Having recently added Royal Thonga Safari Lodge to their property portfolio, we caught up with Dream Hotels and Resorts Marketing Manager Sharmila Ragunanan to help us pinpoint small-town locations across South Africa that are ideal for a quick getaway.
“Located in the remote heartlands of KwaZulu-Natal, Royal Thonga is definitely one of our more off-the-grid locations,” Ragunanan says. “As someone who lives in Johannesburg, travelling through small towns to get there is a breath of fresh air; the fences are lower, the faces are friendly, and the pace is less hurried.”
From the inevitable Dutch Reformed Church in the centre of town, down to the busy main road with its bustling spazas and less-busy outskirts dotted with quirky shops and restaurants, Ragunanan insists small South African towns are bursting with holiday potential.
Overseas customers might all want to visit Cape Town, Franschhoek’s famous vineyards and, of course, the Kruger National Park, but, Ragunanan maintains: “Once they travel to our properties located near our local small towns, and more remote areas, they’re instantly hooked.”
Ragunanan notes an increase in locals wanting to venture off the usual paths of holidaymakers in search of quieter places.
“There are few things more exciting than discovering a delightful, previously unknown (to you) dorpie tucked away in a remote corner of the countryside, and I have many favourite small towns dotted across South Africa. In fact, I have a mental list of special places where DHR has already bought imaginary properties!”
For some added destination inspiration on your next holiday, Ragunanan offers her favourite small towns you should drop by this year.
Kaapsehoop / Kaapschehoop, Mpumalanga
This tiny village sits among a forest of ragged rock formations on the edge of the Highveld escarpment, not far from our bush camp, Mjejane. “There is even a herd of wild horses that call this little town their home,” Ragunanan adds.
“What more could you want when seeking out the best small towns in South Africa? It’s also close to the Kruger if you’d like to combine your visit with a wildlife experience, and while you’re there, keep an eye out for the incredibly rare blue swallows.”
Paternoster, Western Cape
New developments might surround the original white-washed fishing village, but Paternoster will never lose its charm thanks to its beautiful location on the west coast.
“Perfectly positioned for sunset walks, it has some outstanding restaurants, an authentic, fresh fish-and-chip kiosk on the beach, and the nearby Cape Columbine Nature Reserve is just a knockout,” says Ragunanan.
St Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal
When next in KwaZulu Natal, Ragunanan suggests driving a little further past Ballito and Salties (Salt Rock) to reach St Lucia. “The beaches of St Lucia are gorgeous, golden and endless. The water is warm, plus it provides access to the southern part of iSimangaliso – a wondrous wetland filled with rivers, lakes and wildlife.”
Ragunanan suggests stocking up on supplies in town en route, then spending a few nights self-catering at Nibela Lake Lodge in the heart of the wetland park.
Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape
At the foot of the Sneeuberge, Nieu-Bethesda is Karoo culture at its best with gravel streets and a handful of discrete restaurants. Founded in 1875 as a missionary station, it is small-town charm at its best.
Ragunanans suggests a stop at the Tower Cafe and brewery, with some time for a stoepsit. As seen from the people-watching locals, this is a long-favourite pastime in Nieu-Bethesda. “Let’s not forget the truly stunning Owl House,” adds Ragunanan. “It’s a sad, strange and entirely wonderful sculpture garden created by outsider artist, Helen Martins.”
Clarens, Free State
Although it is slowly becoming a more popular weekend destination, Ragunanan describes the stunning sandstone cliffs as its signature characteristic. The most notable is Titanic rock overlooking its entrance, she says. “The main street of Clarens lined with dozens of quaint restaurants, shops and galleries. It’s a must-visit destination dorpie.”
Found at the foothills of the Maluti Mountains, it is an especially good stop for those heading up to Johannesburg on a self-drive from Durban or vice versa. As a mid-way point, she suggests staying a night at Little Switzerland, their Alpine-style resort tucked along the R74.
Of course, not all small towns are the same. Some are utterly charming while others can be a little overly-industrial. “But if your path crosses through a hidden dorpie this year, make time to stroll through the high street. You never know what you might discover,” says Ragunanan.