Quaint little towns, picturesque lakes and lagoons, relaxing seaside resorts, sandy beaches, rugged coastlines, beautiful nature and loads of outdoor activities. That about sums up the Garden Route, one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Africa.
Some of the best stops on the Garden Route can be found on the 200 kilometers of the N2 between Mossel Bay (West Cape) and Storms River (East Cape), but most people also include places like Oudtshoorn, Hermanus and Stellenbosch – the three main tourist hubs between Cape Town and the Garden Route.
We spent eight days traveling from Port Elizabeth, where we started the second part of our road trip through South Africa, to our final destination Cape Town. However, because it’s such a diverse destination you can easily spend a few weeks here. In hindsight we could have used a little bit more time too.
Best stops on the Garden Route
Most people will start their Garden Route exploration in Cape Town, but because we traveled in the opposite direction we’ll describe the best stops on the Garden Route from east to west.
Tsitsikamma National Park
Tsitsikamma National Park is a coastal park with dense forests and rocky shores. It’s the perfect destination for those who love nature and adventure activities, like hiking, mountain biking, horse riding, ziplining, snorkeling and kayaking.
Real adrenaline junkies head over to the Bloukrans Bridge for the world’s third highest bungee jump (216 meters). I really wanted to do that but the staff dissuaded me to do it because of my chronic neck and back problems. Too risky.
We hiked the Waterfall Trail a 6 km return hike (3-4 hours), which is the start (or end) of the Otter Trail, a tough 48 kilometer, five day hike along the rocky coastline. Getting to the waterfall involved a lot of boulder hopping and climbing over rocks, not exactly Eugénie’s idea of fun, so she decided to forfeit the last part of the hike.
A shorter and easier hike (2 kms) that most people do is the Storms River Mouth hike starting behind the restaurant. Boardwalks take you to a 77 meter long suspension bridge crossing the Storms River Mouth. It’s fun to keep an eye out for the many dassies (rock rabbits). They’re incredibly cute.
We also did a 2,5 hour kayak and lilo tour (500 rand pp) up the Storms River Gorge, which was great fun. First you kayak, but once you get further up the river you change to the lilo, a kind of air mattress used to traverse the shallower, rocky sections of the river. Though it seemed easy enough Eugénie had to be pulled by our guides from Untouched Adventures to move forward.
Birds of Eden
Three years ago we visited KL Bird Park in Kuala Lumpur. It was nice, but didn’t really prepare us for Birds of Eden. This bird park between Storms River and Knysna, near the seaside resort town of Plettenberg Bay, is one of the largest free-flight aviaries in the world. Even if, like us, you’re not a real birder the many pretty birds will enchant you. We took many pictures. A selection of those you’ll find here.
Knysna is a classic holiday town and one of the most visited stops on the Garden Route. Home to many rich and famous the town sits around a big lagoon, boat trips on the lagoon being the most popular activity.
Because the weather was grey and chilly most of the time we failed to see the real attraction. The few hours the sun was out we could also recognize, however, that it can be a great place to have a vacation.
Knysna Heads in particular was good for some great views. The Heads are at the narrow entrance from the sea into the lagoon, which they say is a tricky stretch of water to navigate. Furthermore we checked out off-the-beaten-path Noetzie beach with its strange castle-like mansions east of Knysna, the pretty 1850’s Belvidere church and the 16 km long beach at Brenton-on-Sea, both west of Knysna.
We also had the unholy idea of driving up and down Prince Alfred’s Pass, a recommended drive by Lonely Planet. Burned down hill slopes, fog and bumpy unpaved roads for 2,5 hours was not really our idea of a nice drive.
Located in the Klein Karoo, Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world. The somewhat dusty town made its fortune when wearing ostrich feathers was very much en vogue with the American and European elite in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
The feathers are still used, but the ostriches are mostly bred now for their meat. The ostrich wrap we had for lunch and the ostrich steak we had for dinner were both very tasty! Although ostrich farming around Oudtshoorn has been dealt a severe blow two years ago due to an outbreak of bird flu, the show farms can still be visited.
It’s one of three main things to do around Oudtshoorn.
Visit an ostrich Farm. On an early morning visit to the Highgate Ostrich Farm we were the only visitors, so we got a private tour of the farm, learning all about the ostrich and (the history of) ostrich farming. An ostrich race is part of the program. Visitors can be an ostrich jockey too, provided they’re not heavier than 65 Kilos. We didn’t get to ride an ostrich….
Cango Wildlife Ranch. But we did get to pose for a picture with a cheetah at the Cango Wildlife Ranch! This zoo-like attraction features encounters with wild animals. We had our reservations about cheetahs, lemurs, servals and snakes being used for this, but we couldn’t resist getting close to a cheetah.
Although the enclosures seemed a tad small the animals looked well taken care of and were free to walk away when they got bored modelling for us. Our 11 month cat didn’t seem to mind, though, completely ignoring the clicking camera and purring in contentment when we stroked her. Amazing!
To be honest: Without the animal encounters the Wildlife Ranch is kind of boring.
Cango Caves. Thirty kilometers north of Oudtshoorn the Cango Caves have been formed in limestone mountains over millions of years. The caves can be visited on a one hour tour available in English, Afrikaans, German and French, but the towering dripstone formations and vast halls are impressive in any language.
Scenic Route 62
Route 62 is made for classic road tripping, with a constant changing scenery of arid semi-desert, mountain passes and small towns surrounded by wineries. We drove the 240 kilometers between Oudtshoorn and Montagu and then turned south taking some rural roads and the equally scenic R326 heading for Hermanus.
An obligatory stop on Route 62 is a visit to the (in)famous Ronnies Sex Shop near Barrydale (tip: sixties inspired Diesel & Creme is great for a lunch break). You won’t find dirty magazines here but a quirky pub in the middle of nowhere with bras hanging from the ceiling above the bar and thousands of business cards attached to the walls. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but a fun stop all the same.
Hermanus reputedly is the best place in the world to see southern right whales from the famous cliff path (which is a very nice walk) or on one of the many boat trips (which you have to book far in advance!). Whale watching season runs from July to November; a festival celebrating the whales is held every year in September/October.
For unknown reasons the number of visiting whales to Walker Bay was very low this year and on top of that they left a month earlier than usual. Bummer. No whale watching for us.
Instead we ventured out to sea to meet great white sharks up close on a shark cage diving tour from nearby Kleinbaai. Expensive (1.750 Rand/122 Euro each) but a once in a lifitime experience. We thought we’d booked with White Shark Projects through our guesthouse in Knysna a few days earlier but ended up with Marine Dynamics, that organize trips with a biologist explaining all about sharks during the trip. It turned out OK.
Before getting on the boat the tour started with an elaborate briefing about the trip and what to expect. Then it was about 10-15 minutes sailing to the ‘Shallows’ where the sharks feed in South African summer (September – March). The rest of the year they can be found in Shark Alley, where National Geographic shot some of their famous white shark footage.
We were with the first group of eight people to get into the cage attached to the side of the boat. We stayed in the cold water for about 25-30 minutes (the thick wetsuits provided were very welcome!), while sharks were lured using fish oil and a decoy rob to come close to the cage. We smelled terribly fishy after the trip.
Because the ‘Shallows’ are not very deep we got to deal with a lot of sediment in the water reducing visibility to just one meter at the most. Still it was impressive to get eye to eye with these mighty predators at such short range and feel their power when they slammed hard into our cage on two occasions. Regretfully we missed them both on camera but it was exhilarating!
The best view of the sharks’ movements were from the top of the vessel. According to the crew eight individual sharks had been counted during the two hours we were out at sea. Tip: Despite the bright sun, the cold wind made it chilly on deck, so bring both sun block and warm clothes if you decide to do this trip. And if you’re prone to seasickness bring motion sickness pills as well!
Penguins on Route 44
Going from Hermanus to Stellenbosch we made a small detour taking Route 44, which is very picturesque between Betty’s Bay and Gordons Bay where the road closely hugs the coastline. Our main reason for taking this detour, however, was the Stony Point African penguin colony in Betty’s Bay.
Penguins are without a doubt the cutest birds alive! Over 5.000 of them can be found here. This is over two times more than at the much hyped and much more crowded Boulders Beach African penguin colony near Simons Town on the Cape Peninsula.
We spent way too much time taking pics. Some of the best can be found here.
Because it’s so close to Cape Town the historical Cape Dutch town of Stellenbosch is a popular weekend getaway for Capetonians. One of the big draws for most people is that Stellenbosch and surrounding towns like Paarl and Franschoek are world-renowned for their wineries.
Since both of us don’t like wine, winetasting didn’t feature in our plans. We limited ourselves to a scenic drive through the area and a quick look at the Bosch en Dal, Delaire Graff, Tokara and Spier estates.
We were much more interested in admiring the stately Cape Dutch, Georgian and Victorian architecture in the attractive and very lively old city center of Stellenbosch. The village museum was very interesting, featuring four beautifully restored historical period-furnished homes, dating from 1709 to 1850.
Guides in period dress in each house explained about the house and former residents. It was fun to try to understand Afrikaans, which was quite easy because it so resembles the Dutch language. ‘Oom Samie se winkel’ on Dorp Street, a general store dating back to 1904, is also great fun. Not much seems to have changed since then.
Accommodation on the Garden Route
Storms River – Serenity Retreat has two rondavels that share a communal kitchen. Beds were ok and WiFi was spotty, but more important: it was much cheaper than the nice looking accommodation at Storms River Mouth directly on the coast.
Knysna – Panorama Lodge is German/South African run guesthouse with its own pool and deck offering a great view over Knysna Lagoon. A very nice guestroom, great breakfast, decent WiFi and very informative and helpful owners completed the package.
Oudtshoorn – B&B On Church provided a clean room with comfortable bed, a big bathroom and a small pool and sun deck in front. Owners were friendly and offered discount coupons for all major attractions around town.
Hermanus – Anchor’s Rest is about a twenty minutes’ walk from the city center, but close to the famous cliff path. Nice room, comfy mattress, big bathroom, on-site pool and helpful owners made for a great stay.
Stellenbosch – Magnolia Place is located a short drive from the city center. We had a twin room with ok mattresses, a large bath room and a small kitchen. Watch out for the free rusk (a hard, dry biscuit or twice-baked bread) in the kitchen that was so hard that I chipped a tooth.
We visited the best stops on the Garden Route in November 2016