Wednesday newsletters always feature a hotel and/or flight review.
I recently enjoyed a terrific holiday in South Africa, and I will publish my trip reports over the coming weeks:
- Review: Iberia A330 Business Class from Madrid to Johannesburg
- Review: Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff, Johannesburg
- Review: River Lodge, Lion Sands Game Reserve (today)
- Review: Royal Malewane, Thornybush Private Game Reserve
- Review: Kapama Karula, Kapama Private Game Reserve
- Review: Rovos train from Pretoria to Cape Town
- Review: 12 Apostles hotel, Cape Town
- Review: Cape Grace, Cape Town
- Review: Ellerman House, Cape Town
- Review: South African Airways A340 Business Class from Cape Town to Johannesburg
- Review: British Airways A380 First Class from Johannesburg to London
Today (February 1, 2017): Review of River Lodge Lion Sands (Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa).
Lion Sands private game reserve lies at the southern end of the vast Sabi Sand Reserve, which borders the Kruger National Park. The Lion Sands management operates two lodges in Sabi Sands, the upscale River Lodge and its twin property, ultraluxe Ivory Lodge (which recently reopened after an extensive renovation). River Lodge and Ivory Lodge are unique since they are the only properties to offer a safari in both the Sabie River and Sand River ecosystems, which boast some of the world’s most spectacular game viewing along their sandy banks. Lion Sands also operates two lodges within the Kruger National Park itself, in addition to a couple of stunning treehouses where guests are able to spend a night under the stars in lavish style. When you book a few night at one of the Lion Sands lodges, you are guaranteed the safari experience of a lifetime. This is a review of the River Lodge property.
Lion Sands Game Reserve features in my top 10 list of the best luxury hotels in South Africa, the world’s most amazing outdoor hotel rooms, the world’s best honeymoon resorts, and Africa’s most luxurious safari lodges.
In this review (more info below the slideshow):
- Pros & things I like
- Cons & things to know
- My verdict
- Tips for future guests & save money
- Best time to visit
- How to get there
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PROS & THINGS I LIKE
- The Lion Sands private game reserve is easily accessible by road from Johannesburg in under 5 hours. Most guests though will prefer to travel by air, by making use of a commercial flight to one of the nearby airports. The Skukuza Airport is located about 20 minutes from the reserve and offers daily flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg (flights from Durban will follow in the near future). The distance to the other airport in the area, Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport near Nelspruit, is approximately 110 kilometers (68 miles) and it takes around 1 hour and 45 minutes to get from here to the lodge.
- Lion Sands lies at the southern end of the vast Sabi Sands Reserve, which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park. The latter refers to the Kruger National Park itself –operated by the South African National Parks Board – as well as the private game reserves on the Western border of the Kruger National Park such as Sabi Sands. The only border between Lion Sands and the Kruger National Park is a river, and since there is no fence separating the reserve and the park, animals freely move around between the two wilderness areas.
- The reserve is owned by the 4th generation More Family. Their grandfather was one of the founding members of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin in 1948 instilling a long history of community and conservation. They are the only business with a foot in both the Sabi Sand Reserve and the Kruger National Park managing four lodges in total, each one of them unique in respect of style and decor. Both Tinga Lodge and Narina Lodge afford exclusive accommodations with private plunge pools and are set within the Kruger National Park. The River Lodge – the most modest property of the company – and the company’s flagship and ultraluxe Ivory Lodge are located across the Sabie River in the private Sabi Sand reserve.
- River Lodge features a functional layout. All public areas – such as the open-fronted lobby, small reception area, gift shop, indoor seating area (with soaring thatched ceiling, dramatic chandelier, fireplace and bar), outdoor safari lounge and dining room – are centered around a central piazza and dining terrace, with the 20 guest rooms fanning out to either side. The dining terrace and rooms are surrounded by 800 year old trees and look out across sandy reed beds to the river, with front-row views of the untamed African wilderness and animals that flock to the water’s edge.
- The lodge was refurbished and partly rebuilt in early 2010, tripling the size of the suites and updating them with beautiful furnishings and modern amenities. The lodge’s overall décor is Afro-colonial chic with soft shades of vanilla-cream and chocolate-brown, exuding an ambience of tranquility, warmth and relaxation. If you are a design junkie, you will prefer to stay at the upstream Ivory Lodge, a sleek design haven – and South Africa’s primary safari lodge – which was reopened last November after an intensive 6 month refurbishment of more than 50 million rand investment.
- River Lodge has 20 luxurious, air-conditioned, thatched bedrooms that are linked to the public areas by raised wooden walkways. During my holiday, I stayed in the lodge’s entrance room category, a so-called Luxury Room, which featured an en-suite bathroom (with white double vanity basins and stand-alone bathtubs), a small lounge area with complimentary mini bar, and a wooden deck from which to appreciate the wilds beyond. The woven king-sized bed could be converted into two twins and mimicked the thatched roof overhead. River lodge also has two other room categories: Superior Luxury Rooms are larger in size and come with open-plan bathrooms and outdoor showers, while the lodge’s largest accommodations – River Suites – are located further from the public areas and are therefore more private.
- The lodge offers excellent leisure facilities to kill time in between the often lengthy game drives. Both ends of the property feature a small infinity pool, surrounded by viewing decks where you can relax on one of the comfortable loungers. One pool is located in the shade, which is a blessing when you want to escape the blistering African sun, while the other pool is totally exposed and very popular with sunbathers. The property also has a small but well equipped gym on site, as well as an intimate spa.
- Every guest gets a welcome present upon arrival in the room: a drinking bottle with his/her name on it. I assume this is to keep you hydrated during the game drives since the open-air vehicles don’t offer shade, but since game drives are regularly paused for refreshments and snacks, it’s more of a gadget and to keep good memories of your wonderful safari adventure at Lion Sands.
- River Lodge Lion Sands offers an all-inclusive experience. Room rates include all meals, teas/coffees, selected local beverages (including soft drinks, local brand beers, spirits and house wines), mini bar, WiFi, two game drives daily, game drive refreshments and snacks.
- For the ultimate bush adventure, you should stay at one of the insanely beautiful Lion Sand Treehouses, which are the perfect accommodations for hopeless romantics and wildlife enthusiasts who prefers the bush au-natural. All of theTreehouses are securely constructed above the ground, so animals remain at a safe and comfortable distance. The Treehouses are booked – for an extra fee – in conjunction with your accommodation at River Lodge: you pack an overnight bag with your essentials, while leaving your other belongings back in your room at camp (so you’re still secured a room if the weather conditions don’t allow an overnight sleep under the African stars). You get a full orientation when you are dropped off before sunset, and will remain on call via the radio left behind until it is time to leave the following morning after sunrise.
- Of course, the main raison d’être for staying at Lion Sands is the safari experience, with most guests hoping to spot one of the Big Five animals: lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, elephant and black rhino. The ‘Big 5’ phrase was coined by hunters back in the day, and referred to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot and the degree of danger involved. Your chances of observing the Big Five at Lion Sands are extremely high (although never guaranteed of course) and the game reserve is especially famous for its leopard sightings.
- The distinction between the Kruger National Park and the Lion Sands Game Reserve is an important one as the latter offers a superior safari experience where nature is paramount: there are no restrictions on access or driving times, only specialized safari vehicles with guides are permitted (and they can go off-road in search of the wildlife) and a maximum of two vehicles at a time are permitted on a single sighting resulting in a more intimate wildlife experience and fantastic photographic opportunities.
- The game drives at dawn and dusk form the basic rhythm of the day, when the wildlife is most active and the temperature more moderate. To engage with the landscape even more intimately, you can also explore the bush on foot with the lodge’s expert guides and trackers at your side. Below is a schedule of what to expect on a typical day at River Lodge Lion Sands:
- 5 am: wake up call
- 5.30 am: light breakfast
- 6 am: game drive
- 9 am: return to the lodge for full breakfast
- 9.30-1 am: time at your leisure
- 1 pm: lunch
- 2 pm – 4 pm: time at your leisure
- 7 pm: return to the lodge for dinner
- 9 pm: guided escort to your room
- A typical game drive lasts for three to four hours and all game drives are included in the rates. The game drive vehicles at Lion Sands seat only 6 guests in order to optimize each guest’s game viewing experience and comfort affording ample space for photographic equipment (and some refreshments of course). Stairs are present, so guests with mobility problems won’t have any problem to embark and disembark the vehicle. Top of the range, specialist Land Rovers ensure that the guides can go off-road safely in search of the ultimate wildlife sightings no matter what the conditions.
CONS & THINGS TO KNOW
River Lodge Lion Sands ranks amongst South Africa’s most delectable safari camps. The picturesque riverside setting, lovely rooms, and the unbelievable wildlife adventure make this an excellent choice for a safari in the Greater Kruger National Park. The lodge does have a few minor drawbacks though that you need to know when considering a stay here:
- This is not Disney land. While wildlife sightings are common, it is not guaranteed that you will spot the Big Five. Having said that, this is one of Africa’s most game-rich reserves and best places to spot the Big Five, especially the elusive leopard, but luck certainly plays its part as do the knowledge of the guides. During my two nights at the lodge, I saw the complete Big Five on two of my three game drives.
- The lodge is not fenced so wildlife freely moves around the lodge. Although it is uncommon, predators such as hyenas are frequently spotted around the lodge. The lodge even had a leopard wandering around in the lobby a couple of months ago (albeit at night). Although most wildlife enthusiasts would be thrilled by such a special sighting, some may feel a little uncomfortable with all the wildlife around them, especially when walking between the main lodge and the rooms on the elevated walkways. However, it is not much of an issue since the staff is always there to escort you.
- Rates exclude the Sabi Sand entrance/conservation fees, airport transfer transfers, laundry, premium brand or imported beers, spirits, cellar wines and champagnes, gratuities, spa treatments, game reserve landing fees (airport departure tax) and some activities (e.g. golf, helicopter flights, treehouses, private safaris, cultural village experience, elephant interaction experience).
- Although definitely a 5-star hotel, River lodge is the most modest property within the Lions Sands Game Reserve. If you’re looking for grand luxe, you may want to stay at Lion Sand’s Tinga Lodge or Narina Lodge in the Kruger National Park where rooms come with their own plunge pools. If money is no issue and you’re looking for an exceptional wildlife experience, you have to stay at Lion Sands’ flagship property, the completely refurbished and rebuilt ultraluxe Ivory Lodge. I had a tour of the property (which was not fully open yet at the time of my visit) and the minimalist, Aman-esque design – with bold furniture and edgy decor – blew me off my feet and offered an utterly sensory experience.
- Albeit excellent and of very good quality, the food did not completely met my very high expectations and did not really match the amazing surroundings. It’s not fine dining, but rather excellent bistro fare in the bush, probably reflecting the nature of the lodge and its ranking within the Lion Sands group. I had one breakfast at Ivory Lodge, which was on a total different scale. On a positive note, River Lodge hosted a “surprise” dinner in the bush one evening for all guests, featuring an African braai (barbecue) which was a tremendous feast (and the best braai I ever had in South Africa).
- Although perfect to take a dip and cool off, the lodge’s two pools are quite small and not suitable to swim laps for exercise.
- Location: 10/10
- Design: 8/10
- Pool: 7/10
- Resort grounds: 9/10
- Rooms: 8/10
- Food: 8/10
- Breakfast: 8/10
- Spa: 8/10
- Service: 9/10
- Value for money: 10/10
- Overall experience: very good: 8,5/10
TIPS FOR FUTURE GUESTS & SAVE MONEY
- Save money: read my tips for getting the best deal at a luxury resort like River Lodge Lions Sands (and receive many free perks).
- All rooms overlook the river, where you will see an abundance of wild animals. However, some are closer to the sunny pool and some to the shady pool, so make sure to put a request when the room location with regards to the pool is important for you.
- For the ultimate bush adventure, make sure you book a night in one of the fabulous Treehouses.
- Read my tips for preparing your trip in time.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
The best time to visit really depends on your personal preferences – nature has something to offer throughout the year. Incredible game viewing can be experienced at any time and there is not really a ‘best time of year for game viewing’. The region enjoys summer rains and dramatic thunder storms – temperatures soar into the 30s in the summer months. The vegetation is lush and verdant attracting incredible bird life while many new borns appear at this time of year. The winter months are drier and cooler – the vegetation is sparser resulting in improved visibility for game viewing as the animals make their way to the watering holes for hydration.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Lion Sands Private Game Reserve is easily accessible by road from Johannesburg in under 5 hours. Most guests though will prefer to travel by air, by making use of a commercial flight to one of the two nearby airports.
- The exclusive Skukuza Airport is located about 20 minutes from the reserve and offers daily flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg (flights from Durban will follow in the near future).
- The distance to the other airport in the area, Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport near Nelspruit, is approximately 110 kilometers (68 miles) and it takes around 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to the lodge
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