Planning on visiting Cape Town over Christmas and watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks with the crowds on the Waterfront, and then celebrating the following day on the packed beaches of Clifton? For some this would be a dream trip but the savvy visitor to South Africa may well want to take advantage of the many benefits of travelling to the country in its traditionally quieter low season, which runs from April to November. Think it’s going to be cold and miserable with everything closed? Think again!
The low season means fewer international tourists and fewer domestic visitors, which means fewer crowds at the big ticket attractions. The queues in high season for the cableway up to Table Mountain often snake back down the hill, and those without pre-booked reservations for Robben Island are often left high and dry back on the dock. The major sights are open year round and travelling in the off-season often means you can just turn up and go.
South Africa’s restaurants are amongst some of the best in the world, which brings with it the challenge of trying to secure a table many months in advance. For example reservations for Cape Town’s top eatery, the Test Kitchen, open in 3 month blocks and in high season these tend to fill within minutes of being released. It’s a different story however in their winter months when the travelling gourmand can have their fill of the city’s finest establishments, with the bonus that many restaurants also have bargain winter menus available!
Going against the grain can mean huge savings. Flying to South Africa in the quieter months can mean airfares being up-to 50% cheaper than they would be in busier times and hotels, rather than having empty rooms, often have specials running – for example the renowned Last Word properties give you your 3rd night free in the low season, meaning a six night stay in their boutique properties in September is cheaper than a two night stay in February!
Many of South Africa’s best festivals are held outside the peak tourist season – meaning visitors in the quieter months can really join in with the locals’ fun. Both the world-famous Grahamstown National Arts Festival and one of the Garden Route’s biggest happenings, the Knysna Oyster Festival, are held annually in June or July, whilst the Cape Town International Jazz Festival only takes its bow when the crowds have gone home in late March. The unique Hermanus Whale Festival kicks off in September, but those keen to experience this celebration of all things whale are advised to book early as the charming seaside town gets super-busy during festival time.
Although game viewing in South Africa’s most famous National Park – the Kruger – can be enjoyed year round, those in the know head for a safari there in the low season months. Why? Well the dry winter is characterised by low grass & sparse vegetation, which makes the wildlife easier to spot, the lack of water leads the animals to congregate at water sources, and the smaller crowds on safari at this time of year create an altogether better game-viewing experience. Plus, who really wants to be sitting in a safari vehicle in 40-degree January heat?
Although the depths of a Cape Town winter can include some cold, windy and wet days, such spells tend to be few and far between these days, and it is not unusual for the temperatures on an August day in the Cape to creep into the 20’s. Yes it can be a little chilly first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but bright sunny days are not unusual, and sun-seekers can still head to the beaches of sub-tropical KwaZulu Natal where it remains balmy throughout the winter months.
It might be hibernation time in Europe in the winter months, but in South Africa things are stirring. In the Northern Cape, the month of August heralds the start of the brief but extraordinary wildflower season - a flower lover’s wonderland, the plains sprout with millions of multi-coloured daisies and nemesias, creating vast carpets of flowers. Meanwhile July marks the annual arrival of hundreds of Southern Right Whales to the Cape coastline. Seeking warm and sheltered waters they come to South Africa to mate and calve, and they provide the lucky off-season traveller with some of the planet’s finest whale-watching opportunities.
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