Tigers are rare super predators, not just at the top of their local food chain, but dominant in every way. The Bengal tiger, a solitary hunter, fears nothing and considers nothing off limits. Unlike most cats, they are powerful swimmers and have been known to dive into a lake to kill a full-grown crocodile. Their intense eyes are the stuff of classical literature, and few animals are as majestic. They exude raw power, grace and utter confidence with every step, a regal bearing you can’t observe behind the bars of a cage.
To fully appreciate this largest of all great cats, you have to see one in the wild, and for most travelers that means going to India. Suddenly, more people are doing just that, even those who have been on safari before to see lions. And, because a world of must-see wildlife awaits, they are also flocking to Rwanda to see gorillas, the Arctic to see polar bears, and Sri Lanka to see blue whales.
Safari vacations have been soaring in popularity for years, benefiting from the growth of luxury lodging and the concurrent trend of experiential travel. More travelers want to experience something more memorable on vacation than beach time, but many want to do it in the same high style. For the industry, recent saddening press about the poaching of rhinos and tigers, destruction of habitats and the paid killing of trophy animals like Cecil the Lion has had a silver lining. People are realizing they have a limited opportunity to see some of the world’s most magnificent creatures, and as they do, the rising value of wildlife tourism increases the protection these animals receive. For instance, Botswana, where luxury safaris are booming, is busily creating new safe havens for rhinos from countries that cannot adequately protect them, and is putting the full resources of its military on the case to take on poachers.
Following the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, the number of luxury safari lodges in South Africa exploded, and the country supplanted such traditional destinations as Kenya and Tanzania as the hot new place. But today, South Africa no longer enjoys a monopoly on the highest-end travel. Raising the bar for the entire industry caused a hospitality resurgence in east Africa and a new upscale expansion in Zambia, Namibia and especially Botswana, as well as in other parts of the world. Great options are more plentiful than ever, and between the geographic differences and heightened quality, the wildlife safari, formerly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most Americans, draws people back again and again.
“I went to Tanzania in 1999 to see the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater and to climb Mount Kilimanjaro,” says Soumi Eachempati, a nationally renowned surgeon and professor. At that time, his was the most typical safari vacation itinerary, and for many travelers the only one. But Eachempati would join the forefront of the new safari trend, returning repeatedly to see different wildlife in different ways. “I went back in 2012 to South Africa. The next time we were in Uganda and Rwanda, doing the chimpanzee and gorilla watching. My favorite trips are some combination of activity and photography. On my list to go next over the next five years are Botswana, Namibia and the Kalahari, where I hope to visit Tswalu.” A Relais & Chateaux member, Tswalu is one of the most luxurious safari lodges in the world, with just five villas and one home on nearly 220,000 acres, but it is first and foremost a cutting-edge conservation and research project undertaken by the Oppenheimer family, associated with the De Beers diamond fortune. It is located in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, once considered remote but now an increasingly desirable destination.
This is a scenario that Anne Scully, the president of McCabe World Travel, who is consistently rated among top travel agents, has seen over and over again in recent years. She describes a billionaire couple who first went on safari by themselves. “They were wowed and went back with their kids, eight in total. Then they went back with their kids and grandkids and nannies, 25 of them. It gets in the heart.” Mark Lakin of the luxury exotic travel agency Epic Road concurs. “I’d say 90 percent of my clients come in saying ‘I’m only going to do this once. It’s a Bucket List thing, so I’ve got to do it right.’ But when they finish they say, ‘That was the best trip of my life, where can I go on safari next?’ ”
Safaris are also one of the last truly cigar-friendly vacations. You can enjoy a smoke on a private deck overlooking a real-life nature documentary. Most luxury camps also have open-air bars and viewing platforms where your cigar is welcome. You can puff while you sip during the afternoon game drive, as it’s traditional to stop in the open bush for “sundowners,” or sunset cocktails.
The safari vacation once meant a trip to Africa to see lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, zebra and hippos. But the current trend has travelers seeking other dramatic wildlife experiences worldwide, such as tigers, polar bears, grizzlies and whales. Geoffrey Kent, perhaps the world’s most famous safari guide and founder of the adventure-travel giant Abercrombie & Kent, recently wrote a blog entitled “Safaris Mean More Than Just Africa.” For Kent, who was born in Zambia, grew up in Kenya and made his fortune bringing travelers to that continent, this is a big declaration. The prime locations for alternative safaris include the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Costa Rica and India.
After you’ve seen the classic parks, consider these alternative destinations and next-adventure animal sightings:
Botswana has quickly emerged as a hot spot by offering a combination of first-rate governance, luxury infrastructure and vast unspoiled wilderness promoted in a very low-density way. Yet it is still easy to access via short, scheduled flights leaving from the South African gateways of Cape Town or Johannesburg. Large safari hotels are almost completely unknown here. Instead, the model is the tiny, upscale camp, with as few as four rooms and usually less than a dozen, which are built and operated in low-impact ways. “Everyone thinks of East Africa first, but Botswana and Namibia are very high on my list,” says Chad Clark, principal of Chad Clark Travel in Phoenix, who has been all over Africa.
Most camps are in the famed Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta, where rivers empty into a maze of wetlands that support an amazing diversity of wildlife. Islands, lakes, rivers and peninsulas create a gorgeous mosaic, allowing many lodges to offer unique alternative options alongside standard game drives, such as canoe safaris. Many camps are only reachable by bush planes, and most are unfenced, meaning animals can—and do—wander right up to the rooms. It is very possible to view significant wildlife from the deck, bed or even the toilet. The country is home to some of the most luxurious lodges. Botswana’s crème de la crème offering is Zarafa, a four-tent camp owned and operated by the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning photographers and filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. As National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, the couple shot many acclaimed and popular documentaries, especially keying on lions, right at Zarafa. It sits in the unspoiled 320,000-acre Selinda Reserve, also rich in leopards, birds and elephants. Everything at Zarafa is over the top, from the in-room complimentary bars stocked with 18-year-old Glenfiddich to the highest-end professional camera and lens kits, available as loaners.
Botswana “is very unplugged, the wildest of the wild left today in Southern Africa, and often it is combined with a visit to Victoria Falls, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World,” Alan Petersen says. The top guide in Southern Africa for Micato Safaris has been perennially named the world’s best safari operator by travel and industry publications (and our polls) and has guided such VIP clients as billionaire Warren Buffet. His customers have stayed at the finest hotels in the world and want something rawer, to get their boots dirty. “If our guests come back a third time and want something really different, it’s Namibia or the Kalahari Desert.”
Namibia and Kalahari Desert
The desert ecosystem stands in contrast to Botswana’s wetlands, the South African bush or the savanna grasslands of East Africa. It hosts far more wildlife than its barren, hot landscape suggests, and the benefits of its open space and sand are much easier tracking, better nocturnal safaris and the ability to follow animals almost anywhere. “It’s very new on the list, and they’ve won a lot of awards for safety and security,” says Scully. The world’s oldest desert is a unique combination of granite moonscape and towering dune.
The Skeleton Coast, full of more than 1,000 eerie shipwrecks sprawled across the sands like the set of some post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, is one of the few opportunities to easily combine the ocean with safari, and a great place to view Cape Fur seals. Inland Namibia is rich in elephants, giraffes, lions and the increasingly hard to see rhino. “The desert is similar to the Kalahari but it runs right to the edge of the ocean, just spectacular,” says Petersen. The top spot in the country is the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge.
Perhaps the best-kept secret in safaris is the Kalahari Desert, which covers parts of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. A unique ecosystem, it is home to the black-maned Kalahari lion, the largest on earth, and the critically endangered black desert rhino, which can be tracked here on foot. The region is famous for its families of meerkat, and there are antelope endemic to only this spot. It is among the best places on earth to spot a number of rare or elusive species, including aardvark, pangolin, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, African wild cats, bat-eared foxes and packs of African wild dogs, among the most coveted of all safari sightings. Cheetahs are plentiful, and the absence of cover makes this a spectacular place to see the world’s fastest land animal in motion.
By far the best choice is Tswalu, which adds several elements to the Kalahari’s already impressive list. It includes a full spa, private ranger and vehicle for each of the five villas, stargazing, and itineraries are totally customizable with no set times. You can stay out all day or all night, have meals in the bush, or add in walking or horseback safaris along with what are likely the best night safaris anywhere. The lodge operates scheduled service daily from Cape Town and Johannesburg on its own private jet.
One of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls is, by some measures, the largest of its kind on earth. Known in the native tongue as “The Smoke that Thunders,” the falls span the Zambia/Zimbabwe border, and while the viewing is considered better on the Zimbabwe side, the lodging and tourism infrastructure (and government) is superior in Livingstone, Zambia. Most luxury guests
ensconce themselves at the posh Royal Livingstone resort, where zebra and giraffe openly graze around the resort grounds, and you can walk right from your room to the trails overlooking the falls.
While a visit to Victoria Falls is often done as add-on to a safari, few realize the wealth of experiences available here. Livingstone offers an enormous amount of natural, adventure and cultural excursions, including helicopter sightseeing, river cruises, mountain bike or ATV trips, kayak and canoe trips, game fishing for prized tiger fish, easy visits to nearby wildlife parks on both sides, craft markets, cultural performances, and luxury train and dinner excursions. Zambia is one of the best places for an elephant-back safari outing. A must is the half-day trip to Livingstone Island, in the center of the falls where the daring can take a swim in the Devil’s Pool at the very precipice of Victoria Falls. There are also full-day excursions to safaris in nearby National Parks. It is possible to base yourself in Livingstone for a week and fill your time with nonstop activities, including safari game drives, especially when traveling with children. This destination warrants more time than many travelers allow, but from a wildlife perspective, it is still better to add the Falls onto a conventional lodge-based Southern Africa safari.
After seeing the Big Five, the question is what’s next? “For almost all my clients, the next thing today is gorillas,” says Scully. “I think meeting the gorillas is the top of the Bucket List for all of Africa.” Primates are the big draw in Rwanda and Uganda (Rwanda is easier and more popular) and fewer than a thousand mountain gorillas remain in their natural habitat. The parks are strictly managed. Permits are required, and rules typically limit each visitor to a one-hour interaction. (Because of the limits, some visit both countries on one gorilla-intensive trip.) As a result, gorilla treks are usually added on to other safaris. Physical exertion is required, as the gorillas must be reached on foot by hiking at altitude.
Half of the world’s mountain gorillas can be found on the volcanic slopes of one Rwandan destination, the beautiful and misty Parc National des Volcans. The country is widely considered safe and welcoming, and parks are well managed with expert guides. The top lodging is the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, and the Virunga Lodge is also popular.
After the classic assortment of African wildlife, the next must-see on the animal lover’s list has to be the tiger, the biggest of all big cats, even more magnificent than the leopard. Tigers are more difficult to see in the wild, and India, which is home to about 80 percent of the 2,500 or remaining Bengal tigers, is by far the best destination at which to find them. The Bandhavgarh National Park has one of the highest densities of Bengal tigers in the world and good flight connections from both Delhi and Mumbai, though it is a few-hours drive from the airport. Even better is Ranthambore National Park. Considered the single best place on earth for a tiger safari, it is convenient to the city of Jaipur, already on most tourist itineraries. Created in the 19th century as a private hunting reserve for the Maharajah of Jaipur, it is unique as a national park for its atmospheric structures, crumbling temples, arched gates and raised stone foundations with columns. This is a lost-city atmosphere in which the regal tigers pose. It is estimated that roughly 90 percent of all commercial images of tigers, from books to postcards, have been shot here.
“Seeing a tiger is always more moving than people expect,” says Abhishek Sharma, general manager of the Oberoi Rajvilas resort in Jaipur, the gateway to Ranthambore. Sharma meets many first-time travelers returning from the park. “They come to India for the Taj Mahal...They say reading and pictures prepared them for the Taj, but nothing could prepare them for the tigers.”
These two parks also have a surprising wealth of other notable wildlife, most strikingly leopards, along with sloth bear, wild boar, porcupine, jackal, jungle cat, monkeys, antelope, crocodile and peacocks, as well as more than 300 species of birds. This is important because while you will almost always see lions on an African safari, tiger viewing is iffy, and it is possible to come away empty handed. For that reason, experts suggest booking at least three to six of the twice-daily game drives. Like gorilla trekking, tiger safaris are usually an add-on to trips made to India for other reasons. The main tourist triumvirate, which is called the Golden Triangle, is Delhi, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur. It is advisable to spend at least two to three full days at Ranthambore, which is home to three luxury camps: the over-the-top Oberoi Vanyavilas, the boutique-like Aman-i-Khas and the Sawai Madhopur Lodge.
Indian National Parks have strict yet convoluted rules and require guides. Navigating this bureaucracy and India’s frenetic travel infrastructure is very cumbersome. The service of an expert outfitter is essential. The best is Micato Safaris, which is exclusive to India and Africa. Abercrombie & Kent also has a strong Indian presence. While both are excellent for Africa, they have several quality competitors. In India, however, they stand nearly alone.
Polar Bears & Grizzlies
“Ten years ago no one cared about seeing polar bears, but suddenly it’s the next big thing,” says Scully. “If you go to Churchill you are going to see bears.” The Manitoba, Canada, location’s nickname is “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Other top spots are Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard peninsula, where adventure cruises typically mix small ships with kayaks and inflatable zodiacs for close-up experiences.
Grizzly bears are the top trip-worthy American animal. While Alaska has long been a popular place to see them, Yellowstone National Park, with its wolves, bison, moose and wild horses, has pulled ahead. The region has also benefited from the addition of numerous luxury hotels. “We take Yellowstone for granted,” says Jermanok. The Park has its own lodges that offer local color and easy access, especially at Old Faithful, where guests can view the geyser’s eruption from their rooms. More luxurious options
include the Four Seasons in Jackson, Wyoming.
While the animals are less dramatic, they are still the primary reason to visit the Galapagos Islands, home to giant tortoises, lizards, penguins, birds and more. Australia is emerging, especially with the recent luxury development of Kangaroo Island. “The Southern Ocean Lodge there is fantastic,” says Scully. “At sunset you sip Champagne as the kangaroos come out.” Interest is growing in South America, especially to see panthers, sloths and the Cloud Forest of Ecuador. Lakin predicts Sri Lanka will be the next big destination. “They have a true classic safari product,” he says, “with one of the planet’s densest populations of leopards.” It’s also one of the only places in the world to reliably visit blue whales.
Larry Olmsted is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.