out over Cape Town and towards Robben Island. I highly recommend Martin http://www.tablemountainday.com. He really does make it a memorable experience.

During the many years of incarceration on Robben Island, we often looked across Table Mountain at its magnificent silhouette … To us on Robben Island, Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return.’Nelson Mandela.

One of the amazing views on the Kasteelspoort climb

2. Splash the cash and go on a luxury Safari

Safari is clearly a must-do whilst in South Africa. There are a huge variety of different safari options. You can self- drive a safari into Kruger National Park which is a great way of getting a taster. However there are also some of the best private game reserves and lodges in South Africa. I recommend booking a minimum of 2 nights in a luxury game lodge. These days you can find game reserves all over South Africa – not just on the edge of the Kruger. These game reserves have extremely knowledgeable rangers who really add to the enjoyment of the experience and they know how to find the animals so you are usually guaranteed to see most of the Big 5! In addition, because you are up early in the morning for game drives and then bumping around on a jeep in the bush, I think it is very important to have a lovely luxurious room to come back to and wash and relax. Many of them have amazing bathrooms and some even have an outdoor shower. Then of course there is the food and drink. I absolutely love going for an early morning game drive. Going out in the dark, wrapped up because it is usually pretty chilly. Then stopping for a coffee in the bush and watching the sun come up! Then you know you are in Africa! The sounds and smells of the bush…..After a game drive in the evening, you are usually starving! A lovely piece of game meat cooked on a braai is hard to beat. I recommend three fantastic luxury reserves in three different areas of South Africa, all with very different experiences: Gondwana which is located near Mossel Bay in the Cape http://www.gondwanagr.co.za; or Thornybush Lodge which is on the edge of the Kruger National Park http://www.thornybush.com ; or Madikwe Game Reserve, up in the North-West close to border with Botswana http://www.madikwegamereserve.co.za .

3. Whale watching near Hermanus

Hermanus, about 90 minutes from Cape Town is one of the most famous places in the world for whale watching destinations. Get yourself down to this beautiful whaling town between July and November (Sept – Nov is best) to see these awesome creatures close up. If you are there at end September/ early October then they have the Hermanus Whale Festival which is worth a visit. Hermanus offers the opportunity to see Southern Right Whales, as well as Humpback Whales and Bryde’s Whales. What makes Hermanus particularly special is that you are able to see these whales from land, sea and from the skies above. Most people think about spotting the Big 5 game animals when they come on a South African holiday but you really need to consider the amazing spectacle of seeing these gentle giants of the oceans close up and an equally essential experience. For land-based viewing, I would recommend getting yourself to Siever’s Point, which is usually quite popular but gets great viewing. If you want to get up close and personal then it has to be by boat. I would recommend http://www.southernrightcharters.co.za

Southern Right Whales are truly a wonder of the world!

4. Take a Tour of Robben Island

No trip to South Africa let alone Cape Town, should be complete without a trip to Robben Island. It is truly inspirational. Robben Island (which means Seal Island in Afrikaans) is located 5 miles north of Cape Town and easily accessible by boat from the V and A Waterfront in Cape Town. Your ticket includes a bus tour of the island and a tour of the prison (from a former prisoner). The bus tour takes you around the island and includes a look at the limestone quarry where the prisoners were made to toil in the blazing heat. The bus also stops for a drink/rest where you get some incredible views of Cape Town and Table Mountain! The tour of the prison by a former prisoner is both humbling and fascinating. Nelson Mandela was a prisoner on Robben Island for 18 years and the former prisoner who acts as your guide gives a revealing glimpse into what life was like behind the bars of one of the most infamous prisons in the world. My top tip for the trip is if it is a nice day, get there as early as possible so that you are one of the first on the boat as then you can get a seat upstairs in the open. On the way out get to see Robben Island approaching and imagine something of what it was like for this prisoners. On the way back you get to see the beauty of Cape Town come closer and closer. When I was last there we were lucky enough to see a whale breaching as we came back towards Cape Town! Make sure you book your tour at least 2 weeks in advance if possible http://www.robben-island.org.za

The first view of Robben Island on arrival at harbour.

5. Walk in the Drakensberg Mountains

The Drakensberg Mountain Range is one of South Africa’s most spectacular natural wonders, showcasing a selection of the most breath-taking vistas imaginable. It is the highest mountain range in the country, reaching an impressive 3482 metres above sea level. Its name, Drakensberg, roughly translate to “dragon mountains” or “the mountains of dragons”. And, it’s no wonder that it has earned this name because some of the peaks are mammoth in size and stature. Between and amongst these peaks are plateaus, valleys, slopes, and incredible mountain passes that make for some of the best hiking, walking and cycling adventures in South Africa. There is pretty much something for everyone, including gentle half-day hikes, longer multiple-day trips, challenging climbs and, for those with the necessary experience and equipment, technical mountaineering. My recommended trails are: a) Gudu Falls loop from Royal Natal Mahai campsite. This is an intermediate hiking trail with some fabulous views. You probably need to be reasonably fit to complete this; b) Amphitheatre Hike via Chain Ladders. This one also has spectacular views for the slightly more adventurous. Pretty much all day but certainly worth it.

The chain ladders are sturdier than they look on the Amphitheatre hike

6. Take a guided tour of Zulu War Battlefields

If, like me, you grew loving the classic film Zulu starring Michael Caine, you will know the famous names of the battles fo the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 – Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Located near to the town of Dundee in Kwazulu Natal, about 3.5 hours from Durban, the Battlefields are a not-to-be-missed stop on any South African itinerary. I highly recommend a stay at Fugitives Drift (http://www.fugitivesdrift.com) which is the luxury accommodation located close to these battlefields. Not only is accommodation and food outstanding, what really makes it, is the battlefields tours run by the fantastic Rattray family. I was lucky enough to be given a tour by the late David Rattray several years ago, but his son Douglas has taken on the role these days and from all accounts is also brilliant. They have a real passion for the stories and the people and really bring these extraordinary conflicts to life.

The famous rock of Isandlwana

7. Play golf on Leopard Creek Golf Course overlooking Kruger National Park

I have worked in the travel and golf industry for some time, and played golf in many countries around the world, but there are very few places more unique than Leopard Creek Country Club. It is located about an hour from Nelspruit in Mpumalanga, on the edge of the Kruger National Park. You can either stay close by or you can come and play here during the day whilst staying at a game reserve nearby. The course itself is immaculate, as you would expect of a course that hosts a European Tour event every year. It is a brilliant design from South African golfing legend Gary Player. However more striking than all of this is, and what makes Leopard Creek a must-play for any golf fanatics, is the regular sightings of Elephants, Giraffes, Hippos, Buffalo, Zebra, Impala and Crocodiles off the course (and indeed on the course in some cases!) http://www.leopardcreek.com

Spectacular scenes at Leopard Creek looking over the Kruger National Park

8. Watch Cricket at one of the most beautiful grounds in the world

I am a cricket fan, but to me it doesn’t really matter if you are or not, when you go to watch cricket at Newlands in Cape Town. As it is summer, it is usually pretty warm (in fact one of the hottest days I have ever experienced in South Africa was baking on a grass bank at Newlands). There is often the smell of a braai or two and they do have some grass banks which you can sit on which make it much less formal. Best of all is the backdrop of Table Mountain which rises up behind one side of the ground and gives a fantastic backdrop. Go for a Test Match, a One Day international or a T20 on a sunny day or evening and immerse yourself in a true South African sporting experience. http://www.newlandscricket.com

One of my favourite places to watch sport anywhere in the world

9. Wine Tasting in Constantia or Stellenbosch

South Africa is one of the great wine-producing countries of the world. It also happens that their vineyards, just outside Cape Town, are amongst the most picturesque in the world. There are few better experiences than tasting wine in the warm Cape sun in a beautiful setting. Depending on how serious you are about your wine, you can either go a do a day’s tour with one or two vineyards or a few days with multiple vineyards in different locations. But whichever way you go, I will guarantee that you will end up buying plenty of wine to either take home or ship home. Also most of the good vineyards have fantastic restaurants attached where you can have a memorable lunch. My personal favourite vineyards and wines are:

Steenberg (Constantia) – Love the wines (especially the Rattlesnake Sauvignon Blanc) and really love the food and the service in Bistro Sixteen82. http://www.steenbergfarm.com

Buitenwervachting (Constantia) – Tricky to pronounce but it means ‘Beyond Expectation’, which this hidden gem certainly is. Famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. http://www.buitenwervachting.com

Vergelegen (Somerset West) – A truly beautiful setting, maintained to perfection and with some of my favourite wines, particularly the GVB Red which it is famous for. http://www.vergelegen.co.za

Lanzerac Wine Estate (Stellenbosch) – Some say the home of Pinotage. Another stunning setting offering views of mountains, lush vineyards, and gardens shaded by oak trees. http://www.lanzerac.co.za

Vergelegen. Stunning setting for tasting wine.

10. Explore the spectacular scenery of Mpumalanga

When I first visited South Africa, my first stop after Jo’burg was the Mpumalanga region (or Eastern Transvaal as it was known then). I had read my Jock of the Bushveld and my Wilbur Smith novels and this area was always one I had wanted to go to. Located roughly 4 hours East of Jo’burg, Mpumpalanga has got some stunning scenery and places to visit. If you exclude the various incredible game reserves and the Leopard Creek golf course that are in this area (which I have already mentioned), you can still find a huge number of unmissable things to do and see:

Bourke’s Luck Potholes – Amazing rock features where the Blyde and Truer Rivers meet

God’s Window – The top of the Panorama route and as the name suggests, an incredible view.

Lisbon Falls – The highest waterfall in Mpumalanga

Gold panning at Pilgrim’s Rest- A small town lost in the 1800’s. Gold is a major part of South Africa’s make up. See what it was like to look for gold

Fly Fishing at Dullstroom – the capital of fly fishing in South Africa.

God’s Window – What a view it is!