South Africa prides itself on its variety — travellers can taste traditional dishes from an array of different cultures, take photographs of landscapes ranging from beach to desert to jagged mountains, and indulge in anything from spas and sunbathing to bungee jumping, wildlife walks or shark-cage diving.
And the variety doesn’t stop there; if you’d like to spice up your nights, you can step away from the usual range of superb guest houses, lively backpacker hostels or upmarket hotels. From hanging out in an old jail cell to sleeping inside a cave, here are nine unusual places to stay in South Africa.
It might not seem like much of a holiday, but sleeping in a converted jail cell certainly makes for a more interesting travel tale than staying in yet another guest house. The Old Jail in Philippolis, a tiny town in the Free State, serves as a simple but quirky accommodation option. The bedroom-cells are far from roomy, but there are a few added luxuries that prisoners in the 19th-century town prison wouldn’t have enjoyed — comfy mattresses, a self-catering kitchen and of course, your own key. If the historical aspect appeals, but the pokey room not-so-much, try the Old Jail Bed & Breakfast in Willowmore (Eastern Cape). Here the impressive Victorian façade has been preserved, but interior walls have been knocked down and cells converted into luxury en-suite doubles.
Under the stars
The chance to spend the night outside is one available to you pretty much anywhere in the world, but South Africa takes al fresco sleepovers to a whole new level. Taking advantage of the country’s spectacular night skies, a number of upmarket lodges offer “sleepouts.” Forget about leaky tents or lumpy sleeping mats — here your entire five-star room is moved out into the wilderness, king-sized bed, bedside lamps, en-suite bathroom and all. Close to Cape Town you can indulge in the ultimate “glamping” experience at Kagga Kamma, a remote retreat in the semi-desert Karoo. Further north, particularly around Kruger National Park, there are a number of other open-air sleeping options, with the Chalkley Treehouse at Lion Sands Game Reserve perhaps offering the ultimate chance to truly experience the African wilds.
In a cave
KwaZulu-Natal’s Drakensberg Mountains are dotted with caves offering a little more shelter than your tent might provide, but if you fancy a cave stay with a few trimmings, head for the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape. The Makkedaat Caves have been reinforced with timber and furnished with a few little extras — rustic kitchens, outdoor showers and a “loo with a view.” It’s the perfect way to get up close to this ruggedly beautiful corner of the country without having to forsake all home comforts.
At a luxury trailer park
Trailer parks don’t come much snazzier than the Old Mac Daddy, a collection of Airstream trailers each designed by a different local artist. Some come perched on their own deck, others have adjoining lounges for relaxing and enjoying valley views. The award-winning resort sits in the outskirts of Elgin, a picturesque fruit-growing region an hour east of Cape Town.
Under a traditional roof
Corbelled houses are an idiosyncratic feature of the vast and largely empty Northern Cape. When the trekboers ventured north, they soon noted the lack of trees and quickly adapted their building methods to be timber-free. Corbelling is an intricate way of building roofs using nothing but stones, and today a few of the corbelled houses are open as guest houses, allowing you the chance to soak up the Northern Cape solitude while admiring centuries’ old handiwork.
In an ox wagon
When the voortrekkers took to the South African interior, ox wagons were essential for traversing the rough landscape. They’ve since become something of an icon for the Afrikaner people, featuring in statues and monuments across the country. At Die Ring Oxwagon Lodge, next to the Hartbeespoort Dam in the North West Province, you can even sleep in a renovated ox-wagon — though a rather more comfortable version than the voortrekkers would have experienced. The emblematic caravans come equipped with comfy beds and even have a bathroom attached. For budget-conscious lovers of quirky accommodation, the lodge also has a backpacker dorm in a converted double-decker bus.
On a train to nowhere
South Africa’s overnight trains range from standard passenger services with simple sleeper cabins to luxury lines offering five-star accommodation. But if you don’t have the time – or inclination – to jump on a long distance train, you can still experience sleeping in one. The Santos Express is permanently parked a mere 30m from the beach in Mossel Bay, a seaside town marking the start of the Garden Route. Rooms in the backpacker-style accommodation might be a little cramped, but all come with a stupendous view of the coast – and you can of course alight to stretch your legs whenever the mood takes.
In a wine cellar
In the Cape Winelands you can ride horses or bikes through the vineyards, sip wines paired with chocolate, cheese or marshmallows, dine in world class restaurants or bathe in grape juice at a luxury spa. A lesser-known fact though, is that you can also sleep in a disused wine cellar. Nuy Valley winery, between the towns of Worcester and Robertson, offers basic backpacker accommodation in the one-time wine cellar. Claustrophobics and those who really feel the cold might want to look for other places to stay in South Africa, but those ticking off cool places to stay will love it here.
With a herd of elephants
Opportunities to interact with animals abound in South Africa, particularly where elephants are concerned. You can touch them, feed them, ride them or bathe them and in Knysna, along the Garden Route, you can even sleep among them. Well, not exactly among them — above them would be a better description. The lounge area at the Knysna Elephant Park directly overlooks the stables where the pachyderms spend their evenings, allowing you to watch them while they eat and snooze. The rooms offer a little more noise protection, but you can still hear the trumpets and other bodily functions the average elephant makes throughout the night!
In a castle
Live out your fairytale fantasies in Rapunzel’s Tower, a self-catering guesthouse just outside the charming Free State town of Clarens that looks like it’s straight out of the pages of a storybook. Complete with a turret, life-size mural paintings depicting scenes from Rapunzel, lavish palatial décor, embroidered bathrobes suitable for royalty and a bathtub suspended 12 metres off the ground, Rapunzel’s Tower is one of the most unique places to stay in South Africa, and is particularly cosy in the cold winter months.
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