Forget the Cote d'Azur, the Hamptons and the Greek islands. For the ultimate family holiday is an African safari and now is the optimal time to visit this magical part of the world.
From the wild bush of South Africa to the desert planes of Tanzania, a safari offers adventure, a sense of escapism and fun for all the family. Children and adults react the same: with eyes-wide-open amazement. Daily itineraries begin at 4am to stalk the Big Five, are punctuated by homemade picnics and end at sunset with a sing-along around the campfire. This is a summer holiday that truly promotes family bonding and defines the notion of quality time. Buckets & spades cannot compare to lions & tigers. Though, pick the right game park, and even sandcastles on the beach can be a feature of a vacation in the bush.
Over the last decade the safari market in Africa has expanded exponentially, with a focus on luxury lodges. With so much choice, an expert is required to sort the ultra-premium from the merely high-end. Marie-Louise Moineau and her Paris-based travel agency, Tselana, is the specialist that discerning travelers turn to. It was in 1996 that Moineau first visited Africa, and since then she has become a frequent visitor, part-time resident and the ultimate council for families wanting to know which lodge is best for toddlers and which will entertain their teenagers. Her bespoke safaris are put together only after detailed discussions with the clients as to their tastes and requirements. The mother of two children herself, she understands the challenges of traveling en famille.
As we showcase some of her favorite lodges, Luxuryculture.com talks with Marie-Louise Moineau about family holidays and how to make the most of the exotic experience that is safari.
Marie-Louise Moineau's definition of luxury?
It can be surmised in one word: freedom.
If luxury were...
At night, in the bush, by the Southern Cross, with the lions roaring.
Beirut by the sea.
My wedding ring.
Your agency specializes in luxury travel and you are also an expert on African safaris. Why is Africa so important to you?
My husband brought me to Africa in 1996 and I felt in love with that part of the world. I guess that as well as the natural beauty of these countries, I have been fascinated by the political evolution of South Africa and that world icon of peace and forgiveness, Nelson Mandela. Having the chance to go to the bush every month during the last three years has definitely changed my vision of life.
Aside from the beautiful lodges, in what way do you find safaris luxurious?
Everything: the nature, the space, the colors, the smells, the sounds, the silence, the experience. The feeling that you are so "small". It is important sometimes to remember that.
When is the best time to visit Africa for safari?
Probably from May to October, during winter. You will avoid the rainy season and the game viewing is spectacular. But the colors and the smells are enhanced in summer time. In fact, you can travel there throughout the year. Each month has its own particularities. I remember, long ago, driving from South Africa to the Okavango Delta in the Northern part of Botswana. On our way up North we were obliged to stop the car as the road was invaded by caterpillars and 10 days later, on our way back home to Johannesburg, the same place was invaded of millions of butterflies! It was in late December and early January, which are not usually the recommended months for traveling in Botswana.
You advertise your safaris as the ultimate family holiday. Please explain why this is the case?
People are always looking for the ultimate experience to share with their friends and family. And this is probably the most unbeatable experience for children... and adults. As adults enjoy it as much as children they become, I believe, much closer to each other. They are experiencing the same interests for few days and they don't have any choice except to enjoy each other's company there is no phone, no email, and no television. They have to relearn how to listen to each other. As soon as the children in a family become teenagers, they can go almost everywhere. For the family with very small kids, up to 8 years old, the best way to experience a safari is to rent either family suites or a private lodge. Small kids who are generally not allowed on regular game drives before 8 years old will then be able to totally share the adult experiences as these suites and lodges provide private chefs and rangers.
How do you find that children react to the safari environment?
They are fascinated, always. The first books that children receive are on animals. The first DVD's are the Jungle Book or the Lion king. And we offer them a recreation of their imaginary world! Security-wise they generally react much better than adults. Kiddies immediately feel the reality of the experience and the environment. Adults don't. Danger comes from an adult's ignorance.
You only work with the finest hotels around the world. Which are your favourite safari lodges for families?
Singita's family suites at Ebony Lodge in South Africa or Faru Faru in Tanzania. Tswalu Moswe lodge in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa and Phinda Getty in the KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa - perfect service, fantastic game viewing, excellent food. Phinda offers kiddies program, introducing them to the flora and the smallest animals of the bush. And they will return home with their first "ranger diploma".
How do you decide which hotels to recommend to your clients?
Personal visits, testing, durable and responsible tourism and ethics, experience, service, food, support and development projects for locals are important for us. We often go on site for inspections, and all these elements enter into consideration for our portfolio. When I have to set up an itinerary for a client, I first of all listen to them. Then I ask a few questions in order to get an idea of their way of traveling - what is most important for them, what are their tastes in term of decoration... When I feel I understand his expectations, I suggest some lodges and hotels, describing them to him in order to give him the elements to make his choice. And then I can go further with the technical work.
What are your most memorable safari experiences?
I have so many, but I guess my favorite image remains a rainy day in Botswana when we saw a "wall" of giraffes quite far away and turning their back to the rain. The scenery and the colors were exceptional. And my best experiences, the most intense ones, were on a mobile safari in Botswana and the very last trip in the remote area of Kafue in Zambia.
Do you have any tips for families going on safari for the first time? What should they pack?
Choose an easy access destination and a malaria free area if possible. Some destinations could be very tiring for small kids. Packing is quite simple: jeans, shirts & tee shirts, shorts, walking shoes, hats & caps, bath suits and a warm jacket for the safaris in winter time. Don't forget your malaria tablet if needed, your binoculars and your camera and... just enjoy.
For your own family vacations, where do you prefer to go and what activities do you like to do?
I go back home every summer to Lebanon with the family, because it is important for me to go back to my roots and to open my children's mind to their other culture. And it is as important for me to go back to Africa. I am lucky enough to be able to return very often on safaris and to share this special moment with my family. My favorite activity? Enjoying the time to... get some time.
What are your top 10 'must do' essentials for a family on safari?
When to go: any time as the bush is always a fantastic experience for both parents and kids. My preference is winter time in South Africa as the bush is less dense and summer time in Botswana for the water experience but the mosquito's...
Where to go: without a doubt I have my three favorites:
Tswalu in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa for its massive dark lions and for its magical meerkat (suricate), a unique experience that my kids will always remember. And for its malaria free zone. You have no idea how difficult to get my daughters to drink malaria pills.
Ngala in the north of the Kruger park for magical lessons and bush ranger "training" for the kids. The king of the bush is becoming our child!
Phinda, also Malaria free for the large variety of echo systems where kids never get bored. Every minute here is a new enjoyable experience, from thick bush to rain forest, open grass land or long wild beaches.
What to see: the entire Lion King movie live! Amazing, non-stop excitement for our little ones. The Lions indeed as well as Leopard, Giraffe, Elephant, Rhinos, Hippos and all the others. My little one Claire was fascinated by the warthog (Pumba) and Yasmine with the Cheetah.
What to listen for: by far, the Lion roaring at night is a unique experience you will remember forever. The Vervet monkeys playing. The Hyenas laughing. And the bush at night from the tent...I come back to Africa each time for that silent noise in the bush!
What to pack: Good shoes, hat, sunglasses, a bottle of water, binoculars and camera...and eyes wide open.
What to ask: Everything you dream to see. And a Bush Ranger Training in our recommended camp...kids will remember this forever.
What to eat or drink: The South African Biltong, a dry salty meat that at each trip to South Africa I have to buy two kilos at the airport for the kids. For us, but not for the children, the Amarula liqueur made from the fruit of the Amarula Tree. Elephants love it so much that it gets fermented in their stomach and they move across the bush drunk!
What to bring back: nothing but souvenirs and the will to come back.
What to look for as parents: The big five of course: Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Rhino and Elephant...and watch the kids always!
What to look for as a kid: The big five as well as the little five, Lion Ant, Leopard Turtle, etc. But look up at the Southern Cross in the magical African clear sky.
And what are your top 10 'must not do' for a family on safari?
Forget to take the malaria prophylactic! Why take the risk?
Leave the children alone. It's wild and the animals are around with no fence.
Teach them what to do or not to do...they will understand.
Cry, shout, and stand up in the land rover.
Walk in the bush with shorts or without solid shoes.
Leave your tent at night without your ranger.
Expect television, radio or telephone.
Ask for orange marmalade on the spot. You are in the middle of nowhere!! Ask for anything you want prior to departure and you will get it there.
Bring your Prada shoes or your Hermes bag. There is no need for that over there!
Forget books on wildlife and a map: it is the best time to learn together with your children.
Forget your camera battery - you will definitely need it.