This year marks the 10th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's election as president of South Africa, an event that hastened the demise of apartheid and led to the resumption of full-scale tourism to a nation once boycotted by many travelers.
Few Americans visit South Africa -- in 2003, fewer than 200,000 made the trip -- even though the country has much to offer.
The big draw is the city of Cape Town, which has a year-round Mediterranean climate, is between the mountains and the sea and has lively resort facilities and beaches. Though some Americans limit their visit to Cape Town, many stay there three or four nights and move on to safari activities in the immediate vicinity, in Kruger National Park (reached by flying from Cape Town to Johannesburg and proceeding to the park) or in the nearby nations of Botswana or Kenya.
An increasing number of U.S. tour operators offer such packages, including African Travel, (877) 493-2727, www.african travelinc.com; Trafalgar Tours, (866) 247-9882, www.trafalgar.com; Park East Tours, (800) 223-6078, www.parkeast.com; Brendan Worldwide Vacations, (800) 421-8446, www.brendantours.com; and Adventure Center, (800) 227-8747, www.adventurecenter.com.
Many tour operators use South African Airways, which offers flights in conjunction with Delta Airways from Los Angeles International Airport, stopping in New York or Atlanta, then flying direct to Johannesburg. The direct route is an improvement over the usual method used to reach other African countries: flying to a European capital and then, after a long stopover, flying on for many more hours to the African location.
That relatively short route, coupled with a weak South African currency, has resulted in bargains for a variety of South African itineraries, especially from two major tour operators.
South African Airways Holidays, (888) 777-1138, www.saaholidays.net, offers a self-drive package that costs $2,024 per person, double occupancy (single surcharge $290), for seven nights in South Africa, including round-trip air from Los Angeles and transportation between Cape Town and Johannesburg/Kruger.
Passengers stay in Cape Town for four nights at the City Lodge Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, then fly to the airport near Kruger National Park, pick up a car and drive on well-marked roads through the renowned park for a four-night stint of wildlife viewing, with accommodations for that period in the Berg-En-Dal Rest Camp. Daily breakfast and two dinners are included.
For slightly more, you can combine Cape Town and Kenya ("surf and safari" package) in an eight-night package for $2,275, per person, double occupancy (single surcharge $350) available from Karell's African Dream Vacations of Coral Gables, Fla., (800) 327-0373, www.karell.com.
This escorted African safari includes round-trip airfare from Los Angeles on Delta and South African Airways, two nights in Cape Town at the City Lodge Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a flight to Nairobi (again on South African Airways) for one night in the Kenyan capital and a classic, all-inclusive (meals, escorted game drives) five-night safari.
Spend two nights in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, one night in Samburu National Park, one night at the Ark (a treetop-style lodge in Aberdares), and one night in Lake Nakuru, seeing, it's hoped, thousands of animals, including wildebeest, giraffes and elephants. I can't think of a better holiday, and at a price less than $2,500 -- combining the seaside pleasures of South Africa's great resort city with the incomparable wildlife viewing of Kenya -- you have a remarkable travel opportunity.