The vibe: Luxurious and exclusive eco-safari
Location: Sabi Sand Game Reserve S36, 1363, South Africa| View on Google Maps
Book now: Website | TripAdvisor
The AFAR take
Opened in 2018 inside Sabi Sands Game Reserve, the oldest private reserve in South Africa with some of the country’s best game viewing, Cheetah Plains offers ultra-luxurious accommodations, high-touch service, and a commitment to sustainability. One of the unique offerings at Cheetah Plains is its electric Land Cruisers, which are quiet and unobtrusive, making it easier to get up close to the more than 500 bird species, 110 reptile species, and 145 animal species that call this area home. They come equipped with heated bucket seats, USB ports, and removable rooftops (they also changed the shocks out for a less bumpy ride). The lodge’s accommodations consist of three villas that are exclusive use; each villa gets its own dedicated guides and vehicles.
Who’s it for?
Because the villas are self-contained with their own guides and staff, Cheetah Plains is ideal for an ultra-private experience. The villas are best for groups, including adventurous families with children (there’s no minimum age requirement for younger visitors).
Sabi Sands, where Cheetah Plains is based, is a private reserve that shares a 31-mile unfenced border with Kruger National Park, considered one of the world’s top wildlife-watching destinations. It’s home to incredible biodiversity where seeing elephants, lions, rhinos, giraffes, buffalos, baboons, and antelope is practically a given. You’ll find them against a backdrop of granite hills, walking through rolling grasslands, resting in groves of bushwillows and sycamore fig trees, and drinking from the myriad rivers that crisscross the thirsty land.
Kruger is one of the busiest national parks in Africa, so in the park itself, there’s a good chance your viewing of a pride of lions will include a gaggle of other safari vehicles. That’s the beauty of a private reserve like Sabi Sands—only vehicles from the two-dozen or so lodges in this reserve, including Cheetah Plains, can access this 160,000-acre area, so it never gets too overcrowded. Sabi Sands is especially known for its spectacular leopard encounters, thanks to a higher density of the big cat.
Getting here requires a flight from Johannesburg. Travelers can fly to Arathusa Airstrip (20 minutes from Cheetah Plains) or Hoedspruit Airport (roughly two hours away), where they’ll be picked up.
The lodge’s accommodations consist of three villas that are exclusive use; each villa gets its own dedicated guides and vehicles.
The four-room villas are named for famous lions and leopards that once roamed the area (Mvulua, Karula, and Mapogo), and each sleeps up to eight people. There are two interconnecting suites in each villa that are ideal with families with kids.
Each of the suites includes a king-size bed (with a mosquito net that closes with the push of a button), a lounge and free-standing fireplace, a complimentary minibar, a coffee station, and a private deck with a daybed. There’s also a walk-through wardrobe that leads to a bathroom with dual sinks, two rainfall showers, and a soaking tub set before floor-to-ceiling sliding glass windows for an open-air bathing experience (during one of my soaks, I watched a herd of kudu graze mere feet away from me). Pillowcases monogrammed with guests’ initials (they’re given as gifts on departure) and iPhones for guest use that are preloaded with birding, animal, and astronomy apps are some of the details that make the experience more memorable.
Each villa comes with its own main house, which has two lounge areas, indoor and outdoor dining areas, a wine cellar, and a deck with a heated swimming pool. An open floor plan and floor-to-ceiling windows make it easy to spot any wildlife passing by the lodge. During our stay in the Mapogo villa, a group of hippos paid a visit to a watering hole just on the other side of our pool.
Throughout the property are large-scale photographs and paintings from emerging and established South African artists, such as Loyiso Mkize and Connor Mccreedy. Artist Gail Catlin’s abstract bronze statues of wild dogs are on display outdoors.
The food and drink
Because each villa has a team of private chefs, guests can choose to eat whenever they wish. Dinners can range from multicourse tasting menus in the formal dining room to a traditional South African braai (barbecue) in an open-air dining area, where guests sit by the fireside under the stars.
One morning, during a game drive, we turned a corner around a grove of acacia trees to find an elaborate bushveld breakfast spread with smoked salmon, cheese, tropical fruits, warm croissants, parfaits, and eggs (made to order on a portable grill). They’d even assembled a bar with mimosas and coffee spiked with Amarula, a local cream liqueur made with marula fruit.
The stay includes a selection of locally produced wines, spirits, beers, and nonalcoholic beverages. A sommelier is on hand to organize wine pairings—or even South African gin tastings—for each meal.
Staff and service
Each villa comes with its own dedicated team of chefs, servers, bartenders, room attendants, a masseuse, and a host. The team does a brilliant job of making guests feel pampered, whether it’s pastries laid out on the table before an early morning game drive or refreshing towels upon return. The guides and trackers are seasoned pros in animal sightings even in the thickest of foliage, tracking days-old paw prints in the dirt, and offering information about the flora and fauna.
All the rooms are on the ground floor, so there are no steps on the property. The open floor plan would make it easy to maneuver around, though getting in and out of safari vehicles could be tricky for those with mobility challenges.
Cheetah Plains runs entirely on renewable energy. The lodge’s solar plant (which includes more than 1,000 panels) powers everything from air-conditioning and lighting to electric fencing, which results in an offset of approximately 530 tons of carbon emissions per year. The electric Toyota Land Cruiser safari vehicles, retrofitted with Tesla batteries, are a rarity in Africa.