Stretching from the arid landscapes of the Sahara Desert to the steamy jungles at the heart of the continent and the Southern wine country, Africa’s vastness and diversity are staggering. After four trips exploring all corners of the continent, I have still only just scratched the surface and never fail to be awed by its cultural and natural beauty. But if I had to pick five of my favourite destinations to recommend to others, these would be at the top of the list.
Clustered around an ancient, whitewashed medina, Essaouira perches on the windswept Atlantic Coast of Morocco. It’s just over two hours’ drive from Marrakech but exudes a much more relaxed atmosphere, with families coming to feast on freshly-caught sardines grilled on open coals and watch local boys diving into the historic port.
The maze-like alleyways of the medina are packed with boutiques selling handicrafts and herbal medicines, and open out onto a wide thoroughfare where fruit and vegetables pile high in colourful market stalls. The city is famed for its artistic community and hosts the annual Gnawa festival that sees musicians come from near and far to perform in this distinctly North African musical genre.
For an insight into the rich history of Essaouira, visit the Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah Museum, which occupies a beautifully restored riad and exhibits ancient weaponry, musical instruments and carpets. No visit is complete without wandering through the atmospheric fish market at the Skala du Port or watching the sunset across the Atlantic Ocean from the city’s fortified ramparts.
Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Surrounded by a spectacular landscape of rolling hills terraced with agricultural fields, Lake Bunyonyi is a stunning natural destination near the Ugandan border with Rwanda. It’s an idyllic location for whiling away a few days in one of the waterfront hotels, with the island-dotted lake easily explored by kayak or boat.
You can visit “Punishment Island” where unmarried pregnant girls were once left to die and learn about the leprosy colony established on Bwama Island by English missionary, Leonard Sharp. Lake Bunyonyi is also a fantastic destination to be immersed in rural Ugandan culture during school visits and market days, as well as long walks along the dusty lakeside trails that pass through traditional villages.
But the main reason most travellers visit Lake Bunyonyi is to trek to see the mountain gorillas in the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This protected tract of jungle is home to one of the few remaining families of mountain gorillas in the world whose numbers are gradually recovering after years of poaching and habitat destruction.
Cape Town, South Africa
Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Cape Town boasts a stunning setting between the Atlantic Ocean and the flat-topped summit of Table Mountain. Its colourful neighbourhoods and attractive waterfront district hide a dark slave-trading and apartheid past, both of which are explored in the city’s world-class museum.
Cape Town is the perfect city to explore on foot, with the former slave market at Greenmarket Square now transformed into a lively artisan market. Stroll to the beautiful Company Gardens that are lined with excellent museums and art galleries before visiting the brightly painted houses in the former Malay Quarter of Bo-Kaap and dining in one of the upmarket restaurants at the V&A Waterfront.
Cape Town is also just a stone’s throw from the stunning wine country that surrounds Stellenbosch and Franschhoek where whitewashed Cape Dutch mansions dot the sprawling vineyards. If you head south from the city, you can get up close to African penguins at Boulders Beach before standing on top of the spectacular cliffs at the Cape of Good Hope.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
One of Africa’s most enchanting wildlife destinations is undoubtedly the Okavango Delta where vast herds of elephants, giraffe and kudu traverse its seasonal floodplains. It’s home to one of the densest lion populations on the continent and a myriad of bird species, which have all contributed to it being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Okavango Delta can be explored during classic jeep-drive safaris and walking tours, as well as from traditional mokoro canoes that negotiate the labyrinth of reed-lined waterways. A highlight is visiting the “Hippo Pools” at sunset to watch these immense creatures slowly emerging and submerging in the tranquil waters. But to truly appreciate the vastness of the Okavango Delta, you have to take to the air, with scenic flights offering a unique perspective on the mosaic of islands and wetlands below. Watch as large herds of animals lumber through this watery wonderland before bunking down in a safari lodge while listening to the calls of the wild.
Ilha da Mocambique, Mozambique
While Zanzibar has long been the exotic island of choice for those travelling through Africa, the little-visited streets of Ilha da Mocambique offer an equally enchanting (albeit less touristy) experience. Atmospheric Stone Town in the north of the island is clustered with crumbling colonial Portuguese buildings that date back to its years as a trading port for slaves, spices and gold, with the 16th-century Fortaleza de Sao Sebastiao dominating the northern headland.
Wandering through Stone Town is like taking a step back in time, with life humming along to an enticingly sleepy rhythm as traditional dhow fishing boats come and go. But head to the southern end of the island and you’ll encounter its beating heart in Makuti Town. Here thatched-roofed houses act not only as residences but also market stalls selling everything from homewares to fresh produce, fried fish and matata – a delicious Mozambican stew of seafood and peanuts.
Image courtesy: Pip Strickland
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