Spotting zebras and whales on a safari? Highly unlikely. But there is a place in South Africa, just a three-hour drive from Cape Town, where antelope roam shrub-filled plains and whales calve in the icy Atlantic bay. Western Cape’s De Hoop, a coastal nature reserve, is an easily planned weekend getaway and, thanks to the addition of new hotels in the area, a must-add to any Cape Town trip. Within the 84-acre wilderness area, travelers can go on both guided and self-guided safaris, laze on the pearly beaches, and hike a stretch of the Whale Trail, a fynbos-carpeted hiking route that winds along the coast for 36 miles. (Pro tip: Whale season is in its prime from July through November.) If you’re willing to wait a few weeks, United Airlines is launching its first direct flight between Cape Town and Newark on December 15. Summer season will be in full swing and you’ll want to be outside for much of your trip.
Where to stay: The eight-room Morukuru Beach Lodge—the first full-service hotel to open in De Hoop (in 2018)—is only a couple hundred feet from the shore. Owned by a Dutch family and designed by a Dutch interior designer, Morukuru mixes bold African baskets and rugs and playful Dutch pieces like oversized chairs, brightly patterned cushions, and wood-burning fireplaces. In the summer, if the sea breeze isn’t too strong, guests can enjoy gin and tonics around the outdoor firepit, surrounded by comfy cushions. Nearby is Lekkerwater, a new lodge property from Natural Selection, which opened earlier this year. The seven glass-fronted rooms are set on a cliff 100 feet from the coast—which means whale-watching from your king-size bed is a legitimate option. The lounge and dining area, with their oversized neutral couches, woven chairs, and basket pendant lamps, opens to a balcony that spills out by the ocean. Like Morukuru, the hotel has loads of activities on offer, such as safari drives and marine walks. For those on a more budget-friendly vacation, simple whitewashed self-catering units are available to rent like the Melkkamer Voormans Cottage, which has an outdoor shower and grill. Keep in mind that it’s a remote reserve, so everything will need to be brought it in, from salt to sugar and soap.
Animals to spot: On land, keep your eyes peeled for zebra, eland antelope, ostriches, baboons, and bontebok, an endangered antelope that can be found in few places beyond De Hoop. Visitors also flock here for the birds like Cape vultures and great white pelicans. From July through November, people visit this coastline to see the southern right whales as they make their annual migration to Antarctica. Because the waters around the reserve are protected, there’s a greater chance of spotting pods of dolphins and whales in De Hoop than anywhere else along the coast (in 2018, an aerial count of 1,116 whales was made). If you’re in luck, you may even see the whales calving (this usually happens in August). During low tide, there’s a smorgasbord of tiny sea creatures to spot in the thousands of rock pools that line the shore—from colorful starfish to prickly sea anemones.
What to do: Although the Whale Trail is a registered hike (which you have to sign up for in advance), visitors to De Hoop can still wind along the trail’s coastal walkways. Both lodges offer walks with nature guides who help point out local plants and fynbos like king proteas. If you want to see animals, drive around the reserve and look for antelope, or head down to the beach at low tide to spot marine animals. Thanks to hundreds of sand dunes, sand boarding is also a popular activity (available at Morukuru). But honestly, if lazing on the beach sounds like the best possible thing to do, that’s absolutely on offer.