Wednesday, February 21, 2007

South Africa's Sun City - a Family Trip to South Africa's Gambling Mecca

We left for Sun City on a Thursday morning. It was the first of my son's 28 flights (what? he's nearly 13 months already!), where I was certain that he was aware of the fact that we were aboard a moving object. I had him pat his lap while we were taxiing down the runway, and then raise his arms as we took off. It was really cute. Four hours later (2 hours on the plane, two hours in the car), we arrived in Sun City (via Johannesburg, which by the way, is one of the world's most dangerous cities... so, we stuck to the highways as though our lived depended on it... literally). Because you have to drive through ghettos to get to this make-believe "lost palace", it adds to the experience. Imagine, if you can, driving for two hours, first through the world's most dangerous city, and then through various ghettos, to get to a Disney or Universal Hotel. Wouldn't you appreciate it just a little more? And so it was with us.

Despite only sleeping for a half hour on the plane, the baby did great on the two hour car ride (thank heaven - it's taboo to say the "G" word here in South Africa - it's even bleeped out on TV!). But we arrived not a moment too soon. When we arrived, we were treated like royalty. Car doors were opened, a hostess accompanied us to our room, giving us a tour of the hotel along the way, and our room was just simply over-the-top. My son was fascinated by the animal mosaic on the ceiling and floor of the lobby, as well as the waterfalls in every corner.

We had lunch at the little restaurant next to the pool. Food and drinks cost as much as the do in Europe or America in Sun City (which is A LOT for S. African standards!!!), unless you go to the fast food places... which we avoided. Then we headed back to our room and got ready for dinner. We decided on a restaurant in a neighboring hotel, called the Butcher's Grill. My husband had the steak and I had ostrich. Both the food and the service were good, and the baby slept through dinner, which made things much easier on us.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel (it was included in the package). We sat outside, next to a waterfall, and overlooking a pond. An oh-so extravagant buffet breakfast, there was an omelets station, a waffle station, a huge section with freshly cut fruit, five different kinds of yoghurt, freshly puréed fruit (for the yoghurt or waffles), eight different kinds of freshly pressed juice, and of course, champagne. Never mind that the people serving you live in poor neighborhoods and may not have been able to eat breakfast. Despite the strange contrast, the service was exceptional. Breakfast would have been perfect, had my son not had a monumental "accident" right in the middle of the meal. Although our room was at the other end of the hotel (at least one city block away from the restaurant), I was back within a half an hour, and we finished up our breakfast quickly, so we could spend the rest of our day lounging by the pool. The pool was beautiful, but chilly, and the only way I was able to convince the hubby to get in was by way of gin-tonic. The baby had a blast in the water, and once we had had enough of the pool we headed down to the "Valley of the Waves" (Sun City's version of Wet N' Wild). We played in the shallow end of the wave pool for a bit, and then headed down the "Lazy River" with the baby (getting out just before the section where you get sprayed with water).

That evening, we were planning on going to the Italian restaurant, Pallazo, in the hotel, but changed our minds for a couple reasons:1) There was a dress code, and although my husband had brought some slacks and a button down shirt, I only packed casual clothes2) They said children should not be in the restaurant after 8 PM. What parent wants to eat at a place like that?3) We arranged a baby sitter through the hotel, and although I'm sure she was highly qualified, how much would I have enjoyed dinner if I had left my child with a complete stranger?
And so we went to the highly-recommended Santorini Restaurant in the nearby Cascades Hotel (and the hotel takes care of most transportation). Although the baby didn't sleep at all, and was fairly high-maintenance, it was a very nice setting, and the food was good. We were able to get him to sleep once we returned to the hotel room, and then (shame on us) we went back out again for a drink at the hotel's trendy Tusk Bar.

On Saturday we had breakfast, and then went out to the Pilansberg National Park. It's surprisingly close to the hotel (about a 5 minute drive), and we immediately saw all sorts of "game". As if to greet us at the entrance, after a few minutes driving, we saw antelope, wild boar, and zebra. It was wonderful. My son enjoyed it more than I expected, pointing out the window at the wildlife (we were driving super slow, so we didn't keep him buckled up the whole time). Later we spotted giraffes and elephants (as large as they were, they just seemed to appear out of nowhere - it was so strange!). Afterwards we stopped at the butterfly garden (which I can now advise against - it's too hot for humans, much less butterflies), then visited the Sun City Entertainment Center, in search of a good restaurant for dinner. It's a strange mix of expensive shops, very average restaurants, slot machines, and children's games. After losing a credit card in the ATM, and chasing it down with a bottle of wine and appetizer at one of the restaurants, we left the Entertainment Center - disappointed and hungry. The nearby Sun City Hotel had only Chinese and Indian restaurants (with no stroller access), neither of which appealed to us. And so we decided there's no place like home (or our hotel in this case), and returned to the Palace for dinner at the Crystal Court (a ballroom-like atmosphere - breakfast is also served there). Dinner was delicious - it was a Chinese buffet consisting of fresh salads, sushi, various hot dishes and amazing deserts.

On Sunday, our last morning in the "Lost City", I woke up at 6 AM to go for a jog at the neighboring Gary Player country club. In addition to a beautiful sunrise and many different birds, I saw monkeys and heard baboons carry-on in the forest at the back of the course. Not what you expect to hear at a country club! While I was gone, my husband and son saw a baboon just outside of the hotel room, and when we returned from breakfast, they were everywhere! It was as if they had conspired to take over the hotel and run the humans out! Lukas and I were looking for them from our balcony, when suddenly, a momma baboon appeared just feet from us, with her baby on her back. She stared at me curiously for a couple seconds (and I shrieked and reached backwards for the door), and then she was gone, just as quickly as she appeared. It was a perfect ending to a fun weekend.

On the way out, I convinced my husband to stop at the "Animal Farm", to let the baby play a bit before the long car ride. There were pigs, goats, birds, and ponies, and my son and I went on the little steam train, from which we saw antelope, turtles, and a little meerkat. Fun!
Our car ride to Jo'Burg was pretty uneventful, unless you consider nearly running out of gas in a ghetto-area an event. But alas, we found a gas station just-in-time, and reached the airport less than an hour before departure.

All-in-all, visiting Sun City was a pleasant and memorable experience, despite the fact that it's a bit contrived.

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