One stop during my trip to South Africa was the Phinda Private Game Reserve, in the KwaZulu-Natal area. The reserve had four options for accommodations, and we chose the Vlei Lodge. The Vlei Lodge was in fact a camp set up, not a large lodge. The thatch roofed chalets were separated from each other by bushes and trees, which created a nice sense of privacy. The rooms and the large bathrooms were beautiful. The main building was at the center of the camp, just a two minute walk down a path. The main building had a nice sitting area and shady deck looking out over the vlei (grassy area) in addition to dining tables. Lunch and breakfast were served outside on the deck, which was lovely and warm mid-day.
One day we had lunch on our own porch, but ended up running inside with our trays to get away from the little monkeys that constantly scampered around the camp! At the main building, the monkeys still tried to take food, but they were afraid of the employees and a little less bold about jumping right on your table.
To me, the highlight of the game viewing at Phinda was the number of rhino sightings. Rhinos are hunted illegally for their horns throughout Africa, and the poachers are hard to stop in some areas. Phinda has done an amazing job keeping the poachers at bay, largely due to their good relationship with the local community. The reserve's land is actually leased from the local community and they have a mutually beneficial financial partnership. People in the community alert their friends on the anti-poaching force if they see someone new or suspicious in the area. We saw rhino each day we went on game drives, and were lucky enough to spot this baby rhino at the water hole with his mother.
Other sightings included elephants, giraffe, buffalo, hippos, a group of three cheetah brothers, and two prides of lions. As you can see above, the one pride had several young lions that were a riot to watch. At times, you had to drive a bit between good sightings, but overall there was a good variety of game in the reserve and the trackers did an excellent job of finding the animals. We had at most six people per open topped vehicle, so nobody sat in the dreaded middle seat where the view is not good.
Another note about Phinda Vlei Lodge-the food was out of this world. A woman named Happiness was the chef, and she was an incredible cook. Homemade bread and desserts, imaginative and varied menus, and lots of fresh fruit and produce from the area all made for memorable meals. She was sure to make a vegetarian option for me at each meal, and they were all exceptional.
After a short flight from Chiang Mai, we arrived at Koh Samui's small and charming airport. We found our driver from the Four Seasons without any trouble and set off for the resort. There is a wide range of hotels available on Koh Samui, but we chose the Four Seasons based on the location away from busy towns and beaches. We didn't want to be near the party beaches! Each room having its own pool was another factor in our choice.
The hotel grounds were absolutely beautiful. The entrance to the resort was at the top of the hill, with the grounds spreading down the hill towards the beach. Buggies were easy to call and arrived promptly. I walked a few places for a little exercise, but rarely! The rooms were scattered along several winding pathways.
Each room had a gate, which created a very private feel in the pool and patio area. The patios were covered and had plenty of shade, not to mention gorgeous views.
We spent each day at the beach, where the main pool and a restaurant were also found. We ordered lunch on the beach, and they brought it right to our seats. No need to get up from under the umbrella and brush off your sand! The beach is a fairly small area, with rocky areas to each side. This keeps other beach goers out, but it also means you can't walk too far. The water was very, very low the days we were there. Apparently, this happens often in the summer. There was a swimming platform floating out in the water that I went out to on a paddleboard, but mostly we just waded around the sea and saved our swimming for the large pool that was right on the beach. There were interesting birds to watch and a few boats out in the sea. It was also interesting to watch some local people fishing out in the shallows and seeing their catch as they walked by. There were some games available at the beach as well if you got tired of relaxing and reading. (I did not!) In the usual Four Seasons way, they had thought of anything you might need-sunscreen was available at the beach, ice water was constantly refilled, and someone came around with small complimentary snacks from time to time. My favorite was the fresh corn on the cob, hot from a small grill the server actually carried around.
We came to Koh Samui after some pretty strenuous sightseeing in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, so I have to admit we actually did not leave the resort to explore the island. If we had stayed one more day, I would have booked a tour of the island and a boat ride to the nearby marine park. We relaxed on the beach and spent quite a bit of time on our own patio swimming in our pool. My mother got a massage and reported that the spa was excellent. The treatment rooms were down a tranquil, forested path and very private. We ate our meals at the resort, and the food was very good. I think the breakfast may be the best hotel breakfast I have ever had. They put out a beautiful display of fresh pastries, tons of fruit, homemade yogurt in different flavors each morning, and eggs and other hot items cooked to order. The tables were all situated with plenty of shade and a view from each seat.
The highlight of the Four Seasons Koh Samui was definitely the warm welcome we received from the staff and the level of service was amazing. When we were chatting with the waitress and hostess at breakfast about the various tropical fruits that were new to us, we asked what durian tasted like. You hear about it all the time and is widely eaten in Thailand, but we hadn't seen any served. They had the chef pick up a durian on his next market run so we could try it! The caretaking continued even after we checked out. While we were waiting for the car, we got an email that said our flight to Bangkok was canceled. The men at the front desk kindly called Bangkok Airways and arranged for us to be switched to the next flight. He even had the boarding passes emailed to the hotel so he could print them for us before we left. It was extremely helpful to have him sort it out on the phone in Thai, rather than us trying the website. Meanwhile, we sat on chairs looking out over the sea sipping on the mango juice that magically appeared on a tray...What could have been a disaster turned out to be a lovely ending our stay.
In addition to spending a day at the Elephant Nature Park, we had two other days in Chiang Mai. We stayed at the Anantara Hotel, which is located in walking distance of many restaurants and the Night Market. The hotel grounds were simply gorgeous. One side of the property fronts onto the river, so you can watch small boats go by, fishermen at work, as well as a few interesting birds at the water's edge. We ate breakfast on the patio facing the river each day. Later in the morning, the inside would be preferable, but we found the shade to be very pleasant for breakfast on the early side.
We spent the afternoons under an umbrella by the pool. The water was really refreshing as it was very hot! Someone periodically came around offering drinks or ice water, but the bar was in easy reach if a server was not around. The spa is located just behind the pool, but it not affected by any noise from the pool. I tried a Thai massage and it was wonderful.
We booked a Kasara suite, which ended up being a very large space for two people. The laundry service included in this room rate was most welcome as we were halfway through our trip and had a suitcase full of dirty clothes! Although we did not find the flawless service we found at our other hotels in Thailand, the staff by and large was quite accommodating and eager to please. We booked the airport transfers through the front desk, as well as a tour guide for a day trip out to the hill country. These were both easy to arrange via email before our arrival.
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