Lion Sands Reserve, South Africa

 

River Lodge Room, Lion Sands Reserve
The 18 River Lodge rooms at Lion Sands Game Reserve offer protection from the Lowveld heat.

 

In South Africa, Kruger National Park is the best place to see wild animals in their habitat. The land has never been anything other than what it is—wild and undeveloped, with human presence kept to a minimum. The Associated Private Nature Reserves that abut Kruger’s eastern border combine with the Park to form the massive Greater Kruger National Park, which is bigger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
The only borders between the national park and the private reserves are on maps, so animals cross over without interference, giving guests unique opportunities to see genuinely wild life.

One of these private nature reserves is the Lion Sands Game Reserve, a family-run escape that is part of the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve (sabi.krugerpark.co.za). We spent a few days there enjoying the peace and solitude after the buzz and intensity of cities like Cape Town and Durban. The resort has been in the hands of the More family for decades, but only in the past 10 years has it become a bonafide luxury destination, attracting such celebs as Vanessa Williams, Ethan Hawke and George Michael. The Reserve’s most requested accommodations are in the Lion Sands Ivory Lodge, a collection of suites connected by an outdoor boardwalk. The suites are at once open and private: The boardwalk brings people up to a solid wall with a door, which opens onto a central patio, with the bedroom and living room on either side. Perfect Perk: The patio has an infinity-edge plunge pool, which can be heated in cooler weather. There are also telescopes on the patios for close-ups of the river and wildlife. (We spent hours watching elephants romp in the river.) The walls of the bedroom and living room have enormous windows with uninterrupted views of the surroundings. Curtains on the glass walls are barely used since people aren’t allowed in the Park or the river. All the bedrooms have open bathrooms, with glass doors that lead to outdoor showers. Top Touch: Meals are generally served at the en-suite Ivory Lodge, but waiters can also be asked to leave the food in a two-sided hutch in the outer wall so that guests can collect it at their leisure. Note: The suites at Ivory Lodge have names rather than numbers, and we hear the Woodlands and Peregrine Suites are the best.

Groups can take over the 18 large cabins in the River Lodge, which are single-room units (but still very spacious, and with such amenities as outdoor showers). The River Lodge rooms are currently under renovation (when we stayed there, we could still smell the fresh paint), and we can’t wait to see what they’ll look like when they are fully completed.

Note: For safety, guests at both lodges are not permitted to walk outside unescorted after dark. To go between rooms and reception, they’ll need to call for an escort.

Guests at River Lodge dine together in the reception area, generally alfresco on a patio lit by individual lamps. The butlers who serve the meals know each guest by name, and remember their preferences. (Our butler, Rodnick, offered absolutely flawless service!)

Lion Sands Ivory Lodge
Lion Sands Ivory Lodge has six villas, each with its own heated plunge pool.

Groups and large families can also stay at the 1933 Lodge, which is a spacious private cabin, miles away from any other lodgings on the camp. The cabin was actually designed by and for the owner’s family, and has a comfortable, homey vibe. The enormous windows afford terrific views, and we hear lions like to relax among the trees not far from the cabin.

An extra-special accommodation (and one that must be specially requested), ideal for honeymooners, we hear, is the Treehouse, formerly a photographer’s platform that now has a king-size bed, a table and chairs and 360-degree views of the savanna below. After a private early dinner for two, couples can watch the sunset and wild animals strolling by. After a night under the stars, they can wake early for the sunrise and use their walkie-talkies to call for a car to bring them back to the main lodge. (The platform is protected from anything that can climb trees, and the bed has mosquito netting for protection against unwanted night visitors.)

The property’s intimate spa is partially open to let in plenty of fresh air and the sounds of nature. The full-body massage is the most popular treatment, but we hear the Heavenly Massage—a 25-minute back-and-neck massage with safe oils—lives up to its name. Romantic Touch: There is also a special two-hour Honeymoon package and a Couples Retreat package. For specific treatments, ask for Londi Nxumalo for deep tissue massages, Nicolette Badenhorst for facials and Standiwe Hlahla for body-wrap treatments. Guests can make spa appointments anytime, but if they want to book a treatment in advance, contact Front Office Manager Robyn Grant (robyng@lionsands.com).

Elephants wade in Sabie River
Elephants wade in Sabie River, which runs in front of both Ivory and River Lodge.

The true test of any private game reserve, though, is the quality of its game drives. Lion Sands has a dedicated staff of rangers and trackers who can spot signs of wild animals, and can maneuver their open-top Range Rovers on unpaved roads (or no roads at all) to find them. Our tracker Ranios and ranger Stanley brought us to all of the Big Five (lions, water buffalos, elephants, leopards, rhinos) and were able to tell us everything we wanted to know about the animals or the Reserve. (Safety Note: The Reserve trains its rangers rigorously before letting them lead tours; their final exam is drawing a map of all the Reserve’s roads from memory.) The morning game drives begin just at sunrise (a knock on the door or a wake-up call helps get guests going), and frequently pause for morning tea at a hide by a water hole. (We watched a hippo wallowing while we sipped our English tea—so civilized and wild at the same time!) Evening game drives begin about an hour before sunset (prime viewing time for most of the big cats), and include cocktails after dark (or, as they’re very appropriately known in South Africa, “sundowners”) in the savanna. Comfortable Touch: Warm scarves and hats are provided for brisk weather.

 

For more information or VIP requests, luxury travel advisors should contact Peter John Scott (pj@lionsands.com).

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