Melville – where to have fun in Johannesburg

On my recent trip to South Africa, I spent a day exploring various neighborhoods and finding out where to have fun in Johannesburg. There was so much I didn’t know I didn’t know about Johannesburg, like the fact that gold was mined there for 90 years, evidenced by the enormous mountains of unearthed yellow sand, most of which to this day are still waiting to be removed. Or, that the Dutch East Indies Company scooped up land there to plant lemon trees and other fruits and vegetables so their ships could stop there and pick up supplies to thwart scurvy. The biggest meteorite ever recorded landed just 60 miles south of Johannesburg, and last but not least, there’s this neighborhood called Melville where all the cool people hang out.

Johannesburg is home to a vast array of wealth and poverty “developing apart” to this day (“apartheid” means “developing apart”). For example, there is posh Sandton, where the wealthiest residents work and reside in gated mansions, and destitute Soweto, where the residents who don’t live in cobbled-together shacks squat in old factory worker dormitories called The Hostels and get in trouble regularly for stealing electricity from the streetlights. Like Los Angeles, the city is spread out and feels like a collection of independent communities — and you can’t really get from one to another without a car, as the buses never seem to come and even the taxi system is considered extremely sketchy. There is a train called the Gau which goes to the airport, but its stops are very limited at this point. I stayed in Sandton at The Saxon Hotel, a former residence-turned-hotel where Nelson Mandela famously wrote Long Walk to Freedom, but shopping at Gucci isn’t really my speed, so I asked around and then told my Abercrombie & Kent guide I’d like to spend some time in Melville, Johannesburg (among other places, but Melville was my favorite).

%Gallery-107956%If Johannesburg is LA, Melville is Silver Lake. Melville immediately struck me as artsy and cool, and I felt instantly at home in the comfortable, stylish restaurants and cafes with indie-rock vibes and friendly people of all colors. One of the first shops I spotted was a vintage clothing store — a good sign, as that’s an amenity which, in my book, is a cornerstone of any fabulous neighborhood — then a bookstore, a sushi place, and then Love Revolution, a cozy coffee shop with an educated hipster appeal. While Melville has some great bars, there’s no loud, scenester-y dance clubs which would attract the kind of crowd that might disturb the laid-back peace. As I wandered, I encountered a few locals selling souvenirs on the street, and while no one gave me the New York hassle, there were definitely a few vocal shoutouts offered free of charge. In other words, this neighborhood isn’t just cute restaurants and shopping for yuppies, it has a certain gritty, bohemian character.

If you find yourself in Johannesburg, I would highly recommend spending a Saturday or at least a meal in Melville, where you can get a proper (and nifty!) taste of life between the superlative worlds of Sandton and Soweto. Check out the gallery for a peek inside some of the most charming establishments; a mini tour of Melville, Johannesburg.

[Photos by Annie Scott.]

My trip to South Africa was sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.

Round-the-world: Long layover in Johannesburg

A journey from Melbourne to Mauritius on Qantas and its oneworld partners is no straight shot. It requires a very early morning flight to Sydney, a long 14-hour jaunt to Johannesburg, and then a flight on to Mauritius. It’s over 11,000 kilometers (almost 7000 miles) from Sydney to Johannesburg, 14 long hours by plane. During the very long haul flight, cloud cover limits views of the polar regions, though about six hours in the captain mentions that subantarctic ice formations can be seen from the left side of the plane. See above.

We overnight in Johannesburg. We did cursory research and booked a guest house in Sandton, described somewhere as a good place to stay. Further research revealed that Sandton is the richest area in Johannesburg.

The strange thing is that I don’t remember a thing about the research process, how I came up with our $185/night guest house (the priciest of our trip) surrounded by a sweet-smelling garden, morning birdsong, and high walls. Our guest house is quite luxurious, a roomy suite with a fruit plate for breakfast and plush beds.

On the ground, Sandton is sort of shocking. Every abode is hidden behind walls topped with electrified wires. There is security company signage on the walls, some of which promise armed response. Our guest house, the aforementioned and lovely but deserted 6 on Westbrooke, sits in a neighborhood guarded by a security booth. In addition, it has its very own gate and security booth. The guard takes our keys from us when we walk out of the guarded neighborhood for dinner at a friendly if not particularly good restaurant and returns them to us when we get back. We walk along dark roads. Cars race by. There are very few pedestrians.

It’s difficult to square the extreme security measures in Sandtwon with the information we’ve received from locals and frequent visitors to Johannesburg, who claim that the city is actually quite safe. The security apparatus makes me feel terribly unsafe, far more than general precautions or guidebook warnings might. I ask our very friendly cab driver about the security measures. Are they necessary? He tells me that they are, given Sandton’s wealth.

Sometimes long layovers are unavoidable. This was one of those times. But the situation we found ourselves in was not the automatic consequence of a long layover. Frankly, we did not plan well. What we should have done is locate a funkier area with an immediate restaurant district. My one contact in Johannesburg, a journalist, happened to be away during our visit, though this is no excuse.

Even travel writers plan badly. I won’t dwell on this planning mistake, though I will hope that, years from now, after having visited South Africa a few times, I’ll marvel at how easy it is to navigate one’s way around the country.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

How to take a round-the-world trip

An open-ended round-the-world trip can be led by whimsy and happenstance and benefit accordingly from extremely loose planning. A more structured, time-limited round-the-world trip necessitates figuring out transportation in advance. With five weeks to play with, we fell into the latter camp.

I emailed AirTreks in the spring and dutifully submitted an itinerary through their global map booking request system. AirTreks prices round-the-world itineraries, for fares well under what one would pay for each individual stretch.

Around this time, we made another decision, one personally radical. We would fly business-class the entire way. Such a choice certainly isn’t unusual for many frequent fliers, but for a budget traveler like myself who travels in coach barring those rare times I’m upgraded or am flying on someone else’s dime, this was a big shift in approach. This choice amplified the unusual nature of the itinerary, underscoring the fact that this trip wouldn’t be repeated or emulated anytime soon.

Once we nailed our itinerary down and decided to go with business-class tickets the entire way, we requested a new estimate from AirTreks. Then Matt started to play with the oneworld Explorer round-the-world booking engine. This is where things got interesting. The oneworld Explorer fare was several thousand dollars cheaper than the AirTreks fare.

There was really no decision to make. Even our patient AirTreks consultant urged us to go for the oneworld fare. We made the purchase. Though shockingly expensive by my own personal standards and customary budgetary constraints, the entire journey in business-class turned out to cost a few hundred dollars more than a single first-class round-trip ticket from New York to London.As far as subsequent planning is concerned, things have been pretty low-tech. We’ve got a handful of guidebooks (all Lonely Planet, though this is simply an accident of timing and availability) and a few downloaded iPhone apps, which I’ll comment on if they turn out to be at all helpful.

Other planning focused on the tips of friends and acquaintances. My sister, a food writer, recommended some Sydney restaurants. Melbourne chef Tony Tan, who I’d had the good fortune of meeting on my previous visit to Melbourne, passed on a must-visit list of new Melbourne restaurants. A friend of Mauritian background provided contact information of a villa rental company with beautiful properties that were simply too expensive for our budget. The exchange that followed didn’t help us with accommodations, but it did allow us to clarify our focus for Mauritius.

For hotels we scanned our guidebooks for mid-range accommodations and then searched online to get a general sense of how hotels were reviewed. I’ve always taken TripAdvisor with a massive grain of salt, as I’ve found on several occasions that I don’t mind the sorts of hotels pilloried by TripAdvisor contributors. But we did use TripAdvisor this time as a kind of quality control verification source. In one case, we nixed an otherwise appealing hotel choice based on a number of reviews that suggested an ongoing cockroach infestation.

We poked around online to find low rates at good hotels. In both Sydney and Melbourne, location was the key consideration. In Sydney we wanted a central neighborhood, and we ended up with a boutique hotel in Potts Point booked through Venere. In Melbourne I lobbied for a stay in St. Kilda, an area I remembered very fondly from my last visit. There we found a furnished studio apartment.

For our single night in Johannesburg, we decided to stay in a guesthouse in Sandton, a Johannesburg neighborhood with good restaurants. In New Caledonia, Mauritius, and Réunion, we focused on well-priced guesthouses and hotels in areas beyond built-up coastal tourist strips. In London, we opted for the Hilton in Canary Wharf because we found a good deal for it on Hotwire. The most expensive nightly rate we’re paying for a hotel is $165. The least pricey is around $82.

We made most of our hotel reservations in advance, leaving a few nights free in New Caledonia (to give us some freedom if we decided to change accommodations) and Réunion (a by-product of our inability thus far to find an inexpensive guesthouse in one of the island’s inland Cirques, or calderas.) We wanted to put logistics to bed as completely as possible in advance. More open-ended itineraries would probably benefit from fewer advance reservations.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

(Image: Flickr/Vinni123)

A round-the-world trip: Where?

Once I’d dispensed with my unrestricted fantasies of scurrying from seldom-visited corner to seldom-visited corner (see Monday’s post) we got down to the essentials of figuring out where we wanted to go.

The Micronesian islands of Palau and Yap were our first priorities. Both destinations had been on our radar for years. Palau with its faintly stinging marine lake jellyfish and the Federated Micronesian state of Yap with its enormous stone money both struck us as appealing in a magical, fairytale sort of way.

Once we’d identified our trip duration and got into the planning phase, however, the inclusion of Micronesia on our itinerary became a less appealing prospect. The flights there and onward were long. We’d need to overnight in Guam at least once, possibly twice, and though that wouldn’t be a hardship exactly, we wanted if at all possible to avoid layovers in places where we wouldn’t also be spending several nights.

The final clincher was the cost of zipping around Micronesia, which would have made an unavoidably pricey itinerary even more expensive. If we had been planning a round-the-Pacific tour, there is no question that Palau and Yap would have been included, but for a round-the-world trip they weren’t quite right. Reluctantly we crossed Micronesia off the list.Where else did we want to travel? We’d settled into a Southern Hemisphere focus, and we were keen to get back to Australia. We both wanted to visit Sydney and Melbourne. For a jaunt to a third city in Australia, Matt had made noises about Cairns and I focused on Perth. The inclusion of these two cities would have made a round-the-world air ticket even more complicated (more on that on Friday) so we dropped them and decided to divide our time in Australia between Sydney and Melbourne.

Years of thinking about Palau and Yap had us fantasizing about a Pacific island and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit one. We glanced across the region and zeroed in on a Pacific territory easily visited from Australia: New Caledonia, a French overseas “collectivity” three hours by plane from Sydney. We decided to sandwich six nights in New Caledonia between stays in Sydney and Melbourne. In New Caledonia we would spend most of our time on Lifou, one of New Caledonia’s Loyalty Islands, with a day reserved for checking out New Caledonia’s capital, Nouméa.

Beyond that, we wanted some time on Mauritius and the French overseas territory of Réunion, two Indian Ocean islands. To journey from Melbourne to Mauritius we’d need to break our rule against short layovers with a single night’s stay in Johannesburg. We’d then divide nine nights between Mauritius and Réunion, which is a short 50-minute flight from Mauritius.

From Mauritius we’d fly to London, where we’d spend the final days of our round-the-world itinerary visiting friends and exploring various East End neighborhoods.

Without further ado, here is the full itinerary: New York (via a stop to visit friends in New Orleans) to Sydney to Nouméa to Melbourne to Johannesburg to Mauritius to Réunion to London and then home to New York.

Seven stops in five weeks. After five years of daydreaming, it’d hard to believe that it’s now happening.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

(Image: Flickr/Eustaquio Santimano)