The Garden Route is one of the world’s most spectacular drives, a 200km stretch of road that winds past forested mountains, sprawling wetlands and white-sand beaches with picturesque towns spaced no more than a 45-minute drive apart.
Most visitors base themselves at the heart of the Garden Route - either in Knysna (complete with its scenic lagoon) or neighbouring Plettenberg Bay (famous for its excellent beaches) - and then spend a few days exploring the local places of interest. We’ve also included an inland destination - the Little Karoo town of Oudtshoorn - which is not officially part of the Garden Route but is where to go to see incredible caves and geological formations plus some of the world's biggest ostrich farms.
South Africa’s favourite holiday town lazes on the shore of a shallow lagoon: grand houses tumble down the hill toward the water's edge, boats bob at wooden jetties and the town's popular Waterfront buzzes with restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques and bars. There's plenty to do in and around town: take the ferry to the Featherbed Nature Reserve and stroll along its cliff-top paths, go on a boat cruise to ‘The Heads’ (a pair of rocky headlands through which the tide ebbs and flows) or walk one of the trails in the surrounding Knysna Forest.
For that quintessential seaside holiday, Plettenberg Bay - or ‘Plett’ to the locals - has not just one but a choice of broad beaches with warm kid-friendly foamy waves, and when you tire of the sand between your toes there are excellent golf courses, hiking trails and numerous nature reserves nearby to head for. During mid-summer Plett becomes a party town: beaches fill up with bright brollies and even brighter bikinis, so if you’re looking for a quiet seaside escape rather visit during the months of February and March – still plenty of sunshine but far fewer people.
A 25-minute drive from Plettenberg Bay, The Crags is home to a number of wildlife sanctuaries and is where to go on the Garden Route for unforgettable family holiday activities: visit the Elephant Sanctuary and walk hand in trunk with an orphaned baby elephant; wander through the forest at Monkeyland while monkeys from all over the world swing through the branches above you; and spend a few unforgettable hours at Birds of Eden – the largest free-flight aviary in the world.
Compared to the holiday hustle and bustle of nearby Plettenberg Bay, the tranquil atmosphere of small, unassuming Keurboomstrand is enough to make you audibly exhale on arrival. Consisting mostly of modest private holiday homes, Keurboomstrand is set on a lovely long beach stretching all the way to Plett itself – perfect for long walks! The Keurbooms River Nature Reserve is also worth a visit: go for a hike in the spectacular wooded gorge or paddle along the placid river in a kayak, keeping an eye open for forest and water birds including the endemic Knysna louries and colourful malachite kingfishers.
Driving from Cape Town you know you’ve truly arrived on the Garden Route when you crest the hill just before the village of Wilderness and see a ribbon of dazzling white sand and blue surf-speckled ocean stretching away into the far distance. Broad beaches, well-marked hiking trails and unique ecosystems of bird-filled forests, rivers and lagoons make Wilderness a paradise for nature lovers, bird watchers or anyone looking for a peaceful escape away from the larger and more popular towns of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.
Storms River Village is surrounded by the Tsitsikamma National Park - a well-known coastal reserve that protects the remaining indigenous forest that once carpeted this region. The coastline around Storms River Village is wild and rugged, and this is where to go on the Garden Route for hiking trails that last anything between a couple of hours and five days but how about inching along a swaying suspension bridge over a yawning ravine or taking a forest canopy tour high in the treetops as well?
Halfway between Knysna and Port Elizabeth lies St Francis Bay, a picturesque sweep of sand popular with both locals and overseas visitors. It's a wonderfully quiet part of the Garden Route: the small town of St Francis Bay and the even smaller cluster of white-washed cottages that is the village of Cape St Francis are the largest built-up areas on this stretch of coast. Besides the miles of empty beaches and an ocean full of dolphins, there are small nature reserves, teeming rock pools, great fishing spots, horse and mountain-biking trails, bird watching hot spots and, if you fancy renting a board, some of the best surf on the Southern Cape coast.
Conveniently tucked away between Knysna and George, laid-back little Sedgefield was recently declared Africa’s first Cittaslow town - a worldwide organisation that advocates a cultural shift towards slowing down life’s pace. Set on the banks of a beautiful coastal lagoon famous for its birdlife, it's a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts, active families or indeed those just looking for a relaxing break: kids can splash about in the shallow waters of the lagoon; there’s a choice of inviting beaches; cycling and hiking routes wind through the surrounding forests and nature reserves; and every Saturday morning sees a popular outdoor organic market.
A sleepy agricultural town in a stunning mountainous setting, George is set back from the coast and, though friendly enough, is a fairly unremarkable destination. Its main draw however is the fact that three of South Africa's best golf courses are found here, including the peerless Fancourt Golf Estate - an 18-hole champion course designed by South African golfing legend Gary Player. Other highlights in the area are the mountain-biking and hiking trails in the surrounding Outeniqua Mountains plus great swimming beaches, located only a short drive away.
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Lying not quite 400km from Cape Town, Mossel Bay signals the start of the Garden Route. Although the town's sprawling outskirts aren't much to look at, as soon as you reach the ocean you’ll find protected sandy bays that are perfect for swimming, sailing and kayaking. And being a popular holiday destination there’s plenty to do in the area as well: take a boat trip to Seal Island, go horse riding along the beach and visit nearby Botlierskop, a private game reserve that gives its visitors a taste of South Africa’s legendary game viewing experience. Mossel Bay is also where to go on the Garden Route to try one of the country's biggest thrills: cage diving with great white sharks.
Oudtshoorn is separated from the Garden Route by a dramatic mountain range that forms a barrier between the lush coastline and semi-arid interior known as the Little Karoo. Luckily there's a mountain pass which makes for a beautiful drive into this unique landscape and on to South Africa’s ostrich capital, Oudtshoorn. The town has several ostrich show farms where you can learn all about these extraordinary birds and even ride one if you’d like, but our favourite reason to travel here however is the presence of the Cango Caves: we’d highly recommend taking a tour of this elaborate underground labyrinth, complete with narrow stone passageways and vast caverns dripping with stalactites.
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Port Elizabeth (or PE as it is commonly called) has an easily accessible airport connecting the city to other major travel hubs in South Africa. Most visitors simply pass through PE on their way to or from the Garden Route or Eastern Cape game reserves, but for those spending a night or two in the well-named ‘Friendly City’ we can recommend several boutique hotels within easy strolling distance of PE’s beaches – well known for their safe swimming, wide choice of watersports and frequent dolphin sightings.
Africa Safari Expert