What’s the latest Madagascan beach retreat everyone’s talking about? Where should I be heading for a cultural escape? I answer these questions and more in my round-up of interesting ways to explore the continent
The beach retreat: Miavana, Madagascar
If you think of Madagascar what do you see? Lemurs, wild rainforest, baobabs and diving? How about a plush private island retreat? Enter Miavana. All eyes are on this upmarket, beachy retreat – that opened last year – on the private and pristine Nosy Ankao island. And expectations are seriously high for this hideaway. Not only is arrival only by helicopter, but at the helm of the resort’s design is Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, who masterminded the uber-luxe North Island, Seychelles and Chinzombo, Zambia. Expect 14 high-end villas, with private plunge pools just metres from the powder-soft sand and cracking Indian Ocean views. Like any self-respecting luxury lodge, there’s a spa and very refined menus. But what should set this whizz-banger apart is the raft of ‘Blue Safari’-guided activities, taking guests into this magnificent marine playground. There’s snorkelling and scuba diving in the Indian Ocean; hidden lagoons and bays to seek out, where barely a footprint marks the sand; and forest treks beneath canopies concealing lemurs. Elsewhere there’s deep-sea fishing, turtle-, whale- and dolphin-watching and helicopter trips above this wild and isolated island paradise.
More info: Scott Dunn offers seven nights at Miavana, Madagascar from £13,995 per person. This is based on a couple sharing, on an all-inclusive basis, and includes return international and domestic flights and private helicopter transfers.
The once-in-a-lifetime trip: Scenic Air Safaris’ Endangered Species itinerary
Kenya is no amateur when it comes to extraordinary safari experiences. And whilst a traditional 4WD safari takes you up close to some premier wildlife spotting, nothing quite beats an aerial adventure above the Masai Mara and the Great Rift Valley. And taking to Kenya’s skies just got a whole lot more exciting. Scenic Air Safaris’ nine-day Endangered Species itinerary is a unique airborne safari where guests settle into a 10-seater plane with 360-degree rotating seats and large panoramic windows for the ultimate wildlife viewing. Pilots are also qualified safari experts, and chat with passengers via headsets whilst navigating the aircraft to destinations largely unknown to travellers and to bush airstrips well off the beaten path. Expect breathtaking flights over the world famous Masai Mara National Game Reserve; the Great Rift Valley to Samburu, hovering along the Ewaso Ng’iro River; and the vast and dramatic Laikipia plateau. Upping the ante is the wildlife spotting in store, centred around endangered species, such as the African wild dog, lion, cheetah, elephant, hippo and black rhino. In amongst these spectacular flights and grab-your-camera moments, you’ll bed down in uber-elegant and classic lodges, with bush breakfasts, sundowners and game drives thrown in. If it’s exclusivity you’re after, safaris don’t get much more epic than this.
More info: Nine days starts from $9,825 (£7,871) per person, based on 10 people sharing the plane, including air travel within Kenya, accommodation and activities but excluding international flights and accommodation in Nairobi.
The jungle retreat: Bisate Lodge, Rwanda
Plucky Rwanda may have once been a byword for conflict thanks to the gruesome genocide that tore it apart in the Nineties. Yet today, this tiny country has picked itself up and, having swapped tragedy for tourism, is now recognised as one of the top places to track gorillas in its vast swathes of bamboo jungle. Travellers from all corners of the world descend here to explore its verdant equatorial jungles in the shadow of the forested Virunga volcanoes. And helping bolster its heavyweight reputation as Africa’s safest and most reliable destination for spotting gorillas, the hotly-anticipated Bisate Lodge from Wilderness Safaris has been causing a stir since opening last year. Combining style and sustainability, this new kid on the hotel scene is one of the first ultra-luxe properties in the region, taking punters ever closer to these fascinating creatures. Its location, on the fringes of Volcanoes National Park, is top-notch – where else can you bed down within an extinct volcanic cone? From its brooding views of the peaks of Bisoke and Karisimbi volcanoes, to its six upscale rooms, Bisate is also the striking base for jaunts to local villages, guided hikes into the national park, and treks in search of golden monkeys.
More info: All-inclusive rates start from $1,400 (£1,121) per person, sharing per night, including accommodation, all meals and activities.
The family trip: Cox & Kings’ Namibia Family Explorer
For an envy-inducing trip that’ll have your kids raving for months to come, the 13-day Namibia Family Explorer from Cox & Kings could be just up your street. Hit the open road on this self-drive tour and you’ll have Namibia’s sheer natural beauty at your fingertips. Starting in Windhoek in a 4WD, the trip takes you and your brood to the Namib Desert for an unforgettable night sleeping beneath canvas, before exploring the giant sand dunes of Sossusvlei and heading back to camp for a thrilling horse ride. This is big sky country and you’ll trot over wide open plains, along mountain trails and dry riverbeds, heading back to wax euphoric about your day besides a bush fire. From here, there’s kayaking around Swakopmund with glimpses of pelicans, seals and dolphins all possible, and adventures into Damaraland with its intriguing Bushmen rock engravings, elusive desert-adapted elephants and rhinos. For that classic African safari vibe, a saunter across the revered Etosha National Park will reveal epic sightings of wildlife clustered around waterholes, before a final day or two in Okonjima, a big cat rehabilitation centre.
More info: Cox & Kings Namibia Family Explorer starts from £2,975 per person for 13 days, including international flights.
The adventure trip: Black Tomato’s The Congo
Far from the well-trodden tourist trail lies the hazy jungles of The Congo, harbouring lowland gorillas and rare forest elephants. If you’re looking for untamed wilderness in the fathomless jungles of Central Africa, a seven-night trip to the Congo from Black Tomato is sure to turn intrepid heads. Ideal for the most adventurous sort of ecotourism, the trip takes guests from the laid-back and languid capital of Brazzaville, to the heart of the steamy Congolese jungle in Odzala-Kokua National Park. Flitting between three rainforest hideaways, you’ll meet a pioneering gorilla research team before heading out on a trek to track these magnificent beasts and hooting chimpanzees; explore the rainforest after nightfall in search of its nocturnal inhabitants; hop in a kayak for an alluring waterbound experience; and wade through swampy, grassy clearings, keeping your eyes peeled for elephants, buffalo and a whole raft of forest birds. Finally, you’ll pad about labyrinth raised walkways at the final camp, go undercover bird-watching and splash through swamps for some last-minute wildlife spotting. Remote and remarkable, The Congo is the place to take a walk on the wild side.
More info: Black Tomato’s bespoke wildlife adventure in the jungles of The Congo starts from £7,500 per person, excluding flights.
The city break: Marrakech
The Moroccan city may not be a newbie when it comes to city breaks. But its design scene is more dynamic than ever with the opening of a clutch of new creative spaces and museums showcasing the very best of local and international talent.
The biggest opening of 2017 was the museum dedicated to the French fashion icon, Yves Saint Laurent. Unveiled in October, it showcases the relationship between YSL and Morocco, and houses an impressive collection of clothing, haute couture accessories, plus thousands of sketches, and sits beside the Jardin Majorelle – the French couturier’s famous garden which he restored and gifted to the city in the Eighties. A tranquil spot to while away an afternoon with its cacti and cobalt blue buildings, the green space celebrated its 60th anniversary as a public garden last year; if you’ve time, don’t miss a sneaky peek of the Villa Oasis – the designer’s private residence and the spot where his ashes were scattered.
Elsewhere, Gallery 127 promotes photography, showcasing emerging and established talent, whilst the newish Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (Macaal) at Al Maaden golf resort is worth a wander.
It’s not just cultural charms that are embracing design, however. Marrakech’s hotel scene has been buzzing for decades. But the new pad that’s on everyone’s lips is L’hotel – a rejuvenated 18th-century riad and Jasper Conran’s first foray into hotels. With a roof terrace revealing Atlas Mountain views and a courtyard garden and swimming pool, it’s filled with Instagram potential.
The culture trip: Accra, Ghana
Accra is having a moment as one of Africa’s brightest cultural spots. 2017 marked 60 years of independence in Ghana, and there’s never been a better time to explore the city that’s reinvented itself as a credible arts and fashion hub. This isn’t a place to discover olde worlde Africa and indulge in a colonial-esque safari lodge. It’s all about the fresh and innovative, and the creative scene is alive and kicking. New last year was a hotly anticipated contemporary art space spearheaded by ANO arts institution. It serves as the hipster HQ for the country’s creatives and artists and hosts performances, screenings and exhibitions. The space’s opening exhibition, ‘Accra: Portraits of a City’ explored Accra and the birth of modernity through architecture, photography, sculpture and film.
Elsewhere, the new Gallery 1957, in the city’s Kempinksi Hotel is providing an eminent stage for bright young things, as is The Studio Accra and art collective, Accra[dot]Alt, whose events have proved popular with the art and alternative crowd. Its Chale Wote festival, which runs every August in the fishing village of Jamestown, draws thousands to its performances, art installations, and photo exhibitions. And when you’ve exhausted the arts scene and just need to take time out, the city has miles of white sandy beaches to wallow on.
More info: Fly from Heathrow to Accra with British Airways from £476. Rooms at the Kempinksi Hotel Gold Coast City Accra from £330.
The eco-trip: Rainbow Tours’ National Parks and Wildlife of Malawi
Love elephants? Then you’ll relish the 16-day National Parks and Wildlife of Malawi trip from Rainbow Tours, for a chance to see a major piece of conservation in action. At its heart is a bona fide story of hope: the 500 Elephants initiative by African Parks, which, having been launched in 2016, is continuing in its endeavour to relocate 500 elephants from Liwonde and Majete National Parks to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. It’s the largest ever translocation of elephants to a single reserve, and is one of the most significant translocation initiatives in conservation history – and this trip gives you a window into how the project is actively protecting the much-loved pachyderms. Your Malawian adventure begins in Majete – the only Big Five reserve in the country – where you’ll potter about on safari for several days before heading to Liwonde National Park and bedding down in a lodge on a lagoon’s edge. Here it’s possible to spot elephant, reedbuck, hippo and a crop of technicolour birds. From a lagoon to Lake Malawi – it’d be a travesty not to spend at least a few days exploring this beguiling body of water, and the itinerary includes several days on Mumbo Island. From lolling in a hammock to kayaking, snorkelling and heading out on a sunset cruise, it’s a veritable island paradise and a place you’ll want to linger for a very long time. Your journey ends in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve – the site of the elephants’ new home and a spot to soak up some last-minute bush walks, canoe trips and sundowner drives. Wildlife here is currently sparse and well hidden, but it’s your chance to grasp an insider’s look at what’s hoped to be a thriving wildlife population.
More info: Rainbow Tours’ National Parks and Wildlife of Malawi trip is 16 days long and starts from £5,060 per person including flights, accommodation (board basis varies from B&B to full board), transfers, scheduled game-viewing as outlined in the itinerary and National Park Fees.
The photographic safari: Duba Plains Camp, Botswana
If you go weak at the knees for that quintessential safari experience, you can’t go wrong with the revamped Duba Plains Camp, which opened last March. Pitched in the wildlife-rich Okavango Delta – Botswana’s answer to the Masai Mara – this luxury tented camp plays host to some of Africa’s top game-viewing. Why? For starters, the private 77,000-acre patch of floodplains and rolling plains is home to a startling constellation of wildlife – think lions, buffalo and elephant. Secondly, the team behind the completely rebuilt property includes renowned filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. As well as being National Geographic Explorer in Residence, this enterprising couple has also had a hand in numerous African wildlife documentaries and know the area like the back of their hands, having made the Okavango their home base. Expect very close encounters with big game; as with every Great Plains Conservation camp, there’s a whole raft of camera equipment to take your pick from. Waterbound photography trip anyone? It’s intimate with just five tents – thought there’s nothing rough and ready about them; think classic 1920’s safari chic. The team have gone all out too when it comes to luxury – from a private butler to a private plunge pool and a lounge for private dining.
More info: From $1,250 (£1,003) per person per night, excluding international flights.
This piece was first published in National Geographic Traveller – The Africa Collection in 2017.