Whale-Watching, Elephants, and Surfing: The Ultimate South Africa Road Trip

The Garden Route, a stretch that runs along the eastern coast of South Africa, presents some of the country’s best experiences cobbled into one. Safari? Beaches? Wine lands? Hiking? You got it.


Illustration by Emily Blevins, animation by Claudia Cardia

One of the most loved and well-traveled coastal routes in South Africa, the Garden Route is an epic trailer of the country’s highlights. You’re guaranteed great safari options, surfing, hiking, beaches, restaurants, and hotels, plus roadside farm stalls selling local produce.

You could easily do the Garden Route in two days but that would mean omitting weird and wonderful activities like ostrich riding, whale-watching, and elephant spotting. Technically starting in Storms River and ending in Mossel Bay (190 miles), the route is so scenic that many drivers extend it a couple of hundred miles by flying into Port Elizabeth and driving all the way to Cape Town (400 miles).

You could also flip the route and begin in Cape Town and end in Port Elizabeth, but they always say you should save the best for last, and Cape Town is incontestably one of South Africa’s best. Here, how to see South Africa’s favorite route.

Addo Elephant National Park is the third largest national park in South Africa.

Addo Elephant National Park is the third largest national park in South Africa.

Photo by Kate Huggs/Shutterstock

Day one: Elephant herds and an Elephant House

Before you even start the route, make a detour northeast of Port Elizabeth. About an hour from the city (in the opposite direction) is Addo Elephant National Park, the third largest national park in the country. Take a drive through the park, which has wide grasslands blanketed in thickets of spekboom—an indigenous plant favored by elephants. Watch giant herds of elephant slosh in pools of mud, then stay overnight at Elephant House, an Old-World, eight-bedroom country-style lodge filled with antiques, Persian rugs, and oversized sofas. The following morning, take a further detour east to Nanaga Farm Stall, which bakes the best lamb and mint pies in the country. Next, turn around and head west.

Day two: National park hiking and a sleepy seaside town

Surfers, rejoice! Jeffreys Bay has one of the best right-hand breaks in the world, which has drawn legends like Kelly Slater. If you’re not a surfer, then give this stop a skip. The beaches are nice but better swimming opportunities await. Make your way back onto the N2 before pulling into the Storms River Total Petroport, a gas station that sells local crafts and snacks. Fill up with gas and load up on “padkos” (food for the road). You’ll want biltong (local jerky, but better) and “slap” chips, fries drowned in vinegar and coated with barbecue sauce and “special” seasoning from Steers, a local fast-food chain. Make sure you ask for extra sauce and seasoning.

Jeffreys Bay is one of the best surf breaks in the world.

Jeffreys Bay is one of the best surf breaks in the world.

Photo by Danita Delimont/Alamy

The gas station is also the end point for many hikes that weave through the lush Tsitsikamma National Park, a marine reserve that runs for 50 miles along the coastline. There are many hikes available here that range from three days to a couple of hours. If you’re keen to do the Otter Trail (the park’s most well-known five-day hike), book in advance. A 20-minute drive away is the Bloukrans Bridge, one of the world’s largest commercial bungee experiences, which plummets some 700 feet into the valley.

Two of the coastline’s loveliest beach towns are 30 minutes from each other (and 30 minutes from Storms River). Nature’s Valley is a sleepy seaside spot with undisturbed beaches and loads of hiking trails that wind along forested mountains and glorious beaches. Go for a hike and a swim (trail information is available in town). An easy 30-minute drive away, lunch awaits at Enrico’s in Keeurboomstrand. The Italian beach joint serves up fantastically fresh grilled fish and local beers alongside the sound and view of waves. The town is more of a collection of houses than an actual town, but it has some of the best beaches on the coastline, so be sure to take a post-lunch dip in the ocean on the beach below.

The Old Rectory Hotel & Spa sits cozily in a heritage building.

The Old Rectory Hotel & Spa sits cozily in a heritage building.

Courtesy of Old Rectory Hotel & Spa

A 15-minute drive from Keeurboomstrand is one of the ritziest towns in the area, Plettenberg Bay. The short drive between towns has many good stops, so go slow. First, pull into Thyme and Again, a charming farm stall that sells sweet strawberries, homemade pies, milk tarts (local pie), and fresh coffee. Then, pop into Mungo for local woven textiles like bath sheets and blankets. Spend the afternoon hiking the Robberg Nature Reserve and peninsula trail, a partially-wooden walkway with excellent ocean views, before swimming at Robberg Beach below. Plett has several of the area’s best restaurants and hotels, so check into the swanky Old Rectory, an 18-room hotel set in a heritage building, or Emily Moon, a toned-down riverside lodge with Afro-elegant rooms. On the elevated deck at Emily Moon’s snazzy restaurant, diners can devour wood-fired pizzas and enjoy views of the Bitou River.

Take a hike at Robberg Nature Reserve.

Take a hike at Robberg Nature Reserve.

Photo by Venlu Photo/Shutterstock

Day three: Monkeys, more elephants, and fresh-baked breads

The next morning, visit Monkeyland, a primate sanctuary, as well as wine farms like Bramon Wines and Newstead Wines, where you can feast on local cheese and charcuterie for lunch. On your way out of Plett, stop for a creamy gelato in the garden at Ice Dream Land.

Head toward the crafty town of Knysna, 30 minutes from Plett. Stop at the interactive Knysna Elephant Park along the way, where you can wander through the Knysna forest and feed rescued or rehabilitated elephants. Then, in the town of Knysna, enjoy a snack at ile de pain, a café and bakery, which creates croissants, bread, and lemony tarts, on the Knysna waterfront. Wander around the scenic waterfront area, which also has a few shops that sell jewelry, local crafts, and handmade leather bags, before heading west on the N2.

Whale-watching in Hermanus is best between June and November.

Whale-watching in Hermanus is best between June and November.

Courtesy of Ken C. Moore/Shutterstock

The drive between Knysna and your next layover, Hermanus, weaves through the towns of Sedgefield, Wilderness, George, and Mossel Bay, where the route technically ends. The views are magnificent, especially at Wilderness, where the road travels along a wild stretch of beach and past a pretty river where locals swim and kayak. In George, drop into Wonki Ware, where you can load up on ceramics made by skilled potters, then head on to Swellendam (three hours away), for a quick stop at Ou Meul, a bakery offering homey pies and breads. Here, you can also stock up on rusks, a type of local biscuit typically eaten with (and dunked in) morning tea. The town is wedged between Bontebok National Park and Marloth Nature Reserve, which offer hiking and biking trails for day visitors.

Bontebok is the smallest national park in the country, but its grassy plains have over 200 bird species as well as a good population of bontebok (a type of antelope), red hartebeest, and zebra. An hour from Swellendam is the seaside town of Hermanus, known for its whale-watching (from June to November) and excellent wine region. Check into the beachfront Birkenhead House, for prime whale-spotting, or the color-filled, artsy Vishuis. Even if it’s not whale season, head to the swim-friendly Grotto Beach for a dip and a walk before dinner in the cosy Fishermans Cottage, where platters of fresh fish or calamari are served inside a small stone building from the 1800s.

Birkenhead House is a prime spot for whale-watching.

Birkenhead House is a prime spot for whale-watching.

Courtesy of Birkenhead House

Day four: Wine farms and sweeping views

From your hotel, head down to Voelklip Beach and walk along a sandy path that skirts the ocean. After checking out, make your way to the nearby Hemel-en-Aarde wine valley, for a zingy glass of sauvignon blanc. Fancy a wine-fueled afternoon? Take the wine route and pop into farms like Creation and Hermanuspietersfontein, where you can collect bottles to ship home.

Peregrine farm stall is a must-stop on your way out of Hermanus.

Peregrine farm stall is a must-stop on your way out of Hermanus.

Courtesy of Peregrine

Stay for lunch at The Restaurant at Newton Johnson, a glass-fronted, vineyard-facing restaurant with sweeping views of the valley. Here, you can feast on local seasonal plates of beef carpaccio with roasted eggplant and fish with curried lentils, while sampling the Newton Johnson wines. If your lunch gets too festive, stay over another night; otherwise, make your way onto the N2. On your way out, pull into Peregrine, a local produce-packed farm stall, where cold-pressed apple juice, coffee, freshly baked samosas, and pies await. From there make your way straight to Cape Town.

What to bring

Download some classic South African beats by Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. These legendary South African artists will keep you grooving with their hyper-local beats throughout the route, but no road trip would be complete without a couple of classic tracks by Johnny Clegg.
As for packing, don’t leave your swimsuit, sunscreen, and hiking boots behind. The days along the east coast are usually mild and the evenings are crisp. Even during winter, the climate is fairly mild, making the Garden Route ideal almost year round. Bear in mind that summer (December through January) is high season, so expect more traffic than usual.

Additional tips

If you’re up for a detour, turn inland at George and take the Outeniqua Pass, which travels through the majestic green and rocky Outeniqua Mountains into the Karoo, a semi-desert area with endless stark plains and towering mountains. The road goes directly to Oudtshoorn, a small, arid town known as the ostrich capital of the world. Here, you can visit an ostrich farm and even ride an ostrich. Continue on to Cape Town along the R62 route, which journeys through the appealing inland towns of Barrydale, Montague, and Robertson, where you can overnight at the super-chic Robertson Small Hotel.

>>Next: 12 Must-Do Experiences in Cape Town

Mary Holland is South African writer based in New York. She has written for WSJ Magazine, the Financial Times, HTSI, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, and W Magazine. She is the New York correspondent for Monocle Magazine.
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