Our guide to one of the most breathtaking parts of South Africa
22 Aug 2022
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The Garden Route, a breathtaking part the Western Cape is one of the most popular destinations for a South Africa holiday and rightly so. Given its notoriety, one would expect this to be a vast area, but it is in fact relatively small, stretching just 204kms from the town of Mossel Bay in the west to the Storms River Mouth in the east. The area is incredibly diverse, with jagged mountains, lush forests, beautiful beaches, charming towns and villages, world-class golf courses and amazing activities to enjoy.
With so much to see and do, it is easy to get overwhelmed when planning a trip to The Garden Route and end up missing out on some of the experiences that you want to enjoy. Our complete guide to the Garden Route will tell you where to visit, the best places to stay and what to do to ensure that your time there is enjoyable as possible.
The Garden Route is generally enjoyed as part of a self-drive trip through South Africa’s Western Cape. It can be accessed from the Cape Winelands region (usually the previous stop) with a drive of around 6 hours, although this journey can be broken at the charming town of Swellendam, which usually halves the driving time from the Cape. It is also possible to fly to The Garden Route, with scheduled flights operating to George (from Cape Town and Johannesburg) as well as Plettenberg Bay (from Cape Town).
Most visitors will spend between 4 and 6 nights on The Garden Route and, whilst the temptation is to try and stay in two (or sometimes more) different spots, the reality is you don’t really need to do this. The majority of places to stay are within easy reach of all the things to do and places to stay, so it tends to serve most visitors best to stay in one place and really have the opportunity to settle in and enjoy that one spot. Given the logistics of getting around, the distances needed to travel and the almost complete absence of taxi services, it is necessary to have ones’ own car for exploring The Garden Route. Guided tours are possible, although they are expensive and can lack the opportunity for impulsivity which makes visits to the area so enjoyable.
When to go
The Garden Route has a typically “European” climate (albeit in reverse), with warm, largely dry summers, pleasant spring and autumns and cold winters that can be very wet, but also interspersed with beautiful clear days.
November to March is regarded as summertime here, with lovely warm days and only the occasional rain. It is also the busiest time so it is worth booking hotels well in advance if travelling at this time, especially over Christmas and New Year when it is very busy.
April and May are also pleasant months to visit, although it is noticeably quieter with some restaurants closing and certain activities not running every day. June and July are very quiet so prices are low, but some hotels are closed and certain activities shut down altogether. August is a little busier than a preceding couple of months and things really start to ramp up again in September and October as the temperatures climb and locals start to gear themselves up for the busier summer months ahead.
Where to stay
The best place to base yourself on The Garden Route really depends on what you are looking to do during your stay.
There are 5 principal places to stay, albeit with some charming little fishing villages dotted in between. The small villages tend to be spots for holiday homes rather than commercial hotels or B&Bs, so we will focus on the main places to stay that are requested by visitors for this piece.
For each area, we have selected some of our favourite places to stay.
1. Plettenberg Bay
Perhaps the best-known of the towns on the Garden Route, Plettenberg Bay, or just Plett as it is affectionately known is an affluent seaside town found toward the eastern end of the area. The difference from the other towns along the Garden Route is marked, with a strong “holiday village” feel prevailing in Plett, especially during the summer months when roads are busy, restaurants packed and barely a spot of sand to be found on the beach – think Cornwall in the school summer holidays and you are on the right track. Outside of these very busy months you will experience a charming seaside town, packed with wonderful places to stay, plenty of excellent restaurants and a wealth of activities to enjoy. If you want to be in the heart if the action and love to spend time in the most stylish destinations, then Plettenberg Bay is definitely for you.
Where to stay
Perhaps the best-known of all Garden Route properties, The Plettenberg sits on a headland overlooking the beaches of Plettenberg Bay and is an outstanding choice for where to stay in the region. The hotel is split into two parts, with the main area of the hotel, including the bars, restaurants, swimming pool and some of the rooms on one side of the road, with the remainder in another building on the other side. The benefit of this is that it never feels overly busy at the hotel as guests are often relaxing in their own rooms and enjoying the views, rather than congregating in one area.
With superb food, charming staff and one of the best swimming pools anywhere in South Africa, there are few better places for some downtime in the country than this true gem of a hotel. Add to this the easy access to the restaurants, shops and beaches of Plettenberg Bay itself and it is easy to see why it is so popular with honeymooners and those on a South African family holiday alike.
As you approach Plettenberg Bay on the drive from Knysna, an unassuming sign brown sign points you towards Tsala Treetops, so it is easy to miss. This is a huge shame as it is one of the region’s (and indeed South Africa’s) most iconic and sought-after places to stay.
The gorgeous suites are set overlooking the forest canopy and are a haven of tranquillity, with spacious bedrooms, indoor sitting areas even fireplaces for the cooler evenings the area can experience. Decking areas with their own private plunge pools are screened from passing guests and staff so there is a very private feel and these decks have been the site of more marriage proposals than most other hotels in the country and also make it a very popular spot for a South Africa honeymoon.
The outstanding Zinzi Restaurant is popular with visitors from all over the area, with priority given to guests at Tsala helping to make staying here an even more attractive option. Beautiful, iconic and superb value for the quality it delivers, Tsala should be high on your list of places to stay.
The western end of the Garden Route is marked by the large seaside town of Mossell Bay. Renowned for its wide-open beaches and large working harbour, it is certainly not without its charms, although it does feel very busy, especially in peak season and has a tendency to appeal more to locals rather than holidaymakers from overseas. There are some good restaurants here and, in Pinnacle Point, one of the country’s best golf courses, so it is worth considering as an option, but there are better places for tourists to stay.
Not dissimilar to Mossell Bay, George is the commercial hub of the region and is home to the main airport as well. There isn’t masses in the way of things to do and places to stay for tourists here, but it is home to the Fancourt Estate, home to 2 outstanding hotels and 3 world-class golf courses, the Montagu, Outeniqua and Links, the latter of which played host to the 2003 President’s Cup. For golfers, there isn’t a better spot than George as there are many other excellent golf courses within easy driving distance, but for travellers with other interests then the further east they head on The Garden Route the better.
Found on the outskirts of George, the main town on The Garden Route, Fancourt is comprised of the larger Fancourt Hotel and the smaller, more intimate Manor House. The rooms of the main hotel are set overlooking the Fairways, one of the 3 golf courses on the resort, with the views back to them framed by the beautiful Outeniqua Mountains. The Manor House is a lovely spot for those seeking privacy and intimate service, but whichever option you choose you will be wonderfully well looked-after.
Golf enthusiasts will be in their element thanks to 3 championship Gary Player designed courses, including The Links, voted South Africa’s no 1 golf course. Leisure facilities include indoor and outdoor pools, a gym, an extensive spa and a beauty salon (as well as of course the golf courses), there are few better-equipped properties in South Africa for those looking to indulge themselves. The food is excellent and the facilities for children are superb, so it is a great choice for visitors of all inclinations.
A short drive to the east of George is the charming village of Wilderness is one of the preferred places to stay for visitors to this amazing part of the coast. The main part of the village is built around the mouth of the Touws River where it meets the Indian Ocean, meaning a choice of lovely riverside places to stay and restaurants to enjoy. Indeed, the town is renowned for having some of the best restaurants on The Garden Route and even if you don’t stay here it is a great spot to stop for lunch. The other choice of where to stay is along the beachfront, where a number of excellent hotels and charming B&Bs can be found – the views from these properties are spectacular and the direct access to the beach is very appealing. There are plenty of activities to enjoy in the region, many based around the river, but there are also some superb walking, hiking and horseriding trails to enjoy and the watersports on the beach are outstanding.
Views Boutique Hotel & Spa
A delightful beachside hotel just outside of the small town of Wilderness, Views is one of the newest additions to the Garden Route accommodation scene and offers unparalleled views out over the Indian Ocean.
With direct access to the seemingly endless expanse of beach in front of it, beautifully designed rooms and outstanding food (especially seafood) this is a superb choice if you are looking for top-quality accommodation on the lesser-visited side of The Garden Route.
The attractions of Wilderness are all found within easy striking distance of the hotel, as is the main road taking you through the area, the N2, meaning further afield attractions are easy to access, which again helps to make Wilderness and Views a hugely popular spot.
The town of Knysna is the next stop visitors choose to stay on The Garden Route and is arguably the best spot for travellers looking for the best “all around” experience of what the region has to offer. Geographically it is pretty much in the middle of the Garden Route, so access to all of the areas and attractions is easy, never much more than around an hour’s drive.
The selection of places to stay is also a huge attraction, with some lovely B&Bs on the hillside overlooking the town appealing to visitors looking for properties with a local charm. The Knysna Quays area is a smaller version of Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, with a superb selection of hotels, shops, restaurants and cafes, as well as a number of activities departing from there. The Knysna Lagoon is famed for cultivating some of the very best oysters in the world, with the annual Knysna Oyster Festival, usually taking place in July, a celebration of this.
A charming historic property on the hillside overlooking Knysna lagoon, Belvidere Manor has a quintessentially English feel to it, with the neat cottages set on either side of the sprawling lawns heading down the hillside. Well-spaced from one another, so offer a wonderful feeling of privacy and are ideal for those on longer stays who like to spread out a little.
The lawns are a superb place to relax and enjoy the sunshine (as well as the views) with the sparkling swimming pool at the centre always popular with guests. The food is proudly South African, focusing on seasonal, locally sourced ingredients with seafood featuring prominently. The delightful Bell pub on site is a throwback to Belvidere’s interesting history and a great spot to congregate with fellow guests in the evenings. The staff are wonderful and really help to make a stay at Belvidere Manor a highlight of any trip to The Garden Route.
The Garden Route is renowned for being the adventure capital of South Africa, with all manner of adventures to enjoy and things to do wherever you go. Naturally, the various activities on offer attract very different people, but a few of out favourite things to do are:
Golf – The aforementioned Fancourt is home to three of South Africa’s greatest golf courses, including the fabled Links which is regarded as one of the finest courses in the world. Beyond this there are some incredible layouts at Pinnacle Point (Mossel Bay), Pezula and Simola (Knysna) as well as Goose Valley (Plettenberg Bay). Wherever you go on The Garden Route, you are never far from an amazing golf course and the value for money is incredible.
The Featherbed Tour – one of the great attractions of Knysna is the chance to visit the Featherbed Nature Reserve, which sits on the “western head” - the headland on the far side of Knysna Lagoon. Home to a huge variety of indigenous fynbos – a hardy local plant – as well as small antelope, reptiles and a huge array of birdlife, a trip here involves a very interesting walk as well as a lovely cruise across the calm waters of Knysna Lagoon.
Ocean Safaris – operated from Plettenberg Bay, an “Ocean Safari” is a superb way to get acquainted with the abundant and varied marine life of the South African coast. Dolphins are seen in the bay throughout the year, as are sharks and one of these boat trips is a great way to learn more about arguably the most misunderstood residents of the Indian Ocean. Between July and November there are a number of whales, most notably Southern Right Whales, found around Plett and boat trips offer a great chance to get up close and personal with them. Throughout the year these trips offer the chance to see the vast colony of Cape fur seals that live on the Robberg Peninsula.
Tsitsikamma Forest – one of the most prominent features of The Garden Route is the Tsitsikamma Forest, where a wide variety of activities can be enjoyed. The hike across the Storm’s River Suspension Bridge and up to the top of the adjacent headline offers some of the finest views the area has to offer and is well worth the effort. The ziplining course through the tree canopies is one of the most iconic activities in the region and a must-do if you enjoy adventure activities. Nearby the Bloukrans Bridge is home to the world’s highest commercial bungee jumping site…not for everyone but a definite bucket list activity for some!
A range of other activities can be enjoyed around the region, including numerous walking, hiking, horseriding and biking trails, the chance to kayak on gently flowing rivers or try your hand at a variety of watersports including stand-up paddleboarding. You can also visit attractions such as the Knysna Elephant Sanctuary, Monkeyland and the Birds of Eden Project along the way. Little towns such as Sedgefield, Brenton-on-Sea and Nature’s Valley are also delightful spots to visit and immerse yourself in the laid-back way of life that is a hallmark of the area.
Classic South Africa Trip
Our classic South Africa self-drive holiday combines Cape Town and the winelands with a few days of safari, a fantastic trip combining many of the highlights of South Africa.
18 days from £4,055pp including international flights.
All told, despite its small size, The Garden Route is one of the most diverse and beautiful parts of South Africa, offering an amazing array of things to see and do, as well as places to stay. No matter what you are looking for, there will always be something for you to do here, be it out exploring or relaxing by the pool, enjoying world-class golf or bungee jumping from Bloukrans Bridge.
Our experienced team are here to guide you through everything that The Garden Route has to offer and ensure that your time here, no matter how long or short, is as rewarding as possible.