Holiday haven with a difference

IF your idea of a perfect holiday is along the lines of lounging by the hotel swimming pool, sipping long, tall cocktails and snacking on crayfish thermidor without a worry in the world, then perhaps give Angola a miss.

Large parts of it are more Hillbrow than Hyatt Hotels but, that said, it is a country that is evolving into a major force on the African continent.

Its history, though, has been one of turmoil.

After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, the country had high hopes of being one of the success stories of Africa.

That was not to be.

A 14-year civil war between the MPLA and Unita left Angola in ruins. Its infrastructure collapsed, people fled the rural areas to the cities looking for jobs and safety, and the rest of the world deserted it as another African basket case.

Thankfully, though, things are changing.

For the next two weeks it plays host to the third biggest soccer tournament in the world - behind the World Cup and the European Cup - the Africa Cup of Nations.

It was awarded the right to host this prestigious event by CAF to allow emerging nations an opportunity to showcase their beauty.

Though tragedy struck on the eve of the tournament, when members of a separatist movement in the northern region of Cabinda attacked the Togolese team who were travelling by road to the tournament, the country continues to display progress.

Eight people were injured in the incident, one of whom was transported to South Africa for treatment. Tragically, three people also died.

Despite this horrific event, the tournament is progressing and, judging by the spectacular opening ceremony on Sunday, is bound to be a success.

Over the last 10 years the economy of Angola has begun to grow.

Foreign investors, mainly in the oil industry, see it as a viable emerging market and one that has relative stability. Billions of dollars have been poured into rebuilding the economy.

Oil provides 95percent of Angola's export wealth, mostly exporting to China.

About 25 new hotels and guesthouses have been built in the four host cities of the tournament - the capital Luanda, Cabinda, Lubango and Benguela.

Luanda is home to an estimated 5 million people who mostly eke out a living in the informal sector.

Markets have sprung up throughout the city and, with the Atlantic Ocean on its doorstep, fishing plays a major role in people's day-to-day living.

Tourists who have followed their team to this picturesque country will never be short of things to do. With its pristine beaches, warm climate and distinctive Portuguese flavour, it is a holiday destination with a difference.

Don't expect the comforts of a First World country. Taxis were introduced only a month ago to help transport tourists around for the duration of the soccer tournament.

A standard hotel room in the capital of Luanda can cost more than $400 (R3200) a night and restaurants are also pretty pricey.

If you enjoy your food spicey you won't leave disappointed.

Peri-peri chicken and trinchado (a Portuguese-styled dish of beef cubes in a hot sauce and slap-chips) is widely available and recommended.

You will find that US dollars are the currency of choice with locals and tourists alike.

Getting to Angola is not easy. Travelling by road from South Africa the most common way is via Namibia and entering Angola at the southern border post of Ngiva.

A warning, though, is that as soon as you enter Angola the roads deteriorate and a 4x4 is a must. The easiest and most convenient way of getting to Luanda is by plane.

South African Airways and TAAG (Angola's national airline) have regular flights and travelling time is about two hours. Expect to pay about R4000 for a return ticket and South African passport holders require a visa (R750).