Guide to Best of the Garden Route
GET THE GARDEN ROUTE RIGHT
Based on an article for Sunday Times Travel UK Dec/Jan 2015, my guide to Best of the Garden Route
The Garden Route is a crowd-pleaser. Want beaches? The road works its way along some of the creamiest swathes in the country. Prefer mountains? You’ll cruise hairpin bends atop dramatic peaks. Fancy hiking through forests? Fairytale glens with waterfall swims await. And if you’re after animals, you could spot elephants and whales just metres from the tarmac. The parameters of this crowd-pleasing stretch extend roughly 220km between low-key Mossel Bay in the west and the cool fairytale forests of Tsitsikamma to the east. While the temptation may be to fly in to the nearest big town, George, and whizz down the Garden route from there, it would be a travesty to miss the pine-fringed highways and folksy whitewashed villages on the journey from Cape Town. The slow and scenic build-up is half the fun. And the lovely, relaxed pootling is the other half. Driving on the left-hand-side makes this week-long adventure easy-peasy, and there’s no need to hire a truck, either – a small sedan will do just fine. Simply follow in our tyre tracks…
DAY 1: WHALES AND STARRY SKIES
Cape Town – Hermanus – Arniston – De Hoop
Drive time: 5.5 hours
You’ll cover the biggest distances in the first couple of days, so rise early. The road from Cape Town to Hermanus, an upmarket seaside village, begins on the mighty N2, a well-maintained artery that leads directly to the Garden Route. Satisfy your soul with the dreamy views from Sir Lowry’s pass over the Hottentots-Holland range and glimmering False Bay; satisfy your stomach at Houw Hoek Farm, just past Grabouw, with coffee and a homemade game pie (N2 Houw Hoek, houwhoekfarmstall.co.za). From June to November you can spot breaching Southern Right whales in Hermanus: perch on dry ground at Gearing’s Point lookout, or feel vulnerable as a minnow on a sea kayaking tour (walkerbayadventures.co.za; £20). Dodge the lacklustre ground level restaurants in favour of seafood pasta at La Pentola (lapentola.co.za; mains around £8) with its open window view over Walker Bay and, if you’re lucky, those whales.
After lunch, head towards Arniston and visit the quaint working fisherman’s village of Kassiesbaai, with its modest whitewashed houses, unspoilt beach and numerous photo ops. You’ll be tempted to linger, but don’t. It’s another 2 hours to your accommodation in De Hoop Nature Reserve (capenature.co.za), a rare combination of sea, dunes, fynbos shrubland, buck and birds. Aim to get there well before sunset: after a locally-grown feed at the Fig Tree Restaurant on the reserve, you’ll be glad to have the rest of the evening for stargazing.
Stay: Accommodation on the reserve includes a campsite, self-catering cottages and cute B&B. Doubles from £73, B&B (0027 21 422 4522, www.dehoopcollection.com).
DAY 2: FOSSILS AND THE BIG FIVE
De Hoop – Mossel Bay – Gondwana
Drive Time: 3.5 hours
You’ll want to spend the morning making the most of the seaside reserve: bird walking, mountain biking or on a quad bike tour searching for buck and the elusive cheetah (around £15). Leaving around noon, you’ll be in the sleepy seaside town Mossel Bay before 3pm. But before that, as you inch out of De Hoop, stop at the 250-year-old town of Swellendam with its tidy chalk-white Cape Dutch buildings – and then make a second pause for a South African croque monsieur (biltong, cheese and mustard) at swish Tredici restaurant (68 Somerset Street, www.tredici.co.za, around £3.60).
Book the surprisingly fascinating lecture and tour at Pinnacle Point caves (www.humanorigin.co.za; £22), overlooking the Indian Ocean. They conceal some of the earliest evidence of humans making complex tools and rock paintings,164,000 years ago – spine-tingling. Then, in a measly 30 minutes you can switch your focus from human to animal: Gondwana Private Game Reserve is just down the road and houses the very much alive Big Five.
Stay: Check into a rondavel suite on the reserve (0027 21 555 0807, www.gondwanagr.co.za; from £250, half board). In your five-star hut tucked amongst fynbos you’ll fall asleep to the song of crickets and cicadas.
DAY 3: UNDERGROUND WORLDS AND OSTRICH EGGS
Gondwana – Oudtshoorn
Drive time: 1.5 hours
Take an early morning game drive through the fiery landscape to admire the beasts. You’re making a detour from the Garden Route today to the desert-y Klein Karoo: leave around 10 am because you’ll want to spend a full day in these beautiful red dust landscapes. You’re spoilt for choice with vertiginous viewing points as you climb the Robinson Pass through the velvety Outeniqua Mountains.
Perennially sunny Oudschoorn is your destination, where you’ll find more caves. This time, you’ve come to slide along narrow, waxy tunnels and admire thickets of stalactites in the ancient dripstone caverns of the Cango Caves (cango-caves.co.za; tours from £5). Above ground, Oudtshoorn is kingdom of the ostrich. Learn all about the clumsy land birds on a guided tour, and afterwards – this is not a sentimental country – lunch on a seared ostrich fillet (safariostrich.co.za; tours £6). Dinner is Karoo rack of lamb at Oudschoorn’s cosy Colony Restaurant (0027 44 272 210, queenshotel.co.za; mains around £9).
Stay: Overnight in one of the town’s cute self-catering Red Stone Hills cottages, built in 1880 (redstone.co.za; doubles from £89 per night).
DAY 4: BALLOONS AND OYSTERS
Oudtshoorn – Wilderness
Drive Time: 1.5 hours
Welcome the day with a sunrise hot air balloon ride overlooking mountain passes and burnished Karoo landscapes (oudtshoornballooning.co.za; from £142pp – but worth it). Then head south on the N12, which veers right to become the N9 and thereafter the familiar N2. Cool, dense indigenous forests with patches of pine and eucalyptus welcome you to the Wilderness, possibly the prettiest section of the Garden Route.
Activity options are endless. Walk the defunct Outeniqua Choo Tjoe railway tracks for a mind-blowing view over the Kaaimans River Bridge balancing on stilts in the sea; or head two kilometres from Wilderness village to the National Park (sanparks.co.za) for the mildly taxing 3.5km Great Kingfisher hike through the trees – with a waterfall dip as your reward at the end.
If you’re lazy, stick with the car and meander along the idyllic Seven Passes Roads – the ‘back roads’ between Wilderness and George – past traditional farms, dramatic gorges and miniature settlements.
Either way, don’t miss Oysters R Us, 11km out of Wilderness – for sublime locally harvested bivalves (Boven Lange Valley Farm; oystersrus.co.za). Still hungry? Order prawn and lychee salad at The Girls restaurant, decorated with abstract works by local artists (1 George Road; 0027 44 877 1648, thegirls.co.za; mains around £8).
Stay: The Fairy Knowe Hotel (fairyknowe.co.za; doubles from £60, B&B) has one of South Africa’s loveliest views, over the Touw River and surrounding peaks.
DAY FIVE: ‘SLOW TOWN’ LIVING
Wilderness to Sedgefield
Drive Time: 20 min
You’re making slow progress now, but that’s the point. The last few days of the Garden Route pack the most punch, so you’ll want to take your time over the drives, and factor in as many detours as you can manage – in fact, you could simply base yourself in one place. Make that place pretty coastal Sedgefield, Africa’s only certified ‘slow town’ – life moves at an admirable crawl here. Time your visit to coincide with SA’s top community famer’s market – on a Saturday, Wild Oats, on the western outskirts (near Engen Station; wildoatsmarket.co.za) has tables creaking under piles of rainbow veg, freshly baked loaves and stalls serving fresh-from-the-farm egg omelettes and brandy snap cookies.
At the tourist information office, book a fascinating Mosaics tour, a social upliftment project that takes you around 40 artworks that dot the town (masithandane.org; tours around £5).
Dine in nearby Rheenendal at Bret Garvie’s homely Veg-Table (www.vegtable.co.za; four courses £11) – he serves gourmet veggies in his teeny cottage. Afterwards, the Moonlight Meander, during low spring tide, views rock pool creatures – expert guides Mark and Judy Dixon wield the torches (0027 44 883-1015). They can also arrange guided dune hikes, unpacking the area’s marine evolution.
Stay: Book a room with a view of the epic Outeniqua Mountains at Abundant Life Guesthouse, (abundantlife7.co.za; doubles from £45, B&B).
DAY 6 TALL TREES AND BOAT TRIPS
Sedgefield to Knysna
Drive Time: 20 minutes
Today, start early on the N2 to Knysna, another attractive seaside town packed with galleries and oyster bistros. From its waterfront, hop on a ferry (knysnafeatherbed.com; around £8) across the lagoon to the Heads, majestic sandstone cliffs that have given many a sailor nightmares. Or ferry to Featherbed (£30), a private nature reserve on the western heads for a two-kilometre walk through the coastal forest to ancient sea caves. Lunch under the milkwood trees on a buffet spread that includes chilli calamari and roast sirloin (meal included).
Skip the elephant park en route (South Africa’s equivalent of the RSPCA recently complained to the police about cruelty), but do get to the ancient yellowwood forests where they once roamed at will among the giant trees. Book a storytelling forest walk with Meagan Vermaas who’ll regale you with elephant tales from South Africa’s brutal frontier days (forestguidedtours.co.za; from £7).
Even if you aren’t keen to jump, drive to the knee-weakening Bloukrans Bridge, site of the highest bridge bungee in the world – it’s an easy 45-minute drive away, past the breakers and board shorts of Plettenberg Bay. If you’re going this far, visit the skyscraper-like 800 year-old Big Tree in Tsitsikamma – near Storm’s River – which marks the end of the route.
Stay: At Knysna’s central Turbine Boutique Hotel (turbinehotel.co.za, doubles from £120, B&B) built in the converted old power station at Thesen Island.
Day 7 HOME TIME
In less than an hour you’ll be at the airport in George for your flight back to Cape Town. While you wait, plot the dots you missed this time, and link them up into an itinerary for your next trip. That’s the allure of the Garden Route – once, is never enough.
GET ME THERE
Hire a steed for the journey from Europcar (www.europcar.co.za), from £258 for a medium size vehicle for a week, picking up from Cape Town airport and dropping off in George. Or try Avis (avis.com).
Book the surprisingly fascinating lecture and tour at Pinnacle Point caves (humanorigin.co.za; £22), overlooking the Indian Ocean. The caves conceal some of the earliest evidence of humans making complex tools and rock paintings 164,000 years ago — spine-tingling. Then, in a measly 30 minutes you can switch your focus from human to animal: Gondwana Private Game Reserve is just down the road and houses the very much alive Big Five.
TIP: If perfecting your putt on rolling greens, while dolphins and whales frolic in the ocean behind you, is your cuppa, book a set of clubs at the Pinnacle Point golf course for a round before or after the cave tour pinnaclepointestate.co.za .
Activity options are endless. Walk the defunct Outeniqua Choo Tjoe railway tracks for a mind-blowing view over the Kaaimans River Bridge balancing on stilts in the sea; or head to the National Park (sanparks.co.za) for a mildly taxing hike — with a waterfall dip as your reward at the end. Or stick with the car and meander along the idyllic Seven Passes Roads past traditional farms, dramatic gorges and miniature settlements.
TIP: The Seven Passes will take you through the Rheenendal Ramble, a winding forest drive brimming with quaint cottages, tea gardens, artists’ studios and walking trails. Lunch on pickled fish at legendary Totties Farm Kitchen, established almost 100 years ago tottiesfarmkitchen.co.za, £2.80
At the tourist information office, book a fascinating Mosaics tour, a social upliftment project that takes you around 40 artworks that dot the town (masithandane.org; tours about £5). Then dine in nearby Rheenendal at the homely Veg-Table (vegtable.co.za; four courses £11), where Bret Garvie serves gourmet veggies in his tiny cottage. After, take a Moonlight Meander to view rock-pool creatures with expert guides Mark and Judy Dixon, who wield the torches (00 27 44 883 1015).
Stay: Book a room with a view of the epic Outeniqua Mountains at Abundant Life Guesthouse (abundantlife7.co.za; doubles from £45, B&B).
TIP: The Cloud 9 Lookout, a short drive from Abundant Life Guesthouse offers panoramic views of the lagoons, mountains and sea surrounding Sedgefield. Feeling gutsy? You can tandem paraglide from here too (flytimeparagliding.com, £53,76 for 15 minutes).