South Africa

Best/Worst Destinations of The Year

It's been a pretty eventful travel year for me. I've been to France a few times, Argentina, China, England, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Hawaii, and more states around the US. Looking back on the places I've been, there are a few stand outs for me. So here are the best and worst of my 2016 destinations.

Best - Cape Town

My end of the year trip started in the planning stages as a way for me to set foot on my 6th continent, and many people who had traveled to Cape Town, raved about how great it was. As my planning evolved to add Dubai, I personally started to get more excited for Dubai than Cape Town. Dubai is a flashy city and I really could not wait to see all that it had to offer.

Cape Town and Table Mountain

Cape Town and Table Mountain

Once I landed in Cape Town, the whole area won my affection and my focus shifted quickly away from Dubai and back to Cape Town. Downtown Cape Town is nothing to write home about, but the surrounding area is so full of vibrant history, nature, and people, you just can't help but fall in love with it. My driver put it an interesting way, Cape Town has an insect that bites you and does no harm, but once it does you can't help but want to come back. While a funny little tale, it is true on some level, the city and surrounding country are so captivating, you almost immediately realize you'll be back.

The Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point and the associated national park is a must see destination. Rarely have I been to a place with so much natural beauty.

Worst - Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires like Cape Town was an effort to grab my 5th continent, but Buenos Aires had quite the opposite effect on me. Landing at the airport, I almost immediately felt uncomfortable, and there are very very few cities that have ever done that to me... honestly it's the only one so far. While my taxi driver was great, the attendant wanted money from me just for showing me where the cars were. We literally walked 200 ft at most... no I don't have any cash for you.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

Once we got into the city, it quickly became clear that the name "Paris of South America" was a very poor name. There were a few spots that reminded me of Paris, but for the most part, those buildings that did remind me of Europe were every 7th building or so, the remainder of the buildings looked run down, weathered and in major disrepair. 

Walking the streets, 2 separate people attempted to scam me. Shops were not open on the weekends, the main avenue felt like it was ignored and no one really liked the city in which they lived. 

Eventually I did find a nicer part of the city, but that still left me unimpressed. I found a single art museum I enjoyed, other than that, I left with a sour taste about Argentina and South America in general. The people were rude, and generally unfriendly, quite literally the opposite of what I've found almost any other place in the world. Argentina left me with a desire to visit any other part of the world except South America. Maybe that's a harsh point of view, but I have no desire to go back, much rather go to South Korea again where I felt welcome and had many interesting things to do.


Next year approaches fast and I'm thinking about my next destinations. On top of my list is Hong Kong, I've long wanted to visit what has been described as an amazing city. After that, there are many European countries I have yet to make it to, and I feel the need to focus more on Europe this year.

There are no definite plans in the works yet, but this year will hopefully become bigger than 2016.

Aquila Private Game Reserve - South Africa

Before coming to South Africa, I booked a few activities through my hotel, The Westin Cape Town. Staff at the travel desk set up a private tour of the Cape Peninsula and a safari with Aquila Private Game Reserve. Yesterday was my day to visit the game reserve.

In the morning, a van came around to pick us up from the hotel. I was the only one going from The Westin, but a few gentlemen has already been picked up from another location. Since the game reserve is 1.5 hours away by car, we needed to get an early start. My pickup time was 6am, but the shuttle showed up at 5:45, luckily I was ready to go at that time.

After picking me up, we then made way for another hotel, followed by a few stops around the city at different locations where other guests boarded the van. In total 11 people were with our group in the vehicle, and it was now after 7am.

Driving to the game reserve is impressive. South Africa lies on a major tectonic plate fault that has pushed up large mountains around Cape Town. Travelling to Aquila puts you on a major highway moving through the mountains almost all the way to the reserve. The sight of these mountains early in the morning with clouds rolling over the peaks, it is nothing short of spectacular.

Once you arrive at the reserve, employees greet everyone with a drink; champagne or grape juice is offered. Since I’m not a big fan of alcohol, I chose the grape juice which was interesting. Not bad, but I don’t know that I’d choose it again. Keep in mind that on your way to Aquila you pass miles and miles of vineyards, when I say grape juice I’m talking about vineyard style, sparkling, bottled grape juice, not supermarket stuff.

As you drink your welcoming beverage, staff check you in at the front desk. Aquila is a hotel/resort so the grounds are beautiful, staff is friendly and effecient, and the check in is done at the same desk as the hotel check in. After waiting a few minutes for other guests too get checked in, I paid for the game drive and made my way to the provided buffet breakfast. This is a combined breakfast for arriving guests and hotel guests so it does get a little busy, but the food is fairly decent.

After breakfast, everyone is asked to gather at the safari vehicles to start the game drive at 10:15am. Now this is where you get the first inkling that this is a bit of a tourist trap. The vehicle I was riding in had around 20-25 people in it, and there were at least 6 vehicles on the drive. Aside from this group of 100+ people, there are also horseback safaris and ATV (quad bike) safaris. Each one of the larger vehicles has a guide that will stop along the way and give information, answer questions and drive the truck.

Once we entered the reserve, we drove maybe a few hundred feet from the entrance and stopped to see hippos. This would be the point where I realized this was not going to be what I had hoped. Throughout the day you will drive all over the place, from animal to animal. Despite all the driving, you never venture out of visual range of the main visitor complex, and this is a little dissapointing. Not at all what I was expecting. You don’t actually experience a long distance adventure, you just drive across a large enclosure and duck behind a large hill at one point before swining around through the lion enclosure and back to the visitor center.

I was more than a little dissapointed with the adventure. I was hoping to have a smaller group, drive a longer distance and see animals more in their natural environment. Reality was that these animals were in a very large enclosure which we could drive around in. The game reserve is not a small place, it covers something like 4000 acres, but this is quickly covered in a vehicle. Overall I wasn’t thrilled by what was offered, but we must keep in mind this is a day trip from Cape Town, there are appearently larger and better places but they require a 3+ hour drives to reach and cannot be done in a single day.

I do not want to dog on Aquila too much though, the game reserve serves a purpose as more than a tourist trap. Attached to Aquila is a small area across the road where pens hold other animals. This is called ARC, an animal conservation area where injured and at danger animals are rescued and attempted to reintegrate either to the wild or to their game reserve. Currently two female lions are being cared for among others. These lions were brought up in the canned hunting industry, raised by humans for the purpose of being huntedand now have been rescued. After a failed attempt to integrate the lions to the pride of lions on site at the reserve, the two orphans are being held and protected until they can find a perminent home or wild pride that will accept these two beautiful animals.

So, while I found the experience of the safari to be a little touristy and underwhelming, I cannot deny the good being done at the reserve either. If you ever want to see animals up close without a cage in between you, this is certainly a good way to do it, just realize it may not be exactly what we have come to expect from an African safari.

Local Laws... A Good Idea To Know Them

I'm in full on prep mode for my trip to South Africa and to Dubai. One thing that we as travelers must be aware of is that local laws may be very different from what we are used to. Knowing some of the most important ones can be very important.

When it comes to preparing for South Africa... well South Africa is on par with many of the US laws, not a whole lot of difference there. While we cannot dismiss the fact that there are going to be differences, they are small enough that I'm not terribly worried. Much of my focus has been around using my camera. South Africa doesn't have many restrictive laws on camera use, so I'm not particularly worried about this.

United Arab Emirates is a bit different on that front. UAE while it has become a major destination for tourists, they can be much more restrictive than the west. Touching on camera use again, there have been a number of incidents with foreign travelers running into the law with camera use. In the UAE, it is illegal to photograph people without their permission, or to photograph government or military sites. Most cases of arrests come from someone capturing a building they were not aware was a military or government site. In this case, general pictures are best, focus on public buildings for architecture.

I was mostly worried about the Burj Kalifa, while it is almost blatantly obviosu this is ok to photograph, it doesn't hurt to check... and yes it is ok to photograph, as are most building in Dubai. 

There was a recent law passed banning the use of VPN services in the UAE as well. This actually deeply impacts me. Using a VPN is not for purposes of passing a firewall for me, but rather one of security. Hotel wifi is far from secure and the VPN helps alleviate that issue. I'm not in the UAE for long, so this shouldn't be too much of an issue for me.

Lastly, there was one law I was not aware of until I ran across it looking at the metro system in Dubai. The metro train always has a car reserved for women and children. While women and children can use any car on the train, there is one that is reserved solely for them. This is a very different culturally for me than any other metro/subway system I've used in the world. Men often board this train unknowingly, and it can result in a fine. While the fine isn't steep, it is best to avoid run ins with the law in foreign countries. The car is very well marked, so just keep an eye out for it and I'll be good to go.

Overall most countries are easy to travel in, but some countries are known for being more restrictive, just be aware of the big laws to respect and you'll be fine. 

Returning Flights from South Africa

Final bookings for my award flights to and from Cape Town, South Africa have been completed. Things of course did not go exactly as planned, I had hoped to take advantage of Alaska Airlines ability to schedule a stopover in the middle of an itinerary. Unfortunately nothing was available that allowed me to fly first class on Emirates. This wasn't due to a lack of first class space on the A380 back to the USA, but rather a lack of first or business class space on flights from Africa.

Still wanting to get a flight booked on Emirates in first class, I opted to cover the leg from Africa on Qatar Airways in business class using my remaining American Airlines miles. Once again saving some miles here because of my Citi AAdvantage credit card. This was a bit unfortunate since it cost me extra miles, but at the same time I will not have a chance to fly and review Qatar Airways in a 787-8 business class seat. I'm pretty excited about this since my 787 flight on United is in a pretty sub-par product that I chose not to sit in my preferred window seat just to make sure I had easy aisle access and no one was climbing over me while I sleep. The reverse herringbone seat arrangement on Qatar 787's is a much better product, one of the best business class products on the market.

Once in Dubai, I will spend a few days exploring the city before boarding my Emirates flight from Dubai to Los Angeles. Emirates has an amazing first class product that was a big part of why I wanted to fly through Dubai. The flight will give me 16 hours to try this amazing seat arrangement, food, bar area, and yes even the in air shower... I get to take a shower at 40,000 feet... this is going to be fun!

For those keeping track, yes this does in fact mean I added another airline to the mix of airlines I was planning on flying, with a total of 2 airlines added under this itinerary. Qatar and Emirates rounds off a grand total of 9 different airlines this year. 

With the Emirates booking, I have my flights outbound from the US ready and my return scheduled as well. There are a few positioning flights remaining though. My Qatar Airways flights are out of Johannesburg, so I plan to take a paid business class flight on British Airways from Cape Town to Johannesburg. This is a very inexpensive flights and shouldn't add much expense to the trip. The other thing that I must do is get myself back from LA to the East Coast. This was a bit intentional, not only did this place me on a cool flight over the north pole, and give me maximum time on Emirates, but it also allows me to take a flight back to the east coast through Chicago and maximize elite qualifying miles on this paid flight. First class isn't very expensive on this route, and can chalk up a bunch of needed miles... though I'll probably be ready to be home by this point in the trip.

So all of my major flight segments are booked, this year's major international flights are all ready to go and now I can return my focus to building up my miles in preparation for the next big flight in 2017.