Lion Sands River Lodge: Honest Review + What to Expect
Not only has Travel + Leisure’s readers rated Lion Sands River Lodge as one of the Top 10 Safari Lodges in Africa in 2022, but it also was rated as one of The Top 100 Hotels IN THE WORLD in 2021. Clearly, Lion Sands River Lodge is doing something right. Read on to find out why we chose this lodge and see if it’s right for you.
The Location + Arrival
Lion Sands River Lodge is located in the southern portion of the Sabi Sand Reserve in the Greater Kruger area. It shares traversing rights with neighboring Kirkman’s Kamp, which gives it a sizeable area for safari drives.
Sabi Sand Reserve Map
The easiest way to access Lion Sands River Lodge in Sabi Sand is to fly into Skukuza Airport from Cape Town or Johannesburg. Since we booked our safari experience at the end of our 2-week trip to Africa, it was a quick and easy 2.5 hours flight from Cape Town.
Arriving at Skukuza Airport was an experience in itself. I was expecting something small and rustic with meager facilities. Instead, we arrived at a beautifully designed African chic airport with very modern facilities. It was like entering a luxury spa. The airport was inviting, warm, and decorated in calm neutral colors. In fact, Forbes named it “The Prettiest Airport in the World.”
They have the flights conveniently timed where you land in the morning and actually get to experience your first safari that same afternoon.
Just a quick 25-minute jeep drive from Skukuza Airport, and you will soon be enjoying one of the most epic experiences … the African safari!
Transfers to/from the airport are included in the room rate.
The First Three Impressions
1. Modern but traditional with eclectic African decor.
2. Glass walls are everywhere you look. “Inside-outside” living at its finest.
3. Bright, airy, and contemporary.
Want a sneak peek of what a luxury room is like at Lion Sands River Lodge? Check out our video below.
Lion Sands Room Preview
With just 18 rooms, our stay at Lion Sands River Lodge felt very private and relaxed. The lodge has 3 room types to choose from: 8 Luxury Rooms, 6 Superior Luxury Rooms, and 4 River Suites (which have a private plunge pool).
We stayed in Luxury Room 18, which was beautiful. When you enter the lodge, the dining area, bar, and firepit are central to the property. The rooms then veer off to the left and right (see the map below). If you are facing the lodge, our room was located about halfway down on the right side near the pool and gym, which worked out great. It was close enough to the action but far enough away to eliminate any excess noise.
Lion Sands River Lodge Property Layout
By the way, you never know what you are going to see on the way to and from your room. Check out our visitor below while walking back to our room after our morning safari drive!
Stare-off with a male Nyala … he won.
Male Nyala crossing along our walkway back to our room
Our well air-conditioned room was incredibly spacious and included a canopied king-sized bed (a must for us for when we travel!), a dressing table, and a private deck. The decor is definitely a contemporary take on the traditional safari lodge.
Lion Sands River Lodge Luxury Room #18
Lion Sands River Lodge Luxury Room sitting area facing the private deck
Oh, and it also has probably one of the most well-stocked minibars I have ever seen. All complimentary of course!
Your options ranged from a selection of spirits (whisky, brandy, vodka, and gin), beer, champagne, soda, high-quality tonic water (Fitch & Leedes) for your gin & tonics, Amarula for a nightcap, and even fresh milk for your coffee!
Lion Sands River Lodge selection of spirits from the minibar
Have you tried Amarula cream?
It is a creamy South African liqueur made from marula fruit, similar to Bailey’s Irish cream. Delicious as a nightcap!
If you travel around Africa, you will hear a lot about the marula tree which produces delicious fruit. Wildlife loves it! The marula fruit ferments to create alcohol when it falls to the ground. Locals like to joke that it’s the elephant’s booze because it can make them drunk. Scientists have now debunked this myth, but it is still a fun story to tell!
Amarula cream, the perfect nightcap!
Alright, on to the bathrooms! Think luxury and spa-like. The calm and neutral bathrooms have a double sink, a rain shower, and a bathtub that faces a window overlooking your private deck. The window can be opened, truly allowing for inside-outside living!
Lion Sands River Lodge luxury room bathroom
The bathrooms come fully stocked with luxurious Africology skincare products and two plush, super-soft robes. After all of the hard work of getting up early and being carted around on a safari jeep witnessing some of the most amazing wildlife, you can come back and relax in your own spa-like accommodation. It’s a hard life.
Relax in your plush robes
You can watch the wildlife right from your bathtub from your floor-to-ceiling window!
The Food & Drink
When you begin your search trying to find the safari lodge that works best for you, you will find safari lodges fall into 1 of 2 categories. Either they are well known for their high-quality wildlife sightings, or they have a great reputation for their 5-star ambiance, food, and service. What makes Lion Sands River Lodge unique is they are known for both categories! This is quite evident in their gushing reviews on Tripadvisor and booking.com!
I will discuss the amazing wildlife we saw later in this article, but first let’s talk about the food and drink!
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all served on-site in the main dining room. You can sit indoors or outdoors. We typically ate breakfast outside since the mornings were cool and comfortable and lunch and dinner inside to avoid the heat.
Meals are included in your room rate. My husband and I consider ourselves foodies and often plan vacations around a gastronomic experience. We ate at all of the best restaurants in Cape Town and Franschhoek restaurants in the Cape Winelands, and I can tell you Lion Sands River Lodge delivers incredibly mouth-watering food that is bursting with flavor! Chef Connie and her kitchen staff are clearly very skilled!
Lion Sands River Lodge indoor dining room
Eating breakfast at the outdoor dining area
All meals are a la carte and truly gourmet. No lukewarm buffets here! The menu offers classic European and African-fusion dishes. You get assigned to your personal butler for the entirety of your stay. Johannes was our butler, and he was incredibly warm and friendly and had the biggest smile. He truly made our stay very enjoyable and personalized.
Breakfast/brunch is one of my favorite meals of the day, and the wide variety of options did not disappoint! We personally tried the following items, which were served hot and cooked to perfection:
- Poached eggs benedict: poached eggs served on an English muffin with hickory ham and hollandaise
- Breakfast toast: French toast, roast pineapple and pepperdew salsa, crispy bacon, and maple syrup
We had a surprise visitor one morning during breakfast. We were munching on some fresh fruit before our main meal was served, and a ninja vervet monkey ran along the railing up to our table and stole a piece of pineapple before we could even blink. Watch your food! They are quick!
Lion Sands River Lodge breakfast menu
French toast and bacon for breakfast
Poached eggs benedict
The culprit who stole our breakfast
We normally do not eat 3 meals a day when we travel. Usually, we eat a big breakfast and then dinner later in the evening after our activities for the day. Lunch is skipped. However, we did make an exception at Lion Sands River Lodge even though we were so stuffed from breakfast! The food is just that good! Thank goodness the lodge has a gym. You are going to need it.
One of the lunch-time meals we really enjoyed was the …
- Butternut soup with sesame crisp
- Peanut chicken bowl with chicken breast, green beans, cucumber, cherry tomato, boiled egg, and peanut satay sauce
Peanut chicken bowl
The ever-changing menu is based on what is in season. I love the fact that Lion Sands River Lodge incorporates both foods you are familiar with and also foods and flavors that are unique to Africa.
For example, I had not had a lot of game meats prior to arriving in Africa. One surprise for me was how delicious ostrich fillet tastes! It is like a leaner (lower fat content!) steak. Not gamey at all. If you are interested and want to learn more about unique African foods, check out my article on the top 10 South African food and drink.
Here is an example of what you can expect for dinner:
- Tuna tartar with garlic aioli and apple fennel remoulade
- Ostrich fillet with bean cassoulet, butterbean puree, beetroot, fine beans, savoy cabbage, and port jus
- Butternut risotto with toasted pumpkin seeds, marinated feta, and roasted pumpkin
- Apple crumble with blueberry frozen yogurt
Apple crumble with blueberry frozen yogurt
Lion Sands River Lodge provides a premium wine list with most of the top local South African wines including Hamilton Russell, which we visited during our Hemel-en-Aarde wine tour.
They also serve some of the classic favorites like Veuve Clicquot champagne, which they served us during our amazing experience at the Chalkey Treehouse. More on that later!
Hamilton Russell wine, one of the top South African pinot noir producers
Why doesn’t love being served Veuve Clicquot champagne in a treehouse?
Oh, wow. Where do I start? The bar at Lion Sands River Lodge is simply breathtaking! First of all, the whole bar is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. This feature floods the area with natural light, so you can take in the natural surroundings at all times.
The decor is a mix of industrial metal and wood accents with soft neutral colors. It is a beautiful contemporary space!
With enjoyed quite a few nightcaps here with the other guests after dinner. My go-to favorites were the gin & tonic (you are in Africa, this is a must!) and the martini.
Lion Sands River Lodge bar
One more martini on our last day
Lion Sands River Lodge bartop
It was a little too cold to swim when we were there, but it sure was tempting! Cushioned loungers surround the pool. The pool itself faces the Sabie River, which is great for wildlife sightings!
Pool at Lion Sands River Lodge
In between the morning and afternoon safaris, you have quite a few hours in between at your leisure. Taking advantage of a few spa services is the perfect way to spend those hours.
The spa offers a host of services including facials, massages, and even cupping! I enjoyed two massages while I was there. Ask for Kayleigh. She is awesome.
The whole safari lodge is designed to enjoy the inside-outside view. They accomplish this goal by incorporating glass walls and windows everywhere. With floor-to-ceiling windows in the spa, you feel like you are right outside in the African bush. Incredible.
Enjoying my floor to ceiling glass view while getting a massage
During my second massage, I was greeted by a rare visitor, the African civet. Almost looks like a fuzzy raccoon. You never know what you are going to see in the African bush, even while getting a massage!
I came across a rare visitor at the spa, the African civet!
The gym is actually quite impressive, especially for a safari lodge out in the remote African bush. They have 2 treadmills, 2 stationary bikes, exercise balls, and free weights. All the essentials for a good workout. You will need it after eating all of that delicious gourmet food they serve!
2 Treadmills + 2 Stationary Bikes
Gotta love the “people watching”
All the main buildings at the property have floor to ceiling glass windows, which make it really unique. No matter where you are, you can see the wildlife. At the gym, you can get a bike ride and a Nyala sighting all in one session!
The Safari Drives
This is the reason you are here! Home to the Big 5 and quality leopard sightings, Lion Sands River Lodge surpasses expectations. Our Safari Guide IP and Tracker Alfred made our safari experience unforgettable.
You will have 2 drives a day, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. I will walk you through one of our safari days. This was our daily schedule:
Lion Sands River Lodge daily program
5 am: Wake up call
You are going to be hating life when you get that early phone call from your safari guide, but trust me it will be worth crawling out of those warm covers.
5:30 am: Morning safari drive
The excitement of the safari drive quickly overcame my grogginess. We climbed up in the safari jeep with two other couples, and off we went. For the next 3 hours, be prepared to be blown away by this incredible experience that really requires your presence to fully understand it.
By the way, Lion Sands River Lodge only takes 6 guests per jeep; some lodges will have 9 per jeep. Having 6 people to a jeep is critical because that means no one is ever in the middle seat! Can you imagine trying to lean over someone as you try to take that awesome photo of that leopard that just swaggered by?
If interested, I have written an article on what other things you should consider when selecting a safari lodge.
Here is what to expect from a morning safari drive at Lion Sands:
6 to a jeep is a must! One day we lucked out (a couple missed their flight to join us), and we only had 4 to a jeep! No middle seat = much better experience.
One of my favorite leopard photos we took … love that pink tongue. The leopard by far is my favorite animal.
Two lionesses chowing on some giraffe takeout. I am amazed at how much these animals blend into their surroundings.
Zebra striking a pose in Sabi Sand, South Africa
Giraffes showing off their good side
Wild dogs on a hunt
8:30 am: Return from the morning safari drive. Breakfast time!
All food is ordered a la carte and cooked fresh to order. If you are a fan of brunch, you do not want to skip this meal. See the section titled FOOD & DRINK discussed earlier in this article for all of the options.
1 pm: Lunch time!
Really? We just ate. We usually skipped lunch because we loaded up on a big breakfast, but we did try lunch on one of the days. As expected, it was delicious. Lion Sands River Lodge is really known for its top-notch cuisine.
4:30 pm: Afternoon safari drive
Back in the safari jeep for another amazing 3-hour adventure! Sometimes the afternoon safari drive will extend past sunset. During one of our drives, we stayed out past our usual time to witness a leopard finishing off an impala in a tree. There were a few hyenas clearly trying to get in on the action, but the leopard made it clear to back off. Moments like these are mesmerizing to witness!
Leopard finishing off a kill near a tree in Sabi Sand, South Africa
Lion snuggling with his brother
Mother and baby rhino stopping for a drink at the local waterhole
Turtle hitching a ride on a hippo
At the end of the afternoon safari drive, the classic way to celebrate another amazing day in the African bush is the sundowner. Lion Sands River Lodge provides several options including wine, beer, Amarula, and gin & tonics along with several snacks including biltong.
Enjoying a sundowner at the end of the afternoon safari drive
The 2 guys pictured below blew us away with the safari experience they delivered. So many animals. They also provided us a wealth of information along the way. Their expertise made our safari experience truly unforgettable. Thank you IP and Alfred!
My husband and I with Tracker Alfred and Safari Guide IP
7:30 pm: Dinner time!
Get ready to enjoy yet another 5-star meal!
Safari outfit & what to pack for your safari drive
If you have never done a safari drive, I am sure you will ask yourself what do I wear and what do I pack? I know I did! To answer this question, check out my articles below.
Photographing a rhino in my safari outfit while out on a drive with Lion Sands River Lodge
We went in September. Rates for 2022 are from R 18105.
* Rates include all meals, minibar, 2 safari drives a day, transfers to/from Skukuza Airport, Wi-Fi
7 Reasons for Choosing This Lodge
I admit. I actually considered going through a travel agent to book our safari. There are a lot of questions that you will come across when trying to plan this out, which may feel overwhelming. If you are still in the planning stage, I highly advise checking out my detailed article on planning a South Africa safari. I go through all the common decision points a DIY traveler will come across before hitting that “book button.”
Now, why did we ultimately choose Lion Sands River Lodge for our South African safari experience?
Here are our 9 reasons:
#1 Decent size traversing area
Larger traversing area = more biodiversity. The property sits on 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres). Lion Sands River Lodge shares traversing rights with Kirkman’s Kamp, which increases the game viewing potential. I included a map at the beginning of this article, which shows you the size of each private game reserve.
Lion Sands River Lodge is unique in that it is the only private game reserve that sits in both Sabi Sand and Kruger National Park.
#2 Max of 6 to a safari jeep
In my opinion, this is critical! Some safari lodges carry 9 people per jeep, which means someone sits in the middle of 2 people. Having 6 to a jeep was a non-negotiable for me and contributed to my decision-making process in choosing a safari lodge.
#3 High likelihood of seeing the Big 5
Safari lodges are expensive! It was important for us to pick a safari lodge that is known for their high-quality sightings. This was our first safari, so selecting a lodge that had a high probability of seeing the Big 5 was important to us. Lion Sands River Lodge delivered and then some.
We saw all the Big 5 at Lion Sands River Lodge: elephant, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and lion
#4 Well-known for their food, drink, and service
Your rate will typically include all meals, so it is best to pick one known for great food since you are paying for it anyway. Lion Sands River Lodge has a stellar reputation for their gourmet a-la-carte meals. No buffets, which we preferred.
The service is top-notch and incredibly personalized. We were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. On our last night, we found this surprise in our room:
The staff decorated our bed with rose petals for our wedding anniversary
Surprise bottle of champagne to celebrate
#5 Great reputation of the MORE Family Collection
Lion Sands has been owned by the More family for many decades and is now currently being operated by 4th generation More family members. Landowners formed the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in 1948. At least six families of these original landowners still own land in Sabi Sand. The More family is one of them.
#6 Chance to sleep in a treehouse
Oh my goodness, this is one of the most amazing experiences I HAVE EVER DONE, and my husband and I have done quite a few like shark cage diving with great whites, swimming in Devil’s Pool on top of the world’s largest waterfall, and snorkeling in the Maldives and Bora Bora.
Sleeping under the stars in a canopied bed open to the elements and listening to the animals in the African bush easily tops that list. Just wow. If you want to know more, check out our experience at the Chalkley Treehouse.
Chalkley Treehouse at Lion Sands River Lodge. Go ahead and book it now. You will not regret it.
#7 Only 30 minutes from the airport
Your safari lodge could be anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours away from the airport you fly into. The advantage of staying at Lion Sands River Lodge is the ability to fly in and out of Skukuza Airport, which is only 25 minutes away from the lodge. The transfers are included in the rate. Typically, you fly into the airport in the morning and then experience your first safari drive that afternoon. They waste no time.
Other Safari Lodges We Considered
There were two other South Africa safari lodges we considered. One was MalaMala Main Camp/MalaMala Sable Camp because of the property’s huge traversing area (refer to the map at the beginning of this article) and its high-quality wildlife sightings (which may include the cheetah!) and safari guides.
The second option we considered was &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge, which is actually located in neighboring Timbavati and not in Sabi Sand. The reason we considered this option was the possibility of seeing a white lion (they do exist!) and also the chance of seeing elephants visit your infinity swimming pool at the lodge.
If you are considering staying in a lodge in Kruger National Park and doing a self-drive, don’t miss my comparison article on Kruger vs. Sabi Sands.
Any questions about our safari experience?
Let me know in the comments below!