To eat traditional Swazi food you really need to stay with a Swazi family, visit a homestead or attend a local event.
There is no shortage of choice in eSwatini when it comes to filling your belly. Standard Western fare is widely available, courtesy of numerous South African supermarket chains, and served at all hotels and guesthouses. Many large hotels offer themed and international menus. Buffets are common and, for those who like their home comforts with cholesterol, the Full English Breakfast is ubiquitous.
eSwatini’s top restaurants have renowned chefs, imaginative dishes and excellent service. Among the most popular are the Calabash, Foresters Arms, Ramblas and Malandela’s. A cosmopolitan span of restaurants is available in Mbabane, Manzini and the Gables shopping centre, including Thai, Chinese, Italian and Spanish, plus a growing number of trendy little bistros and sandwich bars. A local speciality is Portuguese/Mozambican fare, with numerous restaurants serving excellent seafood fresh from the Indian Ocean, including the famous LM prawns (‘LM’ being Lourenço Marques, the old colonial name for Maputo).
In town, US-style fast-food joints offer burgers, pizzas, fried chicken and the rest. Among the mostly South African chains are some familiar Western names, including the ubiquitous Kentucky Fried Chicken, although Swaziland is one of the few countries as yet uncolonised by McDonald’s (‘Hooray!’ or ‘Boo!’ according to taste). For a cheaper meal out or a bite on the hoof, locals tend to visit any of the many street cafés and snack bars that serve hot meals of the stew/curry with rice/pap variety. A popular variation, inherited from South Africa, is ‘bunny chow’, which consists of a hollow half-loaf filled with hot stew: highly tempting, but with possible spillage disasters for the unwary. Also popular is the ‘dagwood’, a triple-decker toasted sandwich or burger. Like any responsible travel guide, this one must – of course – warn against the health risks of eating street food. Were it less responsible, though, it would recommend the pap with chicken gizzards, and especially the Swazi oxtail, as absolutely delicious.
To eat traditional Swazi food you really need to stay with a Swazi family, visit a homestead or attend a local event or celebration (such as a wedding). A few lodges and backpacker hostels hold regular Swazi food nights. For a classy take on traditional Swazi cuisine, with authentic ingredients and recipes, don’t miss Edladleni, just outside Mbabane.
The cost of eating out is reasonable by overseas standards, although prohibitive for eSwatini’s rural majority. At mid-range restaurants, which include most hotels, you can expect to pay around US$10–15 for a main course, with a steak typically around US$12. The priciest dishes tend to be fresh fish and seafood, with a seafood platter for two typically around US$30. Cheaper options, such as burgers, will set you back around US$6, with toasted sandwiches (which come, like other ‘light meals’, with chips and salad) generally the cheapest option at US$2–3. Starters and desserts are generally around US$3–5. A discretionary tip of around 10% is the norm – although failure to observe this practice, like many imported conventions, does not always trouble locals. Typical restaurant opening hours are 12.00–15.00 and 18.00–22.30.
For infomation on tipping etiquette, see Tips on Tipping.
Braai – for the newcomer to southern Africa – is essentially the Afrikaans term for barbecue and short for braaivleis (‘grilled meat’). The ritual of slapping flesh on a charcoal grill has a powerful grip on local culture, white and black alike. As with barbecues anywhere, you’ll generally find the men setting the world to rights with beer in one hand and tongs in the other, while the women beaver around in the wings, buttering rolls and preparing salads. Cooking and eating al fresco is a big part of African culture generally and eSwatini is no different. Most self-catering accommodation – including campsites – comes complete with metal grills for braais and often a pile of chopped wood to make a good blaze. Favourite meats include boerwors (a long roll of spicy sausage) and steak. Veggies might prefer to keep their distance – although it’s worth remembering that mealies, par-boiled slightly first, do very well on a braai.
Most alcoholic drinks are available in eSwatini, including many wines from South Africa. All towns have a bottle store of some kind, often beside a hotel, and hotel bars tend to attract local drinkers. Beer is mostly lager, with the local Sibebe, brewed by eSwatini Brewers in Matsapha, competing with South African stalwarts such as Lion and Castle. Home-brewed mealie beer, known as tjwala (or, in South Africa, umcombotsi), is sold in cartons. And if you’re going local, you might want to try buganu – a home-brewed liquor made from fermented marula fruits, which appears seasonally in February/March and prompts some epic local boozing.
Non-drinkers will find a range of soft drinks in stores and filling stations, including some exceptionally tooth-rotting local varieties. In rural stores the relatively high price of soft drinks is mitigated by a deposit system – ie: return your empties and get a discount on the next. Supermarkets sell a good selection of delicious South African fruit juices. A popular local drink is a kind of sour milk called emasi, often sweetened with sugar. Tap water is fine to drink across eSwatini, unless you are told otherwise.
Hotels and resorts
At the top end of the hotel spectrum are upmarket resorts such as the Royal Swazi Sun, where you will find – at a price – everything you’d expect from such an establishment anywhere in the world. This will include good dining, extensive grounds, a range of sport and leisure facilities, and a comprehensive programme of local activities. Several of eSwatini’s top hotels are attached to casinos. A little further down the spectrum come smaller, family-run hotels such as Foresters Arms, which may not quite have all the frills but often offer more by way of originality and local flavour. Main towns have decent mid-range hotels, which tend to be more functional than fancy. In the lowest price bracket are the cheaper roadside hotels, or motels, which offer little more than a bed for the night. Most will have a bar, which often doubles as a lively local watering hole.
Camps and lodges
‘Lodge’ generally refers to accommodation of a hotel standard set in or around a park or nature reserve, with activities and meals generally on-site. Rooms are in cottages, chalets, safari tents (essentially chalets under canvas) and even traditional beehive huts with a tourist-friendly makeover. Rates may include activities. Most offer a choice of a restaurant or self-catering, with facilities for the latter including fully equipped kitchen and outdoor braai area.
Guesthouses and B&Bs
Guesthouses are generally smaller than hotels, with accommodation all under one roof. Many offer excellent hospitality, with home cooking and a friendly welcome. Bed and breakfast is the standard arrangement, with dinner available on request and self-catering usually an option. Rural guesthouses have larger gardens and may offer outdoor pursuits on the property. Many guesthouses, especially those in the lowveld, offer long-stay deals.
eSwatini has several backpackers’ hostels, mostly in the Ezulwini Valley/Malkerns area. These offer simple, cheap accommodation in large tents, hostels or dormitories, with communal bathrooms, living areas and cooking facilities. They are largely the domain of independent travellers or volunteers who are not overly concerned about luxury or privacy, and double as meeting places for travellers, with local information and a lively grapevine. Many offer activities and excursions, and organise entertainment nights.
Staying in the community
A number of rural communities offer accommodation to tourists. The easiest way to organise this is through a specialist tour company. You should not expect all the comforts of a hotel or guesthouse, but rather to experience a more authentic slice of Swazi life. Some provision is usually made for guests, with mattresses instead of grass mats and more privacy than a local family would expect. If you are happy to rough it for a night or two this offers a unique opportunity to meet local people. You’ll have the opportunity to join in domestic chores, eat traditional food, and share tales around the fire.
Accommodation is also available in several rural community projects. These were set up with donor funding but are now run by the community, bringing revenue and employment to impoverished areas. All are located in remote areas of impressive scenery. Facilities vary from adequate to neglected. Sadly, poor maintenance has seen some fall into disrepair. Those that are in operation, however, offer a memorable experience for the enterprising visitor looking for something different. Some, such as Shewula Mountain Camp, allow an opportunity to interact with local people; in doing so, you will be contributing to the well-being of the local community and promoting the benefits of tourism. As well as Shewula, these projects include Mahamba Gorge and Ngwempisi Community Project. Bookings can be made through STA and Swazi Trails.
Camping is available in several parks and reserves, including Hlane, Malolotja, Mbuluzi, Mlawula, Mlilwane and Nisela, and is also an option at some lodges and hotels. Most campsites have clean ablution blocks with warm showers, taps and braai stands. Many also have power outlets. All Out Africa rents out dome tents and mattresses. Stick to designated campsites rather than camping rough around the country, which is not encouraged – and in any case is not permitted without the say-so of the local chief. Lovers of truly wild camping can backpack through Malolotja and camp in designated clearings beside the rivers and trails. This is a real wilderness experience, with no facilities other than the clearing itself.