Finding the best contrarian travel opportunities requires a lot of footwork — or in my case, seat time. This is because contrarian destinations are constantly changing, as once-unheard-of destinations offering travel value become voguish and expensive (as is currently the case with Croatia and the Balkans) and new, off-the-radar destinations come to the fore.
For me, a true contrarian destination must meet three criteria: (1) It must offer a good exchange rate; (2) it must offer great travel value; and (3) it must offer an appealing environment. I recently found such a place: South Africa. While this is not a new place for travel, it is fast becoming a vibrant travel region as Johannesburg and surrounding cities prepare to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup of Soccer. This event is the Super Bowl and Olympics of soccer rolled into one, and will draw thousands of new travelers to the region. In my opinion, the time to visit is not three years from now, but right now.
Although South Africa is an ocean and a hemisphere away, new airline service from Delta Air Lines makes the trip a relatively easy jaunt. Departing from Atlanta, the 17-hour flight stops in Dakar, Senegal, before continuing on to Johannesburg. Delta's flights are reasonably priced and offer an above-average level of service and videos in each coach seat. For a little more comfort, I suggest purchasing an upgradeable fare and redeeming 25,000 miles each way to experience Delta's superior Business Elite service, which offers an excellent array of meal choices, new entertainment systems and, beginning next year, a lie-flat seating configuration.
South Africa occupies a huge swath between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and its landscapes are vast and beautiful, comprising everything from desert dunes and white-sand beaches to savannahs and subtropical forests. The Western Cape has one of the richest floral kingdoms in the world, and the country's game viewing is among the best in Africa (where else can you find both penguins and elephants — and more than 1,000 bird species?).
I started my visit in Johannesburg, where I stayed at the Park Hyatt Johannesburg, an idyllic property in the tree-lined, upscale neighborhood of Rosebank. Its outdoor conservatory is a wonderful place to relax in comfort, get over jet lag or have a drink after a day of touring or business meetings. In the evening, many of the hotel's guests head to the nearby Sandton neighborhood, which has a rich nightlife and many popular restaurants.
Through the Park Hyatt, I booked a "Freedom Trip" to Soweto, only a short drive from the hotel; on the way I passed the yellow hills that were once the city's main gold mines. The tour also took me to the Apartheid Museum, which presents the history and struggle of South Africa during the 20th century. The museum is filled with reminders of the divide between the elite Whites and the Black and "Coloured" South Africans, who were declared second- and third-class citizens. It paints a vivid picture of an awful past, and is a must-see for anyone interested in human nature. It left me both sobered and enlightened.
I also took a moving tour of Nelson Mandela's house, which is just up the street from the home of another South African Nobel Prize winner, Bishop Desmond Tutu. My guide pointed out the bullet holes in the front wall of the house, where government agents tried to assassinate Mandela's wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Inside the house, I sat in the same room where world leaders visited after Mandela became president of South Africa. This modest house is a living memorial and testament to a man who triumphed over evil and who today is revered for his grace, statesmanship and good will.
My second day in Johannesburg involved a leisurely one-hour drive to Kruger National Park, a wildlife park that ranks among the best in Africa. Established in 1898, the park now encompasses nearly 2 million hectares, and is home to monkeys, baboons, lions, elephants, buffaloes, leopards, spiders, snakes, scorpions and white rhinos.
If you're after African artifacts and souvenirs, Johannesburg will not disappoint. A short walk from the hotel brings you to the daily African market, which showcases handmade crafts, prints and baskets. On Sundays, look for the Rooftop Market, which offers a grander selection of African-made goods. I have long been an admirer of the artwork in Frasier Crane's apartment in the hit TV show "Frasier," and I was able to find similar works in the Johannesburg market for a fraction of what I would pay at home.
Beyond Johannesburg, South Africa offers a world of exploration, and my next trip will include a visit to the coastal city of Durban (which has wonderful beaches) before continuing on to Cape Town and the "African Riviera." Instead of flying to Cape Town, I plan to take the Blue Train from Pretoria, a 27-hour journey of pure luxury that affords the opportunity to view some of the most diverse and spectacular scenery on the African subcontinent. Cape Town is said to be a beautiful place — a city embraced by a blue ocean on one side and 300-year-old vineyards on the other. I can't wait to go.
The vastness of South Africa requires more than the few days I had there. Although my time was limited, I truly found it a magical place of history and natural beauty at home in the sleek, modern world of the 21st century. Knowing that the good value of South Africa won't last for long, I am heading back to explore more and report back on the further wonders of this part of the world.
Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site.