Luxury Travel Review

Luxury Travel Review

South Africa safari property reopens

Earth Lodge Amber Presidential Suite

In 2017 our Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge guestrooms had private plunge pools.

Ordinarily our articles are based exclusively on the experiences and photography of our contributors at a destination and property. The near complete Covid-19 pandemic travel pause made it necessary to offer alternatives for those adventurous souls ready to seek new horizons or return to ones visited previously before we do. To that end we are reaching out to properties our contributors have visited (often more than once) and asking about their status and updates.

Our first Sabi Sabi profiles, of Earth Lodge and Selati Camp in South Africa, date to 2007. In 2017 our contributors returned to the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve within the Sabi Sand Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Reserve, an area world famous for its quality game viewing. While there they spent one night at Bush Lodge and revisited Earth Lodge. Earth Lodge, Bush Lodge and Selati Camp are three of four Sabi Sabi properties. Little Bush Lodge is the fourth.

By July 1, 2021 three of the Sabi Sabi safari properties are due to be open and by August 1, 2021 all four are scheduled to be open, according to a Sabi Sabi spokesperson who replied by email to our questions. The properties can be reached via nearby airports (as far as we know there is commercial service to Mpumalanga, Skukuza and Hoedspruit) and road transfers, by road transfer from Johannesburg and via Federal Airlines from Johannesburg to the reserve, in the past our favorite option.

“There is wifi at all lodges, however it is important to note that due to the environment we are in, interruptions may happen due to wildlife or weather interference,” she said when asked about high speed internet access at the reserve. When asked about exclusive use accommodations, private vehicles and extended stays she replied that they are subject to availability and on request.

The Amber Presidential Suite had the amenities of regular guestrooms as well as extra space, seclusion, privacy and a bush and pool facing master bedroom.

According to an undated property brochure she provided Sabi Sabi has adjusted to the pandemic as follows: “Our daily routines and activities have been adjusted to ensure the highest safety standards are met. However, you will still experience the Sabi Sabi quality guiding and safari experience that we have crafted since 1979.” The brochure indicates the availability of round the clock medical response, quarantine facilities in the form of fully equipped suites, a doctor on call from a remote location, sanitizers and hygiene packs onsite; “dining areas have been increased to allow for safe social-distancing,” and a maximum occupancy of six guests per game viewing vehicle (eight for groups traveling together and requesting such conditions).

See details of our experiences and original photos at the three Sabi Sabi properties in 2007 at Selati Camp (we understand the property has undergone a renovation) and in 2017 Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge and Earth Lodge (At Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge excellent game viewing).  Earth Lodge was our favorite for its boutique features, outstanding meals, excellent game viewing and warm and attentive service. The Amber Presidential Suite had the amenities of regular guestrooms as well as extra space, seclusion and privacy. It also had a bush and pool facing master bedroom, extra large en suite bathroom and oversize walk-in closet. There was also a second full bathroom, library, living room, dining room and kitchenette. The attentive property managers, air conditioned workout room with glass wall facing a water feature (see photo in Earth Lodge profile) is one of the amenities we recall along with the many wildlife sightings from the main area of the lodge in between the twice daily game drives.

After year of closure luxury South Africa property reopening

Ordinarily our articles are based exclusively on the experiences and photography of our contributors at a destination and property. The near complete Covid-19 pandemic travel pause made it necessary to offer alternatives for those adventurous souls ready to seek new horizons or return to ones visited previously before we do. So… we are reaching out to properties our contributors have visited (often more than once) and asking about their status and updates.

Leopard on a tree at Rattray's

Leopard on a tree at Rattray’s in 2016

Because they have consistently impressed us with their reliability and high standards in past stays over the years, and thanks to their representative’s speedy responses and willingness to answer questions MalaMala is first. Of the reserve’s three properties we have profiled two: MalaMala Rattray’s Camp (previously known as Rattray’s on MalaMala) several times and MalaMala Camp (previously known as MalaMala Main Camp) in South Africa’s well known Sabi Sand Reserve adjacent to the famous Kruger National Park. MalaMala Rattray’s Camp is reopening this month after a one year closure.

Once in Johannesburg, South Africa the MalaMala camps can be reached via direct flight from that city’s international airport on Federal Air (we are awaiting a reply from the airline with details) into the reserve’s airstrip a few minutes drive from the camps. Another option is on Airlink into Skukuza Airport. From there a road transfer is necessary.

“All our camps will be open from 01 June 2021 including MalaMala Rattray’s Camp,” said Alison Morphet, managing director, MalaMala by email about the reserve’s camps. “We are offering a pay 3 / stay 4 for travellers and yes there is high speed internet access in all the rooms. It is not available in the public area’s out of consideration to other guests enjoying their safari experience. A limited number of private vehicles are available and of course all our suites and rooms are stand alone. Guests may opt to have room service for their meals but with the relevant social distancing between tables, the outdoor nature of a safari experience and all our staff wearing masks, most guests choose to have their meals on the deck (and boma dinners when available).

The game viewing is better than ever and I am delighted to report that Covid has had some silver linings. We have had time to re think our product offerings and refine these over the long lock down. We have also relied on feedback from the South African market who travel extensively to Southern African bush destinations and their feedback has been invaluable.”

Minibars and in-room dining amenities are a godsend on days when travel or the excitement of the game drives leaves us spent, seeking comfort food and indoor relaxation. One of the MalaMala updates we like is the buffets were replaced with plated meals and a la carte dining. Having said that during past stays our contributors found Rattray’s willing to provide room service with no fuss.

At Rattray’s we fondly recall the intimate setting, spacious rooms with double bathrooms and private plunge pool, workout facilities, full size swimming pool, and service oriented staff. From the game viewing perspective MalaMala rangers drew attention to the creatures large and small in the bush while focusing on the Big Five, and one of our favorite features anywhere, Rattray’s four guest maximum per safari vehicle. That is as good as it gets shy of a private game viewing vehicle.

For details of our experiences and original photos at the two MalaMala camps see our profile of MalaMala Camp from 2006 and our most recent profile of MalaMala Rattray’s Camp from 2016 at Rattray’s on Malamala.

Spanish wines we sampled via New Mexico

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The non vintage Silverhead Brut our favorite

In celebration of health, life, peace and hope we made time to taste three Spanish wine samples we received from Vara Winery & Distillery in New Mexico (315 Alameda Boulevard NE Albuquerque, New Mexico 87113, +1-805-815-7693, https://varawines.com/). Vara sells 12 types of Spanish and American wines bottled in Albuquerque.

We tasted the Garnacha Rosado 2018, Tempranillo 2018, and non vintage Silverhead Brut on separate occasions. While we liked all three the cava was our favorite.

The Tempranillo consisted of 82 percent tempranillo and 18 percent garnacha grapes.

The Silverhead Brut, made with the Cava Método Tradicional, was refreshing, lightly fruity, well balanced, easy to drink. It had a pleasing pale yellow color and stood on its own with a clean finish. It paired well with fresh Florida stone crabs, fish dip and a green salad. We liked it best chilled although it held up well after a few minutes.

The lightly chilled Garnacha was a success with poultry and vegetable soup, even foie gras mousse. Its medium to light intensity held up to the flavors of the dishes without overpowering them. It had a mild finish. It was made with 100 percent garnacha grapes harvested from Viñedos de Santo Cristo and Campo de Borja in Spain.

We first tasted the Garnacha Rosado 2018.

The Tempranillo, a red wine made from the same vineyards as the Garnacha, consisted of 82 percent tempranillo and 18 percent garnacha grapes. Its deep red with a hint of purple promised a full bodied wine. On its own it was good with a gentle finish. It paired well with grilled German bratwurst and homemade fries. It was stout enough to match with sauerkraut.

“Vara means cane in Spanish, King Philip of Spain gave the Vara, Cane of Sovereignty, to the 19 northern pueblos of New Mexico, a huge honor,” said Doug Diefenthaler, co-founder, Vara Winery & Distillery, by email through his publicist in response to questions about the winery and its products. “Our grapes for our Spanish wines are estate grown, harvested, and made fermentation stable in Campo de Borja, Spain before bringing the wine here to our winery for barreling, blending, finishing, and bottling.”

The slightly chilled Garnacha

Diefenthaler, who is executive vice president of the company, co-founded it with Xavier Zamarripa, an artist. Vara has wine making directorial privileges at a facility in Ainzon, Campo de Borja, Spain in order to process and ferment its wines near the vineyard source.

Snorkeling, diving enthusiasts release Palm Beach guide

Scuba Dive Palm Beach
Palm Beach Florida Scuba Dive, Snorkel, Surf (Mango Publishing Group, $34.99) features detailed descriptions, photos and crisp 3D images of waterscapes, including underwater maps and even a ghost ship recreation for a wreck dive description. The 287-page softcover color book by Peter McDougall, Ian Popple and Otto Wagner, part of the Reef Smart Guides series, was published in 2019. The authors are part of the Reef Smart Guides management team.

Why Palm Beach county? “We’re looking for hidden gems and Palm Beach was one of those areas,” Popple, credited in the book for series concept and writing, said by phone from Canada. “Most of the diving you do in Palm Beach County is drift diving.”

The marine biologist explained that the conditions in Palm Beach County required the team to change their techniques. The three men rely on global positioning systems and photogrammetry (using photos to make maps and surveys) to create 3D images. Those images are converted into 2D images in the book. They took a series of photos from which they created a 360 degree view of each underwater area highlighted.

Print books are popular because electronic devices can’t get wet and are easily stolen, he explained. Having a clear idea of snorkel and dive sites ahead of time is helpful because planning is an important element in diving, he added.

Following an introduction to Palm Beach County the book is divided into two main sections Surf breaks and Diving and snorkeling. It also has information on area sea turtles and dozens of fish profiles. The diving and snorkeling section is much longer than the surfing section. The book features detailed information of individual surf, dive and snorkel sites. Each dive site description includes computer generated images, access, reef and wreck details and a rating from one to three for difficulty, current and depth as well as one to three star ratings for reef and fauna.

The Palm beach guidebook contains 46 photos, 15 illustrations, 92 species profiles and 71 3D maps featuring 31 dive and snorkel sites, some of which are sites with multiple wrecks. The Blue Heron Bridge snorkel and dive site featured in the book is “One of the best shore dives in the world,” Popple said.

Reef Smart offers marine and shipwreck guides for divers, surfers and snorkelers. The first Reef Guide book was about Bonaire, “the shore diving capital of the world,” according to Popple. The company also offers services and training to resorts. The authors received support (flights and accommodations) from Discover the Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism promotion entity, and some dive operators.

At our request Popple shared his thoughts on the top three surf, snorkel and dive sites in Palm Beach. For surfing, “Reef Road is the spot that most people both inside and outside of Palm Beach will have heard of,” he said. “It’s by far the best spot in county. It’s a location better suited to more experienced surfers though, especially the adjacent site across the inlet called Pump House, which may only peak on a couple of day of the year, but when it does it’s the place to be.” He also mentioned Lake worth Pier for its consistency and Juno Pier (and the stretch up to Jupiter inlet) for decent breaks when the conditions are right.

For snorkeling: Blue Heron Bridge, Ocean Reef Park and The Lofthus wreck were his picks. About the Blue Heron Bridge he said, “You never know what you’re going to find at this site, anything from seahorses to eagle rays and it’s all located within a protected swimming area.”

“Just off the public beach is a several small patch reefs that support a surprising amount of marine life, including stingrays, small morays and schooling of grunts and snapper,” he said about Ocean Reef Park, adding that there is plenty of parking, a life guard tower, and showers.

About the Lofthus wreck he said, “It’s a hike up the beach, but it’s a fun site to explore and there’s an interesting history to the site (it’s one of Florida’s archaeological preserves) and there’s always the chance of running into something large (e.g. barracuda, nurse shark, sting ray). The downside is that shifting sand bars mean that sometimes large parts of the wreck can be obscured by sediment.”

His top diving picks are: Blue Heron Bridge, The Mitzpah corridor and MV Castor. About the Blue Heron Bridge he said, “This shore dive has to be one of the best in the world and you might be surprised to find it in Palm Beach. It’s a protected area with tons of cryptic species like frogfish, seahorses, and batfish. Because it’s so shallow you can spend a long time underwater exploring the site.”

The Mitzpah corridor is “the mother of all wreck treks,” he said. “Starting at the Ana Ceceilia you can drift for the whole dive from one wreck to the next, a total of five, ranging in size; the largest being the massive Amaryllis, which is 440 feet in length.”

MV Castor “is the wreck that most people want to visit when they dive Palm Beach,” he said. “The ship was a freighter sunk in 2001. The ship has broke into separate bow and stern sections with a debris field of hull plates between. The wreck is famous for it’s giant goliath grouper and during spawning season there can be over 50 present there. You literally never know what you might find when you enter the water here.”

When asked how much influence the tourism authority, hotels and dive operators his team worked with had on the editorial content of the book he replied, “They didn’t. The tourism authority helped facilitate our mapping trip, by organizing flights and places to stay locally, but had no say on the content of the book and neither did the hotels where we stayed. The dive centers advised us on which sites we should map, but again, had no editorial input.”

Palm beach is the team’s fourth guidebook. Next are Grand Cayman in the spring, and the Florida panhandle in the fall; followed by guide books on the sister islands Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, Florida keys, Grenada, and Curaçao.

The Reef Smart team

The Reef Smart team

Born and raised in Canada, McDougall received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from McGill University. His focus on behavioral ecology and coral reef ecology led him to two field seasons at Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados, in 1999 and 2002. After graduating in 2003, he moved to the United States and began a career in science communication and writing, publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals and the popular press. He has written on a variety of coastal ecosystem issues, including extensive work surrounding the science of ocean acidification. He is a PADI Rescue Diver with over 300 dives in 19 years of experience.

Popple was born and raised in the United Kingdom, where he earned his undergraduate degree in oceanography from the University of Plymouth in 1994. He worked for five years at Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados, supporting research projects across the region, before completing his master’s in marine biology at McGill University in 2004. He co-founded a marine biology education company, Beautiful Oceans, before founding Reef Smart in 2015 to raise awareness and encourage people to explore the underwater world. He has published in the scientific and mainstream media, including National Geographic, Scuba Diver Magazine and The Globe and Mail. He is a PADI Dive Master with over 3,000 dives in 25 years of diving experience.

Wagner was born and raised in Romania. He graduated from the University of Art and Design in Cluj, Romania in 1991. In 1999, he moved to Canada, where he studied Film Animation at Concordia University in Montreal. In 2006, he turned to underwater cartography and pioneered new techniques in 3D visual mapping. He co-founded Art to Media and began mapping underwater habitats around the world. He received the Prize of Excellence in Design from the Salon International du Design de Montréal. He has also illustrated seven books. Wagner is a PADI Advanced Diver with over 500 dives in 15 years of diving experience.

Photos courtesy Reef Smart


Scuba Dive Palm Beach

Click to buy Reef Smart Guides Florida: Palm Beach: Scuba Dive. Snorkel. Surf.


Tasman helicopter flight trip highlight

We were the only people at Wharariki Beach – click to expand to full size

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

My off the beaten track Intrepid tour of the South Island (Te Waipounamu) of New Zealand began in Nelson. I was originally supposed to fly from the Nelson airport to the Westhaven Retreat by helicopter following a domestic flight into Nelson. It would have been faster than the multi-hour drive. Most importantly we would soar above the popular Tasman National Park, the smallest national park in New Zealand and one of the most popular.

Pilot Logan Moore standing in front of the Eurocopter EC120 at Westhaven Retreat

When a series of wildfires broke out near Nelson I anticipated my helicopter flight would be cancelled and it was. While I enjoyed the drive with my guide (Veronika Vermeulen, owner, Aroha New Zealand Tours) because it allowed me to get to know her and see a bit of the country, I was disappointed at having missed the helicopter flight. Fortunately, Veronika found a work around.

Our view of Westhaven Retreat as we departed

She scheduled the private Top of the South Tour on our departure. To make it possible on our departure day she left Westhaven Retreat early in the morning in the sports utility vehicle with our luggage. I stayed behind to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and the pretty ocean vistas. A few minutes after breakfast, from the expansive windows of the Westhaven dining room, I spotted a tiny metal bird approaching. In the blink of an eye the other guests and I watched it land on the nearby lawn.

At the Mount Olympus Lord of the Rings film site

Within minutes Logan Moore, chief executive officer and pilot of Tasman Helicopters (Tangmere place, Nelson Airport www.tasmanhelicopters.co.nz, info@tasmanhelicopters.co.nz,  035288075) and I were airborne. From departure to arrival we didn’t see a soul. We flew in a Eurocopter EC120 built in 2008 with just over 2,000 flight hours and capacity for four passengers.

We flew over coastal areas, some isolated and some well populated

The 90-minute flight was one of the highlights of my trip to New Zealand. We stopped twice, at Wharariki Beach and at the Mount Olympus Lord of the Rings film site. I especially loved the dazzling beach stop. For a few minutes I had the impression we were the only humans for miles on the beautiful and unspoiled beach. Minutes later we landed in a rocky and hilly landscape. As soon as Logan identified which Lord of the Rings movie the film site belonged to I recognized it. The video clip on his tablet confirmed it.

During a coffee break at Motueka Airport

Tasman Helicopters, co-owned by Ross Moore and Logan Moore, was established in 2015. According to Logan, who responded to questions by email, the company had no safety incidents.

Thanks to nice weather the scenery sparkled. The sky was clear and the flight was smooth, making time disappear faster than I anticipated. We landed at Motueka Airport, where my guide awaited me. As we continued on my tour memories of the flight lingered.

From US to NZ on Virgin Australia International Long Haul Premium

Middle seats on the better than economy section

I was thrilled at the prospect of visiting New Zealand, but finding a comfortable flight from the United States to New Zealand that didn’t break my travel spirit because of the length of the flight or my budget was so challenging I almost cancelled my trip. Although flying time on the United States to New Zealand flights was better than the longer flying time required on flights with connections en route to New Zealand the cost of the United States to New Zealand flights was 30 percent or more greater than I wanted to spend, and that was for an economy seat. Given the length of travel (some itineraries I found, alone and with the help of “expert” travel agents, exceeded 50 hours of travel, including sometimes 12 hour and longer layovers) I wanted something better than economy.

After days of searching and talking to 12 or more airline and travel specialists I found a combination of flying time, comfort and price I could live with on Virgin Australia International. Unfortunately the only routing possible was through Los Angeles. That airport, I soon discovered, was undergoing renovations involving extensive construction work.

Despite my best efforts and hours long conversations with the carrier it was impossible to book the flight as a single ticket from my departure airport. With the aid of a supervisor I booked two domestic connections to Los Angeles as a stand alone ticket. From there I flew Virgin Australia International to New Zealand via Australia on its slightly better than economy class fare, International Long Haul Premium.

The Virgin Australia amenity kit

Arriving at LAX while it was under construction was no fun. As there was no universal agreement on the amount of time necessary for me to connect from my domestic to my international flights (three hours minimum was the common advice, more if possible) I booked an extra long layover. Once I was off of my domestic flight I had to collect my luggage from the domestic flight terminal, exit, make my way to another concourse (it was rather challenging to discover the path or distance involved in advance), pass through security, and check in for my Virgin Australia flight.

The lounge at LAX where I waited for my connection looked tired and unimpressive. As boarding time neared I was eager to board the flight to Brisbane although it meant the longest connection in my trip. Once on the aircraft the section set aside for Premium economy passengers looked slightly better than I had dared hope. I was in an aisle seat in row 16. The seat leaned back partway and was comfortable enough although the ambient temperature was uncomfortably chilly for most of the flight. Even my neighbor, a tall man from the Midwest used to cold winters, made use of the small synthetic fabric that passed for a “luxurious” blanket. The return flight to Los Angeles from Australia had the same uncomfortable frigid conditions.

In order to carry fewer items on the trip I left my noise canceling headphones at home and was pleased to find a headset for my use on board.

Amenities included 41 inch seat pitch and nine inch recline, according to the airline’s website (I didn’t measure them); as well as 10.6 inch Seatback In-flight entertainment screen, noise cancelling headset, in-seat electrical power and USB connectivity. My entertainment system was functional as was the headset on both flights. The flights from Australia to New Zealand and back were Economy.

On the International Long Haul Premium flights everything was much better than on the Economy service for the same carrier. Although the printed menu promised delicious meals when they arrived it was the usual overcooked airline food. After the meal service and before the pre-landing snack a few self-serve snacks and beverages were available from a refrigerator. After a while the snacks disappeared. My favorite was the dark chocolate and coconut bar, an Australian flavor of a well known brand. Only one was on offer on my United States bound flight. On the outbound flight I didn’t sample any wines. On the return, they were out of the New Zealand wine of my choice from the wine list.

The staff were friendly and attentive on departure. After that the service waned. The first flight from the United States to Brisbane, Australia offered the best service of the four Virgin Australia International flights. It was far superior than the service on the domestic carrier stateside.

My hours of travel were long and I was exhausted on arrival in New Zealand to a crowded airport with long lines, brusque and impatient staff and strict customs rules. The 30 percent savings in the airfare combined with the shorter flying hours, slight onboard comforts, extra space and intimate section (the Premium seats were in a section of their own between business and economy) made the purchase worthwhile. Overall I was pleased with my selection of flights and ticket price. Based on the two flights from LAX to Australia I would fly Virgin Australia International’s International Long Haul Premium again.

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