Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Closer Look at Phinda's Mountain Lodge

Just after INDABA, Taryn Paola, senior USA consultant for New Frontiers Tours, and I headed North from Durban on the N2 highway through the beautiful, lush pineapple plantations of KwaZulu Natal to Phinda Private Reserve. New Frontiers Tours works closely with &Beyond in South Africa and Phinda is one of our favorite spots for families, honeymooners and those looking for a one-stop safari destination. The highway is good condition with panoramic views out over the plantations, Zulu homesteads and eucalyptus groves. Just about 4 hours North of Durban (there are great stops along the way to purchase finely woven baskets, handmade jewelry and pottery), we pulled off the highway and entered Phinda Private Reserve. I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of quality of game (Phinda has a great reputation for an impressive variety of wildlife) and the feeling of big open spaces. The wild feeling that requires a fair amount of roaming space is a major pet peeve of mine as I really like to feel asif I am truly out in the bush. Just as we entered the gates and headed down the dirt track to the lodge a lioness and two cubs passed us on the road, the lioness even brushed up against the back bumper of the car. It was amazing!

We pulled up to Phinda and received a warm greeting, easy check in and were assisted down to our room. The entrance of Mountain Lodge is much different that it used to be (I had not see the old lodge in person, only photos). I do have to say that while the main lodge area, dining room and shop were lovely, it was quite as intimate as I had expected. The decor is beautifully done with dark woods, nice fabrics and touches that are signature to &Beyond properties.

Stone pathways led to each cottage suite, which we nicely spaced and quite private (photo upper left). Each suite has a sitting area, private verandah with plunge pool and large bathroom. My only complaint, which seems to be quite common nowadays, is that the bathrooms are very open and don't provide much privacy when in the bathtub or shower (toilet is in a separate stall with a door). I really liked the design, style and decor of the room. The cottages are looking great!

After a bit of time to relax from the drive, we headed up to the boma for dinner. Mountain Lodge is the largest property at Phinda (with 25 suites) and the boma night seats all guests at tables with their guide and game drive vehicle. I think this helps keep the experience a bit more intimate since the boma is quite large. The meal was tasty, my only observation is that it's probably best not to offer lamb chops when doing a boma meal as the meat sat on the fire for a while and was overcooked. Otherwise the meal was good.

We were up early for our game drive and had such great luck. Just after heading out in search of a lion pride that had been seen the night before, our tracker spotted a mother cheetah with a kill and 4 young cubs - just a few months old. They were certainly the youngest cheetah cubs I'd seen on safari. Not far from the cheetah we saw a rhino mom and baby, and heard elephant in the distance. The reserve felt big, open and wild. There were only a few times where we saw power lines (a necessary evil) and heard very limited road noise. I have to say I was quite impressed with the reserve itself - the different habitats were beautiful, really very diverse, and the game was good.

A bit of background on Phinda Private Reserve. In 1991, Phinda undertook the biggest game relocation in a private reserve in the world at the time, restoring 14 000 hectares (34 600 acres) of degraded farmland to pristine wilderness. The reserve has now grown to a total of 23 000 hectares (56 830 acres) of land dedicated to the preservation of wildlife. There are
seven unique ecosystems within the Reserve, including coastal terrain.

After stopping for coffee and snacks, we did a site inspection of Rock Lodge (photo right). I really enjoyed Rock; it needs a bit of TLC and is up for a refurb this year, but the lodge is quite intimate with only 6 suites. Each has a beautiful view of the rocky mountains nearby and the narrow valley below. There were quite a few steps in the rooms and around the lodge so guests best be fit enough to navigate stairs. I think honeymooners or retired couples would really enjoy this spot and it would be great combined with Vlei Lodge.

Zuka is an exclusive use property with 4 rooms (as of next year it will also be available by the room). For a group or larger family, Zuka offers an excellent value as the exclusive use comes with a chef, staff, game drive vehicle and guide. The lodge is very family friendly and rooms, albeit a tad small, were beautiful and well-appointed. The lodge is set down in a valley overlooking a watering hole. What a great circuit to offer a family group: Cape Town, Kwandwe's Melton Manor and Zuka Lodge at Phinda!

After ending our game drive we returned to the lodge for a tasty breakfast and Taryn and I continued on to Forest Lodge...Stay tuned!

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