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Lion Sands Private Game Reserve

Lion Sands Private Game Reserve

Sabi Sands, Mpumalanga, South Africa
Pride in our work: Blue List Hotels gets up close and personal with the Big Five at South Africa's most luxurious safari park 'n' grrrride.

first impressions
This ultra-exclusive, award-winning game reserve on the fringe of picturesque Kruger National Park is pure animal magic. South Africa's hottest five and six-star retreat has been sending guests wild since a radical facelift shot it to fame in 2000. Given the spectacular surroundings, luxurious lodges and mouth-watering cuisine, it's little wonder: holidays here have that shock 'n' roar effect.

Nestled on the tip of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve – an area renowned for its spectacular game viewing – Lion Sands boasts more than 10km (6.2mi) of riverfront and 4,000-hectares of pristine, endemic bushveld. It's this incredible location that gives the retreat such a diversity of wildlife, making it the purr-fect place to spot the Big Five – lions, leopards, elephant, buffalo and rhino – all year-round. And thanks to responsible management – and a full-time ecologist who undertakes monthly inspections of the immediate eco-system – this breathtaking wilderness looks set to remain unspoiled for countless generations to come.

The history behind Lion Sands runs as deep as the magnificent Sabie River, on which the stunning River and Ivory lodges now stand. In the early 1930s, gold mining engineer, Guy Chalkley, stumbled across what was then the Kingstown Game Reserve, during one of his frequent hunting forays into the bush. The American was reportedly "overcome by the affection for the animals around him" and set to work building a camp on the banks of the Sabie River. He never hunted again. Moreover, he had no way of knowing that, more than seven decades later, his pioneering spirit would survive as a lasting legacy to four generations, and that his modest camp would grow into what it is today: a shining example of vision and a benchmark of excellence.

Safari, so good ... until disaster struck in 2000 when the Sabie burst its banks and a flash flood engulfed much of the former site. Present-day owners Nicholas and Robert More were left in a substantial amount of hot water. Yet, in true Chalkley fashion, the Brothers in Arms took it as a challenge, first re-building River Lodge, then creating a second, more luxurious retreat called Ivory Lodge. But what's more, they established the entire estate under a new banner of pride – Lion Sands Private Game Reserve.

Their achievements were stark – and instantly rewarded. Ivory Lodge was voted 3rd best hotel in the world by a leading holiday magazine, while the Reserve regularly receives praiseworthy column inches in the international travel press.

Maybe that explains why writing the headlines for Lion Sands is so easy: Style is Animal Magic, after all.

It's been called the "soul" of Lion Sands, but River Lodge is much more than that – it's the very heart of the place. Nestled on the fertile banks of the Sabie, on the site of Chalkley's original 1930s camp, guest accommodation comprises 18 thatched-roof villas with stylish beige and cream interiors. They are all outfitted to the highest standard with matching, bespoke wooden furniture, while each boasts all the mod cons of home, including ceiling fan and air-conditioning, electronic safe, mini-bar (stocked with bottled water, tasty snacks and a range of alcoholic drinks), and direct-dial telephone. King-sized beds, with pre-hung mosquito netting, feature designer cushions, fabrics and linen. They also come decorated with a wonderful welcome note for every arriving guest, made from an assortment of dried leaves – a not inconsiderable task and a lovely touch.

Like the bedrooms, en-suite bathrooms are spacious and light, and feature pebble-inlaid floors, huge mirrors and elegant sinks. They also have deep baths, and a powerful inside shower. You can really get back to nature – or is that naturism – by using the additional outside shower: a shoulder-height wicker screen ensures privacy from everything bar the giraffes.

Each River Lodge villa also boasts a spacious wooden viewing deck with matching tables and coffee table, overlooking the Sabie River and the bushveld beyond. Albeit for the elephants, wildebeest, impala, vervet monkeys and other wandering wildlife, you'll have the view all to yourself.

Raised wooden walkways link the rooms with the Lodge itself, which comprises an outdoor safari lounge, a separate cocktail bar, 24-hour Reception, Curio Giftshop, conference room, secluded bird hide and two swimming pools. There's also a state-of-the-art gym (complete with resident trainer), two magnificent viewing decks (which double as open-air restaurants) and a traditional boma, or African dining area.

Upstream some 100 metres is Ivory Lodge, the home of six-star luxury and six palatial private villas. Tucked away from River Lodge in its own grounds, and with a separate staff and manager, this gem of a hideaway is exclusive in every sense.

Guest accommodation comprises six grand villas, each boasting a whopping 165m2 of floor space. Each features a spacious living room, large bedroom, and open-plan en-suite bathroom with freestanding bath and vanity basins. Décor – a blend of ebony and ivory fixtures and fittings – is to be expected: stylish, modern and very, very expensive, with bespoke, handmade wooden furniture and floorboards throughout.

The rather beautiful, heated outdoor swimming pools are the perfect way to cool-off after a hot day on safari.

Clever and thoughtful design also means each villa is at least 20 metres apart – no noisy neighbours here (except, that is, for the grunting hippos).

The Lodge itself has a private and communal lounge with fireplace, complimentary lending library, curio shop, gymnasium, health spa (of which more later), wine cellar (stocked with a selection of international fine wines) and 24-hour free internet access. Together with a boma, two wooden viewing decks double as attractive outdoor dining areas. The indoor dining area, meanwhile, clearly has its roots in fine cuisine – wood you believe it, its centrepiece is a full-size tree!

Again, clever and thoughtful design means there's even a separate entrance area to the Lodge, ensuring that those arriving and departing have no impact on other guests.

Dining at Lion Sands

food and drink
With all-inclusive cuisine this tasty, you'd think you'd be hungry for more ... yet Blue List Hotels can guarantee that the only rumble you'll hear during your stay will come from the Land Rovers on game drive.

The day's delights begin before early morning game drive at 6am, when freshly-made fruit smoothies, a selection of locally-sourced fruit, freshly-brewed coffee and tasty rusks – traditional African, twice-baked biscuits – are served in the safari lounge.

An hour or two later, and it's time for a brief but sophisticated breakfast in the bushveld, where an array of nibbles – such as boiled eggs, dried fruits, breads and fruit – are laid-out on a white linen-covered table.

After safari, it's back to the retreat for breakfast proper at the viewing deck – beginning with a Continental smorgasbord of meats, pastries, fruits, yoghurts, and cereals. Hot breakfasts are cooked to your liking: try the salmon and cottage cheese in French Toast – c'est magnifique.

The three-course lunchtime menu is no less impressive, boasting a selection of both European and African specialities. Remember that the old joke, 'I love animals ... they taste great' applies – sprinkbok, impala and warthog are common dishes!

Come 4.30pm and it's back to the safari lounge for more home-made snacks, fresh coffee and tea, and fruit. But don't eat too much: two hours later and you'll be enjoying afternoon tea on game drive.

But it's the evening meal that's the dining highlight. Held either on the viewing deck, at the riverbed, out in the bush or within the wooden walls of the traditional boma, it's a magical affair from start(er) to finish.

service with a smile?
Such is the warmth and generosity of Lion Sands staff, that you'll arrive as guests but leave as friends. In fact, several guests told us on their departure that they'd be leaving a piece of their heart there – presumably in the hope of returning the following year to collect it!

So whether you stay at River or Ivory Lodge, you'll be made to feel like a million Rand the moment you step through the door.

Waiting staff and, in particular, Personal Butlers – those assigned to a guest or party on arrival – reflect all that is great about Lion Sands through attentiveness, politeness, humour and professionalism. Likewise, reception staff, chefs, security guards and, for that matter, senior management, are equally enthusiastic and helpful from the outset.

But it's the guides and trackers who make visiting Lion Sands so memorable and so special. These expert naturalists – many of whom are from local Xhosa tribes – have an infectious passion for conservation and an obvious desire to preserve it. Their enthusiasm about their work, and their willingness to share their knowledge with guests, makes every game drive an absolute joy and a fascinating learning experience.


local attractions
Local attractions don't come much better, or much bigger, than the 4,000-hectare Lion Sands Game Reserve. It is, then, a natural playground for guest and animal alike.

Game drives are a bit like taking a natural history lesson on a rollercoaster: exhilarating, enthralling ... and just a little bit scary. With a guide and tracker, guests are ferried around the Reserve in specially-built, open-top Land Rovers. It's not the comfiest journey you'll ever take, but it's sure to be the most fun!

Wildlife in the Reserve is diverse and, with very few exceptions, is present all year round. In addition to the Big Five, common sightings include wild dog, giraffe, waterbuck, hyena, crocodile, hippo, wildebeest, kudu, zebra, and a dozen mammal and bird species. Here's a tip: pack a warm jumper for the early morning starts – temperatures plummet between sundown and sunrise.

If you want to learn more about the animals you see, the senior ecologist and Head Ranger holds regular lectures on a variety of wildlife subjects. Rangers can also be booked for private tours of the Reserve – details of which can be obtained through Reception. Air tours by hot-air balloon and by helicopter can also be arranged.

Fitness fanatics might be interested in the fully-equipped gym; mere mortals in the Lalamuka Health Spa, where a number of indulgent treatments are available.

But however you decide to spend your free time, be sure to book a night in the Tree House – that's right, a tree house – out in the bush. Built safely above ground in the boughs of a 500-year-old Leadwood Tree, the Chalkley Tree house is probably a little different from the one you made as a toddler. For a start, it features polished wooden floorboards, a King-sized bed with mosquito net and luxury fabrics, hand carved furniture, vanity table and sink, and even a flushing loo. And then there's the awe-inspiring view over the open plain and the elephants, rhino, hyena and giraffe that call it home. As the African sun sets over the Reserve, guests enjoy a three-course meal (that's been specially-made and delivered) and a glass or three of their favourite tipple.

With total seclusion (the Lodge is a 15-minute drive away), you'll fall asleep to the sounds of grunting hippos and laughing hyenas under a canopy of stars. That is, of course, if you manage to fall asleep at all ...

will it break the bank?
Safari holidays of this calibre aren't Jeep and Cheerful ... however, the rates at Lion Sands are competitive and reflect the quality of the five and six-star accommodation on offer.

Tariffs (which all include transfers from Skukuza Airport) at River Lodge start at ZAR 3,575 per person, per night sharing (£221); and from ZAR 6,500 (£402) per person, per night sharing at Ivory Lodge.

Wedding and anniversary packages also available on request.

Lion Sands Private Game Reserve
Sabi Sand Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
P.O Box 2667
Houghton, 2041
South Africa

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