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The Rainbow Nation has really come of age as a tourism destination and is perfect if you've not explored this mighty continent before. It's got all of Africa's good stuff with far fewer of the discomforts. You get the amazing wildlife, exuberant culture and epic scenery coupled with a highly developed transport and accommodation infrastructure.

Of course, South Africa offers unmatched safari too. In places like Kruger, Tembe and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, game is plentiful and guides top notch. And its ocean wildlife shouldn't be overlooked. Along the coastline, dolphins and turtles play just offshore and whales breach on the horizon. There's sophistication too. Cape Town has moving museums, fine dining and buzzing nightlife — all to a backdrop of spectacular Table Mountain.

Safari In South Africa

The Big Five and beyond

Africa and safari go hand-in-hand; this entire continent is a dream for nature and wildlife fanatics worldwide. While each safari destination has its own special virtues, South Africa is best known for the quality of its accommodation, peaceful and carefully-managed private reserves, and its diversity of landscapes and ecosystems.

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Seasons and climate

Blessed with incredible geographical diversity, South Africa is truly a year-round destination. Each region offers something unique and it is always a good season somewhere in this diverse country.

In general, the southern hemisphere summer of November to March is the wettest season, while the winter months between April and October are dry and mild. However, this is reversed in the southwest of the country around Cape Town, where the rain falls in the middle of winter.

Rainfall also varies dramatically from east to west; in parts of the Northern Cape, annual rainfall is less than 200mm, while Limpopo and Mpumalanga in the northeast often receive around five times that amount. The east and west sides of the country are at the mercy of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans respectively. Visit the Cape of Good Hope, where the warm Agulhas current meets the cold Benguela current, meaning the water temperature can be four degrees cooler on the west side of the Cape compared to the east.

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Month-by-month

January is hot and dry on the Cape, and this coupled with South African school holidays makes the region very popular at this time of year. The Garden Route is stunning at the beginning of the year, with the dry weather drawing animals to come and drink at water holes. Baby penguins are born on Boulders Beach on the Cape in January and February.

March marks the start of autumn in South Africa but temperatures remains high, though rains fall on Kruger, making the bush thick and wildlife harder to spot. Instead, head for the beaches in the south and soak up some late summer sun. April and May are cooler still and are an excellent time to visit the famous national parks, as rutting season begins and larger animals are out in force.

As winter takes hold the Cape can become cool and drizzly, so instead make for the north and east where the temperatures are warmer and conditions drier, with July a great time to spot the Big Five in national parks. If you do stay south, June is migration season for southern right whales along the Cape’s southern coast.

August brings spring to South Africa and gorgeous wildflowers bloom on the west coast until the early summer. September is birthing season in the national parks and as the weather warms up across the country, this is a perfect month to combine regions before the summer rains set in. Whales calve in Walker Bay until October.

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Festivals and events

South Africa offers an incredible array of festivals throughout the year, starting on January 2nd in Cape Town with the Kaapse Klopse, Cape Town’s answer to Rio’s Carnival. The highlight is the Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) street parade where you can watch hundreds of partygoers sing and dance past in extravagant costumes.

The autumn brings harvest season in the wine regions, and there is no better way to celebrate than the Robertson Valley Hands-On Harvest, a three-day wine and food festival in March. If that is not enough indulgence for you, the Knysna Oyster festival takes place every June or July.

Away from the dinner table, South Africa’s arts scene offers up plenty of choice, from the Cape Town Jazz Festival in March to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in July, as well as Kirstenbosch’s famous series of summer concerts in November. If all that sounds too mainstream for your tastes, head to Afrikaburn, South Africa’s answer to Burning Man, a counter-culture festival held for five days in the autumn in the Tankwa Karoo in the Northern Cape.

Which region should I visit?
If safari and wildlife spotting is the be-all and end-all to your trip then the the northeastern region with its greater density of parks and reserves is likely your best option.

But if you intend to mix safari with some other activities, such as whale watching, diving, food and wine, then the parks of the Eastern and Western Cape may be a better option.

Self-drive or organised safari?
There are two main classes of safari: self-drive and organised trips.

Self-drive means using your own vehicle (typically a rental car) to travel between the game reserves and, where self-drive safaris are permitted, making your own way through the reserves and parks. You’ll need to book ahead at your chosen accommodation in each reserve, and be sure to check that self-drive safaris are permitted.

Organised safaris are similar to typical packaged multi-stop tours, usually with a number of different reserves or parks in one trip. They include all accommodation, collection and ground transfers from the airports (or, in the case of some luxury lodges, fly-ins to their own private airstrips). You won’t need your own vehicle and all game drives will be with a guide, usually in a small group of guests.

Which is best for our group?
The main pros to self-drive safaris are that they’re cheaper, allow you to visit places that aren’t included in package tours, and they give you more freedom to change plans at the last moment.

There are a number of drawbacks. Firstly, you most likely won’t be in a specialised safari vehicle, typically a large, open-sided 4WD that is purpose made for good visibility. This is usually a deal-breaker for keen wildlife spotters and photographers, as being in a rental saloon car severely limits where you can go and how much you can see. Self-drive safari also means that you are your own guide and wildlife spotter. Fun perhaps, but you’ll miss lots of sightings without a proper guide.

But not all organised safaris are created equal. The best organised tours use customised jeeps and highly-trained guides who will enliven your experience with their vast knowledge and tracking skills. Poor quality safaris can mean an overcrowded minibus hurtling from one sighting to the next with a guide who barely knows his giraffe from his flamingo. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for — aim as high as you can afford, even if that means taking a shorter trip.

Is safari dangerous?
In a word, no. The chances of being attacked by an animal are so minimal it hardly warrants considering. However, you must stick to the general rules imposed by the park and heed the instructions of your guides. If you break those and decide to go for a moonlight walk through the bush on your own, then yes, you might become a midnight snack.

Can it be family-friendly?
Kids of all ages enjoy safaris as much as any adult. But a safari tends to mean a lot of time in a vehicle, often on bad roads and in hot weather. If there’s plenty of action taking place, younger children will be as hooked as you. But they can become bored the moment the pace slows down. If travelling with kids, ensure you choose camps or lodges that offer plenty of child-friendly activities. Some lodges and camps don’t accept children under a certain age. And don’t plan on heading out on early game drives every morning.

What is the food like?
The standard of food is generally very high — even in the remotest lodges. Most lodges will have qualified chefs on hand and part of the entire safari experience is the cuisine and the emphasis placed on food.

Currency and money
South Africa’s currency is the Rand, denoted by an R in shops and ZAR in currency trading. A favourable exchange rate with major currencies makes travelling in South Africa cheaper than visiting Europe or the United States. You can use credit cards in many shops, restaurants and lodges; there are many ATMs throughout the country and you can exchange traveller’s cheques at all banks. The best cash currencies to bring are US Dollars, Euros or British Pounds as these notes are accepted at the many Bureaux de Change in bigger cities.

You will be offered currency exchanges by people on the street throughout Africa. It may be tempting to avoid the conversion commissions; however, this is illegal and should be avoided at all costs.

Will I have to carry lots of cash?
On safari, almost all major expenses (all meals, activities, and, sometimes even, drinks) are covered in the costs of accommodation. Any extras tend to be very limited, and can generally be paid by card.

In urban centers, particularly in South Africa, ATMs are to be found in most shopping malls and banks, and will accept international cards using the Cirrus and Plus systems, as well as Visa, Mastercard, or American Express credit cards (provided your credit account has a cash withdrawal facility).

All airports in south Africa also have ATMs, and you can withdraw money as soon as you land (generally at a better exchange rate than if you were to exchange cash or travelers checks at a bank).

How much should we tip our guides?
In some environments such as at lodges, on safari and on treks, tipping is structured in ways that make it clear, fair and less easy to abuse. Tips can be given in local currencies or in USD, GBP or EUR, so be sure to carry small denominations with you.

As a general guide:
Guide/tracker: Your guide and tracker are central to the success of your safari. You’ll have plenty of time to connect with them and, by the end of your trip, they might just be your new best friends. With guides, it’s customary to leave a tip on your departure. What you choose to leave is totally up to you, but a general rule of thumb on safari is to tip your guide US$10 and your tracker US$5 per person per day.

Guests that are returning to a lodge that they have visited before, sometimes even bring small, personalised gifts for their guides. Alternatively, the lodges will generally give you a guideline for tipping and gifting if you ask them.

Camp/lodge staff: There is a lot that happens behind the scenes on your safari and it’s important to consider and acknowledge all the wonderful people who look after the lodge. Most safari lodges and camps have a communal tip ‘jar’ and around US$10 to US$20 per day is considered a reasonable tip.

Outside of the lodges/camps, you might want to tip 10% to 15% for good service at restaurants and in bars. Most waiters earn an incredibly basic wage so tips are a much-needed supplement. If you're just buying a beer or a coke, it's fine to leave the change rather than a specific tip. If you're dining with a large group at a nice restaurant, a service charge will usually be automatically added to your bill.

At budget hotels, tips for housekeeping are not expected but are nevertheless always welcome. At luxury safari camps there will often be a general tipping box at the front desk or reception. Tips deposited here will usually be spread evenly between camp staff; so if you want to tip someone specifically, make sure to do so directly.

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South Africa safari resources

Everything you need to plan your safari

Staying safe and healthy

Part of the thrill of going on safari in South Africa is the chance to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most awesome — and dangerous — animals. It’s important to follow safety guidelines and some basic health procedures to ensure your trip is as memorable as possible.

Wildlife encounters

First-time safari-goers are often worried about encounters with dangerous wildlife. The simple truth is that you won’t get eaten by a lion. Safari guides are trained to keep their guests safe and will tell you how to act in any given encounter with wildlife.

If you’re on a self-drive trip: never get out of your car unless specifically told that it’s safe to do so; never attempt to feed or pet the animals; and never walk around in the bush alone at night — if you need to leave your tent at night, call security.

Note that elephants, buffalo and hippo are all far more dangerous than lions. Give elephants a very wide berth especially if you happen to be on foot. Never get between a hippo and water and avoid walking in dense bush where you could meet buffalo.

If you’re on a walking trip, try to stay downwind of the animals. If an animal begins behaving in a hostile manner, back away slowly and quietly. In all scenarios, follow the advice of your guides and rangers.

Staying healthy

The more real health risk comes from drinking tap water or eating something which doesn’t agree with you, both of which can lead to an upset stomach for a day or so. Only drink treated water and be careful with what you eat - although the food prepared at most safari camps is invariably safe - and often world-class.

The heat and strong African sun can easily leave you burnt, dehydrated or, worse, give you heat or sunstroke. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, bring lots of water and slap on plenty of factor 50 sunscreen.

Malaria can be a problem in parts of the northeast (which is where the best-known parks and reserves are) so always wear insect repellent at night, sleep under a net and follow your doctor’s advice on anti-malarials.

Healthwise, South Africa is generally a trouble-free destination, but make sure all of your standard vaccinations are up to date before travelling.

Security

South Africa has an unenviable reputation for violence and robbery and it would be remiss to say that there isn’t a danger from this. However, the threat to most tourists is very low. Most violence occurs in poorer city neighbourhoods and not in tourist areas. More to the point, robberies and violence on a safari is only likely to be an issue if a troop of baboons manages to get into your room.

Safari packing list

You don’t need much specialist equipment for a South African safari.

Most people will want a photographic record of their adventure and if wildlife images are important to you then you need a good DSLR camera with a long lens, at least 400mm. Anything less and the animals will appear as nothing but hazy dots in a sea of scrub. Bring spare camera batteries and memory cards.

Binoculars are another essential. Get the best pair you can afford and make sure that everyone in your group has a pair or there will be endless bickering over whose turn it is to get a closer look at that distant rhino.

A good field guide to the birds and animals is an excellent addition to your pack. Most guides will have one for guests to use, but it’s still nice to have your own.

Lightweight walking shoes are a good idea (and essential for anyone planning a walking safari). Hiking trousers and shorts are also worth having. They provide protection from the thorn bushes and sun and are comfortable to wear. Don’t forget to bring a fleece as it can be surprisingly cold during a sunrise safari. Sun hat, sunscreen and sunglasses are three other essentials.

If staying in up-market accommodation, it’s probably worth bringing a set of slightly smarter clothes for evening dinner.

What to pack for a safari in South Africa

With fluctuating temperatures — hot and sunny during the day, cold at night — layering is your best option. Some things to consider bringing include:

  • T-shirts or shirts — bring some longsleeve ones to combat mosquito and the sun
  • Lightweight fleece/jacket
  • Safari/combat trousers
  • Shorts
  • Broken in walking/hiking shoes
  • Sunhat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sandals/flipflops for use in lodges/camps
  • Swimwear

Responsible safaris

A safari is a wonderful opportunity to experience nature on a grand scale. But although it’s easy to get swept up with the romance of it all, you shouldn’t forget that your presence has a direct impact on the ecosystem, for good and bad.

The upside of your safari is that the money you put into the system pays for conservation and helps keep the land protected and wild. Without wildlife tourism, there’s a very real chance that many of South Africa’s conservation zones would become, or remain, farmland with all the implications that has for a fragile ecosystem.

In addition, there are things you can do to make your impact is as positive as possible. Before booking with any safari company, camp or lodge, or even choosing the parks and reserves you wish to visit, take a look at the conservation and community projects they are involved with. Companies investing back into local communities and conservation projects often like to shout about it on their websites. And when you do book, remember to mention that their community projects were a factor in your decision. This will encourage further investment in such programmes.

Respect the wildlife

On safari, treat the wildlife with the respect it deserves. Getting too close to wildlife, approaching animals head-on or pursuing and encircling them is likely to disturb them and cause distress. Approach wildlife at an angle, which is less threatening than coming at animals head-on. Movements must be steady and predictable.

How close you can get depends on the species but in general, your presence shouldn’t alarm the animals, cause them to flee, or change their normal behaviour. If the animals appear disturbed, you should move away immediately.

Noise, such as the sound of engines, laughter and shouting, should be kept to a minimum. Engines should be switched off when stationary and vehicle horns or fog horns on boats should never be used.

Bright lights and flash photography will startle an animal, possibly costing it a meal or even its life. On night drives, the use of naked searchlights should be replaced with red filtered lamps that do not disturb wild animals.

Avoid causing unnecessary damage to the environment. Litter, including plastic bags, batteries and cigarette butts, can be ingested by wildlife, causing injury or even death. Make sure you don’t drop anything and dispose of your rubbish properly.

Follow your guide

Absolutely no direct contact should be made between wild animals and people, including the guides. This can be highly stressful for the animals concerned, run the risk of transmitting disease, and can potentially, cause injury or even death. If you are observing wildlife from a vehicle, never get out of the car unless instructed to do so by your guide.

All animals have very specific diets and feeding them different foods could make them ill. Feeding wildlife can also change their social and feeding behaviour, encouraging begging, causing conflict between other animals, and increasing the likelihood of aggression towards humans.

If travelling in a group, don’t be shy. If you see or experience unacceptable human behaviour that has a negative impact on wild animals, be sure to speak out. If you cannot change the behaviour at the time by voicing your concerns, contact your tour operator afterwards and register your disapproval.

Conversely, if you have a great experience, thank and reward your guide appropriately and let your tour company or agent know that you appreciate their conscientious approach to what should be a magical experience.

Part of the joy of seeing animals in the wild is that you’re visiting them in their own environments and witnessing their natural behaviour. Inevitably there will be times when the animals are less active or visible, depending on the location, the season, or even just the time of day.

Do your research before you travel and find out the best time of year to view the wildlife you most wish to see. If the animals aren’t active when you visit, don’t be disappointed: this is not a zoo. It’s all part of a respectful approach to the natural world that you’re visiting. It’s important that tourists don’t pressure their guides into manipulating the situation to make viewing the animals easier, or to set up that perfect photo opportunity.

Finally, when you get back home talk to your friends about the environmental issues the parks and reserves of South Africa face, and help spread the important message of conservation to your friends and family.

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For more information on ethical wildlife holidays and how to interact with wildlife in a responsible and sustainable way, see our companion guide Compassionate Travel: A guide to animal-friendly holidays.

South Africa's best game parks and reserves

Recommended reserves for your chosen flavour of South Africa safari

Best South Africa game parks for...

There can be few experiences on earth more satisfying than listening to the roar of a distant lion as the sun rises on an African morning.

South Africa has long been regarded as one of the world’s great safari destinations. The diversity of landscapes, from jungly swamps to searing semi-deserts, is without equal and the wealth of wildlife simply extraordinary.

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In South Africa you can watch lions hunt, elephants trumpet, flamingos turn a blue lake pink, whales breach, penguins waddle and rhinos plod through the woodland like great prehistoric beasts.

There are infinite ways to enjoy this wildlife and the soul-stirring landscapes they live within. You can walk with highly-trained guides in the bush searching for the tiny creatures that keep the ecosystem ticking. You can paddle kayaks down lily-fringed waterways in search of hippos. You can sit quietly in a bird hide waiting for a colourful ball of feathers to reveal itself. You can ride mountain bikes over savannah plains or learn from experts about conservation in South Africa today.

And, of course, you can climb into a jeep and set out on a pulse-racing safari in search of the Big Five.

In the following pages, we introduce you to some of South Africa’s best game parks and reserves and show you where and how to create your perfect South African safari. Saddle up for the ride, this is the thrill of a lifetime!

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Best South African reserves for the Big Five

In South Africa you can watch lions hunt, elephants trumpet, flamingos turn a blue lake pink, whales breach, penguins waddle and rhinos plod through the woodland like great prehistoric beasts.

In South Africa there are infinite ways to enjoy this wildlife and the soul-stirring landscapes they live within. You can walk with highly trained guides in the bush searching for the tiny creatures that keep the ecosystem ticking. You can paddle kayaks down lilly-fringed waterways in search of hippos. You can sit quietly in a bird hide waiting for a colorful ball of feathers to reveal itself. You can ride mountain bikes over savannah plains or learn from experts about conservation in South Africa today.

And, of course, you can climb into a jeep and set out on a pulse-racing safari in search of the legendary Big Five.

In the following pages we introduce you to some of South Africa’s best national parks and reserves, and show you how to create your perfect South African safari. Saddle up for the ride, this is the thrill of a lifetime!

So you're ready to go, but do you know where to go? See the following recommendations for South Africa's best best game parks and private reserves.

For many, safari in Africa is synonymous with seeing the Big Five: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. Originally coined by big game hunters to describe the most challenging quarry, these days the phrase is more about appreciating the wild and bagging perfect photos rather than skins and trophies. South Africa is one of the few places you can see the Big Five at a single location, and any of the following places would be a good bet:

Where to go for the Big Five

  1. Sabi Sands Game Reserve
    This 65,000-hectare reserve is, in many respects, the finest chunk of wildlife-filled wilderness in southern Africa and is prime Big Five territory.
  2. Madikwe Game Reserve
    A state-run reserve with an air of tranquility that is obviously appreciated by the wildlife. Most of the Big Five are easily seen, with rhinos a real speciality.
  3. Eastern Cape Game Reserves
    The reserves here are more compact than elsewhere, but what they lack in scale they make up for in an abundance of wildlife — including all the Big Five.
  4. Timbavati Game Reserve (Kruger)
    Timbavati is known for its high-quality guides, a wide range of safari activities, superb lodges, and a rare population of white lions.
  5. Pilanesberg National Park
    Its proximity to Johannesburg and highly developed facilities make this a convenient (if busy) safari destination. But the Big Five are here, and the park is especially good for rhino and elephant.
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Best South African reserves for birdwatching

The Big Five might steal all the safari limelight, but with ecosystems ranging from marine to forest to savannah, South Africa is also a world-class birdwatching destination. If you’re more into birding than game spotting, or if you’ve already been there and got the Big Five t-shirt, the following parks and game reserves could be for you:

Where to go birdwatching

  1. Hluhluwe Game Reserve
    With soaring hills and mountains that are home to 350 species of birds, including an abundance of raptors and a colony of the southern bald ibis, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park is a birding paradise.
  2. Kruger National Park
    Kruger, South Africa’s safari heavyweight, is home to much more than big game and its varied habitats support more than 500 bird species.
  3. Welgevonden Game Reserve
    Welgevonden is home to the world’s largest colony of Cape vultures, along with the African harrier hawk, jackal buzzard, several eagle species, and more.
  4. Kariega Game Reserve
    Kariega’s tidal estuaries and coastal habitats are home to over 600 species of birds including the African crowned eagle, kingfisher, crowned hornbill, and Cape Longclaw.
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Best South African reserves for photo safaris

You’ll get some incredible snaps on any safari. But if you have a keener interest in photography you may be better off on a specialist photo safari trip. You’ll be travelling with fellow photographers, so the others will be as keen as you are on capturing the perfect shot. Your vehicles may also have specialist equipment, such as sliding camera mounts, bucket seats, lighting and a dedicated photographic ranger. For the best photo safaris, have a look at some of the following locations.

Where to go on photo safari

  1. Madikwe
    Madikwe is a great mid-range reserve that offers some of the benefits of a private reserve without the price tag. There are no self-drive safaris allowed here, so photographers will get the undisturbed wildlife all to themselves.
  2. Welgevonden
    Contained within the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, Welgevonden has space, solitude and abundant wildlife - almost purpose-made for wildlife photography.
  3. Pumba Game Reserve
    Pumba has all the Big Five as well cheetah, hippo, 300-odd bird species and a population of rare white lions.
  4. Kruger National Park
    One of the great parks of Africa, Kruger and the surrounding private reserves are home to all of southern Africa’s iconic mammal species and many of the private reserves offer top quality specialised photo safaris.
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Best South African reserves for game drives

The game drive is the safari centrepiece. You and your fellow passengers will climb aboard a sturdy 4X4 with your ranger-guide and head out to track down some of that iconic wildlife. There are daytime drives (usually leaving pre-dawn), night drives, and true off-road trips. For some of the best and most varied game drives, take a look at the following:

Where to go for game drives

  1. Sabi Sands
    With unfenced reserves adjacent to Kruger, the wildlife slips effortlessly around the ecosystem while world-class wildlife guides ensure that you’re always in the right place at the right time.
  2. Madikwe
    No self-drive safaris are allowed here, so game drives get the entire place to themselves. With the complete Big Five collection, plus plenty of bird life and populations of wild dogs and the unusual brown hyena, Madikwe is an undisputed chart-topper.
  3. Phinda
    High-end Phinda is one of the very best places for a short safari and you’re almost guaranteed to see all the flagship animals, plus the lightning-fast cheetah.
  4. Timbavati
    This magical private reserve borders the main Kruger park and, with no fences to block access, Timbavati is home to all the main mammal and bird species that Kruger is famed for.
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Best South African reserves for family safaris

A family safari provides your little ones with the chance to see all those famous animals up close. Many reserves now offer specific family-oriented options. It’s also worth considering hiring a private vehicle for family safaris — this gives you the chance to decide how long to spend out in the open and tailor the trip around your children.

Where to go for family safaris

  1. Madikwe
    Unlike many nominal ‘child friendly’ reserves, Madikwe makes a concerted effort to provide specifically family-oriented facilities and activities, ranging from kids’ clubs and toddler care to specially trained guides to bring the safari experience alive for all ages.
  2. Waterberg
    Waterberg offers malaria-free game viewing within easy driving distance of Johannesburg — perfect for families who don’t want the hassle of flying to Kruger, or the drive to Madikwe.
  3. Pilanesberg
    Nearly all lodges and resorts in Pilanesberg National Park welcome children — but some have gone above and beyond to cater specifically for family groups with kids of all ages.

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