South Africa: Sun City

Sun City, South Africa

by Lester Picker

[This article originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun Travel section. Some information may be dated, so always check beforehand.]

Huddling against the cold in the June pre-dawn darkness in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa, nothing could have prepared me for the sights and sounds that were ever so slowly, magically inching their way over the horizon.

As our hot air balloon filled in noisy bursts, we could see the faint outline of a herd of wildebeests grazing unperturbed all around us. Our guide, Andrew, kept us herded together, too, a high-powered rifle at his side. A pair of lions was seen the day before hunting in this section of the park and he was taking no chances.

A few minutes later we were off. The huge balloon rose in tandem with the sun, the horizon painted in muted shades of red and orange, as if half a world away the earth was on fire. With the daylight, birds took to the air around and below us, baboons chattered, and the joyous noises of Africa’s diverse wildlife alternated with the man-made blasts of propane keeping us aloft.

For the next two hours we hovered over the huge game preserve, which sits inside an extinct volcanic alkaline crater, one of only three in the world. As the sun heated the land, giving us added buoyancy, we watched rhinoceros feed on knee-high grasses, and elephants tug leaves from trees with their trunks. Hippopotamuses rested one on top of another in the shallow lakes, and brown and white springboks grazed at the ecotone between grassland and brush. Descending over a lake, a lone sacred ibis waded patiently at the edge of a lake hunting for fish. Most amazing of all was that throughout the balloon ride we were never out of view of the spires of The Palace of the Lost City at Sun City, South Africa, the continent’s premier family resort.

Describing Sun City is a challenge. On the surface it is a glitzy $300 million dollar complex of four resorts, including the upscale Palace of the Lost City, the more moderate Cascades, the affordable Sun City Hotel and the family-friendly Cabanas. Strategically placed within its currently developed 150 acres are two Gary Player designed, 18-hole golf courses, one of them with the now infamous 40-crocodile water hazard on the 13th hole. There is also an entertainment complex which houses a 6,000-seat theater featuring world-class entertainers, along with two casinos, cinemas showing first-run attractions, retail shopping, restaurants, convention facilities and a world-class video arcade for the kids. Just a short walk from the entertainment complex is Waterworld, boasting machines generating waves you can surf on and a series of water slides that include a three-story monster you’re guaranteed to never forget.  After you discover the dozens of gourmet restaurants and fast-food facilities in Sun City, you’ll need to make use of its state-of-the-art fitness facility.

The dreamchild of the controversial entrepreneur Sol Kerzner, the founder of Sun International Resorts, Sun City is without a doubt his crowning achievement, a destination so well conceived, and even more brilliantly executed, I found myself time and again marveling at its sheer magnificence. Dig below your initial impressions, and you will find a level of detail and attention to service that is remarkable.

Sun City is located two hours northwest of Johannesburg, in South Africa’s North West Province. The resort is partially surrounded by Pilanesberg National Park, a 14,000 acre national preserve accessible by four wheel drive vehicles driven by trained guides and naturalists. Sun City is an idyllic destination for families seeking a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. In fact, short of Disney World, I can’t imagine a place more attuned to the needs of families.

Arriving at The Palace of the Lost City after a 14-hour flight and a two-hour drive from Johannesburg, I expected to have little patience for its pretensions, which include a 61-acre man-made tropical rain forest surrounding the $175 million Palace. Instead, I was stunned by its immaculately manicured grounds, the fine arts sculptures - all by South African artists - which adorn its many nooks and crannies, and the management’s unswerving commitment to environmentally friendly practices. The forest’s 1.6 million plants, and both golf courses, are watered by an automated, recycled water system, bolstered by composted soil from Sun City’s operations. Shades of Jurassic Park, Kerzner even erected an electric fence, to the tune of $3 million, to protect guests from the Pilanesberg wildlife - and vice versa as a park ranger pointedly mentioned, with a wink.

But, it is in the little touches that Sun City excels, from the high quality service throughout the resort, to the hand-carved timber doors and beds that lavishly decorate each of the 338 rooms in The Palace, or the luxurious robes that are meticulously arranged on your bed every night, cuddling a basket of assorted Godiva chocolates. Entering The Palace’s lobby, one is immediately struck by Kerzner’s commitment to excellence. Italian marble floors surround 300,000 hand-painted mosaic tiles in the form of native South African wildlife. The vaulted, domed ceiling in the lobby features a hand-painted fresco of South African natural scenes. Italian crystal chandeliers grace the elegant open-style Crystal Court restaurant, just off the lobby.

At night, The Palace is lit by the glow of hundreds of natural gas torches, which highlight it’s stone and precast cement architecture and lend an absolutely magical and mysterious aura. In the center of one of its outdoor courtyards stands a life-size bronze statue of the legendary Shawu, an enormous bull elephant that is an integral part of South Africa’s wild heritage. Five-star restaurants and elegant bars are sprinkled throughout the cavernous Palace.

The Palace’s water attractions place it in a category of one, arguably surpassed only by another Sun International property, Atlantis in the Bahamas, although that property has an entirely different ambiance. Everywhere guests go at the Palace, they are greeted by waterfalls, shallow pools with wild wading birds, swimming pools, and the ever popular Valley of the Waves, which generates mechanical waves more active guests can surf on. The man-made tropical forest even has babbling brooks winding through its canopied structure.

Despite its many attractions, The Palace’s ambiance is restrained, quiet and elegant. If gambling is in your plans, you’ll have to take the complimentary shuttle bus or take a leisurely walk to the casinos.

If The Palace is too rich for your taste, sample any of the other three Sun City hotels on the property, all of which border a man-made lake that offers everything from boating to parasailing, water-skiing to windsurfing. Central to the hotels is a state-of-the-art child care facility, called Camp Kwena, which is the local Tswana tribe name for crocodile. But not to worry. The only animals the children will see at Camp Kwena are contained in a wonderful petting zoo that campers access daily with their counselors. A few steps from the zoo there is a marvelous aviary, where rare African birds flit from branch to branch. There are also huge play forts and castles, trampolines and even an electric car track for younger campers, complete with stop signs and crosswalks. All staff are trained and licensed and offer a wide range of activities for children of all ages. Parents may drop off children in the morning and pick them up in the evening. Babysitting is available in the evenings.

Next in line in order of palatial amenities is the 242-room Cascades Hotel, the smallest in Sun City, featuring a theme of cascading water and lush tropical gardens, both inside and out. Sit in the outdoor portion of the Peninsula restaurant and enjoy views of the gardens, lake and the Gary Player Golf Course. The family will be entertained by peacocks walking free, strutting their stuff among the tables, or watch flamingoes wading in the lake. Send the kids out to play in the garden while waiting for your meal, and you can sip drinks to the refreshing sounds of streams and waterfalls that meander through the restaurant area.

The gardens, which draw guests from the other three hotels, are constantly being transformed based on people’s preferences and the natural ecology of South Africa. Gardeners record guests preferred walkways getting from the Cascades to other attractions, then build landscaped, pebbled garden paths to conform. You can wander the vividly colorful azalea gardens, or grab a peaceful nap in one of the many hammocks that dot a circle of fig trees. In some areas, vegetation has been intentionally thinned to provide birders with unobstructed views of songbirds that flitter among the hanging orchids.

Rooms at the Cascades are tastefully appointed, much more in line with an upscale American hotel than is true in the opulent Palace. True to form, the management brought in one of the world’s top hotel décor designers, Trisha Wilson of Dallas, to carry the garden theme into each and every room. Even the bedspreads are quilted with tropical flowers and foliage.

If your blood runs hot and you crave excitement, try the even more affordable Sun City Hotel, with its cavernous gambling casino and nonstop night life. The Sun City Hotel is connected to the Entertainment Center, with its first-run movie theater and video arcade, providing non-stop entertainment for every family member. Be careful, though. The frenetic pace may simply be too over-stimulating for very young children.

The Entertainment Center includes several international fast-food restaurants, so even if your family lodges in one of the other hotels in Sun City, missing older children are sure to be found here. There is a range of restaurants, from French cuisine to Moroccan, with the Raffles Supper Club offering dinner and dancing. If you can, enjoy breakfast on the Terrace, with its views of the surrounding hills of Pilanesberg.

Walk out of the back door of the Sun City Hotel and you are on the Bridge of Time, which blasts guests with a simulated volcano every thirty minutes. The scene draws scads of kids to its regular eruptions, with the bridge itself shaking convincingly. From there, it’s just a stone’s throw to the water attractions at The Valley of the Waves.

A bargain even by American standards, the Cabanas, the fourth lodging property, offers the same idyllic African scenery, and full access to Sun City’s casinos and amenities, as that of its more luxurious sisters. Family-style room are clean, but modestly furnished in what approaches motel-style accommodations. However, the setting for families is ideal, with Camp Kwena no more than a few hundred feet away, and a panoramic view of the lake thrown in for good measure. A short walk away are tennis and squash courts, ten pin bowling, and volley ball, as well as a fully equipped health spa A terrace lounge, as well as two restaurants, round out the amenities offered at the Cabanas. Special package offers make the Cabanas an ideal way to visit South Africa, its wonderful people and wildlife, without breaking the bank.

Cape Town deservedly draws the bulk of South African tourists. However, travelers there would be well advised to place Sun City on their itineraries. One of the very fortunate distractions on the long flight to South Africa is the chance to fly South African Airways, a top-rated airline with excellent food and service, including a list of very fine South African wines.

Sun City Direct Line: (800) 990-8299.

South African Airways: (800) 722-9675.

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