Travel: Johannesburg’s Luxury Hotels, Hip Hangouts & Heritage

Johannesburg is known as the gateway to safari, but the once maligned city is now emerging as a destination in its own right, where rich heritage – the good and the bad – meets vibrant new neighbourhoods and luxury hideaways… 

When you tell people you’re off to South Africa, the response is generally, ‘Cape Town?’ When you reply, ‘Johannesburg’, eyebrows tend to rise. No city is without its troubles, but Joburg earned itself a particularly bad rep. I’m not here to tell you everything’s rosy now, but South Africa’s largest city had to pull itself up by the bootstraps when the country won the bid to host the 2010 World Cup, enlisting the help of Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York City, to deal with crime. And things are changing…

Hip NEW hangouts

Hip new neighbourhoods like Maboneng – considered one of the most successful urban-renewal projects in the world – are buzzing with optimism and entrepreneurial spirit. Head for Maverick Corner, a compact community of independent bars and businesses that’s reminiscent of Shoreditch’s Boxpark (it even has a sneaker valet).

Over the road is Maboneng Precinct, with busy restaurants, bars, workspaces and a cinema. There’s also The Cosmopolitan, which dates back to 1899 and was once the area’s go-to brothel. It’s now a shabby-chic art gallery, bar and kitchen. Turn a few of corners and you’ll find AGOG, a wine bar and art gallery with a cool rooftop cocktail bar. There’s a lot to take in – including more street art than you could ever Instagram – so head for the Curiocity Backpackers hostel on Fox Street to book a walking or bicycle tour. Afterwards, head for Che Argentine Grill for a great steak and an electric atmosphere.

Rich heritage

While the present is exciting, Joburg’s tumultuous past shouldn’t be ignored. A trip to the Apartheid Museum is a sobering experience, and you can also book a tour of Soweto, a vibrant township that is a jumble of slums, ‘matchbox’ houses (built to accommodate black workers during apartheid) and more well-to-do properties, Winnie Mandela’s included.

You can also drive past Desmond Tutu’s home, and the former residence of Nelson Mandela, both situated on a vibrant market street. Seek out a guide who was born and raised in Soweto for the most authentic (and least voyeuristic) experience.

Luxury hideaways

And where to stay? The Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa in Joburg’s Sandhurst is the epitome of luxury. Once a private home, the walls are lined with photos of honoured guests like Nelson Mandela (who finished his autobiography there), and the African artworks and furnishings mean you never lose sense of where you are, even when holed up in the fabulously chic butler-serviced villas.

The Saxon launched its new spa in November last year. Tipped to be the most luxurious spa in Johannesburg, The Saxon Spa was designed by internationally-acclaimed interior designer Stephen Falcke. Spreading over 700sq m and two floors, the gleaming sanctuary of luscious dark wood and coppers, paired with calming linen and water that flows from the indoors out, where you’ll find an all-glass couple’s treatment room with retractable roof, across what resembles a Japanese zen garden.

Cleverly, the healing properties of Himalayan salt are incorporated into the design as well as therapies. The sauna has three walls constructed entirely from the precious mineral, and each treatment room is ionised by a locally handcrafted Himalayan salt and recycled glass chandelier which, as well as making a striking centrepiece, actively purifies the air, stimulates circulation and increases energy levels.

There are a further seven treatment rooms, as well as an impressive hammam centre with wet treatment zone, a sleep zone, hair spa, floatation pod, steam room, sauna and hydro pool.

Do try the Saxon Himalayan Signature Journey – it’s 75 minutes of heaven with relaxing foot ritual, full body Himalayan salt scrub and full body hot-stone massage. A cold Rose Quartz crystal is then applied to relieve any muscular inflammation. Combine it with a Caviar Lift Facial for utter indulgence – packed with essential nutrients and providing an intense hydration boost, it instantly lifts and firms the skin, replenishing what the 11-hour flight will have inevitably extracted from you.

Afterwards, chill on a lounger by the outdoor plunge pool while sipping on something chilled from the juice bar, like a fresh green apple, celery and spinach juice. You’ll be a whole new woman.

The tasting menu at Luke Dale Roberts X The Saxon is another unmissable experience at The Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa. British born Luke Dale-Roberts is one of South Africa’s most celebrated chefs and the restaurant, which opened just last year, has quite the view. The food (think tuna tartare, poached langoustine and pan-seared springbok loin) is delicate and divine, the wine flows and the staff are charming and cheeky.

Gateway to safari

After a couple of whirlwind days, we did as most Johannesburg visitors do and headed off on safari, but if you have the time, do dedicate more of it to exploring Joburg’s vibrant hubs. The Saxon’s sister property, Zulu Camp on Shambala Private Game Reserve in the Limpopo Province, is just a two-and-a-half hour drive north. This is where Mandela often retreated to work uninterrupted, and you can see why.

Built in traditional Zulu style with thatched, honeycomb-shaped chalets that blend seamlessly into the sub-tropical woodland, the camp is lush and tranquil. The sound of streams running through the camp mingles with the chirrups of bright yellow Masked Weaver birds as they go about the intricate business of building their suspended nests. Come nightfall, when residents gather in the cosy surrounds of Zulu Camp for a traditional African Boma dinner prepared over open fire, the atmosphere is convivial and the stars shine bright.

The chalets are wonderful. Simple and authentic, again allowing the sounds of your unspoiled surrounds to form part of your experience, yet elegantly kitted out in Afro-French Provincial style with fine linens and sparse but beautiful dark-wood furnishings. The bathroom is a contemporary contrast, with polished concrete floor and an additional outdoor shower for those who really want to embrace the outdoors.

Shambala’s 10,000 hectares may pale in comparison to Kruger National Park’s two-million, but an encounter with a giraffe is no less magical. We were unlucky with the weather – torrential rain meant one of our game drives was swapped for a luxury manicure and pedicure at the Shambala Spa (a hugely tranquil experience infused with the sounds of the reserve – the river flowing, birds singing, perhaps even lions roaring) – so we didn’t manage to tick the Big Five off our list.

But ours was a fleeting visit, and we did see elephants, giraffes and a worryingly close rhino, as well as scores of impalas, antelopes and warthogs. If you’re determined to see as many ferocious beasts as possible, combine a number of game drives with exhilarating Big Five bush walks, and do go hippo spotting on a sunset reservoir cruise.

From the sprawling financial centre of South Africa to the bushveld in just a couple of hours, you can see why Joburg is known as the gateway to safari, but don’t forget to linger when you land, because it’s shedding its reputation as an urban jungle. The city may have been founded on a gold rush, but now is Johannesburg’s time to really shine.

trip notes

Rooms at The Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa start from R7,400 (£442 based on two sharing a luxury suite with breakfast and complimentary minibar). Stays at Zulu Camp start from R11,750 (£701 based on two sharing a chalet including meals, sunset cruise, game drives and bushwalks)