South Africa without the soccer

Soccer's World Cup circus brings the global gaze to South Africa. Not the sporting kind? Forget kicking a ball and check out these wonders, taken from Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2010.

1. Drakensberg

Looking for the best high-altitude hiking in South Africa? Then head to Drakensberg, where the 200km-long mountain range has summits that top out at almost 3500m. This dramatic chain acts as a natural border between KwaZulu-Natal and the tiny region of Lesotho. Giant's Castle and Cathedral Peak are serious challenges but the real draw is the region's accessibility. The foothills are riddled with electrifying scenery – tumbling waterfalls, babbling rivers and secret caves seduce with every footstep, which means it's as ideal for those who just want to chill out as it is for serious adventurers. Drakensberg has a subtropical climate that makes it an ideal year-round destination; temperatures range from 23–28ºC, although winter frosts and snow are likely in the mountains.

2. Richtersveld Transfrontier National Park

Lunar landscapes, vast sandy plains and soaring peaks define Richtersveld. Seemingly inhospitable, the park's climate supports a diverse range of flora and fauna: quiver trees, a form of the aloe plant, is an iconic symbol of the region. Hikers love the unearthly beauty of the four-day Vensterval Trail, which is likely to reward with glimpses of rock hyrax and jackal buzzard. The less energetic relax by the Orange River, which marks South Africa's border with Namibia and makes a cooling retreat from the blistering sun. This is South Africa's wildest national park – pack your adventurous spirit and head for the trails. Visiting South Africa's parks requires special permits – sort your paperwork up-front, plan itineraries and arrange accommodation at the organisation's website.

3. Cape Town

Great location, temperate climate and cosmopolitan atmosphere – not for nothing is it South Africa's leading destination and one of the world's finest cities. Rich colonial history mixes with a modern vibe and vigorous nightlife scene – be warned, Cape Towners celebrate the 'half week' as well as the weekend. Surfers head for the heavy barrels of Kalk Bay Reef, while nature lovers rejoice in the splendour of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, where the mighty Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. And let's not forget Table Mountain – the breathtaking vista is worth the visit alone. Travel in March to join the party at Cape Town Festival – the diverse arts event promotes tolerance and integration.

4. Winelands of the Western Cape

Beating the trails around South Africa's national parks is great, but sometimes we all want a bit of pampering, right? If you're fed up with bush tucker, head to the Winelands region to gorge yourself on the country's finest food and drink. The towns of Franschhoek, Paarl and Stellenbosch are a great place to sink a bottle or two while revelling in the eye-popping backdrop of lush valleys and coastal seascapes. Take a tour of the best vineyards before a hot-air balloon ride under a blood-red sunset. For wine tours, buy a flexible 'Vine Hopper' bus ticket from Stellenbosch; www.winelands.co.za; one-day ticket R150 (US$17).

5. Wild coast

In an untouched corner of the Eastern Cape lies an unspoilt coastline of crashing waves, verdant forest and tumbling waterfalls. Pull on your boots and hit the hiking trails that weave around secret coves and untouched sandy beaches. Along the way you'll glimpse mysterious shipwrecks where you can scuba dive in search of hidden booty, while dreaming of piracy and adventure on the high seas. Venture inland to discover the culture of South Africa's Xhosa people, who settled these coastal regions in the Iron Age. Amid these colourful villages of traditional mud huts exists a way of life unchanged for centuries. Coffee Bay is one of the Wild Coast's most beautiful spots – relax at backpackers' favourite Coffee Shack; campsite R50 (US$5.50), dorm R100 (US$11).

6. Zululand

From the rural heart of KwaZulu-Natal to its gentle swathes of coastline, this is South Africa as you imagined it. Subtropical sun beats down on waving grasslands and an earth imbued with the strength of the Zulu nation. Richly symbolic, this is the place to embrace age-old cultures such as the art of the sangoma – the traditional practice of herbal medicine. Take a trip to the bleak Makhosini Valley in search of Zulu heritage, visiting royal burial sites and one-time regal residences – the rich legacy and cultural vibrancy make this one of the world's ultimate anthropology playgrounds. The Spirit of EmaKhosini makes a useful starting point for touring the Makhosini Valley; access via road R34 near Melmoth; open daily 8am-4pm; admission free.

7. The Great Karoo Desert

The Karoo is South Africa's largest ecosystem, 100,000 sq km that supports a diverse range of species including springbok and the zebra-like quagga. The terrain is spectacular. At the Valley of Desolation, the open ground falls away to reveal an eerie collection of bizarre dolomite pinnacles. For respite from the heat check out Knysna, a dazzling lagoon town in the shadow of the Outeniqua Mountains, where a clutch of artists, restaurateurs and hippies have infused the town with a hospitable arty vibe. For the brave, Oudtshoorn is one of the best places for a shot of high-speed ostrich riding. The Karoo is easily reached from Cape Town – simply point the car north on the N1 highway and keep going for 500km; www.sanparks.org.

8. Adventure sports on the Cape

The Cape Town region offers some of South Africa's wildest challenges – enough to satisfy the appetite of the wildest adrenaline junkies. Charge down Tokai Forest's cycling trails, abseil off Table Mountain, try sandboarding in the idyllic Atlantis Hills or give yourself the ultimate aerial view as you leap from a plane at 3000m. If that sounds a bit lightweight, then pull on your wetsuit and head to Gansbaai, the 'Great White Shark Capital of the World', where you'll come face to face with the ocean's most feared killer. The steel bars of your diving cage will suddenly seem unnervingly flimsy. Shark diving is Gansbaai's pièce de résistance – several outfits will pop you in a cage and scare your pants off for around R1200 (US$135); www.sharkbookings.com.

9. Maputaland

Tucked away in the northern reaches of South Africa is Maputaland, a magical area of Indian Ocean coastline hidden away between Mozambique and Swaziland. The stretch between Greater St Lucia Wetlands and Kosi Bay Nature Reserve is the definitive example of coastal paradise, where endless white beaches with foaming surf offer prime views of nesting leatherback turtles and migrating whales. Inland, hippos roam free and the skies are filled with hundreds of bird species, including the spectacular southern-banded snake-eagle and purple-banded sunbird. Richly diverse, strikingly beautiful and endearingly tranquil, you might never want to leave. Kosi Bay is South Africa's most fertile turtle-nesting site – visit in October to February to see leatherbacks lay their eggs on the wonderful beaches.

10. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

Kruger National Park might be South Africa's best-loved safari experience, but Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is the country's oldest and makes a great place to spot the 'Big Five' – lion, buffalo, rhino, elephant and leopard. Located in the western region of KwaZulu-Natal, the park covers a stonking 96,000 hectares and supports over 300 bird species, as well as more unusual critters such as nyala, duiker, reedbuck and the super-hairy bushpig. Whether you go it alone, join a tour, slum it under canvas or pitch up at a luxury bush camp, this is the definitive safari experience. Luxury lodge, self-catering or under canvas – there's more than one way to get acquainted with the weird and wonderful wildlife; www.nature-reserve.co.za; accommodation from R230 (US$25) per person.