Following the trend for combining relaxation with adventure on honeymoon, Abigail Healy and her new husband twin the Seychelles with a South African safari
I’m sorry,” I whisper to my husband Ollie, gesturing to two khaki-clad men sitting in front of us, “but my honeymoon dreams have just come true and it’s all down to them.”
Instead of turning to me crestfallen, he grins: “Me too.”
From an outsider’s point of view, the situation is somewhat comical. We’re sitting either side of a pile of fleecy blankets topped with a pair of hot water bottles – perhaps a portent of our later life – in an open-topped Toyota Land Cruiser, both just a little in love with our khaki-clothed friends.
It may seem the antithesis of honeymoon bliss, but as we crane our necks to gaze at the spotted mass lolling over a branch, high in the tree next to us, we share a mutual feeling of spine-tingling wonder.
An hour earlier, as we’d set off from The River Lodge at Thornybush on our first game drive, I mentioned to ranger Roux and tracker Jeremy that of all the Big Five, the leopard has always eluded me.
Now, staring almost unblinkingly at the feline features and long fuzzy tail of the young male cat, Ollie and I agree it is a moment we’ll recount for years to come.
Blame whom you will – celebrities, Instagram, Made In Chelsea… but in 2017 honeymooners’ expectations frequently exceed a picture-postcard beach, a rose petal-strewn bed and a fruit basket on arrival. Kuoni’s recent Honeymoon Trends 2017 report highlights a rising demand for what it terms “One honeymoon. Two adventures”, a concept combining “luxurious rest and relaxation with adventure”. The brand also noticed its honeymooners tend to be slightly older and “career focused”, meaning the “stakes are higher than ever before” and that more newlyweds are keen to take “two bites of the cherry” – embarking on a short European break immediately after the wedding and planning a longer-haul trip for a few months down the line.
It appears Ollie and I are something of a cliche with our own honeymoon plans ticking off all of the above, or perhaps we’re just on trend. Our trip, taken almost exactly a year after we said “I do”, encompasses a week in the Seychelles where we plan to wind down after a busy few months before an adventurous week in South Africa.
We arrive on Mahe, the largest island in the Seychelles, almost two weeks prior to our big cat encounter. The excitement kicks in the moment we take off in the Air Seychelles twin otter plane to Praslin – we agree that it qualifies as a scenic flight experience in itself as we gaze out at the turquoise water dotted with sand-fringed islets. A road transfer and exhilarating speed-boat ride later (a speedier, albeit more costly, helicopter transfer is also available from Mahe) and we pull up at the jetty of Six Senses Zil Pasyon, the latest opening for the eco-conscious luxury brand, set on its very own private island, Felicite. Over the next four days, the stresses of our frenetic city lives and mental to-do lists are gradually washed away by soul-soothing views, impossibly comfortable sun loungers, tension-busting massages and an unexpected measure of adventure.
Our villa is a haven of covetable interior design with a swing seat overlooking the freestanding bathtub and views from the bed of the decking and infinity plunge pool outside. I admit I’d be happy to remain in this very spot for the next four days but the resort’s other facilities beckon us and we can’t help but try as many as possible – snorkelling, kayaking, yoga and massages in the spa, which is constructed around the silvery granite boulders that naturally reside there.
Dining is another highlight in terms of both taste and aesthetics. I surreptitiously try to read the brand on the wooden-handled cutlery and turquoise-glazed crockery – wondering if I can justify a new set. Evening meals range from a meat and seafood feast at Saturday night’s Chef’s BBQ, the Kobe beef sirloin the star of an impressive show, to meat-free Creole specialities at the Ocean Kitchen, set on decking raised up above the crashing waves.
As our final morning dawns, we don’t feel ready to leave but the promise of a warm welcome at our next stop back on Mahe island takes the edge off.
Constance Ephelia caters well for a range of clients but for honeymooners it’s worth recommending the Hillside Villas. Perched high on the cliffside overlooking the resort’s north beach, the villas are accessed via a winding road leading up and away from the resort with buggies provided so guests can come and go as they please.
A favourite feature of the villa is the infinity plunge pool that can be accessed directly from the bedroom – a novel way to wake up. There’s also a private massage cabana where guests can enjoy treatments with sea views.
Before long, our curiosity is piqued by a sign that says “Ros Lepa”. We follow a path through tropical vegetation, down to a tiny cove with a swathe of white sand, surrounded by more of those typical Seychellois boulders. There isn’t a soul in sight and we sit and watch the horizon turn a soft rose gold as the sun sets.
Ephelia features an impressive five eateries but our highlight is fine-dining Asian-French fusion restaurant, Cyann, where we feast on artistically presented dishes in an intimate Asian-styled pavilion. Yet it’s a private dinner arranged on the beach the following night just for us that feels extra special. Arriving at the appointed destination, we find a trail of candles, palm fronds and flowers leading to a table perched near the water’s edge. It might have elements of that honeymoon cliche, but the twinkling lights, succulent lobster and lapping waves are undeniably romantic, as is a couple’s experience at the spa, where we are left to wallow in a huge petal-scattered bubble bath holding icy glasses of champagne after a relaxing massage.
Whiling away the week in a haze of luxury definitely met our need for an antidote to city life and we’re feeling suitably relaxed as we board the five-hour flight to our next stop, Johannesburg.
After an afternoon exploring the regenerated neighbourhood of Maboneng, a delicious introduction to South African cuisine at Marble restaurant in upmarket Rosebank and a comfortable night’s sleep at The Maslow hotel in Sandton, we are hopping on the easy-to-navigate Gautrain back to OR Tambo airport for our flight to the Kruger.
The safari element of our trip is eagerly awaited by Ollie and me, and on arrival at The River Lodge at Thornybush, the atmosphere is fraught with excitement.
A herd of elephants with babies has just come face to face with a lion right by the lodge. General manager Ronel says she spotted the lion’s tail waving in the grass as our transfer van approached. We see the herd marching through the bush from the lodge’s outside deck and spend the next 20 minutes tentatively looking out for a sign of the lion, Ronel adds that she is just as excited as we are.
Once the coast is clear, however, we are taken to our suite. There are three double suites available, plus the two-bedroom Royal Suite, which can operate as a mini-lodge of its own with the option to have its own chef and private safari vehicle if required.
The excitement ramps up further still as we make our way back to the main lodge for our first game drive. We pass impala nibbling cautiously on the grass and the new helipad that is due its first trial run that afternoon. Ronel explains it will cut the transfer time from Hoedspruit airport, usually around an hour by road, to just 15 minutes. We also learn that Thornybush Nature Reserve, in which The River Lodge is situated, has begun removing fencing separating it from neighbouring Timbavati Reserve, which is open to the Greater Kruger National Park, allowing increased freedom of movement for wildlife and supposedly even more opportunities for excellent game viewing.
And we are not disappointed. Besides the climactic moment when we spot the leopard, our first game drive with Roux and Jeremy leaves us babbling excitedly by the time we return to the lodge. We spot a group of three lions – Roux explains they are part of a larger pride that have split up in recent days and may be starting a new pride of their own. The trio, one male and two female, are slumped on their sides, cleverly camouflaged against the long pale grass, digesting the spoils of a recent buffalo kill.
A real selling point for clients is the close range at which we are able to view the wildlife. Roux has no qualms about manoeuvring off the main tracks and putting the Land Cruiser through its paces, bulldozing small bushes and trees in our path to give us the best view. My heart leaps when we sit just metres from a young male elephant that acts up a little at the sight of the vehicle. But Roux is quick to reassure us.
“He’s new to this herd and hasn’t become as accustomed to the vehicle as the others yet. He’s just testing the boundaries,” he says as the youngster gives a tentative stamp and flap of his ears in our direction.
The next few days are punctuated by early morning wake-up calls, rewarded by the sky’s kaleidoscope of pink and the promise of more sightings, and celebrating sundown with drinks and snacks from tracker Jeremy’s neatly packed tuck box.
“I think a bush sunset has to be my favourite,” I tell Ollie as the sky turns almost ruby red and a new moon hangs, waiting for its moment to shine.
As we return to our suite, the intricate wooden doors reveal candles leading to a bubble bath. A table is laid for dinner and we watch butler Bonz lighting a fire before he serves our meal. As the crackling fire blends with the sounds of the bush, Ollie and I share a sense of incredulity and delight, reflecting on the moments we’ve experienced over the last two weeks. From spotting the Big Five to private beachside meals and blissful spa treatments – we agree our honeymoon dreams have come true more than once.
Book it: Rainbow Tours has a Seychelles and South Africa twin centre from £10,065pp, including three nights’ fully inclusive at The River Lodge at Thornybush, one in Johannesburg, three nights’ half-board at Constance Ephelia, three nights’ B&B at Six Senses Zil Pasyon with helicopter transfers from Mahe, domestic flights in South Africa, international flights with South African Airways and transfers, based on two sharing.