Give Africa a good shake, leave to stand a while and let all the best bits settle at the bottom. It's almost as if South Africa has distilled everything that is exciting, magnificent and compelling about the continent.
You might find wilder national parks in Zambia, richer cultures in West Africa and gorillas in Uganda, but South Africa's irresistible lure lies in its sheer diversity.
Fancy a sophisticated city break? Cape Town is an urban beauty. Yearn for wilderness? Then hire a car and delve into the rugged fringes of the Kalahari or roam the vast and remote Karoo. From wine tasting to diving with great white sharks, and from ancient rock art to Nelson Mandela's prison cell, South Africa boasts an extraordinary range of activities and cultural highlights. Its variety of landscapes, from the mountains of the Drakensberg to the flowering plains of Namaqualand, befits a continent, while dozens of national parks and other protected areas promise outstanding wildlife viewing. Then there's the enviable climate, the beaches, the malaria-free game reserves and the excellent road network. Self-drive enthusiasts, families with young children and first-time visitors to Africa need look no further.
Riding a wave of optimism following 2004's celebrations of a decade of democracy, the rainbow nation has one of the world's fastest growing tourism industries. As a result the rand may be strengthening, but South Africa is still great value. Visit now while you can still buy a superb bottle of Cape chardonnay for £2 and fill up your hire car with unleaded for as little as £15.
1. Cape escape
Whistle-stop Cape (two weeks)
Cape Town - Stellenbosch - Hermanus - Garden Route - Port Elizabeth
Arriving in Cape Town (GMT+2) you'll be blissfully free of jet lag and raring to go. Take a peek at Table Mountain and, if it's clear, don't dally - take the Cableway to the summit.
Back at sea level, visit the Waterfront's mesmerising Two Oceans Aquarium, before taking a ferry to Robben Island where past inmates provide fascinating tours of the notorious prison. Allow at least one day for exploring the Cape Peninsula. Not to be missed are Chapman's Peak Drive, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Point and Boulders penguin colony. You can also join an organised Cape Flats township tour. The N2 highway then whisks you eastwards into the Winelands. Take time to amble along Stellenbosch's beautiful, oak-lined avenues - wine tasting is obligatory.
Break the long drive to the Garden Route at Hermanus for some whalewatching, or at Swellendam, a lovely old Cape Dutch settlement. Stretching from Still Bay to Storms River, the myriad highlights of the Garden Route include kayaking in the lagoons at Wilderness, sampling oysters at Knysna, surfing at Plettenberg Bay and riding the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe steam train. Round off your holiday by driving on beyond Port Elizabeth where Addo Elephant National Park and Shamwari and Kwandwe Game Reserves provide malaria-free game viewing.
2. Kalahari cruising
Flowers, forests and furries (two weeks)
West Coast National Park - Namaqualand - Augrabies Falls National Park - Upington - Kimberley
If you enjoy big, uncluttered horizons and the freedom of self-drive, set your sights on the Northern Cape. Heading north from Cape Town, it's worth dawdling a few days in West Coast National Park and the Cederberg Wilderness Area - a stunning duo worthy of their own itinerary - or popping to Lambert's Bay for a gander at the gannet rookery.
Tear yourself away and continue towards Namaqualand where, from late August to November (depending on winter rainfall) an area of desert twice the size of Wales becomes ablaze with orange daisies in one of the world's greatest floral spectacles. The Goegap Nature Reserve near Springbok is a good place to see weird and wonderful quiver trees and other succulents that have adapted to the region's arid conditions.
Travelling east you reach Augrabies Falls National Park where the Orange River froths like cappuccino through a dramatic gorge. You can kayak, mountain bike and track rhino here, using the well-equipped campground and self-catering chalets as a base. From Augrabies, continue east along the verdant corridor of the Orange River to Upington.
Those with time and a 4WD vehicle should detour north to take in the remote Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park with its Kalahari lions, gemsbok and other desert species. Otherwise, drive on to Kimberley, home of the Big Hole - a vast, now defunct, excavation that yielded 2,722kg of diamonds between the 1870s and 1914.
3. Kruger & the north-east coast
Tick off the big five... and a whole lot more (two weeks) Kruger National Park - St Lucia Wetland Park - Sodwana Bay
For the ultimate South African safari head east to Kruger National Park, a vast reserve stretching 350km along the border with Mozambique. How you visit depends largely on budget. There are several luxury, all-inclusive camps in game reserves along Kruger's western boundary, but for free-spirited travellers a better (and cheaper) option is to drive into the park and stay at self-catering restcamps. Many, such as Olifants, offer restaurants, swimming pools and guided game-viewing excursions.
Work your way south through Kruger, ticking off some of its 147 mammal species and 507 varieties of birds, before continuing through Swaziland and on towards the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. This World Heritage Site is teeming with birds, while nearby Sodwana Bay provides an unrivalled opportunity for encounters with South Africa's marine life. Humpback whale and whale shark cruise the waters, while leatherback and loggerhead turtles come ashore to nest during February. Diving enthusiasts, however, should visit in June to coincide with the annual sardinerun when sharks, dolphins, whales and seabirds prey on the hapless baitfish as they migrate along KwaZulu-Natal's coast.
4. KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields
A history lesson with a difference (one week) Johannesburg - Dundee - Elandslaagte - Colenso - Ladysmith - Spioenkop
Nowhere is South African history more poignant than in the battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal, where Brit, Boer and Zulu clashed during the 1800s and early 1900s. Travel south from Johannesburg to Dundee, an ideal base from which to tour the region's numerous memorials and museums. Hire a guide for the actual battle sites - they will recapture the tension and tragedy of each conflict, evoking images of advancing Zulu impis, formal British troop manoeuvres and the guerrilla tactics of Boer commanders.
Start with the Battle of Blood River where, in 1838, 464 Boers reaped a terrible victory over 12,000 Zulu warriors. To the south are the infamous battle sites of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift where British and Zulu armies fought in 1879 with devastating losses on both sides. Following the Zulu Wars (and the discovery of gold in the Transvaal), economic rivalry between Brit and Boer ignited the longest and most bitter war of the period. Battles raged at Talana, near Dundee, as well as Elandslaagte and Colenso.
Don't miss the Siege Museum in Ladysmith, nor a visit to Spioenkop where British troops attempted to break the Boer line in 1900.
5. Adventure addict
Blow away the cobwebs and get the adrenaline pumping (one week)
Table Mountain - Karoo - Drakensberg - Tugela River - Arthur's Seat
You can abseil off Table Mountain, ride an ostrich in the Karoo and drive off-road in the Richtersveld, but for South Africa's greatest concentration of adventure activities head for the Drakensberg.
Merely sighting the 700m-high rampart of the Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park is enough to get the adrenalin pumping. Start by hiking the Sentinel Trail, a two-hour jaunt that climaxes with a short climb using chain ladders. The views are spectacular, particularly of the 3,282m Mont-aux-Sources.
Next, raft the Tugela River as it pounds its way along a 22km stretch of grade II to IV rapids with enticing names such as Horrible Horace and Whiplash Smile. Tubing (drifting downstream in large inflatable rings) is also available on calmer stretches, while the Tugela gorge is a good spot for climbing and abseiling.
Mountain biking and horseriding will enable you to probe hidden corners of the Drakensberg and, for a vulture's eye view, nothing beats a spot of tandem paragliding. Get airborne at Arthur's Seat in the Central Berg.