With towering basalt cliffs, weather-sculpted sandstone outcrops and foothills where the San left cave paintings, the Drakensberg – or dragon’s mountain in English – is a destination like no other. The dragon’s back arches across 1,000km of South Africa and Lesotho, and this is where city folk come to connect with nature – hiking, mountain biking, horse riding and white water rafting. Today some also sail over the mountains in helicopters, hot air balloons, zipline harnesses and wingsuits, but the biggest thrill is to sit quietly like the San and watch eagles ride the thermals, soaking up the silence.
This 80-year-old family-run hotel in the green heart of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park Unesco World Heritage Site features in the family albums of many South Africans, some married in the hotel chapel. Today there are 104 rooms among the trees, and you can still ask to sleep under sweet-smelling thatch: the best way to end days of hiking and bathing in streams or the hotel pool. There’s also the wholesome food prepared under the practised watch of the third generation of Van der Riets.
Perfect for the comfortable nights you need when you spend days hiking, biking or venturing up the infamous Sani Pass into Lesotho on horse trails or 4×4 adventures. The pass climbs 1,332m in only 9km, with 1:3 gradients and heart-stopping hairpins. At the top, you can visit a Basotho hut, have a drink in the highest pub in Africa (at 2874m above sea-level) or just take in the view. Relax afterwards in the resort spa.
Connie and Andrew Attwood have created a fantastical eco lodge overlooking Giants Castle in the Central Berg. They’re dedicated to sustainable living and responsible tourism, including fair wages, and the whimsical furnishings are handmade by themselves and Andrew’s artist father, Bruce. Book the Cave – a luxury suite complete with Jacuzzi spa bath, built under a rock, with glass doors opening to a deck with hammock chairs above the view.
Sam and Gareth Miller, too, are committed to eco-tourism at a private nature reserve in one of the most beautiful valleys in the berg. Their spacious open-plan wooden lodges are scattered around a 106ha lake for privacy, each with its own full kitchen, though you can also eat at the clubhouse. Swim, fly fish (4.5kg rainbow trout are not unusual), and walk among zebra, eland, springbok and wildebeest, or order a spa massage at the water’s edge.
Goolu and Mario Kropf have converted a farmhouse at Himeville in the Southern Berg into a luxurious 12-room hotel, keeping the original fireplace in the lounge bar, and balancing such old-world charm with comforts like heating in the elegant big bedrooms and a coffee station with locally-roasted Lineage Coffee. The restaurant, with a menu designed by award-winning chef Jason Black, celebrates local produce in style. Think warm beetroot salad with local goat’s cheese, garden tomatoes, baby potatoes, toasted almonds and mint.
Also in the Southern Berg, 30km from Underberg, this popular family resort packs the full house of affordable accommodation, much of it self-catering; an inviting restaurant with walls of riverstone and glass above the mountain view, that serves hearty, simple meals; and activities from adventure golf and archery to bowls, badminton, table tennis, mountain biking, fly fishing, pony and tractor rides and paintball.
One of the original family-run berg hotels, The Nest in the Champagne Valley opened in 1933 in a settler farmstead, and has been drawing people back down the generations ever since. Today you can stay in comfortable thatched lodges, garden suites or the original rondavels. This is one of the few resort hotels still offering a table d’hote included in the tariff. There’s tennis, table tennis, volleyball, bowls and swimming on site, and a canopy tour, river rafting, quad biking and other adventures nearby.
More village than a resort, this has accommodation from the usual standard and superior rooms to self-catering and a camping option, along with three bars on site and five restaurants – from bistro (burgers and bunny chows at the Terrace Café) to finer dining (Springbok carpaccio with rocket and parmesan salad, root vegetable chips and balsamic reduction, at the Bergview). Activities range from a full 18-hole NGU-rated golf course to boating, badminton and tennis, and you won’t see the kids, what with climbing walls, treetop rope courses, swimming pools (one hot), a water park and an animal farm.
Bell Park Dam is at the cool heart of this contemporary resort, with sleekly sophisticated two-bedroom chalets and four-bedroom villas, all pale wood and high ceilings, each with a spa bath deck overlooking the Central Berg. There’s fishing, kayaking and pleasure cruises, along with an inflatable floating water park, and if it’s too cold for the water, abseiling, a zip line and a rope adventure park, jumping pillows, outdoor chess and table tennis. The Bell and Whistle Bar and Restaurant has couches around the fire and tempting holiday fare.