Orient-Express hotels may be longtime luxury favorites, but there are a few destinations where the brand goes beyond offering a (plush) bed for the night. In Peru, for example, the company packages its six strategically placed hotels and white-glove Hiram Bingham train together with ground transfers and guide services to make exploring the country’s iconic sights a breeze. As we recently discovered, Orient-Express has an equally strong foothold in Southern Africa—where, thanks to stellar properties in gateway South African cities, luxe safari camps in Botswana, and a Journeys in Africa itinerary program— It can help turn dreams of an exotic getaway into a stress-free reality.
|Khwai River Lodge is the first sanctuary to be built by a tribal community.|
Linked via direct flights from several U.S. cities, Johannesburg in South Africa is a natural entry point for travelers to the continent. Until recently, though, most visitors (and travel planners) considered the city little more than an overnight transit stop—but all that is changing, as trendy shops and eateries, quality cultural attractions and lots of leafy, green spaces are enticing guests to stick around for a while. Perched on several lush hillside terraces on the north side of the city, and about a 30-minute drive from the international airport, The Westcliff is a Joburg classic that General Manager Andrew Cook ([email protected]) and his team helped upgrade in advance of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Restaurants, the pool and many of the rooms look out over one of the largest man-made forests in the world, which also houses the city’s well-stocked zoo. Guest Relations Manager Alwyn Hoffman ([email protected], [email protected]), who has been at the hotel for 13 years, can set up unique experiences at the zoo like dinners in the elephant enclosure, and also arrange for a cheetah (and its trainer) to spend some time privately with VIP guests in their suites for about 40 minutes. Other exclusive offerings range from after-hours art gallery tours, private shopping at jewelry stores and antiques dealers, in-suite visits from a traditional “witch doctor” to last-minute reservations at the hottest restaurants (try Moyo for Pan-African fare, Wombles for the city’s best steaks or the romantic George’s on 4th). Hoffman and his team can also organize a driver and guide to lead guests through the impressive Apartheid Museum or on a tour of Soweto, a bustling suburb (and former home to Nelson Mandela) that was the base for the country’s civil rights movement.
|Eagle Island Camp offers game drives on foot.|
At the hotel, guests can enjoy alfresco fine dining at La Belle Terasse, join locals for tea in the afternoon, and sample the creative molecular cocktails at The Polo Bar, while the kiddie set gets treated to pint-size bathrobes, special bath products and nighttime cookies and milk. Note that studio suites are open-plan, and junior and one-bedroom suites have separate living areas; Suite 105 is the only one with a pool, and the colonial-chic Presidential Suite has a terrace overlooking the forest.
From Johannesburg, it’s a short flight north to Botswana, home to some of the best game-spotting on the continent. Along with her expert team, Orient-Express Safaris’ Reservations and Sales Manager Sandy Fowler ([email protected])—an 18-year vet of the company and area—can assist with commercial or private air transfers to Maun, Botswana, then bush plane service to the camps. Another Perk: Because bush planes have strict luggage restrictions, guests of The Westcliff can leave oversized bags and unneeded items with the hotel before heading on an O-E safari, then reunite with their belongings at the airport on the way back. To further help lighten the load, Fowler and company can arrange for Canon and Nikon camera bodies, lenses and tripods for use on the safaris (a choice will be delivered upon arrival in Botswana), and even book a private wildlife photography instructor. Each of the company’s three Botswana camps has unique topography, ecosystems and wildlife, so the combination gives guests a well-rounded safari experience. All have beautifully appointed TV-free, thatched-roof-and-canvas tents with en-suite bathrooms, minibars, air-conditioning, raised wooden viewing decks and mosquito net-draped four-poster beds. The dreamy schedule is nearly the same at each camp, too: Days start with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up delivery of fresh-baked muffins and hot coffee, followed by morning game drives, brunch, downtime around the pool or shaded lounges, decadent afternoon tea service and an evening game outing before gourmet wine dinners and wildlife story-swapping around the campfire. (Note that in low season it may be possible to arrange private game drives, while in busier months the camps try to put guests with similar wildlife interests in the same Jeep.) Though each camp has its own onsite resident manager, both Sandro Fabris ([email protected]), regional managing director, Orient-Express Africa, and Warren Stone ([email protected]), general manager, Orient-Express Safaris, can be contacted directly with any special requests.
|Eagle Island Camp has one suite with an oversized Victorian copper tub.|
Up in the northern part of the country, Savute Elephant Camp is located in the rugged, semidesert Chobe National Park, dotted with acacia and baobab trees and dramatic landscapes, plus a cache of ancient bushman paintings. Along with elephants, which like to graze around the water hole in front of the camp, the region is home to a large pride of lions, rare wild dogs, roan antelope and—in season—migrating zebra. Colorful birds also flock around the camp’s central boma dining area, built entirely from local driftwood and looking out on the now-flowing Savute Channel. As of this year, two of the 12 suites will be able to connect to form a family tent, and second tents for kids eight to 18 are 50 percent off the regular rate. (Note that eight is the minimum age for all camps.)
A short bush flight south, Khwai River Lodge is in the Moremi Game Reserve, home to all Big Five animals and the first sanctuary in Africa to be established by a tribal community. Elephants, lions, antelopes and cheetah roam around the surrounding areas, while hippos laze the day away in the river right in front of the camp. Khwai is slightly bigger than its two Orient-Express sister camps, with 15 thatched tents done up by designer Graham Viney; the top Suite 1 has an outdoor shower and private plunge pool, and a connected family tent can be organized here, too. The camp also has a small gym and a one-room spa offering massages and facials using South Africa’s nourishing Africology product line. (Be sure to book a service in advance, as slots between the morning and dusk game drives fill up fast.) In addition to traditional Jeep safaris, Khwai offers guided walks through the delta, nighttime drives to hear the nocturnal wildlife sounds, and visits to a nearby San (bushmen) village—as well as private stargazing dinners in its “Bird Hide” tree house lounge.
A lush network of waterways and wetlands surround Eagle Island Camp, on Xaxaba Island in the Okavango Delta, overlooking a hippo- and crocodile-filled lagoon. Because of its unique position, the camp forgoes Jeep excursion rides in favor of game drives on foot, via covered dugout canoes, and—included for all guests—in doorless helicopters. During the latter, guests enjoy an unforgettable 30-minute glide over the green delta, watching the herds of elephants, giraffe and zebra roam below; upon touchdown, a speedboat will appear bearing snacks and celebratory glasses of bubbly. Visits to a nearby fishing village to peruse local handicrafts can also be arranged. Like Khwai, Eagle Island has one top suite, with a heated plunge pool and delta view, open-air double shower and oversized Victorian copper bathtub. Don’t miss a sundowner at the waterside Fish Eagle Bar, one of the best places to forget the outside world.
|At Mount Nelson Hotel, the Presidential Suite has three balconies.|
After communing with nature, end the journey with a visit to beautiful, bustling Cape Town (connections are available from Botswana via Johannesburg) and the iconic Mount Nelson Hotel. Famous for its storied past and pale pink façade, the 113-year-old hotel (overseen by General Manager Xavier Lablaude, xlablau[email protected]) is beloved to both out-of-towners—many book their December and February holidays a year in advance—and locals, who have helped make the morning and afternoon high tea buffets so popular, they are now served seven days a week. (Tip: Book a table upon check-in to ensure a taste.) Rooms are spread out over several buildings: the main house has the most recently renovated options (including five with Table Mountain views), as well as six Deluxe Suites done in Art Deco style; No. 309 has a four-poster bed and separate lounge, while No. 671—the Presidential Suite—has three balconies, each with a different view. Also popular are suites in the Green Park section, which have direct car access for privacy-seeking VIPs (skip No. 642, the only one without a balcony), and the townhouse-style Garden Cottage Suites, set in a row of converted historical homes near the adults-only pool. For those inspired by the blooming flora, Chief Gardener Paul Rice, who has been tending the grounds for 30 years, is available for garden walks or a chat over a cup of tea in the greenhouse.
|The Westcliff Hotel was upgraded for the 2010 FIFa World Cup.|
As a 20-year Mount Nelson vet, Guest Relations Manager Joey Michael ([email protected]) is the go-to person for all things Cape Town, from catering to VIPs (stars like Morgan Freeman and Leonardo DiCaprio have checked in for extended stays) and organizing tastings at some of the region’s top wineries to snagging a table at trendy restaurants like the 30-seat Test Kitchen. Luckily for Joey, another of the top eateries in town is right onsite: under the direction of Chef Rudi Liebenberg ([email protected]), the recently relaunched fine dining Planet has already won awards for its Cape Classics menu, which highlights fresh seasonal ingredients in dishes like Rooibos-cured ostrich and springbok pie (there’s also a gourmet tasting menu just for vegans). End the trip at the serene Librisa Spa, where the deep-tissue, all-natural Africology Intonga Amasatchi massage will leave muscles relaxed for the flight home.