Charmed by Southern Africa
Each week we profile one of our employee's adventures across the globe, featuring a new location for every employee's story. Follow along every week to learn more about their travel experiences.
By San Franciso Customer Service Representative, Leonida Esquieres
Two years of preparation for this adventure brought my family and close friends to southern Africa. Since this is the farthest destination we've ever planned, we decided to cover at least three neighboring countries — South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana — to save on travel. We weren't sure what to expect from these places, but surprisingly, it turned out to be the most amazing adventure. Our long journey from the U.S. (33 hours) brought us first to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. To get there, you could fly to many of United's European destinations and then take Star Alliance partner airlines to get to Africa. (Later this year you'll be able to fly nonstop from Newark to Cape Town)
Our first stop was the city of Victoria Falls, home to the famous, spectacular and most beautiful waterfall also called Victoria Falls. It is referred to as "The Smoke that Thunders" and is one of Earth's greatest spectacles, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world as well as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Made up of a series of gorges and falls, the size and power of this massive body of water is awe-inspiring. As we planned to witness the "lunar rainbow," which only happens during a full moon, we scheduled to go at that time. The lunar rainbow can be seen for three nights of each lunar cycle during the full moon. The moon bow is created by the mist of the falls as light from the moon is refracted by water particles, creating a rainbow effect. Although it is something extraordinary, I must say that it was more fun to see the falls at day time while getting drenched from the thick mist.
The next day's highlight was the much-anticipated Zambezi River sunset cruise. What could be better than an open bar sunset cruise while soaking up the beauty of Africa? As we drifted along the river we admired the splashes of color that the setting sun painted in the sky as well as watched the wildlife in the serenity of this place. At the end of the cruise we tasted unique cuisines such as impala meat, buffalo meat and worms (yes, worms) at Boma restaurant.
A short and easy trip from Zimbabwe, Botswana makes for a great trip to this and a wonderful safari destination. It's an astonishing place and home to amazing wildlife. We did both a Thebe River boat safari and a mobile safari through Chobe National Park. The river safari was entertaining and is an authentic Botswanan experience. Chobe is famous for its large population of elephants and one of the best wildlife destinations in the world, which overwhelmed us as we tried to capture photos of all of the amazing animals in sight. The baby animals were so cute, glued close to their mothers or underneath them. What a sheer display of wildlife in their natural habitat. A herd of buffalos swimming across mini islands, sunbathing crocodiles, hippos in the bank, a herd of kudus under the trees, families of monkeys with babies hanging underneath mothers along our relaxing river cruise — we saw it all. The baby elephants were so adorable you'd want to take them home.
From Zimbabwe we flew on our Star Alliance partner South African Airways (SA) to Johannesburg, our point of entry into South Africa.
South Africa, the rainbow nation
I have put off South Africa for too long, to my regret now. Admittedly, I was worried by its reputation for crime and discouraged by the distance. But my experience proved otherwise — the people were very nice, it was peaceful everywhere we went and the scenery is so beautiful it makes the long distance worth it.
After a night's rest in Johannesburg, we headed to Cradle of Humankind, renowned as the birthplace of humanity. The Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind put the origins of humans into perspective and gave an intriguing look into our collective past. It is here that some of the most important fossils were found. The network of limestone caves and old mines at Sterkfontein today hold one of the most renowned paleontological sites in the world, made famous by a breakthrough in 1947 when an almost perfect adult skull nicknamed "Mrs. Ples" was found. The skull dates back 2 million years, providing valuable evidence for the origins of human evolution in Africa.
Our next stop was Kruger National Park for more wilderness sightings during a safari on a jeep. There, we witnessed a hyena family, leopards, lions, zebras, giraffes, kudus, buffalos, monkeys roaming on the streets stealing fruits or chasing us, and more elephants. What's more interesting is where we stayed for a couple of nights, called Hippo Hollow Country Estate, which offers cute chalet bungalows and a resident hippo roaming in the backyard. I swear it was near our chalet one night making loud noises.
On our third day we went to a place called God's Window on the Drakensberg escarpment in Mpumalanga, which is known as Paradise Country. God's Window is so called gets its name because of the panoramic view that it offers of the Lowveld, located more than 900 meters below with lush forest clad ravine. Despite the fog during our early morning visit, the incredible view was still marvelous and so enigmatic.
By the time we reached our main destination of Cape Town, we were hooked. South Africa's beauty is incomparable with any other countries we've seen. We filled our five days here (not enough) climbing Table Mountain with an incredible sweeping view of the city. Flanked by Devil's Peak and Lion's Head, Table Mountain makes up the northern end of the Cape Fold Mountain range. Legend has it that the tablecloth of clouds that pours over the mountain when the southeaster blows is the result of a smoking contest between the devil and a retired sea captain, Jan van Hunks. Blessed with crisp blue skies, we rode in a cable car and enjoyed the spectacular view from the peak.
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town is situated on the Atlantic shore and offers a breathtaking view of Table Mountain and the ocean, making it a relaxing place to chill. We took a ferry to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The legacy of apartheid is still very clearly visible and it was touching. Robben Island, the unique symbol of "the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, suffering and injustice" with a rich 500-year-old multi-layered history, represents an important aspect of South Africa's history.
Bo-Kaap is one of the most photographed places in Cape Town so we weren't going to miss it. This place was formerly called the Malay Quarter when the colorful houses called "huurhuisjes" were built and rented to slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia and other African countries. It was told that while leased these houses were white and when that law was lifted — and they were allowed to buy the houses — they painted them bright colors as an expression of their freedom. They are indeed very attractive and unique.
Ready for some African wine? Western Cape is your spot. The Cape Winelands is a region of the Western Cape Province and is home to world-class vineyards of South Africa. We had a wonderful wine tasting experience with views of the mountains surrounding the vineyards. We also stopped at Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet offering stunning views of the sea, flora and fauna. It was a dream come true to reach the most south-western point of the African Continent. Along our way on each stop were smaller charming Victorian villages, which were adorable and gave us a different perspective on South Africa that you wouldn't feel anywhere else in the world. A visit to Seal Island and Boulders Beach, where you can spot African penguins, were an added bonus.
Finding splendid beauty and wilderness in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana changed our perspective. Southern Africa offers dramatic mountain ranges, golden coast lines, wildlife, vibrant cities and centuries of history. It's amazing and worth traveling 30-plus hours to. I'm really looking forward to our Cape Town service starting in December.
Eric Rubens (@erubes1) is a MileagePlus member based in Southern California. He is a photographer/videographer who loves meeting new people and traveling the world.
When planning a vacation, one of the first steps is picking a theme. If you're in search of mountains, many look to the Rockies, Swiss Alps, or Dolomites. If a tropical vacation is desired, Hawaii, Mexico, or the Caribbean may be calling your name. There are so many beautiful destinations in this world, but is it possible for one of them to be blessed with incredible mountains, picturesque beaches, and some of the best wildlife viewing in the world?
Cape Town is one of the few places I've found that seems to have it all. With the iconic Table Mountain and Lion's Head rising out of the city, there are hikes leading up to majestic views down the African coastline. The beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay are some of the most incredible beaches on this planet. If wildlife peaks your interest, there's Boulder's Beach, home to one of the only land-based penguin colonies in the world. Did I mention the safari is a short trip away? Add in an exchange rate that is very favorable and you have all the makings of a trip you'll never forget.
Camps Bay Beach
Planning a trip to Africa for the first time can be both intimidating and a bit challenging. I found very few of my friends or family had been, which made my voyage to South Africa even more exciting. Cape Town is home to a hip urban scene, a vibrant melting pot of culture, and jaw dropping landscapes that'll make you wonder why you didn't visit sooner. There's no city quite like it, and this list of top things to do will make sure you maximize your time in the Mother City. Several theories exist regarding the origin of Cape Town's nickname as "The Mother City." Some say it can be traced back to the beginning of the city's history as a trading hub in the 17th century, or its status as South Africa's first metropolis. But many locals have their own theories – one running joke is that it takes nine months to get anything done in the very laid back city.
View from the top of Table Mountain
#1: Take a hike or tram up to the top of Table Mountain
This iconic mountain rising from the city is arguably home to Cape Town's best views. The 2 to 3-hour hike to the top makes for a fun activity if you're up for it. Otherwise, take in the view from the aerial cableway, complete with 360-degree rotating floor and running every 5 minutes from the base. Once up top, there's plenty of walking trails, souvenir shopping, and food and drinks. Table Mountain is known for the blanket of fog that rolls over the peak, so weather at the top can change quickly. Make sure to check the weather before heading up and bring a jacket, since the wind can be intense!
Penguins at Boulder Beach
#2: Visit the penguin colony at Boulder's Beach
Even though it's an hour or so drive from the city, visiting Boulder's Beach and its nearly 2,000 penguins is an unforgettable experience. Watching the penguins lounge on the beach and come in and out of the waves makes for some incredible pictures and a unique encounter. You can also swim in the nearby waters and will often come face to face with members of the colony.
#3: Wake up for a sunrise hike up Lion's Head
One of the most bucket list-worthy activities on a visit to Cape Town is catching sunrise atop Lion's Head. It's a challenging hike and not for those with a fear of heights, but you won't soon forget the view from the summit. If you're willing to scramble and make your way up the final ladders, 360-degree views of the city await, and the sunrise over the city is one for the ages.
#4: Explore the Cape Winelands and the beauty of Constantia
South Africa has some of the best vineyards in the world. Even though the towns of Franschooek and Stellenbosch get the majority of the press, nearby Constantia is home to the oldest wine estate in the country, Groot Constantia. Its proximity (just 15 minutes from the city center) makes it perfect for a day trip. The city sightseeing "Hop-On Hop-Off" bus tour has a purple line that connects through this region, so getting here is easy! If wine tasting isn't your thing, the Alphen Trail is a beautiful trek through the countryside and sure to put you in a relaxing mood.
Chapman's Peak Drive
#5: Take a road trip down Chapman's Peak Drive
One of the most beautiful drives awaits just south of Cape Town. Carved into the cliffs and winding along the ocean, this road between Hout Bay and Noordhoek offers majestic views of the coastline. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road since the sheer beauty can be distracting!
#6: View the diversity of flora throughout Kirstenbosch Gardens
The flora and fauna of South Africa is some of the most diverse in the world, and no place showcases it better than Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Tucked along the slopes of Table Mountain and widely recognized as one of the most impressive gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is home to over 7,000 species of plants. The newly completed Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway allows you to walk above the tree line. If you visit in summer, try to make one of the Sunday concerts in the gardens, which are a hit with locals and visitors.
V & A Waterfront
#7: Shop your heart out along the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Known as one of the biggest tourism hubs of the city, the always bustling V&A Waterfront is home to many of Cape Town's finest restaurants, shopping, and the launching point of many tours. There are countless ways to spend your time here, but make sure to stop by the V&A food market, where over 40 vendors sell gourmet street food from around the world.
#8: Make your way to the Southern tip of Africa
If you're up for an adventure, take a trip to The Cape of Good Hope. You'll most likely encounter penguins, baboons, and who knows what else along the 1.5-hour drive. The weather can be very unpredictable, so make sure to check it before making the trip south. While there, visit the lighthouse and if you're hungry grab a bite at the appropriately named Two Oceans Restaurant.
#9 Take a tour of historical Robben Island
Even though the prison has been shut down since 1996, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Cape Town's most popular tours. Tours take around 4 hours including a ferry ride to the island famous for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned.
-Use the "hop on hop off" bus for an easy guided tour of the city. The route takes you to many of the best spots throughout Cape Town and allows you to explore at your own pace. Buy tickets ahead of time to save on fare!
-Cape Town has some incredible boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts. My favorites are: Tintswalo Atlantic, 52 De Wet Luxury Boutique Hotel, and Derwent House Boutique Hotel.
-Make sure you don't carry too many valuables on you if you're walking around at night. Although beautiful and mostly safe, there is still a good amount of opportunistic crime throughout the city. Always pay attention to your surroundings.
Opinions expressed by the author are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of United.
Planning a Caribbean vacation around hurricane season isn't necessary if you head to Dutch-affiliated Curaçao. The southernmost of all Caribbean islands — just off Venezuela's coast — is rarely even grazed by hurricanes. It also has an ideal tropical climate with average winter highs in the 80s (and water temperatures to match) and only about one inch of rain a month.
Curaçao will be more accessible beginning December 7, 2019, when weekly nonstops begin from New York/Newark on United Airlines. The new seasonal service on 737-700 aircraft makes Curaçao the 21st Caribbean island destination for United, which already flies to the other two nearby "ABC islands" — Aruba and Bonaire. Why choose Curaçao? Because like the island's famous blue liqueur, it's colorful, exotic and appealing.
Jet lag won't be an issue for Americans flying to Curaçao because it's in the same time zone as New York. Nor is it a long flight — about five hours nonstop from New York/Newark. Upon arrival you can take a taxi, rental car or hotel shuttle from Curaçao International Airport to your accommodations — a resort (reserve early), boutique inn, vacation house or B&B. Most are in Willemstad, a coastal city only five miles from the airport.
Forts above the port
Straat Curaçao Getty Images/iStockphoto
The historic city center and harbor areas of Curaçao's only city of Willemstad are designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site, mostly for the 17th to 19th century Dutch colonial architecture of the houses and forts. The houses are painted a rainbow of bright colors in the Caribbean tradition, and the city is packed with forts — Fort Amsterdam (built in 1636), Fort Beekenburg (1703), Fort Nassau (1797) and Fort Waakzaamheid (1803). All four offer stellar views and are free to visitors.
On the waterfront
Curacao colorful houses Getty Images/iStockphoto
Along with forts, the harbor area is home to the oldest continuously operating synagogue (and museum) in the Western Hemisphere, an African art museum that tells the story of the slave trade through West African art and artifacts, and a maritime museum. These visits can be followed by a tour and tasting at the Curaçao Distillery, where you'll see how the peels of the native Laraha bitter oranges are turned into curaçao liqueur.
Snorkel from the sand
Two people snorkeling off coast of tropical island Getty Images
The chief allure of this 38-mile-long island is, of course, the ocean. Besides sunbathing at any of the dozens of powder-sand cove beaches, you can wade right in and snorkel in the turquoise, bathlike sea, usually around 80 degrees. Visibility is up to 100 feet, a snorkeler's dream. More adventurous types can snorkel or dive from day boats that head to prime diving sites like the Mushroom Forest (mushroom-shaped coral), Blue Cave and several shipwreck spots. There's also a nice aquarium on the shoreline where marine life is seen up close in their natural habitat —from land or aboard a minisub that dives 1,000 feet.
Curaçao is a convenient tropical destination for Americans because U.S. dollars and credit cards are commonly accepted, English is widely spoken and no visa is required. But the local culture and cuisine are still exotic enough to be intriguing with local specialties like stewed iguana and cactus soup served in restaurants and from food carts in Willemstad.
If you go
One of our most treasured events of the year is here – Fantasy Flights! Our Fantasy Flights bring holiday cheer to children in need by taking them on a special trip to the "North Pole." Each station creates a North Pole with care, in preparation for all the children who will soon be there…
Our participating stations this year are HNL (Honolulu), FRA (Frankfurt), CLE (Cleveland), DEN (Denver), IAD (Washington Dulles), LAX (Los Angeles), SFO (San Francisco), MCO (Orlando), ORD (Chicago O'Hare), GUM (Guam), EWR (New York/New Jersey), NRT (Tokyo-Narita), PHX (Phoenix), IAH (Houston), MCI (Kansas City) and SAT (San Antonio).
Please stay tuned for stories, photos and more from these magical events. #UAFantasyFlights