Illustration by Emily Blevins, animation by Claudia Cardia
Photo by sTHPStock/Shutterstock
The town of Hermanus is a prime whale-watching spot.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Day four: Wine farms and sweeping views
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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.
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.
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