I’m not going to lie, our family has a deep love of visiting South Africa. It’s a fantastic place – one of the most beautiful places in the world -with incredible wildlife and an outdoorsy lifestyle that gives a visitor no chance for boredom. And while I normally stop reading any travel article that uses the word “vibrant” to describe a place or culture, I honestly can’t think of any other word that fits South Africa as well.
If Vienna and London are imagined in the staid grays and whites of a proper European city and Budapest is a sepia tone of historic struggles, South Africa is bright purples and reds, with contrasting colors everywhere you look.
But when you are from America, South Africa doesn’t seem all that big. After you visit the big tourist names of Cape Town and Johannesburg and see all there is to see on day trips, what else is left?
What is left is Durban. And Durban is amazing.
Let’s discuss the biggest plus of visiting Durban to get some quality beach time: South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means seasons are flipped. So winter in Minnesota is summer in South Africa, and while your friends are shoveling the snow off the walkway at five in the morning so the mailman doesn’t leave a nastygram, you can be rockin’ the bikini on the beach with a mimosa in hand.
Okay, have you made your reservations yet? Just wait until the temperature drops a few more degrees, you will.
A significant advantage to visiting Durban over the more well-known Cape Town is certainly cost. Cape Town, while cheaper than most non-Africa destinations, has a thriving overseas tourist industry and charges will reflect that popularity. Durban’s prices are much lower, and your dollar (which is constantly fluctuating against the South African rand, usually to the dollar’s benefit) goes a lot further.
Case in point: our hotel.
The Three Cities Square Boutique is smack in the middle of Umhlanga – an upscale (oooh, I used it again!) neighborhood of Durban.
Before I go further about the hotel, I should probably mention that even though it looks like you say the world “umhlanga”, it is actually pronounced “uhm SHLAN ga”. It’s a Zulu word, and knowing how to pronounce it will make you feel like an insider. Go ahead, practice a bit.
As I was saying about the hotel – it’s not exactly walking distance from the places you will want to go, but they are all quite close. The beach is about a five minute drive away, and Gateway Mall is just a smidge less. The pool is on the roof (and is quite upscale – I just can’t stop with the buzzwords!) and has a beautiful view of the lush vegetation and ocean. An evening at the pool with a drink in your hand is marvelously relaxing. Plus, you know, pool time = tired kids. Yay for tired, sleeping kids!
We managed to find the hotel on Expedia, and our night rate of only $64 per night per room about made my eyes pop out of my head.
Another plus? The room service is positively affordable, should you decide to go that route. For less than $25, my husband and I (not the kids, we got them some McDonald’s take-out. They’re heathens, anyway) ordered full course pasta and surf-and-turf meals, which were delivered hot and delicious.
The only downside is that the staff interacts quite a bit with travelers. I don’t mean this in a snobby, “Those people were looking at me AGAIN, Clarence!” sort of way. I mean it in a, “This is the fourth time someone has knocked on my hotel room door today while I’m naked,” kind of way.
Okay, hotel. But seriously, what does a person do in Durban?
I’m all about learning vacations for my kids. I want them to have the advantages of travel, and I love them dearly. But I also get rather tired of having them around all the time.
No finger pointing, I’m being honest here.
For our older daughter, Surly, we found a certified lifeguard program at about one-third the cost of the same program in the United States. Plus, you know, the incredible view that is the Durban shore. If you’re going to learn to save lives, a beautiful view is always a nice option to have.
Surly’s certification and lessons were done through the Durban Lifeguard Academy, which is run at the Marine Lifesaving Club on Addington Beach, near uShaka Marine World. It was the most pleasant she has ever been on vacation; exhaustion and a sense of accomplishment make for less whiny teenagers and happier parents.
And then there were the activities we arranged for the younger kids; things like surfing
and scuba diving
As with most activities in South Africa, you save at least half the cost of what you would pay in the US. Through Learn2Surf Durban lessons for both our children ran us only thirty dollars and included wetsuits and boards as well as a rather hunky instructor who knew his stuff and knew exactly how to work with kids.
Although we were thwarted by a badly behaving ocean for the first several days, the kids did finally get their dive time, although rather than a scuba adventure in the Indian Ocean, they ended up diving in the aquarium tank at uShaka Marine World. Far from being upset at how that situation shook out, they were more excited about the chance to wave at the other tourists than the thought of fighting the waves offshore. The cost? For two kids, all equipment included, and a guide – $80.
One other advantage of travel to South Africa is that it is one of the most family friendly places I’ve ever been. Everyone seems to have a large extended family and lots of practice being around children of all ages. Every person we encountered in restaurants, the hotel, and all the activities we engaged in treated our children in a welcoming, comfortable manner. Unlike the low point of our trip to Vegas this summer, when our children were turned away from a diner-style restaurant because they did not have parents with them, South Africans welcome children everywhere and also expect children to have a great degree of independence. It wasn’t only that we were allowed to go off on our own and leave our kids to dive, it was expected that our children were capable of diving with another adult.
Have we discussed food yet? Because there is food. Durban is on the Indian Ocean, and it is warm and perfect for swimming (except when the bluebottles decide to come swim with you. Bluebottles can be real jerks). It also has a fantastic assortment of places for seafood – from restaurant chains to cozy places near the beach.
Durban also has a large Indian population, and the curry options offered are mind-boggling. It’s simply impossible to go to Durban on a diet, but the food on offer is so fresh that the side effects of over-eating aren’t as horrible as they could be other places. Although, if you’ve got a craving for a good lutefisk you might want to try somewhere else.
Durban basically offers everything – resorts, chill time on the beach, activities, nightlife, great food – and it is on offer precisely when Northern Hemisphere winter makes a getaway in the sun most necessary.
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*Durban beach photo by By Steve Roetz from Durban, South Africa (cropped of Durban Beach 03) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
*Three Cities Square Boutique Hotel photo courtesy of hotel website