This is post #2 in a series about my February-March 2017 Trip to South Africa and Namibia.
With flights booked into Cape Town and out of Johannesburg, I had to figure out how I would spend my 12ish days in Africa. From talking to folks, it seemed I really could spend the whole time in Cape Town and its surrounds, and that Johannesburg didn’t require a long stay. But I also figured I should do a safari or something outdoors; you don’t go to Africa just to see cities.
Several people had recommended Namibia, so I looked at safari options there, after deciding Krueger National Park wasn’t a great option for me as a solo traveler given its location and the options I saw. (I had also thought about Victoria Falls and Botswana, but the travel time from Cape Town was a negative.) I was pretty limited because I didn’t want to do a very long safari, and there was actually only one tour leaving on days that worked for me, the Etosha Express tour, which will start in Windhoek on a Tuesday morning, spend two nights in Etosha National Park, swing down the Skeleton Coast, and end in Swakopmund, a coastal resort-ish city with a strong German heritage.
Etosha Watering Hole
One reason this tour worked is I was able to get easy nonstop flights that allowed for a half-day in both Windhoek and Swakopmund, for a nice 4 night exploration of Namibia. I’ll be flying on Air Namibia from Cape Town to Windhoek, and then on South African Express from Walvis Bay (just south of Swakopmund) to Johannesburg.
Two new airlines a-comin’: Air Namibia and SA Express
That leaves 5 nights/4 days in Cape Town and 3 nights/2 days in Johannesburg.
So where to stay….
There are some lovely hotels in Cape Town, but they were very expensive. The Radisson Blu and Westin were over $300 a night, the Hilton was about $250, and even the Holiday Inn Express was going for $126. One less expensive chain was Protea, which is an African chain that Marriott bought a few years ago. Until the fall, Protea had its own rewards program, and customers could choose to redeem points in Marriott’s program or Protea’s program. Now, Protea has an independent program called the Prokard Explorer program. It doesn’t accrue points, or any real elite benefits. But for 1650 ZAR a year, about $125, you get a 10% discount on stays, varying dining discounts (25-50%) depending on how many people dine, and 6 vouchers for stays:
1 free night at a Protea property
3 BOGO vouchers for Protea properties
2 BOGO vouchers for African Pride properties – a more upscale chain that is a subsidiary of Protea
You have to book the vouchers through the Prokard website, which is annoying and clunky, and does not link to your Marriott Rewards account or create reservations viewable on Marriott.com. There doesn’t appear to be any correlation between Marriott Rewards availability and voucher availability. Protea hotels really range in quality and level of luxury, putting aside the African Pride properties and the “lifestyle brand” Fire & Ice. But there really is a great footprint all over Southern Africa, with 100 hotels in 8 countries, including somesafarilodges. There are 15 hotels in Cape Town and its surrounding area alone, including some gorgeous-looking properties in wine country. (Note that most of these are also good uses of Marriott points.)
Given that I was going to be staying only in places with Proteas, I figured it would be worth trying it out. The vouchers unfortunately explicitly limit you to one voucher per stay. So you can’t use 2 BOGOs and 1 free night stay for 5 consecutive nights at a single property. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could get away with it, but I rather not risk it, so booked several different properties. I ended up changing reservations multiple times, combining properties and vouchers, and adding in my Marriott free night voucher as a credit card, as availability changed, and also as my Johannesburg plans changed. It’s a tossup whether I would have been better off just booking 4 nights using my Citi Prestige card 4th night free benefit and stayed in one property, but from a purely economic perspective, I am getting far more than $125 value.
For the most part, I knew I wanted to be close to De Waterkant, which houses gay nightlife, is close to the V&A waterfront, and not far from the center city. (It turns out it will be Cape Town Pride while I’m there!) So I’ll start my stay with two nights at the Protea Cape Castle, which looks nothing special, but I don’t even arrive until 11pm on night 1. With my voucher, it will come to $120 for two nights. Then I’ll move over to the Protea Victoria Junction, which is supposedly the nicest Protea in Cape Town, for two nights. With voucher, it will come to $187 for two nights.
There was nowhere to put my Marriott Rewards number in the reservation, so I put it in the notes section. Protea is supposed to recognize Marriott Elite Status (not with great benefits), but neither an email to Protea Explorer or call to Marriott Rewards was fruitful. I finally emailed each property individually and they were able to do it, and it looks like I’ve already gotten upgraded at one of the Proteas.
Johannesburg hotels are much more affordable than Cape Town ones, and there are a ton of options representing pretty much every major chain. At first I was going to stay at Melrose Arch in the Melrose area of town, with 2 nights BOGO at the African Pride hotel there and one free night at the Protea Fire and Ice!. But at the end of January, IHG Rewards Club released its quarterly PointBreaks list. PointBreaks is a program where IHG offers a limited amount of rooms at certain properties for 5,000 IHG Rewards points per night, which is super cheap. Practically, you can buy 5,000 points for about $35; my one $90 stay at a Holiday Inn in New York in January, given various promos, got me 28,000 points. When a good hotel is on PointBreaks, it tends to go fast. If it’s a Holiday Inn Express in nowheresville, not so much.
The list showed the Holiday Inn in Sandton as being available on PointBreaks. The property had decent reviews, was in a fine area, and regularly goes for 15,000 points, or about $100. I figured that would be better than paying about $160 on the BOGO rate at the African Pride Melrose Arch, plus the Gautrain from the airport stops right there. On the day the PointBreaks went live, though, I could not get the hotel to show any 5,000 point availability. After trying and trying, I finally went back to the IHG main page and just searched for Johannesburg instead of the specific property, and sure enough, a different Holiday Inn showed as having PointBreaks availability — the Holiday Inn Rosebank, which is actually known as a better hotel, has a regular rate of 20,000 points per night, and was going for $150 a night in cash. So I booked two nights there, and will spend 1 night at the beginning in the Protea Balalaika Sandton using one of my free Protea vouchers, picked because it seemed to be the nicest Protea clause to the Gautrain.
Windhoek does not have a lot of international chain hotels, just a Hilton and two Proteas. There are some very nice-looking independent hotels as well, and then a lot of cheaper guesthouses. The Windhoek Hilton had great reviews, but was going for about $200 a night. I decided this was as good a time as any to burn through my Hilton points, and red. We’ll see what, if anything, being a Diamond member gets me.
I’ll then spend two nights on safari in lodge accommodations I’ll discuss from the road.
Swakopmund has a wide range of hotels, but I decided to “splurge” on the Strand Hotel, a beachfront full-service resort. It still only came to $125 a night but I figured would be nice after a few days in the Bush.
So that’s the plan. If anyone has tips for any of my destinations, I’d love to hear them!