The country's second-largest province has a sun-drenched coastline that stretches for 800km (496 miles), from the lush Garden Route to subtropical KwaZulu-Natal, rolling past green hills and small seaside towns. Deeper in the hinterland lie vast scrubland plains where the Big 5 again wander. A decade ago, the Eastern Cape was rarely included in international travel itineraries; most of its attractions, such as the Wild Coast and pretty Graaff-Reinet, are well off the beaten track. But the large-scale and ongoing rehabilitation of vast tracts of fallow farmland into game sanctuaries has transformed the region into a must-see destination, not least because these reserves enjoy the additional advantages of being malaria free and are easily accessible -- a mere 45 to 90 minutes by car from the capital city of Port Elizabeth.
Besides the Greater Addo Elephant Park (now pushing beyond the 240,000-hectare/593,000-acre mark, along with a 120,000-hectare/297,000-acre marine reserve), there are private game reserves of between 6,000 and 25,000 hectares (14,800-61,800 acres), with accommodations as luxuriously appointed as those of their Kruger counterparts, and excellent game rangers on hand to unravel the mysteries of the bush. If you've planned a Cape Town-Garden Route itinerary, these reserves are definitely worth exploring, but bear in mind that the terrain -- most of which is prickly, low-lying scrubland -- is not the classic picture-postcard landscape of Africa. However, the sparseness of the vegetation means you never feel hemmed in: The vistas are huge, and the opportunities to see game are numerous. The area has its own strange beauty: You'll treasure such sights as a moonlit euphorbia forest, looking more like props from a sci-fi moonscape, or an entire hillside ablaze in orange aloe blossoms.
The Eastern Cape is also steeped in history: This is the birthplace of some of the country's most powerful political figures, the most famous of whom are Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela. And Port Elizabeth was a crucial center of the anti-apartheid movement, with a notoriously deadly security police in close attendance. Today a number of good operators offer excellent township tours that provide an insight into Port Elizabeth's role in South African history, as well as an authentic introduction into traditional Xhosa rites and ceremonies.
English-settler towns like Grahamstown also have fine examples of colonial-era architecture. Moving north into the thirstlands of the Karoo, you will find vast, uninhabited plains with such atmospheric names as the Valley of Desolation, near Graaff-Reinet, the Eastern Cape's oldest settlement. If you like unpopulated spaces, small towns, and picturesque architecture, this is a highly recommended detour, possibly on a self-drive tour between the Garden Route and Gauteng. Alternatively, opt to explore the coastal attractions, from surfing the perfect wave in Jeffrey's Bay to exploring the aptly named Wild Coast, where you'll find the country's most unspoiled beaches.