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A Garden Route adventure: taking a road trip up the coast

The full bodied pinotage swirled in my glass, its luscious plum colour staining the edges. Aromas of raspberries and black cherries floated through the air and I offered up my glass for a refill. Wine tasting at Spier means three things: generous helpings, numerous samplings and expert advice.

My husband and I were on a road trip and staying at the famous Spier Hotel and Wine Farm. We were also thoroughly enjoying all the benefits of being a guest there: soaking in the extra large bath tub with a glass of sherry on the side, tucking into a traditional African meal at the vibrant Moyo restaurant ... and not driving anywhere!

And that's the beauty of a road trip: you drive and stop and look and then drive some more, and when you finally reach your destination you can stretch out and really relax. I’ve done a few great road trips in my time - through the Cape Winelands, into the rural Overberg and Whale Coast, and along the Garden Route – and enjoyed them so much that I’ve decided to draw on my experiences to give you a local's taste of what it means to hit the road from Cape Town to the Garden Route.

A Garden Route Road Trip - the Otter Trail on the Garden Route
Enjoy spectacular scenery along the Garden Route - home of The Otter Trail.
A Garden Route Road Trip - long beaches of Wilderness
Wilderness is well known for its long golden beaches.

Part one: Sophistication in the Winelands

With views reminiscent more of the Alps than Africa, the Cape Winelands feel like they belong in a separate country. Set less than an hour's drive from Cape Town, it is a region of haute cuisine, acclaimed vintages and delicate French phrases. If that sounds appealing, then head for the little French-Huguenot town of Franschhoek: quaint, historical and filled with award-winning restaurants and exceptional wine estates - the perfect first stop.

Stay: We stayed at The Last Word Franschhoek – a beautiful boutique hotel with a king-sized bedroom and a plunge pool on the patio - heaven!

Stay: If you’re bringing the children along, then the university town of Stellenbosch is your best bet. Many of the local wine estates –Spier is a good example – have plenty of child-friendly activities and are just a short drive from the town centre.

Spier has an excellent birds of prey interaction centre and its organic restaurant EIGHT offers delicious picnic baskets for lunch in the estate's landscaped gardens.

A Garden Route Road Trip - lunch on the Spier lawns
Enjoy a picnic from EIGHT restaurant on the beautiful Spier lawns.
A Garden Route Road Trip - the wine-tasting room at Spier
Don't miss out on a wine tasting in the elegant Spier tasting room
A Garden Route Road Trip - romantic The Last Word Franschhoek
If you're visiting the Cape Winelands, I suggest The Last Word Franschhoek

Part two: Whales, more wine & adventure in the Overberg

Although the next stage of your road trip technically leaves the Winelands, it certainly doesn’t leave wine behind! The town of Hermanus, set at the heart of the Overberg's Whale Coast, is the obvious choice, but I'd recommend accommodation nearer the neighbouring village of Stanford instead. Just 15 minutes from ever-busy Hermanus, it’s close to the action but quiet enough for you to enjoy the dramatic mountain and ocean scenery in peace.

Get your wine-tasting fix in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley just outside Hermanus; I suggest visiting Hamilton Russel Vineyards for a taste of their famous chardonnay and pinot noir varietals. If your palette extends to adventure as well, there’s plenty on offer in the area. Hiking, shark-cage diving and marine tours run all year round while whale-watching season begins around August and peaks in September.

Stay: On my honeymoon, we stayed at Mosaic Farm, a cluster of intimate chalets tucked away in a milkwood forest and overlooking a bird-filled lagoon. One of our highlights was quad biking through the dunes to a deserted beach.

Stay: If you’re looking for something unique, I recommend a night or two at Grootbos, an extraordinary eco-paradise overlooking Walker Bay. If you’re bringing the family, stay at their child-friendly Garden Lodge. For something more intimate, try their Forest Lodge.

A Garden Route Road Trip - quadbiking to the beach
One of my favourite activities while at Mosaic Farm was dune quad biking.
A Garden Route Road Trip - hitting the dunes at Stanford
Explore this scenic part of the coastline with some fun on the Stanford dunes
A Garden Route Road Trip - in the milkwood forest at Grootbos
Grootbos, situated overlooking Walker Bay, has its own milkwood forest surrounding the lodge
A Garden Route Road Trip - whale tails
The Whale Coast is best visited in September for optimum whale sightings
A Garden Route Road Trip - visit Hamilton Russell Vineyards
For a taste sensation, I suggest a visit to Hamilton Russell Vineyards in Hemel en Aarde

Part three: Nature's paradise on the Garden Route

Once you leave the picturesque Overberg behind, you’ll notice the vegetation changes from scrubby fynbos to thick forest, tumbling down to the ocean's foaming edge. It's the Garden Route – one of the prettiest coastal drives in South Africa.

First on your checklist is Wilderness, a small sunny town set on miles of golden beaches and a popular destination for birdwatchers. Its tidal lagoons and rivers are a haven for waterfowl while the encircling trees ring with the calls of rare forest birds. Further along the road are Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, the two towns generally considered the heart of the Garden Route.

Both have their share of restaurants, shopping malls and curio markets, but it's their close proximity to all the action that makes them popular, especially for families. Attractions such as Birds of Eden, the Elephant Sanctuary and Monkeyland are all a short drive away, while zip lining, hiking, mountain biking and canoeing all await the adventurous traveller.

Stay in Wilderness: Views Boutique Hotel and Spa. Situated on dunes overlooking the beach, this contemporary hotel is the perfect first stop on a Garden Route road trip.

Stay in Knysna: Leisure Isle Lodge. Located on a tiny island in the lagoon, this relaxed and elegant lodge enjoys an unrivalled setting.

Stay in Plettenberg Bay: Kurland Estate lies just out of town and is ideal for families and nature lovers while The Villa at Hog Hollow is a private, self-catering home-from-home with all the facilities you need.

A Garden Route Road Trip - enjoy a catamaran cruise on the Knysna lagoon
The Knysna lagoon offers ample opportunities to enjoy the surrounds: from catamaran trips to canoeing and kayaking!
A Garden Route Road Trip - perfect for kids
A trip up the Garden Route is perfect for families. Why not stay at Kurland?
A Garden Route Road Trip - The Heads of Knysna
The famous 'Heads' frame the Knysna lagoon.

Part four: Road tripping further

Having reached the end of the Garden Route, you have several options to end off. You could turn around at Storms River and head back along the N2 before hopping onto Route 62 and enjoying a particularly scenic back road to Cape Town through the Robertson Wine Valley. Or you can simply continue to Port Elizabeth, return your car and fly to Johannesburg or Cape Town. Alternatively, a sharp left turn takes you into South Africa's interior - the Great Karoo - where thrilling Eastern Cape Big 5 safaris await.

South Africa is a country filled with exceptional scenery and attractions making a self-drive road trip very rewarding and probably much easier than you expect. If this sounds like a dream holiday, then check out our guide on when to visit the Garden Route and read more about self-drive holidays in Africa.

Written by Kimberley O'Sullivan. Connect with her on Google+

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