Unless you’ve been there, you’ve probably never heard of Phinda. In the northeastern corner of South Africa, andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is a quiet oasis. Made up of sand forests with ancient trees growing out of soft, dusty ground, and a vast savannah, Phinda is home to a wide variety of animals way beyond the “Big 5.” Yes, you’ll find cape buffalo, rhinos, elephants, lions, and leopards, but there are also cheetahs, wild dogs, and even sea turtles at nearby Sodwana Bay.
Phinda doesn’t have the notoriety or name-recognition of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, but that’s a good thing. As a private game reserve, Phinda has retained an exclusive and secluded atmosphere, where you might go a whole day without seeing another game vehicle.
One of five lodges located within andBeyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve, Forest Lodge is a collection of 16 deluxe glass-walled stilt cottages within the ancient sand forest. The cabins each have an open bedroom and living area surrounded by glass walls. There are floor-to-ceiling curtains you can adjust for privacy, although it’s not necessary—the cabins are far enough apart that the dense forest makes it nearly impossible to see into somebody else’s room. The bathroom is enormous and full of luxurious touches, from the locally-made bath salts, shampoo, and soap to the indoor/outdoor shower to the deep soaking tub. The décor is sparse and modern, with white furniture and floors—the real design star here is the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Perhaps the best feature of each room is the front porch, where you’ll find a minibar that’s stocked daily with everything you need to make a cocktail and take in the meditative sounds of the forest.
INSIDER TIPWhile this is certainly a luxury property, it is still located in the wilderness. There are no fences to keep animals out and after dark, you’ll need to be escorted to and from your room by a ranger. Lion and leopard sightings within the hotel grounds are rare but not unheard of. It all adds to the magic of the place.
Describing Forest Lodge as a hotel does not quite fit this unique property. It’s a safari lodge, a private game reserve, a charitable organization, and an oasis in the African wilderness.
And like any great adventure, getting here is half the fun. With its own airstrip, Phinda is best access by plane. Tickets can be booked on Airlink, departing from Johanessburg and Skukuza Airport. From the moment you board a tiny bush plane bound for Phinda, everything is taken care of. At the dirt runway, you’re met with a guide from the lodge who will drive you (in a Land Rover) about 40 minutes to the reception area.
The drive from the airport to the lodge is a game drive of its own, and it’s shocking how many species you’ll see on the way in. It’s not unlike the opening scene in Disney’s Lion King and it’s a magical experience. Arriving at Phinda feels a little bit like arriving in a different dimension and if it’s your first time in Africa, this is the kind of place that makes you feel like every travel moment of your life has been leading up to this. It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.
Forest Lodge is an all-inclusive experience. A day here starts with an early morning wake-up call, followed by coffee and light snacks in the open-air main building that surrounds a watering hole. You’ll be assigned a ranger and a vehicle on your first day and that’s who you’re with for the rest of the time there—other guests will be in your game vehicle, but never more than four or five depending on departures and arrivals. It’s not uncommon to have the vehicle to yourself. Once your group is assembled, you’re off on your first game drive of the day, when the forest is just waking up.
Each vehicle is manned by an extremely knowledgeable ranger who knows the ins and outs of the reserve and can answer almost any questions you have. There’s also a tracker, who’s focused on spotting prints, scat, and other signs of wildlife and their movement patterns. In the morning you’ll encounter baboons waking up and climbing down from trees and if you’re lucky, you might spy a snoozing leopard. Mid-morning calls for a pit stop, where your guide will set up coffee and cookies overlooking the savannah, while giraffes glide gracefully in the distance.
When the heat of the day begins to set in, it’s back to the lodge for a full breakfast (yes, you were counting right, that’s three breakfasts). The mid-morning breakfast buffet is magical here, as you take in the sights and sounds of the watering hole. It’s not unusual to have an elephant, giraffe, or myriad antelope come within feet of the open-air dining room where you can dine on fresh fruit and pancakes.
After breakfast, the day is yours–to nap and laze around in your room, go for a swim, or opt for another adventure ranging from village tours to turtle watching to scuba diving or foot safaris.
One of the most interesting aspects of the hotel is the non-profit Africa Foundation that funds projects in the nearby communities. On a short day trip from the lodge, you can opt to visit the Mduku Clinic, Mhbedula Craft Market, and Nkomo School and to even learn how you can get involved.
In addition to community initiatives, there are a number of wildlife conservancy programs at Phinda, including Rhinos Without Borders, a project that aims to transfer rhinos in high-risk poaching areas to safer zones in Botswana. Visitors interested in the project can arrange a rhino tracking safari in advance, where you’ll get up close to the creatures while learning about ways you can help.
In the afternoon, the ever-changing lunch menu at the dining room, which usually has about 4-5 different choices ranging from fresh seafood to local game to vegetarian dishes, all with a South African spin. Beware of monkeys, who are known to leap from the roof to your table in a split second, making off with whatever delicacies they can get their grubby little hands on. It’s shocking if you’re daydreaming or reading a book, but don’t worry—it seems to happen to everybody at least once.
After lunch, the pool is a secluded slice of paradise on a hot day, with sun loungers and daybeds arranged around a wooden deck overlooking a forest clearing.
Around 4 pm, it’s time to assemble for the second game drive of the day. While the sun is still strong, bring along a warmer layer (or ask if there are blankets in the car) because temperatures dip after dark.
The evening game drive is where you’ll spot elephants, lions, and cheetahs if you’re lucky. Even if you’re unlucky, there are still hundreds of species you’ll see on any given day—don’t miss out on the warthogs, who are weirdly cute and full of spunky personality. While the sun is setting, you’ll make a pit stop for sundowners, biltong (jerky), and dried pineapples. It’s one of the most enchanted cocktail hours on earth.
Dinner is a bit of a special occasion (although most guests choose to dine in their safari wear, directly after the nighttime game drive), with a rotating menu depending on what’s fresh. If you can time it right, every few nights, there’s a special dinner where your vehicle takes you to a secluded candlelit forest clearing and you’re treated to grilled meat, the South African specialty. Aside from meat, there’s salad and sides along with hand-picked wines from South Africa and beyond.
The dining area back at the main lodge has an attached bar and lounge for guests who want to linger and chat before or after dinner, but remember—tomorrow morning’s wake up call is at 4:30, so it’s best to get your beauty sleep.