When gold was discovered in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1896, settlers arrived in droves to create a wild and woolly mining town. More than a century later, the “City of Gold,” as it remains known, is still a frenetic destination. Situated in Gauteng, the smallest of the country’s nine provinces, this bustling commercial center-home to 7 million people -serves as the headquarters for most international corporations doing business in the sub-Sahara.
I visited earlier this year at a most exhilarating time. South Africans were celebrating 10 years as a democratic nation and were eagerly looking forward to the country’s third democratic elections. Despite the uncertainty of the outcome of the elections, citizens still rejoiced in having defied huge odds by withstanding such a monumental transition without bloodshed.
“Ten years ago, world media converged on Johannesburg to cover a bloodbath,” recalled Liz McGrath, owner of The Collection, a chain of three of the country’s most stylish country-house hotels. “A mere decade later, many South Africans remain in awe over the bloodless changeover.”
Recent surveys indicate that 80 percent of South Africans believe their democracy will survive; five years ago, only half felt that way. That confidence has allowed South Africans to turn their attention toward mitigating other societal ills, including a devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic, high unemployment and crime. Overall, people are positive about the changes of the past 10 years and are generally optimistic about the future. The South African government and business sector are working to integrate, albeit slowly, the disenfranchised into the mainstream of the economy-an essential step that will nurture the democratic transformation and economic growth.
With this backdrop, I was a little apprehensive as I plunged into the heart of Johannesburg. It turned out my concern was unnecessary. En route from the airport to my hotel, I realized Johannesburg represents the quintessential “tale of two cities.”
A beautiful and lush city appeared before me, its streets lined with multimillion-dollar mansions. Yet, walls and gates enclosed them all. The high crime rate has also fostered a city of gated malls that zealously shield bustling sidewalks, cafes, restaurants, high-end shops and even flea markets. The heart of Johannesburg has gradually shifted from downtown to its upscale suburbs, including Sandton and Rosebank, where sleek office buildings vie for space with upscale malls, five-star hotels and stylish restaurants and cafes. In contrast, the downtown area is reminiscent of the Los Angeles Watts district in the aftermath of the infamous Watts riots. Still, there are signs of change and renewal as warehouses emerge from renovations as toney urban apartment buildings.
Born and bred in New York City, I am accustomed to dodging traffic-on foot and in a car-but there is simply no place to walk in Johannesburg. At least, not on the street. Fortunately, my hotel, The Westcliff, was situated in an older suburb of the same name. Set on a hillside, it reminded me of a Mediterranean village. Terracotta walls, lush gardens and cobbled pathways gave it the look and feel of Tuscany. Its seven sprawling acres allowed plenty of room for meandering walks. Originally built as pricey apartments that did not sell, the complex was purchased by the Orient-Express Hotel group about six years ago. Today this gracious property is a resort with swimming pools, tennis courts and outdoor dining enhanced by gorgeous vistas overlooking the zoological gardens.
If you can tear yourself away from business and the hotel, it’s also a perfect base for an exploration of the city and its mostly hidden delights. For those with free time, the Westcliff will arrange guided tours and even golf at one of the city’s 40 or so private courses, which are open year-round. When it comes to shopping, head for the popular Sunday flea market at the Rosebank Mall.
Unfortunately, I missed the flea market, but I made up for it with gusto at the international airport, where the impressive Indaba shop offers some of the best of South African craftsmanship.
Trendy restaurants are as much the rage here as in Manhattan. One of my favorites was Moyo (the word means soul in Swahili), where menu offerings spanned the continent in a setting as exotic as the food. Interesting dishes include springbok carpaccio served with a mustard, mayonnaise and chutney dressing; duck and sour fig samosas enhanced with a date and sweet chili sauce; blackened beef with saffron mayonnaise; and grilled ostrich with an Ethiopian spice blend. Not quite as exotic, but equally delicious, was my dinner at Sides. Located in a charming boutique hotel, 10 Bompas, Sides features such specialties as peanut-battered prawns with a sweet pea dip, created by the restaurant’s award-winning chef.
If you truly want to experience this sometimes-contradictory destination, be sure to visit Soweto. Located just outside Johannesburg, it is the country’s largest township and home to more than 2 million people. Created during apartheid for the country’s black population, Soweto has 48 high schools, the world’s largest hospital and homes that range from well-maintained suburban structures to dilapidated shacks. Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu still maintain homes here, as does Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie. Mandela’s home before his long imprisonment has been converted into a museum.
For a crash course in the complex history of the region, visit the Hector Petersen Museum, dedicated to memorializing the student uprising of 1974. More of the city’s conflicted past can be absorbed at the Gold Mine Museum, where visitors can tour what was once the country’s richest gold mine.
Of course, no trip to South Africa would be complete without a safari. I visited Singita (www.singita.co.za), a private game lodge bordering the famed Kruger National Park. Make note: There are actually three Singitas. I visited the newest in the group- Singita Lebombo-which opened last year in the remote eastern part of Kruger, along the Mozambique border. The setting was perfect. Ultracontemporary cliffside suites with floor-to-ceiling windows offered unobstructed views of the Nwanetsi River and neighboring Lebombo Mountains.
During early-morning and late-afternoon game drives, I witnessed an amazing array of animals-up close and personal-including a contented pride of lions lounging just a few yards away. A river was crowded with enormous hippos. Buffalo, giraffe, warthogs, wildebeests and impala roamed the landscape. Later that evening, a herd of grazing white rhinos was the natural backdrop for cocktail hour. Although this remote area of Kruger is said to have the largest concentration of wildlife, it’s not as if I became blasé. Animals, even huge ones, are sometimes difficult to spot.
Between game drives, I enjoyed close encounters of the indulgent kind, spending time in the swimming pool, gym and spa. Excellent meals with an emphasis on local ingredients accompanied by delightful South African wines rounded out the experience.
Most visitors to South Africa hail from the United Kingdom or Germany. The rand is growing stronger (at press time about 6 to US$1). And with South African Airways’ recent introduction of the new Airbus A340-300E, offering flat-bed seating in business class and more nonstop service from the United States, the trip will be even faster and more comfortable when-not if-I return.
Celebrate Leap Year with a historic stay at The Eliza Jane in New Orleans, Louisiana. The hotel welcomes Leap Day with the Leap Year Lagniappe offer, inspired by the days of Eliza Jane’s Daily Picayune newspaper and its cartoon weather frog.
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