Choose family holidays in South Africa for the mixture of wilderness (safari, desert or mountains) and beach. The safari parks are too numerous to list here; the most famous is the Kruger, in the east of the country, on the border with Mozambique, and there’s a good chance of seeing the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard) here. You’ll also see a lot of other visitors in their cars because the Kruger, like most South African parks, is open to self-drive visitors, and indeed self-drive safaris are very convenient for family holidays, particularly with young children. See also our feature The Best Family Safaris.
Besides the Kruger, the largest of the conservation zones is the Northern Cape’s Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, shared with Namibia and Botswana, but it is arid and hard to reach. Of the numerous private reserves, the best known are Phinda and Madikwe, and there are all manner of animal ‘rehabilitation centres’ where the likes of rhino and elephant are nursed or bred, and can be seen at close quarters.
The South African hinterland also has some artificial attractions of interest to families, in particular Sun City and Gold Reef City, both relatively close to Johannesburg. Sun City is a giant resort built in lost-world style, with a massive waterpark called the Valley of the Waves, and extensive recreational facilities, and it is set in the Pilanesberg mountains, with monkeys and baboons running free through the gardens.
Gold Reef City is more of a Disney-style theme-park, where you can take a light-hearted historical tour of a replica mining village, hop aboard a steam train, and pretend, for a moment, you’re a miner and go 2000m underground; catch displays of traditional and gumboot dancing; and watch gold being poured. The park has various rollercoasters and rides but also has a serious edge in the Apartheid Museum, which provides chilling insight into the story of racial segregation in South Africa.
Head for the seaside. You can head south, to the extensive sandy shores of KwazuluNatal (resorts such as Durban or Umhlanga), or to go west to Cape Town and the bays surrounding the city. A major factor in deciding which is the sea conditions; the water of the Indian Ocean, on the south coast, is warm, while the Atlantic, off Cape Town, is decidedly chilly. Families with small children should also be wary of the big surf that can be found on the south coast.
After Cape Town, South Africa's most appealing cities are Durban then Johannesburg, but with children avoid the downtown areas of most big urban areas after dark. A lot has been done to improve the levels of street crime, but it is still better to err on the side of caution. Famous black townships such as Soweto have opened up to visitors on guided tours, and can be very hospitable, as well as very stimulating for the whole discussion of apartheid.
Cape Town is the starting point for several well-known tours into the hinterland and along the coast. The best-loved is the Garden Route along a magnificent stretch of coastline between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth; its highlight is the N2 from Heidelberg in the southern Cape to Storms River Village on the Eastern Cape border, along which you can find everything from ancient forests and secluded artist communities to mountain hideaways and beach holidays. A lot of interesting and creative people have come to live here, and there’s a good chance of seeing dolphins and even killer whales close to the shore, especially near Plettenberg Bay.
Also radiating out from Cape Town are a variety of wine routes that lead up river valleys into the Cape Winelands and into the Stellenbosch region. The accommodation here is often in Cape Dutch farmhouses with swimming pools and farm activities the kids will love.
For anyone remotely interested in the history of the nation, there are battlefield sites all over South Africa, most dating back to the wars between the rival British and Boer settlers, and between the British and the Zulu tribes. Famous sites such as Rorkes Drift in KwazuluNatal are well set up for visitors, and also in this region families can go to stay in a recreated Zulu cultural village at Shakaland, east of Durban, where there are authentic dances, hunting demonstrations and the possibility of a consultation with a witch doctor.