South Africa is often called a world-in-one-country and nowhere is this more evident than along the fabled Garden Route. The Garden Route is so named because of the beautiful and diverse landscapes found along the way. But this is not all you can find, there are also wildlife safaris to be had, as well as a variety of activities, from game drives to hikes to boat cruises to wine tasting.
At the risk of hyperbole, it is where you can have a complete African holiday experience. What is so great about a Garden Route holiday is the flexibility it offers. The area known as the Garden Route begins in Cape Town and ends in the city of Port Elizabeth, 750km away, with many charming and different towns to stop at along the way. You can simply ask your travel consultant about which towns sound the best for you and incorporate those into your holiday, for as long a stay as you wish.
Let’s start in Cape Town shall we, because it is very easy to get to these days, with direct flights from Europe, North America and Dubai. Cape Town is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world, being sandwiched between the imposing Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean. There is so much on offer here that it is possible to having a week long holiday just in Cape Town, but for those doing the Garden Route, we recommend 3 nights in the city. The must see items in Cape Town are Cape Point, the penguins at Boulders Beach, Chapman’s Peak, the V&A Waterfront, Robben Island and of course – catching the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. For the more intrepid of you, it is also possible to hike to the top of the mountain. I could go on, but if you want to learn and see more about what there is to do in Cape Town, then please visit our Cape Town itinerary page, here.
From Cape Town, the next stop is often the Cape Winelands, especially for the wine and food lovers. The two best towns to choose between are Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. This is where you will find South Africa’s oldest and grandest wine farms, most of which offer wine tasting and wine tours. Franschhoek is known as the culinary capital of South Africa and is also home to the Wine Tram, which must be just about the best way to go wine tasting. Depending on how much you like wine, you can spend one or two nights in the winelands.
From the winelands, the next stop has to be Hermanus. The drive from the winelands to Hermanus along the R44 is one of the most beautiful roads in South Africa, hugging the edge of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains as it meanders through the small towns of Rooi-Els, Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond. Betty’s Bay is home to another penguin colony if you want to get another look at the clumsy guys. Hermanus is famous for being one of the best whale watching spots in the world when the Southern Wright Whales come to calve between June – December. It is also a beautiful town in its own right, and with the R44 being as scenic as it is, it is worth a visit any time of the year. There are plenty of photo stops along the way.
After Hermanus, you have a few choices for your next stop. This will be the longest drive of the route, at about 6 hours, with the next popular towns to stop at being Knysna, Oudtshoorn or Plettenberg Bay. All these towns are situated in close proximity to one another, so you can stop at just one, or you can stop at all 3 if you want. Both Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are situated on the coast, within the coastal forest belt. Plettenberg Bay is the bigger of the two towns and has the best beaches, with the sea being much warmer than it is in Cape Town. Knysna is the most beautiful town, being situated in rolling hills surrounding a lagoon. It is possible to do a cruise on the lagoon and a drive to the Heads viewpoint is worth it. Attempts were made to turn the Knysna lagoon into a harbour, but the entrance to the lagoon is so rocky and dangerous that it was not viable and today, sailing your boat through the dangerous waters of the Heads is uninsurable. On the other side of the Heads is Featherbed Nature Reserve, where you can go for a scenic hike.
Oudtshoorn is inland, in the Karoo semi-desert. You will notice how the landscape changes dramatically as you drive over the Outeniqua Mountains. That is one of the things I enjoy about the Garden Route, there are mountains and mountain passes everywhere. Oudtshoorn is famous for being the ostrich farming capital of South Africa and it is possible to stay on an ostrich farm while you are here. Oudtshoorn’s other claim to fame is the Cango Caves.
About an hour outside of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay is an area called Tsitsikamma, which is known as the gem of the Garden Route. When you visit Tsitsikamma, you will see where the Garden Route gets its name from. This is where the forest is at its densest and where the flowers are at their most colourful. Tsitsikamma has beautiful flowers and hikes. My favourite is the waterfall hike, which leads you through the forest and along the edge of the coast until you get to a dramatic waterfall. The other good, but much shorter hike is to the wobbly suspension bridge that spans the mouth of the Storms River. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can do a zipline canopy tour in the Tsitsikamma forest, or bungee jump off the Bloukrans bridge, which at 216m high, used to be the highest in the world, but is now the third or fourth highest, depending who you ask.
After you have thrown yourself off the Bloukrans bridge, or simply had lunch at the café and watched other crazy people do it, it is finally time for a wildlife safari! In the Eastern Cape province, just an hour outside the city of Port Elizabeth, are a number of private game reserves all offering fully inclusive Big 5 safaris. What does fully inclusive mean? It means that you don’t have to lift a finger because breakfast, lunch and dinner are included, as well as local drinks. You will get to go on two guided game drives per day to look for animals. Please remember to tell the guides what animals you want to see, as many of them are expert trackers and can then do their best to find your favourite animals, including elephants, lions, buffaloes, zebras, giraffes and more. There are many game reserves and lodges to choose from in the Eastern Cape, so check out our Eastern Cape Safaris page to figure out which one is the best for you.
After your 2 or 3 nights on safari, you can drop off your rental car at Port Elizabeth and fly home, or you can drive all the way back to Cape Town, along the inland Route 62, stopping at different towns along the way, such as MacGregor and Robertson.
If you have made it to the end of this blog post, I’m sure you can see how the Garden Route brings together the best bits of South Africa to provide you with a beautiful and complete itinerary, from a Big 5 safari to hiking up Table Mountain, to whale watching and sampling some of South Africa’s finest wines on her oldest wine farms, there is something for everyone along the Garden Route. Don’t forget your cameras and your sense of adventure.
You can view a few sample itineraries we have for the Garden Route here; or you can contact us if you want to plan your own tailor-made journey.
Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.