By Sarah Binder

Today, travelers to South Africa are canvassing far more ground than the traditional trio of Cape Town, Johannesburg, and the popular game reserves. The call of the wild still beckons, yet it is enticing tourists to experience lush wineries, life-changing encounters with sea creatures, and interactions with friendly locals.

“South Africa offers the best value for the money in the world,” says Daniela Bonanno, Africa manager for Absolute Travel. The culturally and geographically diverse country allows all travelers to craft memorable vacations keyed on their interests — safari, art, wine, food, city life or sporting adventures. Several tour providers have expertise in designing customized luxury itineraries, and they are increasingly recommending unique experiences that result in once-in-a-lifetime trips.

“While the typical safari, Cape Town and Victoria Falls packages will always be popular, we try our best to get people off of the normal circuit and thinking outside of the box,” says Candice Heckel, product manager for Down Under Endeavours. “Why not visit Madikwe Game Reserve instead of Kruger National Park? Or engage with the meerkats in the Green Kalahari, South Africa’s green desert?”

Tracking the Big Ten

“The biggest draw for South Africa is, of course, the wildlife — safari experiences always take the cake. However, I don’t think most people realize the diversity of wildlife found in the country,” says Heckel. In addition to the ever-popular Big Five game animals — the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard and white/black rhinoceros — South Africa offers a variety of exciting ways to engage with the marine big five — the southern right whale, great white shark, bottlenose and humpback dolphins, Cape fur seal and African penguin.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, at the southernmost tip of Africa where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans collide, partners with Dyler Island Cruises to provide guided tours with marine biologists on eco-friendly vessels. Travelers can gaze upon Cape fur seals sunning themselves on Geyser Rock, keep an eye out for curious southern right whales floating alongside the vessel, and snap endless photos of endangered African 

of the Atlantic Ocean, Table Bay Harbour, the city skyline and Table Mountain. The latest development, the Silo district, will house Africa’s first major museum of contemporary art; the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is set to open there in late 2016/early 2017.

For the most serious oenophiles, South Africa has blossomed into a must-visit destination. Venturing inland from Cape Town, the picturesque towns of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, the country’s second oldest town and center of its wine industry, are well-established locations showcasing gourmet food and premium wines. By exploring further afield, visitors can sip varietals in the lesser-known, but very welcoming vineyards in the Swartland, Wellington and Tulbagh regions. Popular varietals in South Africa include versatile Chenin blanc and bold Pinotage, as well as complex Bordeaux blends and sophisticated Shiraz.

Making Connections

Due to the significant travel time from the U.S., and the vast array of experiences to be had in such a large country, South Africa is a destination that warrants a stay of at least 10 to 14 days, according to Fielding. “There’s so much diversity in the destination that it really warrants having a planned itinerary,” he adds. The country is differentiated from the rest of Africa in that it is relatively easy to travel within, with most people speaking English and a well-developed tourism industry.

In addition, South African locals are notable for their warm, welcoming demeanor toward visitors. “I love how genuine the people are,” says Bonanno. “It’s refreshing to see the level of enthusiasm and creative energy in this country. There is this feeling that something big is about to happen.” For just one way to connect with everyday South African life, Bonanno recommends visiting the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg. Locals can guide visitors through the back alleys to explore this incredible example of urban regeneration.

This energy, this feeling of a vibrant country with its doors wide open to embrace all newcomers, may be what remains with travelers long after they have returned home. “Once you go to Africa, you never leave Africa. It’s because of the people, their smiles and the connections that you make while you are there,” says Fielding. “South Africa is an amazing place to reconnect with the human element. The people will approach you with a smile and a hand out to introduce themselves. It’s a different kind of place because of that.”