The Garden Route is one of South Africa’s most popular and interesting stretches of coastline, a temperate landscape of sandy beaches, indigenous forests, rocky shores and quaint towns where you can do everything from savour fresh oysters to watch southern right whales at play.
It is very popular with self-drivers and families visiting South Africa.
We use our on-the-ground experience, garnered since our inception in 1998, to craft individual Garden Route journeys for our clients, with no two ever being the same…
Go2Africa have again suggested and organised us some great accommodation for our holiday along the Garden Route. All you can ask is that everything ran smoothly and it certainly did. Pre-holiday service (booking, information etc) was excellent and support was there during the holiday. Rikke was great.
– Stephen Youngman
1. Map of The Garden Route
The Garden Route is a glorious 300-kilometre / 190-mile stretch of coastline in South Africa. It runs from the small town of Mossel Bay (Mussel Bay) to the mouth of the Storms River and takes in places of outstanding natural beauty along the way, like George, Knysna (pronounced ‘Nighs-nah’) and Plettenberg Bay. It’s called the Garden Route because of the lush coastal forests that line the wide sandy beaches – Tsitsikamma (pronounced ‘Titzee-car-mah’) National Park is rumoured to still have rare forest elephants walking among the huge old trees.
Although the Garden Route is a very defined area, almost all clients leave from Cape Town and end in Port Elizabeth, often going onto a Big 5 safari in the Eastern Cape, Kruger National Park or Madikwe Private Game Reserve.
2. How to Get There from Cape Town
The Garden Route doesn’t start in Cape Town – it starts in Mossel Bay, which is at least a 5-hour drive from the city as it’s 400km / 250mi away. As almost everyone jets into Cape Town, this means at least one night here – but likely about four as there is so much to see and do – before leaving for the Garden Route.
There are a few ways to get from the Mother City to the start of the Garden Route:
- You can fly from Cape Town to George and collect a rental car at the airport.
- You can drive on the N2 national highway through quaint towns like Hermanus (an international whale-watching capital) and stopping along the way at places like Swellendam and De Hoop Nature Reserve.
- You can motor along the N1 and then turn onto the R62. This is more inland but takes you through much of the Cape Winelands and farming communities like Robertson, Swellendam and Oudtshoorn, the 19 century global ostrich-feather capital. You then join the N2 past Oudtshoorn. There are spectacular mountain passes in this area.
- You can hire a private guide who will drive you along a route based on your interests. This is a lovely way to indulge yourself: you can craft a tour that takes in the best art galleries, the supreme foodie places or even the best nature spots.
The most popular routes are self-driving along the N1 or N2 before hitting the Garden Route proper. Remember, the Garden Route is a not a day-trip you can do from Cape Town – it’s an extensive region packed with history, ocean or forest views, animal sanctuaries, beaches and even one of the highest bungee jumps in the world, which clocks in at over 700 feet or 200 metres!
The most budget-friendly way to do it is to drive yourself in a rental car and stay at B&Bs; if you want to splurge, fly from place to place.
3. Garden Route Itinerary Ideas
Successful travel in Africa requires one of two things: either you need sufficient time or you need sufficient funds. Those who want to wrap up Cape Town and the Garden Route in a few days can only really do it by flying between destinations, ideally by charter flight. For others, the ideal is to spend less on transport but have enough holiday time to drive leisurely between sites.
A leisurely way of tackling the Garden Route is as follows:
- Fly into Cape Town for at least four days (three nights).
- Drive to Hermanus and spend at least one night, especially during whale season (optional).
- Drive to Swellendam or Oudtshoorn for one night (optional).
- Arrive in Plett or Knysna for at least four days (three nights).
- Drive to Port Elizabeth, hand back your rental car and move onto a safari in Madikwe, Kruger or a private Eastern Cape game reserve (we suggest a minimum of three nights on safari so you get two full days of game drives).
Bear in mind that if you choose to skip overnighting in places between Cape Town and the Garden Route – such as Hermanus or Swellendam – you will have at least a 6- to 7-hour drive from Cape Town to Knysna or Plett.
4. Best Places to Eat
Since most travellers leave from Cape Town, we’ve collected our favourites along the way, not just along the Garden Route itself.
Some tips for eating out in South Africa:
- Tipping is expected. Aim to leave the waiter or waitress 10% of your total bill and round up, for example, if the bill is R45, then add 10% (R4.50) and round up, tipping him or her R5 for a total of R50.
- Ask for ‘the bill’. ‘Checks’ are called bills throughout South Africa.
- Smoking is only permitted in designated areas.
- The legal drinking age is 18.
- Drunk driving is illegal. The legal blood-alcohol limit for driving is less than 0.05g per 100ml of blood. The legal breath-alcohol limitis less than 0.24mg in 1 000 ml of breath. Two alcoholic drinks in an hour will put you over the legal limit. Use transfer services or have a designated driver if you plan to imbibe.
The following list is broken down by overnight stop so you can plan your journey from Cape Town.
Guests can except exceptional food and wine in equally exceptional settings, like right on the edge on the Indian Ocean so whales can be spotted at the same time!
A stately hotel with views over Walker Bay, The Marine boasts fine dining for dinner and a more casual atmosphere for lunch and afternoon tea.
Set on the edge of Hermanus Lagoon, Mosaic Farm provides delicious breakfasts and gourmet dinners. The cuisine is fresh and created by their talented chef, baker, gardener and local producers. The farm is also home to Mosaic Lagoon Cafe. This daytime eatery offers sandwiches, salads, freshly baked breads, pastries, cured meats and cheese platters, as well as Southern Style BBQ from their own smoker.
A working dairy farm with fruit, nut and olive orchards is a lovely spot for a picnic with local produce. The restaurant serves up specialities like kudu, rack of lamb and pasta made from scratch.
A Victorian home converted into chic accommodation, The Small Hotel is arguably Robertson’s premier spot for fine dining in the evening or relaxed lunches in the garden.
The Conservatory is the setting for genteel lunches, traditional afternoon teas and dinners featuring herbs and vegetables straight from the kitchen garden.
Located in a farmhouse that dates to 1852, Rosenhof emphasizes elegant meals in upscale surroundings with fine wines to match.
As you would expect from a thriving olive estate, Surval’s chefs at the Su Casa restaurant get inspired by tapenades, oils and other food from olives amid a varied and delicious menu.
Fancourt is a sprawling country resort with plenty to see and do. In the evenings, Henry White’s is the place to be seen to enjoy dinner and drinks.
Monet’s makes the most of Fancourt’s stunning views of the Outeniqua Mountains as a backdrop for casual lunches out on the sunny deck.
Pezula is a large resort property with everything from golf to tennis. For drinks and bar snacks, head to Noah’s after time spent on the course or court.
Whether you prefer tapas to snack or want a light meal, The Turbine offers an eclectic look and feel that belies its original function as an old power station on Knysna’s harbour.
Pezula once again offers upscale surroundings at Café Z, where you can enjoy light meals and family favourites, while looking out over the manicured gardens.
Venison and seafood are regular components of Laird’s lavish 4-course dinner, which are a wonderful way to end a guided gin tasting in the bar.
Zachary’s is the most exclusive restaurant at Pezula – perfect for a honeymoon splurge or to celebrate a special occasion.
Boasting gorgeous views over Formosa Beach, The Plettenberg offers contemporary dining with twists on South African favourites like Cape Malay curry or grilled springbok loin.
Eastern and European cuisine are the hallmarks of Zinzi, the restaurant at Tsala Treetops Lodge where – as befits the name – you can eat out on the deck amid the forest canopy.
Lying on the Bitou River, Emily Moon incorporates water in the form of a pond in its Bohemian restaurant, which is filled with quirky pieces and has a Thai-inspired menu.
A rolling estate dedicated to polo, Kurland has a classic English country house feeling with gracious dinners in a variety of places – like the terrace or library – to match.
South Africa is not only home to fine wines but also to its own style of champagne, known as Methode Cap Classique or MCC. Enjoy a glass while nibbling on a meze platter at Bramon.
An organic herb and vegetable garden supplies the kitchen at Fynbos Ridge to give you fresh flavours right from nature
Surrounded by 12 hectares of indigenous forest, dinner at Lily Pond means listening to the sounds of the night as you enjoy items from their fusion menu.
A casual and fun spot overlooking the beach that is popular with visitors and locals alike, The Lookout Deck serves up cocktails, seafood and everything between.
5. Most Popular Things to Do Along The Garden Route
Once again, we’ve imagined that you’re driving from Cape Town and have devised this list of fun things to do along the way.
St Lowry’s Pass
Enjoy the view from the lookout point
As you drive out from Cape Town on the N2, you will pass the town of Somerset West and start climbing Sir Lowry’s Pass. On your right will be a scenic lookout point that is well worth a stop – the view to the ocean and far-off mountains is beautiful and a fitting ‘farewell’ to Cape Town.
See a colony of African penguins
Boulders Beach and Robben Island aren’t the only places where endangered African penguins live – Stony Point is also home to a thriving colony of these adorable waddlers. You will have to take slight detour: turn off the N2 after Somerset West onto the very scenic R44 route. This road has mountains to the one side and the Indian Ocean to the other.
Hermanus is considered to have the best whale watching in the world. Landlubbers line the shore to watch southern right whales come into Walker Bay from about August while more intrepid adventurers head out on specialist boats to see these astonishing mammals up close. Water-based whale watching is carefully controlled to ensure the whales and their calves are never stressed or disturbed.
Laugh at the antics of dassies
There is a large community of rock hyraxes – known locally as ‘dassies’ (rhymes with ‘fussies’) – that live around the whale lookout points. They are great fun to watch as they hop around and laze about in the sun but don’t approach them as they’re still wild animals, after all!
Although not as extensive as the Cape Winelands or as old as the Constantia Wine Route, the Hermanus Wine Route has a unique terrior and vineyards affected by the coastal weather of the temperate Garden Route. Expect boutique wineries, small-scale vineyards and an off-the-beaten track atmosphere.
Shop in the market
The craft market at Hermanus is treasure trove of all sorts of goodies and a great place to buy gifts for the folks back at home. Look out for beaded jewellery and décor, wooden toys and African art.
A charming but laidback country house on a working farm that dates to 1723, Jan Harmsgat’s wines benenfit from the extreme climate of the Little Karoon semi-desert and the more temperate coastline. Try the Pinotage, a unique South African cultivar that was bred in 1925 as a cross between Pinot noir and Cinsaut.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
Go on a nature walk
Day visitors are welcome at De Hoop, a coastal nature reserve that is home to smaller game like springbok, grey rhebok and Cape mountain zebra. The marine reserve protects whales and dolphins. You are welcome to go hiking and swimming in this pristine environment.
Try classic, amber and verdant gin made with 9 000 fynbos botanicals at this prestigious distillery. Gin fans can book the Sensorium and lessons at the Gin School to learn the art of alcoholic alchemy.
The Dragon Dune is the longest and fastest sandboard ride in South Africa. Beginners needn’t fear – sandboarding is easier than surfing, and falling onto the soft sand is a lot more comfortable than dropping off into cold water!
Ostriches are the biggest birds in the world and where the key to Oudtshoorn’s wealth thanks to the craze for ostrich feathers in the 19 century. If your luck is really in, you could watch a chick hatch from its enormous egg.
Adventurous and skilled drivers will enjoy taking on the beautiful Swartberg (Black Mountain) Pass. Built in the late 1800s, it is a masterpiece of Victorian engineering and links the Little Karoo to the coastal section of the Garden Route.
The Cango Caves are Africa’s most-visited cave system, and the sights range from the impressive and massive Botha’s Hall to narrow inlets known as the Devil’s Chimney and the Letter Box that you can shimmy your way through.
Sensational spa treatments
Fancourt has arguably the most extensive spa on the Garden Route, including an adults-only heated Roman bath, tepidarium, couple’s room and a hydrotherapy room. After a few days on the road, a soothing back and neck massage may be just the ticket.
Kids will love picking their own strawberries at Redberry, taking punnets back to your hotel to enjoy later. After getting your fill of berries, head over to feed the rabbits, ride on the bumper boats or tumble around in the bubble balls. If that’s still not enough, you can test yourself by solving the largest permanent maze in the southern hemisphere.
Laze on a secluded beach
Noetzie is one of the most beautiful beaches along the Garden Route and, on weekdays out of season, you may have it virtually all to yourself. There are castellated stone ‘castles’ built into the forested cliffs above the beach that are actually holiday homes and vacation accommodation.
Play golf in spectacular surroundings
In addition to having an extensive spa, Fancourt also has several golf courses that include two designed by champion Gary Player and a links course. The impeccable greens are banked by views of the beautiful Outeniqua Mountains.
Horse trails through indigenous forest
Pezula is a large upscale resort that is packed with things to do. Youngsters and inexperienced riders will love the guided horse trails through the forest. Afterwards, pop into the petting zoo to learn more about farmyard animals.
The Heads are two massive outcrops of rock that guard the inlet to Knysna Lagoon. A cruise around them allows you to appreciate their size and takes you to Featherbed, a private nature reserve – look out for the famous green Knyna loerie if you’re a birder.
Walking with elephants is an amazing way to appreciate the size, strength, intelligence and emotions of these wonderful animals. Guides are on hand to keep everyone safe and ensure the free-roaming ellies are always relaxed.
Before you undertake any activity involving animals – especially predators like lion cubs – please read our blog on ethical animal encounters in Africa to ensure you are participating in a truly beneficial way.
Half-day or shorter sunset cruises are the best way to see some of South Africa’s diverse marine life, like sunfish, dolphins, seals, penguins and whales. Plus, you can see Knysna’s spectacular shoreline the way few others have.
A free-roam sanctuary for rescued predators, Jukani stresses ethical treatment of the animals at all times (you may not interact with them at all, only observe them). This is a wonderful place to learn more about the big cats, especially if you are going onto a Big 5 safari.
Like their furry friends at Jukani, the rescued primates at Monkeyland can roam freely. Visitors will be enthralled by the many species that have found a haven here.
Moderately fit hikers will enjoy the scenic Salt River Trail, which can be done in half a day. It is an intriguing taste of the world-famous Otter Trail, a tough 5-day trek through some of the Garden Route’s most stunning coastline.
One of the highest jumps in the world, Bloukrans clocks in at a literally hair-raising 216 metres or 708 feet! If you prefer not to fly like a bird, then you can also tour the Bloukrans Bridge and watch others whoop with delight as the soar above the riverbed below.
Walk the swing bridge at Storm’s River Mouth
As the Storms River is technically the end of the Garden Route, it is fitting to celebrate with a walk across the suspension bridge, perhaps followed by lunch amid the thriving coastal forest.
A ‘kloof’ is a small canyon and ‘kloofing’ is climbing down a series of canyons, often by abseiling and then swimming to the next one while being led by your guide. Outdoorsy types will love it and, on a hot summer’s day, there is nothing more refreshing than plunging into a cool waterfall!
Ziplines take you from platform to platform in the Tsitsikamma forest, swinging you around Outeniqua yellowwood trees that are 700 years old. This gentle but exhilarating activity puts you in the centre of the forest, amid green Knysna loeries and scarlet trogons.
Cape St Francis
Kissing a frog won’t bring you your prince but ‘frogging’ – going out at night to scour wetlands for these little amphibians – is a unique activity that opens up a whole new nocturnal world.
The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds runs a small facility just outside PE to save African penguins, gannets, pelicans, albatrosses and other pelagic birds. Visitors can learn more about what it takes to get an injured or oil-slicked penguin swimming again.
The PE Musuem is a small institution that covers a lot of history, from the dinosaurs that once roamed the Eastern Cape to the Xhosa tribe and the arrival of European settlers. The full whale skeleton and the cabinet of ‘oddities’ are perenial favourites with children.
The Boardwalk is a casino, shopping and entertainment complex along PE’s famous Summerstand beach. It’s a good diversion if the weather isn’t quite playing along.
Boasting uninterrupted views over Algoa Bay, the Donkin Reserve is the site of an incongrous pyramid with a romantic history: it a memorial to Elizabeth, the late wife of a former colonial leader. The city is also named after her. Next door, the 1861 lighthouse can be climbed right to the top.
Tour the public sculpture garden
Just a short stroll from the Donkin Reserve are several pieces of public art, one a lifesize queue of people commemorating how South Africans happily lined up for hours to vote in the first democratic election in 1994.
Untouched Victorian and Art Deco architecture
Thanks to its proximity to Oudtshoorn’s ostrich farms, PE was once a boom town based on buying and selling ostrich feathers (the Feather Market Hall is still in existence). Downtown is still lined with old buildings dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s that showcase the eras’ distinct architectural styles.
Addo Elephant is the area’s biggest national park and is renowned for offering the Big 7 – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, Cape buffalo, great white shark and southern right whale – because it encompasses the Indian Ocean at the Alexandria Dunefields. This is one of the only places in the world where you can combine a self-drive Big 5 safari with a high-octane marine safari.
The private reserves in the Eastern Cape are among Africa’s best hidden gems. Places like Kwandwe and Shamwari – where pro golfer Tiger Woods got engaged to be married – offer superb accommodation, incredible service and scintallating game viewing in a landscape that includes afromontane forest, thicket and scrub. Visitor numbers are deliberately kept low to preserve both the environment and the sense of peace.
If you want a private experience but have your budget in mind, then consider Pumba (meaning ‘warthog’), which offers exclusivity in a family-friendly environment.
6. Best Garden Route Accommodation
Most accommodation along the Garden Route is on a bed-and-breakfast basis leaving you free to find local spots for lunch and dinner. The beauty of this is that you can really immerse yourself in the culture and ‘live like a local’ for a few days. Here are our favourite places to stay, starting from outside Cape Town.
Ashley helped us find the right accommodation in the right places to make our visit everything we had wanted it to be - three weeks travelling the coast and inland from Cape Town to Durban along the Cape Garden Route, taking advantage of three days at Pumba Game Reserve. Absolutely amazing enjoying the scenery and exploring along the way. – Clive Robinson
De Hoop Nature Reserve
Addo Elephant National Park
Kwandwe Private Game Reserve
Pumba Private Game Reserve and Spa
Shamwari Private Game Reserve
7. Tips for Driving in South Africa
- South Africans drive on the left and almost all cars are right-hand drives.
- Automatic rental vehicles can be procured in Cape Town although most South Africans drive manual or ‘stick-shift’ cars.
- It is illegal for you to put in your own petrol, as gas is called. The attendant at the petrol station will do it for you and will also usually offer to check your oil and water levels, pump your tyres and wash your windscreen. Tip him or her about R10.
- On highways, adhere to a ‘keep left, pass right’ rule.
- Do not give lifts to hitchhikers.
- Wait out for pedestrians, dogs, cattle and wildlife such as baboons and tortoises on the side of the road.
- It is illegal to use your mobile phone while driving.
- If you stop somewhere, often a ‘car guard’ will after to look after your car while you are away. It is customary to tip them R5 to R10.
‘Victoria Falls was bucket-list stuff and the Garden Route was a lovely experience. The roads were very well maintained and all the stops were enjoyable.’
– Paul McGenniss