Isimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (rhinoceros) and the world biggest terrestrial mammal (elephant) share an ecosystem with the world's oldest fish (coelacanth) and the world's biggest marine mammal (whale) . Nelson Mandela
Miracle and wonder…this is what iSimangaliso translates to in isiZulu. These words appropriately describe the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa's first UNESCO World Heritage site, which was previously known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. Spanning 332 000 hectares, along 220km of coastline, the park also holds the honour of being the country's largest protected wetlands and its third largest nature reserve.
At the southern-most entrance to this park, you will find Lake St Lucia, South Africa’s largest estuary at almost 80km in length. Rich in wildlife and biodiversity, the lake is home to the highest concentration of hippos and crocodiles in the country. The mouth of the estuary was recently opened, linking it to the sea for the first time in almost a decade.
The gateway to Lake St Lucia is the quaint little town of St Lucia – a town where hippos roam the streets, vervet monkeys swing from the trees, and dung beetles have right of way! It’s wild and wonderful.
St Lucia has several guesthouses, lodges and B&B’s but only two hotels. We stayed at Elephant Lake Hotel, one of the town’s highest-ranked establishments on Tripadvisor. The hotel is situated on the shores of the estuary, although you won’t be able to see much of it because of the dense wetlands vegetation. The sprawling gardens have “hippo pathways” leading up from the estuary. As the name suggests, they are used by the hippos to make their way into the hotel grounds and town at night – and sometimes during the day too – although we weren’t fortunate enough to see them on land.
The hotel has 56 rooms spread over two floors, overlooking either the pool or the gardens. Upper level rooms have balconies while lower level rooms have patios. For our family, the two spacious inter-leading en-suite rooms on the upper floor were ideal. Full-length sliding doors led on to the balcony which overlooked the garden below. The rooms had televisions and were air-conditioned, which was a blessing when we got in from the scorching heat outside. Wi-fi was available in the public areas.
Breakfast is served in the restaurant area overlooking the massive swimming pool, and there is a play area for younger kids too. Upstairs, there’s a spacious lounge area with an outside deck which is a great place to watch the sunset. Restaurants and shops are a short walk away.
St Lucia is a great base for exploring the surrounding areas like Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and Isimangaliso Wetland Park, including Cape Vidal, which is renowned for its fishing and snorkelling. Boat cruises on the estuary, safaris and tours can be booked with the hotel’s sister company, Go Safaris .
We did a two-hour cruise on the estuary. As we meandered through the open waterways between mangrove forests and reed beds alive with birds, Sipho, our guide, pointed out interesting sights. We saw several pods of hippos, crocodiles and some interesting birds and their habitats. It was a great way to spend the afternoon.
We also visited some of the beautiful beaches, a short drive away. They were allowed to be open, as they have controlled access points, and they were quiet and peaceful.
The hotel also has two sister properties, Hippo Lodge and Elephant Lake Inn.
Hippo Lodge is a family-friendly self-catering lodge conveniently located between the main street and the estuary. Guests have a choice of either a self-catering unit in the main building or a more spacious stand-alone cottage. B&B options are also available and there is a restaurant on site, as well as a swimming pool and a kids’ play area.
For a more budget-friendly option, Elephant Lake Inn has 34 en-suite, air-conditioned rooms equipped with televisions and beverage facilities. Rooms on the ground floor have a private patio leading out to the pool and garden, while rooms on the upper floor overlook the pool and garden.
For a combination of sun, sand, sea and wildlife, it’s hard to beat St Lucia! This is a must-visit area of South Africa.
Covid-19 screening is done on arrival and temperatures are checked. Masks have to be worn in public areas and sanitisers are provided.